For the last year or so I have been working on a group of primarily longsword exercises based on studying fechtmeister Joachim Meyer's holistic system for training and fighting, focusing on the dussack, longsword and staff in combination with some additional mostly untutored practice of Portuguese Jogo do Pau. Some of the core questions have revolved around how to become more dynamic in fencing while also learning to fence in a more safe way that leads to fewer double kills.
A good friend recently compared this group of exercises to an onion that has many, many layers of sublime understandings that you train simultanously, in order to improve one's swordsmanship. In a way that is a fair comparison I think, as you here will need to work with a focus on all aspects of handling your weapon and your body in relation to those of your opponent, often in a way that is somewhat unusual and perhaps even surprising to the practitioners of earlier Liechtenauer and Fiore fencing, but more recognizable to practitioners of Marozzo and Bolognese.
So, with this in mind, I will try to explain the various layers and how to work with them in an extensive series of some 15-20 planned articles, but first of all a brief explanation on the roots of the exercises.
Frequens Motus, Flow, Meyer and Hs.3227a
In his treatise of 1570 Joachim Meyer teaches the use of Zucken (Pulling), Wechselhauw (Changing Cut) and Umbschlagen (Striking around), i.e. leaving the bind without using the pressure from the bind, and striking again, or around. This is partly done with the help of a specific diagram depicting four series of four cuts to the openings that can be done with the two edges and both flats.
This humble diagram is seemingly quite simple but in reality very ingenious and even complex as a training tool, particularly when you consider the accompanying text that expands on what is shown in the diagram. What it does, is teach you how to cut to any opening from any stance, ie how to move from one cut to any other opening available, primarily using the Meisterhäuwe (Master Cuts), while also working with pulled strikes as well as feints.
Derived from this diagram, the main focus of the exercises in the forthcoming articles is on learning how to cut more dynamically, how to parry more fluently and more variedly, how to fence more controlled & learning how to identify when to counterattack.
Keep in mind that these exercises are not actual fighting stücken, but training of skills based on Meyer. However, much of it, even striking repeatedly, can be applied directly to combat and is even described in early treatises like the Hs.3227a from 1389, as examplified below.
If you win and do the first strike [Vorschlag] then he can either defend himself or let himself get struck. When you do the first strike [Vorschlag], regardless if you hit or miss then you should quickly and briskly do the after strike [Nachschlag] before he can come to blows. So when you wish to do the first strike [Vorschlag] then you should also do the [Nachschlag] quickly and speedily so that he cannot come to blows himself.
And you should also make sure that in all things concerning swordsmanship that you act before your opponent does.
And as soon as you move before him and win the first strike [Vorschlag], at once do the after strike [Nachschlag].
You should never do the first strike [Vorschlag] if you do not have the [Nachschlag] in mind at the same time, meaning that you are always in motion [In motu seist] and do not rest or hold yourself back but does one thing after another quickly and decisively so that your opponent can’t do anything at all. (1)
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With the word before [Vor] as has been told before, he [Liechtenauer] means that you with a good first strike [Vorschlag] shall close in without fear or hesitation and strike at the openings [Blossen], to the head and to the body, regardless whether you hit or miss you will confuse the opponent and put fear into him, so that he does not know what to do against you.
Then before the opponent can gather himself and come back, you shall do the after strike [Nachschlag] so that he will have to defend yet again and not be able to strike himself.
Thus when you strike the first strike [Vorschlag] and the opponent defends against this, in the defence you will always be first to reach the after strike [Nachschlag] before the opponent.
As soon as you can you should go with the pommel to the head or come in with the cross strike [Zwerchhaw] that is always good to do, or you can throw the sword forward crosswise in and by that enter into other techniques. (2)
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... place your sword a bit in front of you. Then move into the barrier guard [Schrankhute] on both sides and try to find openings on both sides with good footwork. Then come into the lower hanging [Uenderhengen], do this also on both sides with proper foot- work. Then you should do the upper hanging [Oeberhengen ] on both sides with good footwork. Then do the cross strike [Thwer hewe] on both sides, and again with good footwork.
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And always seek the upper opening [Obern / blossen] rather than the lower and go in over the cross guard. Consider the earlier teachings concerning all things so that you win the first strike [Vorschlag], and as soon as you have done so, then do the after strike [Nachschlag] without stopping or any hesitation or holding anything back. Almost as if you were trying to do them both at the same time. And always do one thing after another quickly and boldly, just so that if one misses then the other will hit home and is successful. Then the opponent will never be able to come to strikes himself. (3)
There are plenty of more examples like these in the fechtbücher (fencing books), describing cutting to the Ochs and Pflug (the four openings) using the Zwerchhauw (Across Cut), The Zornhauw (Wrath Cut), The Unterhauw (Under Cut), the Zucken (pulled strikes) and the Fehler (feints), further examplified in the Codex Ringeck.
