Friday, May 13, 2011

Christian Tobler's "Captain of the Guild"

I just received my copy of Christian Henry Tobler’s new book, Captain of the Guild: Master Peter Falkner’s Art of Knightly Defense, Freelance Academy Press, 2011.

The book is excellently prepared and looks well produced and serviceable. The binding is properly and cleanly executed, and the cover seems quite durable. The coloration and printing of the front and back covers is clear and vibrant, with no smudges or print misalignments. The book was produced in a 6”x9” Casewrap Hardcover format, and is 336 pages in length with full-color interior plates.

In this work, Tobler returns to his great strength: Studying and translating the Fechtbücher themselves. The book begins with a brief discussion of Fechtbücher in general, biographical information about Peter Falkner, and some brief notes about the manuscript in question. He then goes on to discuss each section of Falkner’s book in detail, from longsword to messer to dagger, staff, poll weapon (mostly halberds), dueling shields, and a very little Roßfechten and Harnischfechten (only one plate of the latter, although it shows a fascinating and unique technique). This discussion is comparable to the analysis in his book about the Paulus Kal Fechtbuch in In Service to the Duke (Chivalry Bookshelf, 2006), if not quite as extensive.

The main body of the book is a full-color facsimile presentation of Falkner’s Fechtbuch. Each page is shown in the proper position, and on the facing page there is a transcription and a translation of the text for that page. The facsimile even includes all blank pages and the cover of the book, details that are sometimes left out, and which are probably not, strictly speaking, necessary, but still nice to see.

The book concludes with a nice glossary and pronunciation guide for German martial terms, and a detailed bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

The great strength of Tobler’s work is his translation. The pictures are beautiful and vividly presented (and it stands well as a work of art), but, in the final analysis, this book is primarily a scholarly resource for those who study the German school of historical martial arts. To that end, I find Tobler’s translations to be the best renderings of anyone working in the field. While not always absolutely literal (e.g., Tobler often modifies word order to make it less confusing to the modern mind), he none the less manages to capture the precise meaning of the text better than most others working in this field. I had previously translated the poll weapon section of Falkner’s book for my own use, and while I got the wording right for the most part, Tobler’s word choices and order actually convey the meaning of the text better.

Overall, this is a superb book, and well worth the price charged. The book is somewhat less elaborately fancy than Tobler’s Kal facsimile, but that book seemed a bit more overdone than the actual quality of the book deserved; for example, it does not seem to be quite as durable as the current work, for all that it has gold edging on the pages.

One issue that Tobler discussed in his introduction could, I believe, use some expansion: Several of the plates in Falkner’s book do not seem to show the exact technique being described in the text. For example, folio 7r (Tobler pp. 58-9) is about the Schielhau, which is normally used to displace an Oberhau. The text supports that interpretation, but the picture shows something different: The figure on the left is, indeed, performing a Schielhau, but the figure on the right has his sword hanging point down on the inside of the Schielhau—not at all what we would normally see.

Tobler discusses this in his Introduction, saying: “The illustration of the Schielhau, or “Squinting Stroke” on folio 7r has drawn considerable interest… It seems to imply a very powerful deflection has occurred prior to the wielder hitting his opponent…” Tobler, p. 8. He does mention that we see similar positions in Jörg Wilhalm, but may not understand what he is seeing because he does not describe the complete play. This is not a “powerful deflection” prior to the blow (if I correctly understand what he means by that—he may mean the same thing), but rather a counter to the Schielhau using a Schnappen, as Wilhalm tells us himself.

Here are the two plates in this series from Wilhalm and their associated text:
"This is also a piece of the Schielhau and a break against when the sword is at the neck. This is the break against the other piece, and mark that you see how it is painted.
This is from the break of the Schielhau with Uberlauffen, that will break the Schielhau. With a strong cut or slice go over his flats and go immediately [to him]. This is therefore a strong break to make against the Gloss." Jörg Wilhalm CGM 3711 ff. 19r-v, tr. David Clarke.

Here is a video demonstrating an interpretation of this technique in slow motion:

This suggests that a number (but certainly not all, nor even most) of the plates in Falkner actually show the counter to the play being described in the text for that plate. Another example can be seen in the dagger play on folio 49v (Tobler pp. 226-227). Here the text describes a fairly typical arm bar counter to a stab from above with a dagger, but what the picture actually shows is the original attacker, the person upon whom the arm bar is being applied, countering the arm bar by picking up the defender’s leg to throw him. This is a fascinating insight into this book, and certainly supports Tobler’s contention that Falkner intended his work for a very knowledgeable audience.

I have not had time to go through every single play in the book, but I did look carefully through the longsword material (and I have been working with the poll arm material for quite a while). Some of the longsword plays are quite confusing because they don’t seem to be illustrating anything, really—there seems little connection at all between the text and the picture. Perhaps with more study insights such as the one above will be gained by comparing this Fechtbuch with others.

Of all the plays I did understand, however, the one that most surprised me was the Schnitt counter to Kron. Kron is a defensive move in which you lift your sword vertically to catch a descending strike, often the Scheitelhau in other sources, on the cross. Most sources say to counter Kron by dropping your blade under his and using an Abschneiden (a kind of Schnitt or slice) to cut his wrists. In Falkner, however, the Schnitt is performed at the halfsword; that is, you slice his wrists while holding your blade in your left hand and slicing the sharp edge across his wrists; see folio 11v; Tobler pp. 76-77 (NB: So much for those who think halfswording could not be performed with a sharp blade!). The text supports the picture in this, because the text says that if he hooks your blade with his cross to pull, you can turn your point or pommel to him for a strike or thrust, so this is not a mistake of the artist.

© Hugh T. Knight, Jr. 2011. All rights reserved.


kronoslordoftime said...


I actually believe that the half-sword is Kron, rather than the half-sword being used to Schnitt. Wilhalm Hutter shows the Kron as being a half-sword position, as does Mair I believe. See folios 41r to 42r of the CGM 3711. In folio 41r, Wilhalm even refers to Kron being held in the armoured hand.


Hugh Knight said...

Hi Alex,

I don't believe that's the case. The relevant text in Falkner says:
"Slice against the Crown from under and from above you break it surely. If he wants to wrench it back, bring the pommel or point to the face." Fol. 11v, tr. Tobler.

He says that if he tries to wrench it (your sword) back, then you bring the point or pommel to his face. In other words, if he tries to hook your blade with his cross, then you simply rotate on his sword and hit him with your pommel or stab with your point--you can go in either direction. In fact, the picture actually shows this happening; if you look closely, the figure on the right's cross is hooked on the other figure's blade, and the other figure's point is aimed at the right figure's face.

Conversely, you could not really turn your point into someone in the halfsword grip as shown in the picture because you're too close.

This instruction precisely mirrors on of the halberd plays, fol. 63r (Tobler pp. 278-9). There, you are instructed to raise your halberd over your head and block with the middle of your shaft (as the picture shows). Then he says:
"If he wants to pull toward him [i.e., with the head of his axe on your shaft--HTK], then you shall turn the point or blow into his face."

And, in fact, in that play we see the blocking figure turning his point into the other figure's face by simply rotating on the spot where the blade has hooked his shaft.

So, this is exactly the same follow-up (although the starting techniques are different, they end up in the same end position) as the Kron plate, and the message is not open to interpretation in this latter case.

Therefore, it is clear that the figure with both hands on his hilt in 11v is actually the one doing the Kron.

I am aware of the Wilhalm example to which you're referring, and fol. 42r of CGM 3711 clearly shows a slice "under the Kron" as the text says. I'm also aware of the connections between Falkner and Wilhalm (as I wrote in my review!), so I am at a loss to describe this discrepancy. Believe it or not I actually compared these before I wrote the review, seeking some answer to the seeming conundrum in Falkner. The evidence, however, seems clear that this is not what Falkner means.


kronoslordoftime said...

Hi Hugh,

It's possible that I'm missing something obvious, but I don't know of a treatise that unambiguously has Kron held with both hands on the hilt, while Wilhalm and Mair are both unambiguous that Kron is a half-sword position. I used to believe that Kron was held straight over the head with both hands over the hilt, however I've not seen enough evidence for that, so I'm using the half-sword position for my interpretation of Kron.

So either the nature of Kron radically changed between Falkner and Wilhalm, or the text of 11v is switching perspective.

It is possible that the first two lines off 11v are addressed to the attacker, and that the second two lines are addressed to the defender (i.e. the man who has formed Kron). So the first two lines describe a counter to Kron, and the second two describe a counter to a counter to Kron. I know that's a bit elaborate, but that makes more sense to me than Kron changing so radically in between Falkner and Wilhalm's treatises being written.


Hugh Knight said...

Hi Alex,

While you’re right about Wilhalm and Mair, I don’t think we can take them as representative of the earlier Liechtenauer Society masters. The fact is that both of them do things in ways that are significantly different from, for example, Ringeck or von Danzig—sources I consider “truer” to Liechtenauer’s original intent.

Read what von Danzig has to say about Kron:
“If he parries the stroke so that both his point and one crossbar stands upwards, then this is called the Kron.” Von Danzig fol. 25r, tr. Tobler.

And before you say that the “one crossbar” text means a halfsword grip, the point upward mitigates against that interpretation: I take it to mean you hold the sword vertically with the point slightly off center line. This will tend to cause any blow striking down to “catch” in the V formed by the arm of your cross and the blade, whereas if you hold the point perfectly vertical the sword can slip off the cross more easily. Moreover, this is a major thing: In every other case von Danzig wants you to use a halfsword grip he *says* to. Why would he describe this technique so precisely and leave that important detail out?

Regardless of all of this, however, we have to consider what we see and read in Falkner. My original point still stands: He’s saying that if the person in Kron hooks your sword (which you are holding in a halfsword grip) with his cross, then you rotate your sword around his to either thrust or strike with the pommel.

Look at the picture:
This is *obviously* what we’re seeing. Ludwig (left) went under Rudolph’s (right) Kron for a Schnitt at the halfsword, so Rudolph hooked Ludwig’s sword with his cross. Then Ludwig turned his point in to thrust at Rudolph’s face. That is very clearly what we see in the picture.

If Ludwig was the one doing the Kron and Rudolph had gone under for the slice, then Rudolph could not have hooked his cross over Ludwig’s blade because it would be under it. QED.

As for the first sentence being for one person and the other for his opponent, that doesn’t hold up: The first sentence talks about slicing under—which Ludwig is doing—and the second sentence talks about turning your point to his face if he hooks your blade—which Ludwig, again, is doing to counter Rudolph’s hook. See? Both sentences are describing actions that only Ludwig is performing, so this can’t represent different text for different fighters.

And compare this with the halberd plate I mentioned:
Again, exactly the same position and the same response, and, in this case, there’s no way to misinterpret who’s doing which.

I’m sorry, I understand your arguments; they’re well presented, and I’ve been troubled about Kron for quite a while because of the seeming confusion in the sources, but the facts in *this* source don’t seem to allow any other interpretation.


Hans Talhoffer said...


good to see your blog coming to life again and thanks for your information on the book. I think I will order it.

Best wishes,

Hugh Knight said...

For anyone still reading this entry, I have a new blog posting here:
which should settle the Kron controversy once and for all.