Monday, March 26, 2018

Durchwechseln: The Process of Interpretation


I have long been troubled by my interpretation of the Durchwechseln, or “changing through.”  Was it done into Langenort (“long point”), or was it done into an upper Hengen?  I first learned to do it into an Upper Hengen, however, I could find nothing in any Fechtbuch to support (or refute, but see below from Kal) that interpretation.  On the other hand, doing it that way worked very well, while trying to do it into Langenort did not, because there was often insufficient room for it from the bind.  This essay is about the process I used to develop my current interpretation.

Here is a video showing the Durchwechseln being done into an Upper Hengen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcn2fGnyuKM (note that I do this somewhat differently now, circling my point around more to hit the face or chest rather than just hitting the first target to which my point comes).

Many students of the Kunst des Fechtens struggle with interpreting techniques which are not explicitly described by the masters, so I thought it might be useful to describe the process I used to interpret the Durchwechseln, specifically, as a way of teaching people how to do so more generally.

My approach to interpretation has two primary tacks:  First, look to the Fechtb├╝cher, always.  See what the Masters actually said, even when it seems vague, and never make anything up.  Second, work through the interpretation you develop in actual practice, and make sure it works mechanically (not in free play; childish games of sword tag are far too unrealistic to prove anything at all) in terms of length, measure, timing, etc.

Studying the Fechtb├╝cher involves more than just paging through the pictures or glancing over the texts.  In his ground-breaking book, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (Yale, 2000), Professor Sydney Anglo discusses a process we might term a “dossier approach” for understanding the material:
“In general, however, our knowledge of unarmed combat in medieval and renaissance Germany depends more upon the accumulation of a massive dossier of overlapping evidence than on the clarity of any single treatise. Similar holds, throws and trips recur throughout the different manuscripts. Sometimes they are obviously copied from one another; sometimes they illustrate different stages of a similar maneuver; and sometimes they give the impression of the same idea having been arrived at independently.”  (p. 184.)

By comparing and contrasting a given technique both in the various sources and within the same source when it appears multiple times, we often find that the description or pictures will, as Professor Anglo says, give us a “view” of the technique from different angles or with different descriptions which can come together to give a far more complete understanding than any single description or picture can.  Let’s use that approach to interpret the Durchwechseln.

Here is the description of the Durchwechseln in the pseudo-Peter von Danzig Fechtbuch:
“If you come against your opponent in the Zufechten, strike strongly at him. If he in turn strikes to your sword and not to your body, slide the point from under his sword before he binds to your sword, then thrust on the other side of his blade to his face or chest.” (Cod. 44.A.8 fol. 31r.)

Note that details are frustratingly absent; he says nothing about your position as you thrust, nor does any other extant source do so any more plainly.

Few of the pictorial sources show the Durchwechseln, but the Paulus Kal Fechtbuch does (the Glasgow Fechtbuch shows it too, but less clearly):
“Learn the Durchwechseln from both sides.” (CGM 1507 fol. 66r.)

Master Paulus’ picture seems to make it clear that the technique is being done into Langenort, however, experience has shown that pictorial sources are often very poorly drawn and/or at distinct odds with the more detailed textual descriptions, often drastically so.  Still, this seemed the best and clearest indication of how to do the technique, so I moved on to the second part of the process—testing.

Unfortunately, the testing process did not support the use of Langenort.  In the Kal picture, the combatants are shown too far apart to actually hit one another; at that distance, it is easy to drop your point under your opponent’s blade and thrust, but if the attacker is close enough to his opponent to have hit him with his initial cut, there isn’t enough room to come up into Langenort.  Moreover, this problem is even worse if the initial cut is one of the shorter-ranged ones, such as a Zwerchhau, which requires you to be closer from the start.

The Durchwechseln is a very widely mentioned technique because it has a lot of different applications, so this gave me a lot of different places to look as I applied the dossier approach.  Still, almost all the sources were extremely vague, and offered very few new insights.  Turning again to the pseudo-von Danzig, however, I found help in an unlikely place: the plays of the Schielhau.
“If he skillfully evades this blow of your sword [i.e., your Schielhau] and tries to Durchwechseln below, then thrust with the point straight in front of you [“with your arms extended” Ringeck says in fol. 31v, meaning Langenort] so that he may not Durchwechseln.” (von Danzig fol. 23v.)

In other words, von Danzig and Ringeck both say that if you counter your opponent’s initial cut with a Schielhau, and he then attempts to “change through” under your counter, that you should counter his Durchwechseln with a thrust into Langenort (“with your arms extended”); in other words, Langenort “breaks” (counters) Durchwechseln.  In this we can find our answer, although it’s not explicit.

If the Durchwechseln is done into Langenort, then how can it be countered by Langenort?  The reach would be the same for both, and the person doing the Durchwechseln in that example would win since he moved first.  That being the case, Langenort would not work well to counter the Durchwechseln described above in the plays of the Schielhau.  If, however, the Durchwechseln is done into an Upper Hengen, things are different: Langenort is an excellent counter to the Durchwechseln because it has longer reach, especially if you step backward as you execute the thrust into Langenort to take advantage of the reach it provides, and this offsets the fact that your opponent moved first.

Testing this, we found that it worked admirably.  You can use a Durchwechseln into the Upper Hengen from even the most short-ranged techniques, and the reach advantage of Langenort makes countering the Durchwechseln practical and easy.  Figuring that out, however, required both applying the dossier approach to a number of different books, and to different plays within each of those books, then testing the mechanics out in practice.  On a more subtle level, I had to do more than merely read the descriptions (which never mention the final position), I had to apply an understanding of what each of several different techniques was supposed to do in order to understand the implications of the techniques in question.  I had to ask, “If this is the counter, what does that tell me about how to do the Durchwechseln itself?”  Interpretation is often like that, requiring you to work backward from something else to get at what you’re trying to understand.

I hope this helps others who are struggling to understand the techniques of our art, especially those which aren’t explicitly described or pictured.