Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Active Fühlen

Fühlen is the German word for “feeling;” in the context of HEMA, it refers to feeling whether your opponent is hard or soft in the bind which, in turn, tells you how to act next. And when you act, you are to do so Indes, another German word which means something like “just as” or “instantly.” Master Sigmund Ringeck told us:

“You shall learn and understand both the word Fühlen and the word Indes because these two belong together and together they account for the greatest art and skill in fighting. Therefore remember, if one binds against the others’ sword, you shall notice—right in the moment when the blades make contact—whether he has bound hard or soft. And as soon as you have noticed this, remember the word Indes: this means that you should attack the next opening immediately and nimbly, hard or soft so he will be defeated before he knows it himself.” (Ringeck ff. 38r-v)

In other words, Ringeck is saying that when a bind occurs you should feel (Fühlen) it to determine whether the enemy is hard or soft in the bind and then instantly (Indes) use the best play for whichever kind of bind it is. Here is an example: The attacker strikes a Zwerchhau, to which the defender responds by striking into the cut to displace it. The attacker must then feel the bind to determine whether his opponent is hard or soft in the bind. If the attacker is soft in the bind, the attacker should lift his sword up and over the defender’s head to apply a slicing cut to his neck. If, however, the defender is hard in the bind, then the attacker should use either a Duplieren or a cross-knock from the bind. In either case, whichever response the attacker uses from the bind must be performed Indes—in other words, it must happen the instant the swords clash together.

Unfortunately, these two goals—the process of Fühlen and the requirement to act Indes—seem to be mutually exclusive. It takes a moment, albeit a brief one, to determine whether your opponent is hard or soft in the bind, a moment in which you cannot be acting, thus the response is delayed. It would therefore appear you can use Fühlen or you can act Indes, but not both. And yet, it is likely Ringeck understood the principle about which he wrote; after all, he was not the only one to write about this, and it seems to be a central principle of the art.

In order to reconcile this apparent discrepancy it is necessary to look at Fühlen in a different way, a way which I have chosen to call “Active Fühlen.” The core idea of Active Fühlen is quite simple: When a bind occurs, the swordsman instantly responds with the correct technique to use if the enemy is soft in the bind—no stopping to feel the bind, you simply acts Indes. If the technique works, all is well: The enemy was, in fact, soft in the bind, and he should now be dead.

If, however, the enemy was hard in the bind then it is very likely the technique intended for someone soft in the bind will fail; in the case of the example given above the attacker will be unable to lift his sword up and over his opponent’s head for the slice without actively fighting his strength—which would violate another core principle of our art. In that case, the attacker instantly (Indes!) knows that his opponent is hard in the bind, and can go on to do the appropriate technique.

Thus, Active Fühlen refers to testing the bind without pause or hesitation. There is no moment of consideration in which the enemy can take the initiative of the fight because you are never still once the bind occurs (which we know to do from Hs 3227a). Most techniques intended for use in a soft bind will not work in a hard bind, so this is a very good test of the bind. Another advantage is that it makes the decision about which technique to use more automatic; there is no hesitation as you think about the correct technique to use in that situation which, again, helps to maintain the initiative of the fight.

The reason for automatically using the technique appropriate to a soft bind is that if it fails then nothing is likely to happen—you simply will not be able to do the technique, but will remain safely in the bind. If anything, it will probably cause your opponent to put even more force into the bind when he feels you moving against him. If, however, you tried to use a technique intended for a hard bind and your opponent was soft in the bind there is a good chance he would be able to hit you while you are acting; a soft bind is often indicative of someone pulling out of the bind to do something, for example. Thus, it is essential to test the bind with a technique intended for use in a soft bind.

We examined one example of Active Fühlen above with the Zwerchhau, now let us look at two more. If the attacker strikes with a Zornhau, then the defender can respond with the Zornhau Ort. The defender strikes down into the attacker’s sword with his own Zornhau, then thrusts Indes into the attacker from the bind. This is Active Fühlen because the Zornhau Ort will only work when the attacker is soft in the bind. Recognizing this fact is what first indicated this might be the solution to the Fühlen/Indes problem. If the attacker is hard in the bind the defender has a variety of choices about what to do depending upon whether the attacker pushes his sword out, down, or holds fast (the Zucken, Durchwechseln and Winden respectively), but in each case the attacker will make a specific motion which instantly tells the defender what he should do.

For the final example, let us turn to the pollaxe: In Le Jeu de La Hache we are told that when a bind of the queues (the tails of the axes) occurs we are to either push around and down, ripping the enemy’s queue away, then strike, or we are to leave the bind, dipping under the enemy’s queue and then knocking it away on the other side before striking as before (Le Jeu paragraphs 35-41). It is clear that to push your opponent’s queue around and down he must be soft in the bind, thus it is obvious which technique to use Indes in the bind. If that does not work, then the enemy is clearly hard in the bind and you should drop under his axe to backhand it away from below.

Not all techniques specify a hard or soft bind; in those cases Active Fühlen has no place. For example, in the queue displacement against an overhand blow in Le Jeu de La Hache (paragraphs 3-5) we are given only one type of response. This is because the displacement itself sets the nature of the bind, thus obviating any need to test it.

While no Fechtbuch discusses Active Fühlen in plain terms, this appears to be the only way to reconcile the instructions to both wait to feel the bind and also to act instantly without hesitation, and careful full-speed experimentation demonstrates that the principle works very well. Moreover, the play of the Zornhau Ort discussed above seems to suggest exactly this process; perhaps there is a very good reason this is the first technique in most longsword texts. Thus, Active Fühlen should not be seen as an addition or a change to Liechtenauer’s canon, but rather an attempt to explain what was meant all along.


Hans Talhoffer said...

Hugh, please take in account, that "indes" does not mean "instantly" or "just" it is translated as "meanwhile" (dyweile) by the author of the 3227a. The quality of Indes has two aspects: strength and time. This is explained in the GMN 3227A 64r-65r Bloßfechten. So you do not have a need for "active-feeling". In the contrary: if you are acitve, all you can feel is yourself.

I translated and explained the chapter of the 3227a. If you want to have a look on it:

Hugh Knight said...

I recognize the sense you use for Indes; frankly, that's why I normally use the word Indes rather than a translation. I also recognize that none of the books specifically talk about "active Fühlen" in the way I use the term.

Having said that, the *concept* of active Fühlen remains perfectly valid. There are actions that cannot wait for you to think about the nature of the bind you are in. You can't stop in a real fight and take the half second required to identify whether your opponent is hard or soft in the bind, because while you're doing that he will probably have acted, and now you are in the Nach.

My term "active Fühlen" merely gives a name to what the masters must have meant for us to do--nothing more. When you bind, you start to act as if the bind is weak. If the technique works, fine. If not, it's because he's hard in the bind, and you shift gears and act appropriately. Either way, you maintain control of the Vor.

I read your translation of HS 3227a. There's nothing there, nor in the other translations I have of that text nor in any of the myriad other sources I've read that lead us to believe that strength is an aspect of Indes. Indes refers to when you do something, not the force with which it is done. If that were the case, the word Fühlen would be unnecessary, but it's not.

Incidentally, don't you think there's a bit of hubris in signing yourself Hans Talhoffer? Why not use your real name?


Hugh Knight said...

Also, I was reading your blog. Your use of the terms Unterhau and Oberhau with a pollaxe seem misplaced. These are blows, not cuts, so the terms Unterschlag and Oberschlag would seem more appropriate.

Also, you imply that there is a false-edge (so to speak) blow in Talhoffer's pollaxe material--a strike upward with the back edge. Not so. There is a single play in which you move the back of the axe upward, but it is not a blow, but rather a displacement. This is the Hinderbinden shown on fol. 51r of Talhoffer 1467. I'd be happy to send you information about how this works if you're interested.