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.


Thomas Woolley said...

This is an extremely well explained explanation of why the Vorschlagen, particularly the Zornhau, are done they way they are.

Hugh Knight said...

Thank you!

S.A. Farrell said...

Nice article (as always) Hugh. Teaching this principle in my classes, I often use the quote attributed to Wyatt Earp about "How do you win a gunfight?" He said the key is to "hurry up and take your time." Be fast - but no faster than you need to be in order to be precise and skillful with your technique.

Hugh Knight said...

Thank you, Scott, I appreciate it. I hadn't heard that story about Wyatt Erp, but you're right, it's a marvelous connection.

Unknown said...

Hi Hugh,
this is a nice article, but I think that you are making conclusions on things that are unsure and maybe need to be interpreted differently. As far as my knowledge on the Liechtenauer/Ringeck tradition reaches, Liechtenauer tells you to always follow the blow with a step (regardless if it is a vorschlag or a parrying strike or ...). One of the reasons for this is what Liechtenauer describes as strong fighting, if your left leg is in front, you should strike from the right side with a step so that you are at your strongest (try it the other way around and your body gets twisted). Also, if I look at the Joachim Meyer, then he explains that one needs to step when striking so that when you can get into reach of your opponent and you can continue with your artful piece or in worst case when your opponent steps away, you will have the advantage that you have gained space and that your opponent will run out of space eventually.
This expresses my opinions on that matter but I found it nice to read your article since it makes me think about this subject from a different perspective.
With kind regards,
Davy Van Elst

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Davy,
I don't mean any offense, but I’m not sure I understand what you're saying. You seem to be saying that we are told to follow the blow because that is the strongest way to cut. If so, that is incorrect. Ringeck says to cut from the right if you are right handed because you will be stronger in the bind (see fol. 12r and fol. 14r), and that’s true. That is totally correct, but it’s a different issue. In that section, Ringeck is explaining why you should never use a left cut as a Vorschlag, but that’s not why you follow the blow, that just says that when you do cut, you should cut from the right.

Please re-read my essay where I quote Ringeck talking about the reason for following the blow—he specifically says it’s to preempt your opponent’s attack, forcing him to defend. Yes, it should be done with a right attack, but that’s a separate issue, one I didn’t address in this essay. You attack from the right when you do a Vorschlag so you can be stronger in the bind, but that’s not the *intent* of the Vorschlag, that’s just one factor in how it should be done.

Re-read Ringeck and I think you will see these are two separate issues. I hope this gives you a clearer understanding of Ringeck’s instructions.