Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What is vom Tag?

The term vom Tag means “from the roof”, and is so called because it is most often used to launch attacks from above. The Fechtbücher, however, give us two different variations of the guard. Here the guard is described by the two most important Fechtbuch authors of the fifteenth century, masters Sigmund Ringeck and Peter von Danzig:
“Stand with your left foot forward and hold your sword at the side of your right shoulder or above your head with your arms extended.” (Ringeck fol. 34v).
“Hold your sword either at your right shoulder or with your arms stretched high over your head with your left foot forward.” (von Danzig fol. 26r). (Translations mine.)

We are also fortunate in that there are actually drawings from the Fechtbücher depicting how the guard is to look. The one accompanying this entry above is from von Danzig, and you can clearly see he is showing the version held on the shoulder. The overhead version can be seen in the Paulus Kal Fechtbuch here:

So it should be clear from these sources that there are two versions of the guard, both apparently of equal value or usefulness. But did the masters consider both variations to be equally useful? How would we know? One way to consider the question is to examine various Fechtbücher to see what they say about the actual usage of the guard in real techniques. First, let me say that when you take this approach the results are ambiguous to say the least; much of the time the texts tell us nothing helpful about this issue. Having said that, however, there are a surprising number of passages that give us a hint. I am not going to list all of them here since they all fall into one general form, that of telling us to cut from our right shoulder, as in this example: “Note: When your adversary strikes at you from his right side with a strike from above, then hit with a Zornhau from your right shoulder against it.” (Ringeck fol. 19r). I believe the “from your right shoulder” is very clear.

Although this can not be considered “evidence” in any rigid sense, when I look for examples that would suggest a cut from vom Tag should be performed from the over-the-head variation of the guard I can find none at all. To me, that makes what we have far more meaningful. Add to that the fact that von Danzig chose to show only the shoulder version of vom Tag and I believe a strong case can be made that the shoulder variation was the more common version of the guard (at least with the early masters—see below), although not the only one.

Having said all of that, I do not believe the overhead version of vom Tag should be dismissed as useless. Clearly Paulus Kal was a Liechtenauer Society member, and his book shows only the overhead version (although not all his guards are strictly canonical; for example, his Alber is held back toward the hip so that the guard is more to the side rather than directly in front as other authors describe it). Moreover, later authors such as Meyer and Mair show only the overhead version of the guard, and their texts support its use. We must note, however, that Mair seems merely to have illustrated others’ works, and Meyer taught Schulfechten (“school” or sport fighting) as opposed to the Ernstfechten (fighting in earnest) of Ringeck and von Danzig; it could well be that the lack of thrusting in Schulfechten made the overhead vom Tag more useful (or less vulnerable). We can not know, but we do know that both authors were later than our primary sources and that their art varied significantly from earlier sources. Thus I do not believe these later sources should be used to address this question for those of us who study Ernstfechten today.

Recently, some ARMAteers have been quite vocal about their interpretation of the guard vom Tag. They claim the only “true” version of the guard is the overhead version, doubtless because of their severely flawed approach to cuts in general in which they try to make the cuts as wide and overwhelming as possible (very much like a Buffel as described by Ringeck) in direct conflict with the instructions in Ms 3227a to cut with short, direct movements. This misunderstanding has led them to call the shoulder version of the guard “lazy vom Tag” under the general principal that to scorn something is the same as showing valid evidence relating to it. When asked about the picture in the von Danzig Fechtbuch they say the other guards are painted strangely and so this one must be as well, thus they dismiss them all. Personally, I find the other depictions just fine (although the Pflug is shown with the hands back a bit farther than I do it) and precisely in keeping with the instructions in the major sources, so this argument is clearly specious. There is a “lazy” vom Tag, and that is when the hands are held so low that the cross is well below the shoulder: this version of the guard renders a correct straight-line cut of the sort described so clearly in Ms 3227a difficult if not impossible, but this is a fault of tired students, not a problem of interpretation.

In closing, it would be a mistake to say there is only one version of vom Tag, but the evidence seems slightly to favor the shoulder variation for those who practice Ernstfechten. As for “lazy vom Tag”, we may safely leave that among the arguments that edge-on-edge displacements were to be avoided at all costs and that cuts from above are supposed to go to the ground.

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