King and Fool – The Vier Leger of Liechtenauer’s Tradition and their relationship with common medieval German archetypes.
Exposition includes three things: The letter, the sense, and the inner meaning. (1)
“Vier leger allain
da von halt und fleuch dye gemain
ochβ pflueg alber vom tag
sey dir nicht unmär. (2)”
“Four guards alone hold; and disdain the common.
Ox, Plow, Fool, From the Roof should not be unknown to you. (3)”
“Four lays hold to and flee these alike.
Ox, plow, foolish, clear as day, let these not be unwelcome to you. (4)”
I have pondered the translation of the names we use to describe guards, strikes, and techniques for many years during my study of Medieval German martial arts. These names are sometimes obvious, and at other times obscure. Names like “Ochs”, “Pflug”, which appear to have obvious translations and intended meanings, however also leave us wondering: ‘what do those meanings really imply’, particularly ‘what did they imply to a medieval German man’, and finally ‘how is this useful to a modern martial artist’? “Vom Tag” and “Alber” (5) are much more unclear as to their meaning and understanding them as a pair has been much more difficult, though their depiction in treatises points to the fact that they should be treated as a pair. As the quote from Hugh of St. Victor states, what is the “letter, sense and inner meaning” of these names? Their apparent clarity (and yet obscurity) is what interests me and keeps me coming back to work on these names again and again.
Regarding the names Ochs and Pflug, there seems to be little disagreement or confusion. (6) These translate to Ox and Plow, and refer to guards which are described as such:
This is the First Guard
“The first is called Ochs [the Ox]. Do it like this: stand with your left foot forward and hold your sword by your right side with the hilt before your head so that your thumb is under the sword, and hang the point toward his face.
Note: to the left side do the Ox like this: stand with your right foot forward and hold your sword by your left side with the hilt before your head and the thumb underneath, and hang the point against his face. That is the Ox on both sides.” (7)
This is the Second Guard
“Note: the second guard is called Pflug [Plow]. Do it like this: stand with your left foot forward and hold the sword with crossed hands with the pommel downwards by your right side at the hip so that the short edge faces up and the point stands against his face.
Note: to the left side, do the Plow like this: stand with your right foot forward and hold your sword by your left side with the pommel downwards at the hip so that the long edge faces up and the point stands against his face. That is the Plow on both sides.” (8)
With these clear descriptions, we can see how the author intends these guards to be performed. If we consider Hugh’s words that we should have the letter, the sense and the inner meaning, we can consider the fact that when we hold the guard Ochs our sword hangs downward like the horn of an Ox and that if we move from Ochs on our right to Ochs on our left, we present a threat in the manner of Oxen, one horn at a time. Likewise, when we hold Pflug, our arms and body to drive the handle of the sword down and the blade forwards and to one side, much like a plowman would press downward drive the plowshare forward. Again, if we switch from one side to the other, using Pflug, we recreate the plowman working one row to the next. In this way, we get a sense of what these guards should be doing.
What we learn elsewhere in the texts is that these guards can be used to thrust from or to cut to. More specifically, you can use them as Absetzen [Setting Aside] where they parry an incoming blow and simultaneously provide the threat of a thrust. This Absetzen (9) could be thought of as analogous to when a plow (being pulled by an ox, of course) turns aside the dirt to allow the man following to sow the seed. When you thrust from these guards, it is called Ansetzen [Planting] (10), literally Setting On]. Of course, here we see that the intention of the names is to evoke association with the related techniques. The Ox and Plow are used to plant the point into the opponent. In this way, you have the static guard being named after a physical object, but when it is being used, the names evoke those physical objects in use.
Another association comes with the techniques of Winden [Winding], where one moves from one of these four positions (Ochs or Pflug on one side) to one of the other four, which is sometimes mentioned off-handedly in the texts as “work”, again evoking the work of plowing of a field using your ox and plow, such as in the quote “then work instantly with the winding according to the soft and hard always to the next opening”. (11) The work of the Ox and Plow, of course, is setting aside the soil (the opponent’s attack), exposing fresh soil (an opening to the opponent), and planting the seed (placing your sword’s point in the opening).
