Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Attacks as Transitions From Guard to Guard

Some modern books on German swordsmanship have argued that all attacks are transitions from one guard to another in spite of the fact that no Fechtbuch makes that claim. This is an issue because adherents of test cutting who struggle to justify their pernicious practice argue the existence of the guard Alber proves the Oberhau is done from vom Tag to the ground, as if there were no reason for any guard except to be an endpoint to an attack.

In fact, guards are never the endpoint of attacks except incidentally. Instead, attacks are done from guards (usually) to either Langenort (‘long point’) or to one of the four Hengen (‘hangings’). Hanko Döbringer (or whomever wrote Hs. 3227a) tells us this about cutting: “And this art is quite earnest and righteous, and it goes from the nearest in search of the closest and goes straight and right when you wish to strike or thrust. So that when you want to attack someone it is as if you had a cord tied to the point or edge of your sword and this leads the point or edge to an opening.” (fol. 13v). This means we’re supposed to cut in a straight line from guard to the target, not a big swing. He adds to this later when he says: “For you should strike or thrust in the shortest and nearest way possible. For in this righteous fencing do not make wide or ungainly parries or fence in large movements by which people restrict themselves…they try to look dangerous with wide and long strikes that are slow and with these they perform strikes that miss and create openings in themselves.” (ff. 14r-v)

In other words, real swordsmanship is about making cuts as small and controlled as possible; not to the ground, but to Langenort. In fact, the earliest Fechtbuch, I.33, specifically says: “Note that the entire heart of the art lies in this final guard, which is called Longpoint; and all actions of the guards or of the sword finish or have their conclusion in this one and not in the others.” (Forgeng, J., The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship, Chivalry Bookshelf, 2003, p. 23).

You see, when you cut to Langenort you are stopping in a position in which your point threatens your opponent if you have missed, and thus you maintain control over the fight. If you cut to the ground you are not really threatening him at all. We know this approach is correct because Döbringer tells us so: “No matter how you fence always aim the point at the opponent’s face or breast, then he will always have to worry that you will be faster since you will have a shorter way to go in to him than he has to you.” (fol. 24r); and later: “Whether you hit or miss, always seek the openings with both your hands and learn to bring the point to the eyes.” (fol. 29v) So the idea is to cut into a position in which your point is in line for an immediate threat if you miss with your cut—something a cut to the ground can not do.

We read more evidence to this effect in Codex Wallerstein, which says: “So you fight against someone, and you come at him at the length of the sword, so both of you are going head to head. Then you should stretch out your arms and your sword far from you and put yourself in a low body position so that you have a good reach and extension with your sword and so that you may attack and defend yourself against all that is necessary. The reach is in your standing behind your sword and bending yourself; the distance is in your staying low, as shown here, and making yourself small in the body so you are great in your sword.” (fol. 3r) This is yet more evidence that when you cut you create a barrier between yourself and your opponent with your sword; something that cutting to the ground can not accomplish.

It must be admitted that you can cut to the ground on purpose as a way to lure your opponent into acting as you want him to; this technique is called the Wechselhau and is seen, among other places, in Lignitzer’s third play of the buckler, but note that it is a special case in which you are deliberately acting to provoke a response. Note, too, that the Wechselhau is not Alber, so the argument that the existence of Alber proves you are supposed to cut to the ground is specious.

Not only does cutting to the ground cost you the defensive capabilities of your point and yield the important center of the fight, but it is also dangerous because it gives your opponent an extra “fencing time” in which to act. The masters tell us to react to someone who does this with a technique called the Nachreisen (‘following after’): “When he strikes an Oberhau and brings the blade down with the strike, travel after him with a strike on the head before he can get his sword up again.” (Tobler, C., Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship, Chivalry Bookshelf, 2001, p. 93) What this means is that if someone is foolish enough to over cut in such a way as to lower his point to the ground he has to cut, stop at the bottom of his cut, then pick his weapon back up before he can do anything. In the case of the Wechselhau this can be done because you intended it all along, but in the case of someone who merely missed his target you create a moment in time for your opponent to act.

By using short cuts to Langenort do we make our cuts ineffectual? Not at all: Not only does cutting to the ground expose you to a Nachreisen, but it is not necessary for a fight-ending blow. Medieval swords were sharp; not as razor-like as people like them today (such edges are usually delicate because they are thin), but sharp none the less. It takes very little strength or effort to cut into a skull or hack into an arm with a good sword. The cut may not be perfectly clean, and the head or arm may not be cut completely off, but then you do not need to do that to win the fight, and not giving your opponent the initiative of the fight more than outweighs the loss of a perfectly smooth cut.

Having thus proven that cutting to the ground with an Oberhau is based on a misunderstanding of der Kunst des Fechtens (except for the special case of the Wechselhau) let us now go on to explore the other kinds of attacks of the system. All of the other attacks in the German system except for the Oberhau and the Zornort (‘thrust of wrath’: a thrust done into Langenort) end up not in guards, but in one of the Hengen. There are four Hengen, and they correspond to the guards Ochs and Pflug, but are done, usually, with the arms more extended. The problem with seeing this lies in the fact that the precise nature of the Hengen is determined by the range to your opponent rather than a precisely-determined position relative to you. Worse, some authors (e.g., the Goliath Fechtbuch) are sloppy about terminology, using the names of the guards indiscriminately in place of the Hengen.

As an example we will consider a Zwerchau: Some have likened the Zwerchau to a transition from vom Tag to Ochs along a horizontal line. In reality, however, Ochs is a specific position with your hilt near the right side of your head: If your opponent is farther from you than your sword can reach in that position you must extend your arms to hit the target. Thus, we can more accurately say that the Zwerchau is a cut executed in a horizontal line from vom Tag to the Oberhengen on your left side. Of course, if your opponent is closer the Oberhengen might be in roughly the same position as Ochs, but that is coincidental. Thus we see that the guards are determined by the position of your sword relative to you but the Hengen are determined by the position of your sword relative to your opponent; a subtle but very important distinction.

As another example consider the Winden; here we are explicitly told to move our sword from Langenort, winding it am Schwert (’on the sword’ or in contact with the opponent’s blade) back towards the weak of his blade (near the tip) into the Oberhengen. If you displaced your opponent’s original cut so that his sword never reached your head then winding back to Ochs will actually move your sword off of your opponent’s blade. In actuality all you need to do is to wind back far enough that you are on the weak of his blade before thrusting, and this is always going to be forward of the guard Ochs: It is an Oberhengen, as can be seen here, not Ochs.

The same is true of all of the techniques in der Kunst des Fechtens: The upper Absetzen is not a transition from Pflug to Ochs, it is a transition from Pflug (or Alber; this is a lovely and sneaky variation—see below) to the Oberhengen. Likewise, the lower Absetzen is a transition from Pflug to an Unterhengen. Döbringer explicitly tells us this: “One technique is called the Baking Master [Weckemeister]. And it comes from the Unterhengen on the left side, seeking with the point after the Absetzen.” (fol. 47v)

The Schielhau is a transition from vom Tag to an Oberhengen, just as the Zwerchau, but in this case the transition is vertical rather than Horizontal; it is as plain as day when you think about it and study the Fechtbücher. Here is a picture of Ochs from the Meyer Fechtbuch (the figure on the right) and here is a picture of the Schielhau showing clearly that the wielder is in an Oberhengen. Clearly the wielder’s hands are well forward of Ochs.

What, then, is the purpose of Alber if not a mere ending to an Oberhau? If merely an end to a cut it would not rate as a guard, and yet it is one of only four guards. In reality, Alber is a subtle, dangerous position used as a guard of provocation. You assume it not as the result of a cut that missed its intended target, but in the Zufechten (‘pre-fencing’; the time before an engagement begins). As we said before, cutting to Alber if you missed your target will get you killed by an opponent using the Nachreisen or Uberlaufen. But if you start in Alber you are encouraging your opponent to attack in the way you want or else you are attempting to appear helpless.

Admittedly the Fechtbücher give us relatively few techniques to use from Alber, but there are some and they suggest more. Consider Döbringer, who tells us to use this guard (although he uses a different name for it; like Talhoffer he calls it the Iron Gate) against multiple opponents: “If you are set upon by four or six peasants, then place either foot forward and with the gate you will create a shield by placing the point towards the ground. Hear how you should do this, place yourself so that they are right in front of you and that no one can get in behind you. Now hear what you should do, when they strike or thrust at you, Absetzen with strength going up from the ground and then you will shame them well.” (fol. 44v) Note that this uses Alber from the Zufechten, where it is safe to assume, not in the Krieg ('the war'; the term refers to the phase of the fight that occurs after you have engaged) where it is dangerous to do so because you move away from a threatening position without doing anything to render your opponent helpless.

In conclusion, most of the people who argue attacks are transitions from guard to guard are either seeking a philosophical symmetry in fighting that does not exist and is certainly not mentioned in any of the Fechtbücher or else seek to justify the pernicious practice of test cutting. As I have shown, neither position is valid: Attacks are transitions from guards, which are assumed in the Zufechten, to either Langenort or to one of the four Hengen. Attacks can, of course, also originate in one of the Hengen or in Langenort: if you attack and are displaced you can assume Langenort and use Fühlen to determine your opponent’s intention and then act from there (this is part of the concept called the Sprechfenster), etc., but that part is never in dispute. And while the Hengen can resemble the guards Ochs and Pflug, they are distinctly different because guards are determined by the position of your sword relative to you while the Hengen are determined by the position of your sword relative to your opponent.


zornhau said...

Nicely writ!

I should be very interested in what you make of the Schielhau - I've yet to see an interpretation that fitted both text and illustrations.

Hugh Knight said...


I have videos I could show you if you're interested. E-mail me and I'll send them to you. You might be confused because there two ways of doing the Schielhau, one in the Upper Hengen (used against an Oberhau) and one in the Lower (used against Pflug and Langenort).