Continuing with part 2 in the Onion series of articles we will now focus on the topic of controlling the fight, or lack thereof and regaining it. In German terms these concepts are called Vor, Nach and Nachreissen. These concepts are hugely important, but at the same time very hard for a beginner to sense and utilise, but they can be trained with the right set of exercises, while they build the correct mentality for both parties.
So, what do these concepts really mean?
2. Vor, Nach, Gleich & Nachreissen explained
Before we begin, I would like to remind you that it is a good idea to read the articles in this series in order, so if you haven’t done so already, then please read the preceding article in this series: The Onion: Vor & Nach flow exercises: Part 1
Picking up where we left off last time, with a quote from Meyer we read the following:
… 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. (1)
This exchange is further described with these words:
There is thus a constant changing and transformation between the Before [Vor] and After [Nach], for now your opponent gets it, now you in return. (2)
These two quote gives us a tiny glimpse into the fencing of Meyer’s time. Based on this, we don’t as much get an impression of short exchanges of a handful of strikes, but rather a complex of strikes where the “control” of the fight is shifted back and forth between the two fighters – fighters who certainly fight aggressively, but do it in a measured and judicious manner, as that is required to keep oneself safe and unharmed in a fight. Or in a single word; control.
Being in the Vor is precisely that, being in control. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are attacking or moving forward, even if it is preferable. It is more a temporal thing, with you being quicker than the opponent when attacking and defending. You can move backwards while parrying and still be in the Vor, comfortably controlling the fight by parrying the opponent’s too slow attacks. Conversely, you can strike aggressively while leaping forwards and still be in the Nach, as you are simply slower than the opponent, e.g. as a result of a miscalculation of distance and reach, mismatching of guards where your strike naturally is slower than the opponent’s parry, or you just having less stamina or agility than your opponent.
However, there is a distinct difference between being in Nach, being forced to parry without room for counter-attacking, and retreating while parrying comfortably, waiting for a good opening, or parrying while retreating from someone you don’t want to fight or ‘kill’ at this time and place. In the former context you are not in control, but in the latter two you are. This is where the concept of the controlled withdrawal, the Abzug, comes in.
It is also my belief that the difference between Vor & Nach is only a very small temporal difference, pretty much undetectable to an outside viewer but perceivable to an experienced fencer and vitally important to understand and use, as one keeps attacking and defending using the static parries and the Maisterhäuwe (master cuts). To an outside viewer, both fencers will appear to be doing the same thing, with both working with the Versetzen, but one of the fighters will usually feel more crowded and threatened in any exchange.
The Versetzen, Drei Wunder and Duplieren
These are various tools that help you regain the Vor if you have lost it (or haven’t even found it). Simply described, a Versetzen is a cut that controls the opponent’s weapon, by ‘binding’ with one’s blade to that of the opponent, at the same time as the cut or thrust hits the opponent. It can be used both offensively as an attack, and defensively as a counter-attack that parries and preferably also hits simultanously, although it is not required to do so. Most of the Maisterhäuwe (The ‘Master Cuts’; Zornhauw, Zwerchhauw, Shielhauw, Scheitelhauw and Krumphauw) can be done as Versetzen.
Likewise, depending on the situation and distance you should be able to use any part of the weapon for attacking the enemy, the blade, the cross or the pommel, using the Drei Wunder (Three Wounders/Wonders); striking, slicing & thrusting. Oftentimes the latter two are quicker and safer to use from a bind than switching around with another strike. However, it is also possible to cut from the bind, with a Duplieren (Doubling), where you maintain the bind, but pull back the point somewhat and strike e.g. from the upper right to the upper left or lower right. Basically it is a winding cut instead of a winding thrust, although not to be confused with the Windthauw, which is a somewhat Rosen-like two-part cut involving a parrying cut from below transformed into a cut from above on the same side.
Regardless if you hit or miss with these Versetzen and Duplieren, you will put the pressure on the opponent to respond to your threats instead of vice versa, thus regaining the Vor. Or at least that is what you strive for. Of course, that is also what the opponent strives to do, using the very same techniques.