An important consideration regarding these two guards is the fact that both Ochs and Pflug are described on both sides of the body. They cover the four openings of the body (two above the belt, that is above the navel, and two below) with the sword’s blade when held properly. Interestingly, Christian Tobler, in his article “Hot, Wet, Cold and Dry” (12) associates the Vier Leger [Four Guards] with the four elements of Aristotelian physics. This association between guards and elements may not have been intended by Liechtenauer, despite it fitting so well. While it is important to note that Tobler doesn’t make this connection, the association does bring us to expect the fluid or “mutable” nature of these guards, in that they can be held on both sides and one is intended to flow to and with the other. As we move to consider Vom Tag and Alber, we shall see that they are only described on one side, and as such could be considered unchangeable, qualities of Fire and Earth.
This is the Third Guard
Note: the third guard is called Alber. Do it like this: stand with your right foot forward and hold your sword with outstretched arms before you with the point to the ground so that the short edge faces up.
This is the Fourth Guard
Note: the fourth guard is called Vom Tag. Do it like this: stand with your left foot forwards and hold your sword on your right shoulder or with outstretched arms up over your head, and stand thus in the guard. (13)
Let us now consider Alber, our third guard, most often translated as “the fool”. Much has been written about Alber and why, as a guard, it is a foolish position to take, but at the same time there is no small amount of uncertainty about the meaning of this guard. Even renaissance masters like Joachim Meyer were not entirely sure, writing:
“The Fool (olber) in my opinion takes its name from the word Alber, which is to say ‘simple minded’, since from this guard no proper stroke can be readily achieved, unless one gathers for a new cut after the opponents cut has been caught by means of a parry…” (14)
However, we are told in Liechtenauer’s verse that what the fool does is to parry (Alber vorseczt). (15) A more interesting and relevant question to our exploration of this subject is in fact how Alber parries: by moving through Kron (the Crown) to catch the oncoming blow. One could even say that to deflect attacks the Fool puts on a King’s crown.
Medieval fools come in two varieties, the natural fool and the licensed fool. A fool could be a buffoon or country bumpkin, but the natural fool seems to be one who is “touched” by God. They were known to speak truths and to see the world more clearly than the rest of us who are distracted by our own intelligence. A fool’s words could be considered the raving of a madman, but could also be seen as divinely inspired. The licensed fool, on the other hand, was an acrobat, juggler, and performer, who was, like a natural fool, allowed to say what he wished to the king without fear of serious reprisal but whose words were likely to hold greater wit and even malice. He was, in short, a trickster. This counter-balance for the king’s power and ego was considered by many to be a required check to keep the king grounded by countering his heavenly wisdom with earthly considerations, speaking those critiques which none other could say.
Another interesting note with regards to the guard Alber indeed referring to the archetype of a fool comes, perhaps surprisingly, from Fiore di Liberi and his “Flower of Battle” wherein he describes one of his guards, named Dente di Cinghiale (Boar’s Tooth) as being named so because it “strikes the way a wild boar strikes”, that is by making powerful thrusts from below up to the face. This guard is depicted as the sword held at the left hip with the point down at the ground. (16) Fiore’s choice of name is particularly relevant to our Alber when one understands that in Medieval Europe, fools often used practical jokes and verbal games, including obscene double-entendres to subvert official order, and many times were known by names which were scatological or sexual in nature. In the case of the Boar’s Tooth, in one particular German 15th century Fasnachspiel (Carnival Play), a fool character is named Eberzahn (Boar’s Tooth) but in this case it is a specific reference to horniness (17), which frankly gives an entirely different context to the “thrust from below” that Fiore references.
As a martial artist studying the German medieval arts, the technique called the Zwei Hengen (Two Hangers) (18) is another interesting use of Pflug and Ochs, and their description is interesting to consider when we look at Alber. Zwei Hengen is explained as “two hangings up from the ground are the Plow on both sides.” It often seems counter intuitive to consider something to be hanging up from the ground, but should the fighter begin in Alber and then raise the tip of his sword from the ground to Pflug to line up a thrust to the face of his opponent, he would then be executing more or less the same technique that Fiore describes from Dente di Cinghiale. Furthermore, as we think on the Fool, we should also consider “Schlaraffenland or the Land of Cockaigne, the topsy-turvy world, which like carnival, represents the reversal of hierarchical order, and in which such rogue characters dwell” (19) In a fool’s world, an upside-down place, things would logically hang from the ground. With our imagination we can see that the physical action of raising a sword’s tip from Alber to Pflug allows the blade to hang from the ground, and the sword’s tip lowered from Vom Tag to Ochs will hang the blade from the sky, in mirrored images of one another.
The final, and most confounding named guard of our Vier Leger is Vom Tag (From the Roof). In the case of this name, Tag (Day) is sometimes rendered as Dach (Roof), but “from the day” isn’t a particularly satisfactory translation in English. From the Roof, however, makes sense in English, and is indicative of what you would obviously do with this guard, that is strike down from above. In this way, we can see that a base reading of Vom Dach would be referring to the physical action intended from the guard. If we consider Tag etymologically, we see that it is related to the Sanskrit word “dah” meaning “to burn” and that Tag originally only referred to the light part of the day (rather than 24 hours) and even can refer itself to “daylight”. As the sun is set in the heavens, daylight can be considered to come from above, so in that way (albeit with a little more mental exercise) we can see that both Vom Tag and Vom Dach really come down to meaning the same thing: From Above. This is well and good, and most martial artists have been served well enough by leaving off further exploration of the meaning of this guard. However, as Hugh of St. Victor says, we have the letter, the sense and the inner meaning. It is this inner meaning I am hoping to explore and illuminate with further consideration of Vom Tag.
Keith Alderson, in his fantastic article On the Art of Reading (20), explores the verse and its meaning, specifically the section on the Vier Leger that I am also considering this work. (21) I have included his translation of the relevant section of verse above, and you can see that he is rendering Alber and Vom Tag as Foolish and Clear as Day, but also says that you could interpret these words as adverbs: Foolishly and Evidently or Openly. He doesn’t explain his reasoning behind his translation of Vom Tag as Clear as Day, but it seems he was searching for a pairing with Alber, and indeed, Clear as Day (rather than From the Day) is a sensible opposite to Foolish. If, however, we accept that Alber is as much about the archetype of a medieval trickster as it is about being a foolish place to be during a swordfight, then we next must consider the foil of a fool – and that is a King.
My first inkling of the pairing of King and Fool being relevant to Liechtenauer’s art came as a flash when I was researching the techniques of Codex Wallerstein. For those not familiar with this treatise, it is relatively poorly drawn, and it isn’t entirely clear if it fits within Liechtenauer’s system, though it is clearly related. On one fascinating pair of pages there is illustrated what appears to be a setup for a duel, with the armored men approaching the fenced area wherein they are greeted by coffins already prepared for the loser of the duel. In the tents are men who may be involved in the duel as the duelists, or perhaps who are preparing to give a fencing demonstration, as a form of entertainment before the serious proceedings of the duel. The depiction of these men in Codex Wallerstein looks much more like what is described in 3227a for fencing demonstrations with the men in either tent “shaking their swords” menacingly. (22) What struck me about this image is how the man on the left is holding is sword in what could be deemed an Ochs-like position, with his hand held high and blade hanging, whereas the man on the right is holding his sword in a Pflug-like position. (23) While neither of these are “correct” for how one would hold Ochs or Pflug, their positions were enough to be evocative of the guards. Then with them, we see drawn larger than life a fool and king. The fool is standing on the ground, sporting a nose ring and ass-ears, and the king sits on a raised throne, holding his sword on his shoulder as a symbol of power and judgement.
