Saturday, May 18, 2013

Else What's a Buckler For?

I just had a teenager roundly criticize one of my sword and buckler videos because I did not displace with my buckler, but just kept it over my hand.  He mistakenly believes that bucklers are shields and must, therefore, be used to actively displace attacks.  His confusion is exacerbated by the fact that bucklers are used to displace attacks in Renaissance rapier or side-sword play.  I have received many such comments over the years, so I felt it was time to discuss the buckler and how it was actually used in the Middle Ages.  (NB:  Everything in this article relates to the Middle Ages; things were different in the Renaissance.)

There are four primary sources for sword and buckler techniques in the Middle Ages:  I.33, Hans Talhoffer (primarily his 1459 and 1467 editions),  Andreas Lignitzer, and Paulus Kal.  There are a few other sources that show the form, but they usually just copy these earlier sources (e.g., the re-drawing of I.33 in Wilhalm and Mair).  This is all we really can know about buckler combat; there are manuscript paintings showing the form, but they are too vague to tell us much.

When we look at the Fechtbuch sources, we see that none of them show a single active displacement with a buckler—not one—and yet that is precisely how most people, including the young “expert” above, who have not studied the art seriously think bucklers were used.  “After all, if you aren’t blocking with it, why have it?  It’s a shield, right?  And shields were used to block, right?”

There are some few plays shown in the Fechtbücher which can be confusing and which might lead someone who has not studied them carefully to believe he was seeing an active displacement.  For example, this plate from Paulus Kal looks like one.  Translation:  “The first technique:  Catch his weak on the buckler while striking down wherever you wish.” (Fol. 53v)

But when you study the source carefully, you find that the initial displacement was done with the sword, and the buckler was then used to pin his opponent’s sword, freeing him to leave the bind with his sword for the leg cut.  Here is the previous plate showing the actual displacement.  Translation:  “Do this in the first bind.”  (Fol. 53r)

So in the plates from Kal above, we are shown that you first displace his cut with your sword (53r), then you pin that sword in place with your buckler to make it safe to leave the bind to cut at his leg (53v).  Folio 53v does not show a displacement with the buckler, it shows what to do after the displacement with the sword in 53r.  This is in keeping with the teachings of the Liechtenauer tradition, which say that you never leave the bind unless you have first done something to prevent your opponent from killing you with a Nachreisen as you do so.

There are several sources that show this kind of pinning action.  For example, in this play from I.33, we see a bind with the sword (top), then the buckler is used to pin the attacker’s hands (and thus his sword) so the defender can safely cut him (bottom).

If bucklers were not used to displace attacks, for what then were they used?  There were several uses for the buckler; we have seen one of them already above: to pin the enemy’s sword so as to make it safe to leave the bind.  In addition, bucklers were used to strike one’s opponent, and for “zone denial.”  Their most important use, however, was to protect the fighter’s right hand—a sort of gauntlet, if you will, without the limits a gauntlet places on flexibility and sword handling.

Striking with the buckler is easy to understand.  While you are bound sword to sword (or, as in this case, cutting), you strike with the buckler as shown here.  Also, in Lignitzer’s last play of the buckler, you displace with your sword in a halfsword grip, then release your right hand, grab his buckler with it, and strike him with his own buckler (see Ringeck fol. 55v); Kal shows the same play (see Kal fol. 56r).

The next use, zone denial, is somewhat less obvious.  We usually see bucklers held out at arms’ length, as in this plate from Talhoffer 1459.  The reason for this is that by doing so, you create a cone-shaped zone in which you cannot easily be hit.  To understand this, we must look (just for a moment) to a master from the Renaissance, Giocomo di Grassi.  In the buckler chapter in his book, we see this picture.  As the lines on the picture show, the further the buckler is held from the body, the broader the area in the “shadow” (protection) of the buckler is.  When the buckler is held close to the body, it protects an area only the size of the buckler itself; at arms’ length, it protects an area several times that size.  This is not a displacement, it is a zone defense intended to force your opponent to strike where you are unprotected, thus limiting the angles at which he can attack.  When he does attack, you cannot just leave the buckler in place and hope it stops his attack, you must actively displace it with your sword.

The primary use of the buckler, however, is as a gauntlet for the right hand.  Unlike later weapons, medieval swords did not have elaborate guards around the sword hand to protect them from being hit.  Thus, an enemy could simply strike your hand or arm as you attack, as we see in this plate from Talhoffer 1467.  To prevent this, the masters taught us to cover the sword hand with the buckler both as we displace with the sword as we see in this plate from Talhoffer 1467, and to cover the hand as we attack, as shown in the top pair of figures from I.33 here.  (NB:  Mair shows figures performing some of these exact same techniques while wearing gauntlets, which can be confusing to some.  Remember that he was copying earlier works in his possession, and that he did not always copy them accurately.  For example, when showing Langenschilt dueling, which was never done in armor, Mair shows the techniques being performed by fully armored men.)

Again, please understand that the buckler is not used for an active displacement in any of these sources—not even once.  If you think that is what you are seeing, you need to study the source more carefully.

In conclusion, bucklers were used for a variety of purposes, including pinning an opponent’s hands or sword to make it safe to leave the bind; buckler strikes; zone denial; and as a pseudo-gauntlet for the right hand.  They were not used, however, for the thing most people who have not studied this art believe they were—actively displacing attacks.