Zwer (Across) to the Pflug (Plough)
and add a hard one to the Ox
Glosa This is how you shall strike the Zwer (Across Cut) against the four openings when you go against someone. Note then when you against him in the Zufechten come, observe where he is open to you and leap towards him and strike in with the Zwer to the lower opening on his left side. That is called striking to the Pflug (Plough).
... When you have struck him with the Across Cut to the lower opening, then strike immediately around to him on the other side with the Zwer, from above to his head. That is called striking to the Ochs (Ox).
And continue to strike nimbly Zwer to the Ochs and the other to the Pflug crosswise, to one side - then the other. And cut him then with an Oberhauw (Upper Cut) to the head and then pull yourself back (Abzucken). (4)
Further, we also see it described more tactically in a stücke here:
Step in close in the bind
the Zucken (Pulling) gives you good findings.
Zuck! If it hits, pull again.
Find openings to work: it hurts.
Zuck in all hits
If you wish to fool the masters.
Glosa. When you come against him in the Zufechten,
then cut, from above, strongly in from your right shoulder to his head. If he binds with a Versetzen or suchlike, then step in the bind closer to him and pull your sword up away from his and continue cutting in from the other side, from above, to his head.
If he displaces you a second time, then strike further to the other side from above and work nimbly to the upper openings, as is fitting, with the duplieren and other techniques. (5)
Note in particular how we are even told that the Zucken fools the masters. This is a strong and quite valid tactic to use against any opponent, but also dangerous to yourself if used unwisely. It is important to note that it requires a certain distance, usually attained or maintained by you stepping intentionally short or the opponent stepping back slightly. This distance gives you somewhat more safety and control, but requires self-control and toning down of aggression. Like Meyer says:
... so too it is no use to be overly aggressive with striking, or to cut in at the same time against his strokes recklessly as if with closed eyes, for this resembles not combat but rather a mindless peasants' brawl. (6)
Note how Meyer not only says that we shouldn't be overly aggressive with striking, but also not overdo the cutting in at the same time as "his strokes". But, more on that later.
So, while this is an excellent training tool, it has direct combat applications. But more than that, it even forms the foundation of the fencing, according to Meyer. It is something we all need to learn properly, and which lies at the core of all swordplay:
You must be well instructed in the four openings, if you wish to fight at all surely. For whatever cuts and devices you may execute, however good they may be, if you do not know how to break off in each quarter, and to transmute the intended devices, transforming them into another more appropriate attack, always depending on how he fights against you and counters your devices, then it can befall that you are planning on one device for a particular opening, and yet he conducts himself against you such that another opening is more accessible; this opportunity will escape you, if you execute your intended devices without heeding other opportunities that arise.
Therefore be diligent always to fight flying fluidly to the four openings. For you have only three ways to cut and strike, that is with the long edge, short edge,and flat, from which all combat is assembled, directed at the four parts of the opponent; from these arise all other incidental techniques, such as pulling, doubling, running off, concerning which I have spoken enough already. (7)
So, returning to the aforementioned many "onion layers" of this group of exercises: Here are some that we will work on specifically.
- Shifting grips enable better and safer cutting
- Cutting to the 4 openings using 3 "edges" and 2 flats, resulting in 19 cuts in 7 directions
- Adapting to the situation through flow training
- Shift in mentality towards safer fencing
- Protecting your hands better through proper striking mechanics
- Use of stances in relation to stepping
- Distance management
- Deeper understanding of Vor (Before) and Nach (After)
- Working in Vor and Nach
Most of these are connected and affect each other. Correct distance also require correct hand placement and grip to enable body & hand safety with good point control etc, etc. Most important of all is the mentality, where your own safety is more important than that of your opponent's "unsafety".
1. The stages of a fight and distance
The stages of a fight can partially be described through what distances they are fought at, as those require different types of tactics and techniques. Here we find three + one stages to discuss; Zufechten, Mittel (Krieg in Hs.3227a), Ringen and Abzug.
Zufechten (Into fighting)
Simply put, this is a distance where you can attack from with a single step, basically through super-extending yourself with your attack so much that a step is needed to avoid falling. Likewise you can also remain safe simply by just stepping back, or aside, in equal proportion to your opponent's steps forward. This is about the distance from where you can just about reach out and touch the point of your opponent's weapon with yours if you both extend them forwards, but it is also reliant on e.g. both of your reach, weapon length, agility and angle of attack. This is also the distance from which you normally make your first attack, your Vorschlag, using a passing step. Keep in mind that your Zufechten might not be the same distance as that of your opponent, depending on those variables.