This pairing of King and Fool, perhaps representative of the higher and lower stations of society, much as the Ox and Plow represent the “working class” of medieval Germany, aren’t just found in Art. In a very specific branch of the medieval fool’s plays mentioned above, there is the story of Solomon and Marcolf. Littel describes these as “story[s] in which is shown the contrast [of] extraordinary wisdom and sound common sense, which, in the affairs of life, so often proves superior to former. The one is personified by the wise King Solomon, the other by a peasant of Lower Saxony, named Morolf. (24) The latter appears, with his ugly face, misshapen body, and ragged apparel, before the throne of Solomon, and by his garb, but still more by the undaunted boldness of his look, attracts the notice of the prince and of all present.” (25)
There are many of these tales written down, and probably they come from an earlier oral tradition, but the one thing they have in common is that in them, Solomon and Marcolf vie against one another in a number of challenges. There are examples where they, in a contest similar to a riddling competition, spar with proverbs. “For every question addressed to [Morolf], he has in readiness a pertinent and witty answer; on which account Solomon enters into a discussion with him, and promises him goods and money, if he gives a correct solution to each of his propositions.” (26) Solomon delivers the obvious (and obviously true and wise) ones, while Marcolf responds with a related humorous base, sexual, or scatological truth. For instance,
You can see in the depiction of Solomon and Marcolf (left), how the king’s scepter is raised to the heavens, while the fool’s staff is set in the ground. They both point at the heavens, depicted here as a star, as they vie for superiority of wit. The physical positions of their symbols (scepter and staff) are reminiscent of the physical stances one takes when assuming Vom Tag or Alber, and I do not think this is coincidental, rather is yet another layer of context that would be clear to a medieval fighter.
“Solomon: Well-formulated words are not suited to a fool.
Marcolf: A dog is not suited to carry a saddle.”
“Solomon: He who spurns a little does not deserve to receive much.
Marcolf: A spurned vulva and an unfed dog go to rest sadly.”
“Solomon: Grass does not sprout before the mouth of the oven, and if it does sprout, it dries out quickly from the heat of a fire.
Marcolf: Hairs do not grow in the asshole, and if they do grow, they are burned quickly because of the hot waters which pass out from nearby through the bowels.” (27)
As you can likely guess from these brief examples, despite his base nature, Marcolf often gets the best of the king, as a “people’s hero” and his common sense outwits the heavenly wisdom of Solomon. Here we can see a parallel to Keith Alderson’s interpretation of Vom Tag as meaning “clear as day”. Solomon gives known wisdom, parables and proverbs, while Solomon replies with an unexpected response which disarms the King. There is no reason to believe that an average 15th century German nobleman, being taught this martial art, would have been ignorant of these stories. In fact, there may have even been a game where this was reenacted:
“Although there is no direct evidence for such an activity, the dialogue may have been influenced by some sort of irreverent game in which participants in the “Marcolf” role made up scandalous mock-Solomonic proverbs. Certainly the surviving exchanges vary widely in their wit and their crudity. As a bit of much later evidence for such an activity, Natalie Zemon Davis observes that the brief exchange between Solomon and Marcolf mentioned in chapter 33 of François Rabelais’ Gargantua (1534) sounds very much like a game of “the dozens,” an insult-swapping match, as do many of the exchanges in the Dialogue itself. In an exchange not present in the versions of the Dialogue that survive to us, Rabelais’ ambitious courtier Spadassin cites a version of a well-known proverb: “‘The man who ventures nothing wins neither horse nor mule,’ as Solomon said.” To this a seasoned old campaigner replies, “‘The man who ventures too much loses both horse and mule,’ as Malcon answered.” Rabelais’ “Malcon” replies with the same sardonic pragmatism we associate with Marcolf, once again set against Solomon’s optimistic idealism.)” (29)
So as we consider the meaning of Vom Tag, we have the surface-level meaning of “From the Roof” or “From the Day” which imply that the strikes and thrusts from there will come from above, easily pairing with the fact that someone in Alber must parry, a potentially foolish action. However, when we look at the physical plays described for a fighter standing in Alber, we find that the fighter is instructed to move from Alber to Kron (Crown) to parry an attack from Vom Tag and to immediately follow this with an aggressive move inwards to wrestle. That is, the fool will parry a blow from the king by putting on his crown, then step in and bash the pommel into his opponent’s face.