Still, against an opponent reluctant to stay in the bind, who prefers to work at somewhat more distance this is often difficult, and this particular tactic is to a high degree what this article series explores.
Gleich & Indes
Gleich, is another temporal, but also situational term, similar to the concept of Indes [Instantaneously], but seemingly with less of the deeper connotations of the latter, and Meyer uses both these words. Gleich here simply means acting simultaneously, at the same time, often ending up in a equal, neutral position. It can also carry the meaning of like, similar to and immediately.
The Simultaneously [Gleich] is when both you and our opponent execute your cuts at the same time [zugleich], which is also signified by the word Instantly [Indes]. (3)
In Meyer’s time Gleich appears to be as commonly used a word as Indes, but Meyer’s explanation of the word Indes still matches that of the older master’s quite well:
Many have believed that the word Indes has its origin from the Latin word intus [‘inside’], and indicates the inside combat, which arises from the windings and similar work; but you will hear now that this is not true. I leave the meaning of the word ‘intus’ to the Latinists, but the word Indes is a good German word, and embodies a serious exhortation to quick judgement, so that one should be constantly swift of mind.(4)
The deeper meaning of Indes, also expressed by Meyer here, is that Indes is more about a mental thing, having a quick mind that doesn’t dwell too long on what actions to make, but responds intuitively, often using Fühlen, tactile sensation, to gather data on which to make a quicker decision, but also from training and experience, similarly to Silver’s concept of judgement, where we intuitively know what guards that match each other and what cuts and thrust that match other guards, cuts and thrusts.
Naturally, acting Gleich is of course very dangerous unless both of you seek a bind, as that will often lead to a double kill, but it is likewise a good practice as long as you both seek it. This is more problematic if one fighter is little experienced and does not respond logically or has a suicidal mindset of a kamikaze fighter, not caring for personal safety or physical integrity. This happens too often in our sparring, as our protective gear makes such behaviour possible without any real consequence. This is why it is so important to nurture a mindset in training that focuses more on taking turns in cutting, parrying and counter-cutting, rather than just trying to land a hit with every cut and counter-cut. (… 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). Still, with human behaviour being what it is, combined with this somewhat twisted sense of security, this ‘reckless’ fencing is something we need to learn to counter.
Which brings us to Meyer’s solution to the problem: Provoking the opponent to act in a specific way so you can control his weapon and counter-attack more safely.
The Nachreissen (Chasing, Snapping After), alongside of the provocations and feints are what really messes up our desire to take the Vor, as they exploit our very ambition to do so, while we reveal new Blossen (openings) as we move. The reason for Meyer’s reasoning in the first quote in this article is likely based precisely on the danger that lies in trying to win the Vorschlag recklessly, without calculating all variables properly, thus exposing ourselves as the opponent slips back and voids our attack, and then counterstrikes.
As Meyer advises us on how to exploit such miscalculations:
And chasing is executed thus: if your opponent cuts with his weapon either too far up or down, or too far out to the side, then you rush after him at his opening and thus prevent his cut coming to completion; for this may properly be used against those who fight with their cuts sweeping wide around them.
– – –
When an opponent is fighting with you, then observe in which part he holds his sword. Now if he holds it in the right Ox, that is in the upper right quarter, then the moment he takes his sword away from there to change to the other side, or simply pulls up for the stroke, you shall cut in quickly and skillfully, using those cuts and techniques from which you can at once achieve a parry. (5)
– – –
Chasing is diverse and manifold, and should be executed with great judiciousness against combatants who fight inexpertly swinging around with long cuts. (6)
– – –
Also note that chasing is when an opponent goes too high upward, and you chase him below either with cutting or slicing as he draws up for the stroke; likewise if he strays too wide to the side, and you chase his weapon to the opening from above. And in all chasing, if he escapes you, be sure to turn your long edge against his weapon; and take good heed of the slice, for with it you can force him out of all his work. (7)
Five things are noteworthy here:
- Nachreissen is used when the opponent over-extends in the cut.