One last note:  Whenever I post something like this, I usually receive comments arguing that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  In other words, they argue that I cannot claim bucklers were never used to displace attacks just because none of the extant sources do so, and claim that there may have been sources showing displacements which did not survive.  There is a microscopic grain of truth in this largely fatuous argument—one which holds in every real-world argument that claims a thing does not exist:  You can rarely prove a negative conclusively.  The fact remains, however, that we have varied sources that show consistency, and since we can only practice the art we are given, the argument is moot.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Intent of the Vorschlag

When we attack first, that attack is called a Vorschlag—a “before strike.”  We are
taught that to fight in the Vor is best, and that to attack first is the preferred (although, contrary to popular misconception, not the only) way to take the Vor.  Döbringer tells us: “The Vorschlag is a great advantage in fighting as you will hear in the text.”  Hs 3227a fol. 14v.  But when you attack with a Vorschlag, what is your intent—what should you be trying to do?  What is Döbringer’s “great advantage”?  Are you expecting your blow to hit your opponent and end the fight in a single action, or is there more to it than that?

Looked at in one way, the answer seems obvious:  When you use a Vorschlag you intend to strike your opponent, killing him and thus ending the fight as quickly as possible.  And yet, when we study the instructions for attacking with a Vorschlag that is not what we find.  Ringeck tells us this:  “If you strike an Oberhau from the right side then follow the blow with your right foot.”  Ringeck fol. 12v.  Following the blow means that you strike with your sword before you step forward—your cut precedes your step.

Following the blow is not, however, the fastest way to move your sword, and presumably, if our primary intent was to maximize the chance of our Vorschlag landing unopposed we would want to cut as fast as possible.  The fastest way to cut is actually to step first, then whip the sword in with a powerful snapping motion of the hands, and we are specifically told not to do that.  Thus, if your goal is to guarantee a hit, following the blow is not the ideal way to cut.  Nor should this really be surprising.  The fact of the matter is that if your opponent has judged measure correctly, you will have to take a step in order to hit him.  Since he can displace your attack just by moving his hands, and since his hands will always be faster than your step (unless he gets stupid), there should be little chance of making your Vorschlag hit regardless of how fast you are.

This leads to an inescapable conclusion:  There is little reason to perform a Vorschlag at top speed, because there is no advantage in doing so; in fact, there is a disadvantage in trying to go too fast because people tend to use too much muscle when they do so, making them too tight at the conclusion of the cut, and slow to go on to the next technique.  We have seen this in our classes when we practice drills in which the student is required to react to what his partner does, but does not know in advance what that will be:  When they cut too fast, fighters have a difficult time moving smoothly to the next technique they need to use when their Vorschlag is displaced because a kind of muscular and mental inertia takes place.

Moreover, a careful consideration of the Fechtbücher suggests that physical ability is not the most important factor in fighting.  Döbringer says:  “That is why Liechtenauer’s swordsmanship is a true art that the weaker wins more easily by use of his art than the stronger by using his strength. Otherwise what use would the art be?”  Hs 3227a fol. 22v.  The same may be said of speed and for exactly the same reason:  If you need to be exceptionally fast, then what use is art?  In fact, the real lesson is that art enables us to overcome physical ability—to defeat someone stronger and/or faster than we are.

This should not be taken to mean that we should act slowly—quite the contrary.  Döbringer says this about the Vorschlag: “And when you close with him thinking that you have the correct measure and believe that you can reach him, then you shall go at him quickly and with speed to the head and to the body.”  Hs 3227a fol. 16r.  The reason for this, however, is not because you should expect your Vorschlag to hit—we have already discussed why that is not very likely.  Rather, it is because moving quickly makes it more difficult for your opponent to see what you are doing and to formulate a careful response.  So yes, we should cut quickly, but we do not need to cut at top speed.  Be relaxed and cultivate a flexible mind so that you can see your opponent’s response and be prepared to react to it quickly and smoothly.  There is little point in executing an extremely fast Vorschlag but then not being able to move quickly to the next technique when you come into the Krieg.

So we return to our original question:  If a Vorschlag is unlikely to hit, then what is its intent?  Why bother trying to strike first at all?  Master Sigmund tells us this:  “Note: Above all other things, you must understand the principles of Vor and Nach, because the entire art of fighting is based upon them.  Vor means preempting him with a blow or thrust against an opening before he can hit you, so he must displace.”  Ringeck fol. 15r.  This passage tells us that the Vorschlag is not primarily about hitting first, but about preempting your opponent.  When you follow the blow your sword threatens your opponent, forcing him to displace your attack rather than attacking himself; this allows you to close safely and puts you in the Vor and him in the Nach.

This does not require great speed, it merely requires that you act first and that you present a serious threat.  In a sense, your cut actually clears a path for you to enter into the engagement while at the same time putting your opponent on the defensive.  Of course, if the Vorschlag does land then that is wonderful—the fight is over as quickly as possible and with as little danger to you as possible.  We should not expect that, however, and should not work to find ways to bring that about, such as cutting faster, taking larger steps, etc., because such actions tend to make the necessary next steps after the bind slower and more difficult.

Move quickly, but be relaxed and in control.  Move constantly, too; when your Vorschlag is displaced move immediately on to your next attack and to the next until your opponent is defeated.  Learn to overcome your opponent’s speed and strength with art so that you crush him with attack after attack, never letting up the pressure and never giving him a chance to attack until he is defeated.  Never make an empty displacement that allows your opponent to take the initiative from you.  Take the initiative with your Vorschlag and never relinquish it.  This does not require great speed or strength, it requires art.