In addition to the surface meanings and physical symbolism, we have now a deeper meaning of “Clear as Day” or “Openly”, much like Solomon’s wisdom is obvious, which provides a pairing with Foolish or Foolishly, hinting at Marcolf’s responses, which despite their vulgar nature still win the day. Yet there is one more layer to which we can dig, should we refer again to Christian Tobler’s article on the possible association between the elements and the guards, wherein Vom Tag can be associated with fire, being an open guard, unchangeable, and in that it carries the highest amount of potential energy. Additionally, the name “From the Day” associates it with the heat and light of the sun. It also can be associated in yet another way which brings the King and the Sun together.
Whenever the Sun is depicted in medieval art, particularly in the series of 15th century German works called the “Children of the Planets”, certain associations were made between the planets and the elements, but also to symbols and personification of each of the main “seven planets” which were said to rule people. The sun was associated with a Crown and is personified as a wise king, with a grey beard, crown and scepter. “Sol’s Children” are depicted as a king listening to his harpist, wrestlers, swordsmen, and athletes, amongst others. More research could be done on all of these points, but in particular astrological associations with medieval martial arts have not been investigated very much.
With this final point regarding Vom Tag I hope to have illuminated some possible associations that a medieval fighter might have made when presented these four names, Ochs, Pflug, Alber and Vom Tag. They exist in pairs both in their physical nature and in their philosophical meaning. Where the Ox and Plow work together to bring the field into readiness for planting of the sword point, the King and Fool work like two sides of the same coin; a world of light which is regulated by obvious physical and societal constraints versus the Land of Cockaigne, where all restrictions of society are defied and “the weather is always mild, the wine flows freely, sex is readily available, and all people enjoy eternal youth.” (30) You can strike downward from Vom Tag like the hammer of justice coming down from above or you can sneak into court with a wink and a dirty joke, thrusting from below, stealing the King’s crown, and tweaking his nose. To me, this seems the kind of play on words and images of which Marcolf would approve.
Alderson, K. (2010). On the Art of Reading: An Introduction to Using the Medieval German “Fightbooks”. In the Service of Mars, 251-286.
Bradbury, N. M., & Bradbury, S. (2012). The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf: A Dual-Language Edition from Latin and Middle English Printed Editions. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.
Curschmann, M. (2000). MARCOLF OR AESOP? THE QUESTION OF IDENTITY IN VISIO-VERBAL CONTEXTS. Studies in Iconography, 1-45. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23924214
Forgeng, J. L. (2006). The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570. Palgrave Macmillan.
Littell, E. (1839). From the Foreign Monthly Review: German Popular Publications. The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, 313-15.
Pleij, H. (2003). Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life. (T. b. Webb, Ed.) Columbia University Press.
Tobler, C. (2010). In St. George’s Name. Wheaton, IL: Freelance Academy Press.
Tobler, C. (2015). Fighting with the German Longsword. Chicago, IL: Freelance Academy Press.
Vasvári, L. O. (2008, Julio-Agosto). OBSCENE ONOMASTICS IN MEDIEVAL TRICKSTER TALES . TRADICIONES Y CULTURAS POPULARES, pp. 166-180.
Ziolkowski, J. M. (2008). Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Department of the Classics, Harvard University.