This is tied to binding the swords after an initial attack. This is normally done close to the middle of the blade or thereabout, but can also be done at closer distance to the cross to gain better leverage quicker, but that also means greater risk of getting hit on the hands. Oftentimes it is more safe to remain in the bind and use leverage to control the opponent's blade, working with the handtarbeit (handworks), like Winden, Zornort, Duplieren, Mutieren etc, but this is not true if the opponent chooses to step back somewhat while defending, standing on the edge of the Mittel.
Here considerably shorter steps, steps more offline and even no stepping with the strikes is more common. The same goes for when you are attacked, where timing of hand and foot can be done separately, meaning you distinctly parry/bind first without stepping and then continue with your attack, sometimes with a passing step, but sometimes even striking "against" your leg.
When you get even closer, or the weapons are entangled or caught with the hands, then moving into Ringen or Ringen-am-Schwert (wrestling at the sword) is the logical next step. However, Ringen is also dangerous unless you are more skilled or clearly stronger than your opponent, as the closer you get, the less control and overview you have over the fight.
Abzug (Withdrawal/Pulling back)
Regardless if you hit or miss, you will sooner or later have to withdraw to gather your strengths, catch your breath and reevaluate the situation. This is Meyer's Abzug or Abzucken in e.g. Codex Ringeck, Lew & Danzig, i.e. the withdrawal stage of the fight and it is done from the Mittel. Meyer consistently advocates doing this with a threat, usually a cut as you pull back, just to keep the opponent away. This is a good tactic both in sport and in earnest as you can't rely on an opponent realizing that he should be dead from the cut or thrust he just received.
In Meyer's words:
Then when he has executed his intention, he must judiciously draw away such that he does not receive harm at the end through overconfidence; and when it befalls because of some cause that arises, that he cannot come to his intent, then he shall not remain long before his opponent, so that he does not exert himself uselessly, but see how he can withdraw from him suitably, so that he may gather for a fresh attack, and thus skillfully make himself ready to address the shortcoming that held him off from his intent the first time. (8)
Another spiritually similar concept to the Abzug, although not specified as such by Meyer, is to control the opponent's body with your arms or sword, like with the Hendetrucken, where you press your sword against the opponent's arms, hard enough to cause pain, thus forcing your opponent to step back and/or pull back the arms, or the Durchlaufen, where you overrun your opponent and throw him. Neither of these are as safe as just withdrawing with a cut, but they fill a similar function of controlling the threat against you after you have landed a successful hit.
The focus for the exercises here is on working in Zufechten and the Mittel and particularly using the distance in between, or rather moving in and out of the two, working just outside of reach, at the edge of the Mittel, by stepping back slightly into safe distance as the opponent attacks, and then in again to counter-attack or retreat more if you are unable to. The exercises do not at this stage include stepping closer from the Mittel and working with techniques from the bind, apart from a few Duplieren-related cuts.
That's it for now. The above will be tied in to and further explained and examplified in a series of articles. The currently planned list of topics is as follows, and these articles will be released regularly in the next few months:
1. The stages of a fight and distance (Published)
2. Vor, Nach & Nachreissen (Published)
3. The Schweche, the Mittel and the Stercke (Published)
4. Fuhlen, Indes, Hard and Soft, Weak and Strong and if you like; just fuck it all. (Published)
5. Kinetic energy, leverage, Versetzen and distance (Published)
6. Types of cuts (Published)
7. Mentality and tactics (Published)
8. Mess with the mind, then with the body (Published)
9. The point of stances (Published)
10. Shifting Grips (Published)
12. The Line and protecting the hands
15. The Zwerchhauw, the Wechselhauw and the Verfliegen
16. Flow and Combat application
17. Solo Exercises
18. Partner Exercises
1. Hs.3227a. 38R. ca 1389AD. Translation by David Lindholm
2. Hs.3227a. 21R. ca 1389AD. Translation by David Lindholm
3. Hs3227a, 52V. ca 1389AD. Translation by David Lindholm
4. Codex Ringeck (MS Dresd.C.487). 29r. early 1500s. Translated by Roger Norling.
5. Codex Ringeck (MS Dresd.C.487). 41r-41v. early 1500s. Translated by Roger Norling.
6. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens (1.15R) Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
7. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens (1.60R) Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
8. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens (B3R) Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng