Mark, this is that before all things you shall rightly undertake and understand these two things, which are the Before and the After, and thereafter the Weak and Strong of the sword, and then the word “Meanwhile”, whence comes the entire foundation of all the Art of Fencing.
An interesting question for our modern day Fellowship of Liechtenauer is the question of retreat. The glossers seldom advocate it. There is no general theory of when one must withdraw, either because it is tactically advantageous, or because he is in danger. This analysis is an attempt to address both of these issues, and demonstrate that they are the same question, with the same answer.
Strong vs Weak
This analysis will argue that it is the misunderstanding of the concepts of Strong and Weak which has made a coherent theory of both the Five Words, and a general theory of withdrawal so elusive. The misunderstanding comes from Pseudo-Peter Von Danzig’s gloss of the concept. He says:
Understand the Weak and the Strong thus: On the sword from the hilt to the middle of the blade is the Strong of the sword, and further above the middle to the point is the Weak. (Translations by Cory Winslow).
On its face, there shouldn’t be any argument. PPvD clearly articulates what Strong and Weak mean. However, through a close reading of the texts, we find multiple uses of the term strong and weak, that are very clearly not referring to the parts of the sword. Strong on the sword, in the strong, etc… are ways that the glossers in the Ringeck-Danzig tradition describe particular bind relationships that when carefully read, don’t seem to mean the parts of the blade engaged, but rather which fencer is controlling the center with the overbind.
The Glossers also use the term weak on the sword, often interchangeably with soft, to describe some sort of action that is neither claiming the center, nor is it allowing the opponent to target the chest or face. Mutieren is a particularly shining example of this. PPvD writes:
Mark, when one earnestly hews in at you, if you will then reckon on him and win on the openings with art, so that he must let you strike without thinking, then drive the Doubling against the Strong of his sword, and the Mutating when he is Weak on the sword. (Translation Cory Winslow).
Using the concept of strong and weak provided by PPvD initially doesn’t seem to fit. If my strong is on my opponent’s weak, there is nothing defending a Setting Upon. Mutieren, targeting a lower opening under his hilt is superfluous at best, or self defeating at worst. If however, the opponent is parrying in a weak way, in a hanging parry, let’s say, suddenly the Mutieren makes sense. Weak here means directing the force of the opponent’s structure into the weak of the sword. Strong by extension, means channeling the force of the opponent’s structure into the cross or “the strong”, through the skeleton and into the ground. This strong parry is done with Uberlauffen, or gaining a strong overbind on the opponent’s blade.
Vor, Nach, and Indes
With these definitions in mind, let us turn to the question of Vor and Nach. Liechtenauer’s tactical framework seems to invariably begin by entering measure in a strong way. Each “hidden hew” seeks to achieve an overbind relationship with the opponent’s blade. In the case of Zorn and Krump, they do this by cutting down on the opponent’s blade directly, and in the case of Zwerch, Schiel and Schaitler cutting the opponent in such a way that the resulting bind will leave the attacker in a strong position.
From this position, the defender must respond in either a strong or weak way to defend himself, However; Once the opponent is responding, Liechtenauer has already prepared the attacker with the appropriate decision tree, provided he perceives and responds to the opponent’s action as it is being executed. In other words, it is safe to attack as one is being pushed weak, so long as the attack is executed “Indes”.
The Zornhau and Sprechfenster avoid the complications of the rest of the Hidden Hews. They seek to gain the center directly, by extending the sword over the opponents in a strong way. What is important here is that the point is not on line. If it were, the bind structure would in fact be weak, as it does nothing to channel the force of the opponent’s structure. Instead, the point must be oriented towards the space that the attacker wants to control.
From this, and only this position, Liechtenauer advocates the use of a provoking thrust. To defend this thrust, the opponent must parry in a strong or weak way, which exposes his openings in the Meanwhile. What we can conclude from this is that according to Liechtenauer, we must take a strong position in order to be in the Vor, and that we can attack in the Weak, as long as we do so Indes.
On the Withdrawal
What then is to be said about the Withdrawal? The above analysis gives us a starting point to understand how Liechtenauer wants us to enter into measure (in a strong way) and to attack (either in a strong or weak way depending how our opponent responds in the Nach). It can be deduced from this that Liechtenauer would not advocate being in measure in a weak position without the Vor. This insight allows us to deduce a general theory of the Withdrawal. Liechtenauer wants us to Be strong in the Vor. From there, we can be pushed weak, continuing our attack in the Meanwhile. If we find ourselves in a weak position in the Nach, we must retreat.
This makes sense structurally. When we are in a strong position, our opponent cannot attack us directly. He must first regain the center by pushing our sword aside, or by removing his sword from ours and either go above or below, retaking a strong position on the other side. Sprechfenster shows how easily these actions can be countered, provided we are only structurally strong, and not forcefully pushing our opponent’s sword out and/or down.
It stands to reason then, that so long as we are strong, we may proceed with our attack, even as we are being pushed weak. It is this which the masters are referring to, when they use the term Meanwhile. On the other hand, the same theoretical framework applies if we begin weak. This means that our opponent is safe from our attack, and can counter any of our means of retaking the center, by working in the Meanwhile himself. We therefore must withdraw.
The Five Words
These 5 words, Vor, Nach, Sterk, Schwach, and Indes, have been some of the most esoteric components of Liechtenauer’s tactical framework. With the above conception of these words in mind, we can derive a simple formula for the fight: Seek a strong position, provoke and attack in the Meanwhile. Otherwise play at a safe measure until the first step can be achieved.
In Joachim Meyer’s Art of Combat, he gives a treatment of the Five Words on the first page of his dussack section. This passage is very clearly an elaboration on the verses in Liechtenauer’s gloss which is the source of this puzzle. Two lines in particular stand out:
You shall parry *in the [strong]* and injure him *with the [weak]* Also you shall come no nearer than where you can reach him with a step.
This line could be interpreted as taking a strong angle on our opponent’s blade, and then threaten with the point, which would seem to be very much in line with the above analysis. Furthermore he writes
Pay head to the [strong and weak], ‘instantly’ makes the openings apparent, Also step correctly in the before and after. (Translation Jeffrey Forgeng).
It may be that Meyer is illuminating Liechtenauer’s tactical framework, and specifically his art of the Withdrawal in this passage.
An Example of a Position of Strength
Below is a video of Shanee Nishry and Kate Jay demonstrating obtaining a position of strength.