1.DE STUDIO LEGENDI, Paris, 1120’s. Book two; chapter eight: Concerning order in expounding a text, pp. 91-92: Found in “The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: A medieval guide to the arts”. Translated by Jerome Taylor, Columbia University Press, 1961, 1991. Found in Alderson, 2010
2. Attributed to Liechtenauer. Tobler, In St. George’s Name, 2010
3. Tobler, In St. George’s Name, 2010
4. Translation by Keith Alderson, 2010
5. I will default to using the most common spellings of these German terms when writing in my words, however if I am quoting a particular manuscript I will use their spelling.
6. The manner in which they are performed, however, is something which is contentious in martial arts circles. Certainly, there is confusion between Pflug and Alber thanks to 3227a (the so-called “Döbringer Manuscript”) which confounds these two terms. To be clear, when I am referring to a physical position, I consider Pflug to be held with the hands and hilt at the hip and the point of the sword towards the face of the opponent, whereas I consider Alber to be held with the hilt somewhere in front of the body and the point towards to the ground.
7. Tobler, In St. George’s Name, 2010
8. Tobler, In St. George’s Name, 2010)
9. Though it is true that this connection between setting aside an incoming blade and turning over dirt with a plow is tenuous and perhaps I am reaching too far to imply this is the medieval intent, it is still a useful mental image for a fighter as to how these techniques are connected, and thus I have included it in my study of the Vier Leger.
10. When you consider planting in this sense, it does not refer to sowing seeds by throwing them onto fertile ground, rather it makes reference to the act of pressing a plant or seed into the earth.
11. Anonymous gloss from the Von Danzig compendium, 14r (Tobler, In St. George’s Name, 2010) pg 114
12. Tobler, In St. George’s Name, 2010, pg. 59-62.
13. Tobler, In St. George’s Name, 2010
14. Forgeng, 2006, pg. 53.
15. This section of the verse is a brief listing of the techniques considered to be most important to Liechtenauer’s system (the Hauptstücke). The line “Alber vorseczt” is to me a play on words (one of many, as we will come to see) which means both a reference to the Vier Leger and to Vier Versetzen but also “the Fool parries”, that is when you are in Alber you will need to parry, and a third reading could be as Meyer says “only a fool parries” for to parry without a simultaneous attacking element is against Liechtenauer’s general martial approach.
16. It is worth noting that in the treatise of Paulus Kal, he also shows Alber held off-center, despite the more typically depicted version of Alber being held in the center of the body.
17. Vasvári, 2008
18. This is sometimes called the Vier Hengen, referring to specific tactical uses of Ochs and Pflug, but in the verse recorded in the Von Danzig manuscript we only have two.
19. Vasvári, 2008, pg. 172.
20. Alderson, 2010
21. I cannot emphasize enough how this article has shaped my consideration of the Verse and Gloss as I’ve studied it since it’s publication. As a scholar, I tend to look for patterns and have always had an eye for them, but his work showed me more clearly how medieval people may have understood these works and what types of patterns they would have intended in their works. I would consider this article required reading for anyone working directly with the source material.
22. “If you want to go to your opponent in school fencing for fun and you want to do this nobly, then begin by shaking your sword bravely….” Tobler, Fighting with the German Longsword, 2015
23. Of course neither of these is the classic version from the fight books. The man on the left has his sword gripped in a manner depicted by Talhoffer in the armored duel section where one duelist is throwing his sword as though it was a spear. He holds a dagger in his hand, perhaps again referencing the fight advice for an armored man to enter quickly to wrestling and dagger work after throwing his other weapons. The man on the right doesn’t have his sword prepared to thrust to an opponent, but is, instead, held with the point at the sky.
24. The precise name of the peasant can change with the area from which the story comes, in this case Morolf and Marcolf are one and the same.
25. Littell, 1839
26. Littell, 1839
27. Ziolkowski, 2008
28. Curschmann, 2000
29. Bradbury & Bradbury, 2012
30. Pleij, 2003