As a professional educator as well as a long-time amateur martial arts instructor, one of the issues that fascinates me about the historical fighting manuscripts is their approach to teaching. Broadly speaking, there are two types of texts:

a)      “Reference” texts which attempt to preserve a system of fighting
b)      “Teaching” texts which attempt to sequence the teaching of a weapon or style

Reference texts aim to list everything of importance or to present memory cues for techniques learnt through physical instruction. For instance, the early German corpus revolves around the Lichtenauer verses, which are mnemonic in nature[1]. Terms in the verses are not explained, and the verses can be broken down into sections which do not necessarily link to ideas previously mentioned. Each subsequent author added a commentary or “glossa” to the verses, but retained the sequence of verses. Such a reference text works well for a reader already submerged in the art illustrated, but is not necessarily the ideal vehicle for teaching a raw beginner.

A teaching text, on the other hand, aims to present material in a sequence to facilitate learning. Ideas are introduced in order from simple to complex, each building on the previous work. Many works of the 16th and later centuries are built on this model, potentially/possibly reflecting a change in mind-set by the writers from preserving an art, to transmitting an art.

Both types of text have their strengths and weaknesses. In the same way I keep reference books for mathematical operations or geological materials, a HEMA reference text covers the entirety of a system, and gives you a lot of technical information. However, I prescribe teaching texts for my undergrad students, as the volume of information in a reference text often obscures the important points a student must learn. Many of the best texts incorporate both teaching and reference material, making these essential reading for the HEMA interpreter and teacher.

Joachim Meyer’s “rappier” or sidesword texts provide an ideal example of the difference between these two approaches. Meyer wrote several texts on the rapier during his lifetime and so it is possible to compare and contrast the same weapons system presented in two different ways.  Whereas Meyer’s longsword texts often consciously mirror the traditional Lichtenauer corpus, the rapier system is essentially a “new” art, without a large number of accepted technical terms, and without a pre-existing group of practitioners. Thus, Meyer spends significant time describing actions with the weapon, making these texts a valuable source for the interpreter, as not only the mechanics of an action are detailed, but also how that action articulates with other actions within a certain context.

Meyer’s 1560 rappier text: the systematic approach

Meyer’s early text on the rappier[2] is purely systematic. A guard is defined, potential parrying techniques are listed, and then suitable ripostes are listed. It is possible to present this material in a synoptic chart:

GuardPossible ParriesRipostes1560 Page number
NebenhutCuttingOffHigh Thrust71 l
Low Thrust70 l
Inside Cut71 l (with feint)
Outside Cut71 l
Straight Cut70 l
SuppressingHigh Thrust71 r
Low Thrust71 r
Inside Cut72 l (with follow-up)
Outside Cut71 r
Straight Cut
GoingThroughHigh Thrust
Low Thrust
Inside Cut
Outside Cut
Straight Cut
HangingHigh Thrust72 l
Low Thrust
Inside Cut72 l
Outside Cut72 l (with feint)
Straight Cut
Taking out withThe Long EdgeHigh Thrust
Low Thrust
Inside Cut
Outside Cut
Straight Cut

Meyer nebenhut rappier

Figure 1: The guard of Nebenhut in Meyer’s 1560 manuscript

A nearly complete version of this table can be found here as an Excel file: Synoptic table (1560)

After detailing the possible options from a particular guard, Meyer then gives selected examples to illustrate the techniques (listed in the fourth column).

Thus, it is possible to use the 1560 text to summarise the rappier system as follows:

a)      There are 7 guards, presented in order as:

i.      Nebenhut
ii.      Wechsel
iii.      Right Ochs
iv.      Left Ochs
v.      Eisenpfort
vi.      Langenort
vii.      Pflug

b)      There are 6 different parrying techniques listed, but some techniques are unusable from some guards. The techniques named are:

i.      Cutting Off/Away
ii.      Suppressing
iii.      Going Through
iv.      Hanging
v.      Taking out with the Long Edge from above
vi.      Taking out from below with the Short or Half Edge
vii.      Setting Off

c)       After parrying, the follow-up strike can be one of five strikes:

i.      A thrust from above
ii.      A thrust from below
iii.      A cut from the inside
iv.      A cut from the outside
v.      A vertical cut straight down

d)      Attacking sequences are dealt with last

On the face of it, the system presented in the 1560 system is extremely simple, with only a limited number of techniques to learn. In practice, however, selecting the right parrying technique and right counter attack adds a lot of complexity to the system. For instance, if an opponent attacks while you are in Nebenhut, your choice in technique is dictated by distance, timing, and attitude. Similarly, choosing to counter with a thrust from below or an inside cut will depend on the circumstances.

An example of this complexity can be found in the first set of counters, those done after cutting away the incoming attack (an attack to your left in this case). After parrying, you can immediately counter with a thrust from below, a straight vertical cut to the head, a cut to his inside, and (with some practice at the body mechanics), a thrust from above left. However, how do you cut to his outside? Meyer’s example shows that he sets this cut up by threatening a cut to the inside, but then pulling away and cutting from the outside. Thus, feints and deceptions form an integral part of the system.

Meyer’s 1570 rappier text: the teaching syllabus

Meyer’s 1570 rappier text[3] can be broken down into four portions: a glossary, a set of sequenced teaching drills, an advanced commentary, and a section on rappier and dagger/cloak. Though the glossary is of great use (especially with interpreting the 1560 text), my focus here is on the teaching drills, presented in the second part of the treatise. Unlike in the 1560 text, Meyer does not list guards and their appropriate techniques. Instead, Meyer presents a sequence of drills building in complexity.  Techniques are introduced one by one and discussed in detail, but all options from a particular position are not detailed. This approach can be shown as a flowchart:

Sidesword 1 (2)

Figure 1: the first action from Straight Parrying[4]

In the first device  (figure 1), a simple linear sequence is given. You are attacked, you parry and launch a counter-attacking thrust. This can be done against attacks from the left and right, thrust or cut, provided the attacks come in at the head or upper body.

Sidesword 2 (2)

Figure 2: How to parry multiple attacks[5]

The second device (figure 2) adds another layer to the first sequence. In this device, the attack is parried as before, but the attacker pulls away and cuts to other side before the counter attack can be delivered. This necessitates further parrying, until the attacker tires and a countercut can be launched. Subsequent devices in the text deal with attacks that come in from below, or drift down below your hand, and involve modifying your actions to deal with these threats. Thus, Meyer details possible counters to all possible attacks, building the sequence up.

The next layer of complexity is added when Meyer deals with the aftermath of the counter attack. In devices following on from the basic setup, Meyer details how to maintain the attack when the opponent parries the counterattacking thrust (figure 3). Meyer offers three ways to defeat the opponent’s parry: turning the sword over the opponent’s blade for a high thrust, changing through under the opponent’s blade, or feinting a change and attacking back at the first target.

Sidesword 3 (1)

Figure 3: Maintaining the initiative after a counterattack[6]

Thus, the approach in the 1570 rappier text is essentially to build up the fighter’s skills systematically. First, basic parry-riposte technique is taught, then attacking technique is taught. Further sections detail using the cut as a counter attack, advice on avoiding deception, advice on attacking a defensive opponent, and then a variety of different techniques to use in different situations.

Summary

Meyer’s two rappier texts present a very similar system, but from two very different viewpoints. The early 1560 text allows the reader to understand the system in its entirety, where each guard allows certain defensive actions, and each defensive action can be followed with one of five counter attacks. The 1570 text introduces techniques in a sequence building from basic moves to more advanced techniques, showing the skill progression a student needs to follow to master the weapon. For the modern teacher, it is possible to use the 1570 model as a direct teaching sequence, with little or no modification, and I encourage teachers to try this approach first, rather than creating a new syllabus.

References

[1] http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Johannes_Liechtenauer

[2] The manuscript can be viewed here: http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Joachim_Meyers_F%C3%A4ktbok_(MS_A.4%C2%BA.2), and a translation by Kevin Maurer is available here: https://sites.google.com/site/jochimmeyer1560/

[3] The full version of Meyer’s printed text is available in various forms, as referenced here: http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Gr%C3%BCndtliche_Beschreibung_der_Kunst_des_Fechtens...

Unfortunately, a full English translation by Jeffrey Forgeng is out of print, but copies are sometimes still available.

[4] Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens, 2.74 r

[5] 2.75v

[6] 2.76v-2.77r

James Roberts

James Roberts has been involved in HEMA since 2000, and is the founder of the Medieval Armed Combat Society (MACS) in Johannesburg/ Pretoria (South Africa). Despite being called an “old dog” by Matt Galas a few years ago, he still fights, teaches and researches HEMA, concentrating on 16th century German sources. He taught and fought at WWOC 2010, Dijon 2011, taught and marshalled at WWOC 2012 ans WWOC2014, and taught at Fightcamp 2013 and 2014, as well as numerous locations in South Africa.