- Nachreissen is used when the opponent pulls back somewhat for a strike, either when preparing to make a strike or when leaving the bind.
- A cut is better if you at once can achieve a parry from it, and following Meyer’s advice that you should attack the opening just revealed in a cut, that parry should involve moving to the stance you started your attack from. This is similar to what Miyamoto Musashi expresses about stances and cutting, always returning your sword in the path of your cut. (8)
- Meyer wishes us to do the Nachreissen with a long edge bind, “chasing” the opponent’s sword, possibly because it is quicker to do without changing grips.
- Meyer doesn’t like wide, swinging cuts, quite opposed to what is today sometimes claimed by HEMA fencers.
So, Nachreissen is about breaking the opponent’s movement earlier before it is completed, and the earlier the better. For that reason it has to be a very quick movement, often using a somewhat weaker cut, or a slice or thrust.
Alexander Bennett describes similar concepts, when describing theory behind Japanese naginata fighting and ‘striking opportunities’ (9) as defined by the All Japan Naginata Federation (AJNF):
- Debana – Just as the opponent is about to launch into an attack.
- When the opponent is moving back from a clash at close-quarters.
- When they have completed an attack, and are temporarily physically or mentally spent.
- When the opponent freezes, and is unable to react.
- When the opponent is changing kamae [guard].
- When the opponent is breathing in deeply.
- When the opponent succumbs to any of the four “sicknesses” (shikai – ‘surprise’, ‘fear’, ‘doubt’ and ‘confusion’), or kogishin (the mind that experiences hesitation or doubt when executing a technique).
- Kyo-jitsu – Falsehood and truth. In other words, bringing oneself into the jitsu (truth) state (showing no weakness), thereby forcing the opponent into the kyo state where they will reveal openings in their kamae. Strike when they are in a state of kyo, but be careful when they are showing great concentration and no weakness in the jitsu state.
This list is quite similar to what we see expressed in the European fencing treatises too, although with an added layer of psychology, looking to openings in the opponent’s mind and not just guards and movements. This is a layer Meyer too keeps returning to, refering to fencers who will not work, or who fences carelessly and overly boldly, and how to manipulate different personality types.
This provoking and acting in Nachreissen is hugely important in Meyer’s fencing and can be seen in almost every stücke, alongside of the Vorschlag and the Abzug.
The Abzug again is important in this context, as it is what allows you to regain your composure as you lose your wind & stamina or just feel that you have little control over what is happening, i.e. when you have lost the Vor. Withdrawing with a cut, gives you some room to rethink strategies and catch your breath while letting the strength return to your arms and legs.
…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. (10)
– – –
… withdraw from him, if not with harm to him, then at least without injury to yourself. (11)
George Silver expresses similar ideas with his concept of the The ‘Place’ where we can reach the opponent, and the ‘True Place’, where we have outmanouvered our opponent to an optimal angle and place, so we can reach in with our attack but not be reached in return. Although this is the ideal place to be, neither of these are places where we are advised to stay in for long, in fact we are told to retreat to out of distance quickly, after landing a successful hit.
…but see you stay not at any time within distance, but in due time fly back or hazard to be hurt, because the swift motion of the hand being within distance will deceive the eye, whereby you shall not be able to judge in due time to make a true ward. (12)
This topic we will continue to explore in the following chapters of this article series. Next up is the topic of ‘The Schweche, the Mittel and the Stercke’ (Weak, Middel and Strong) where we will look a bit at the different parts of the sword and how they should be used. Beyond that, in the next few months we will continue to cover the following:
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
Until next time, thank you for taking the time to read this and feel free to comment and share your ideas!
1. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens (1.15R) Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
2. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens (1.25R) Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
3. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens(1.25R) Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
4. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens (1.25R) Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
5. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens (1.17V-v1) Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
6. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens (1.59V) Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
7. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens (1.59v2) Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
8. Musashi Miyamoto (1645 AD): Go Rin No Sho (Book of five Rings)
9. Bennett Alexander (2005): Naginata: The definitive Guide. Kendo World Publications, Auckland, New Zealand, p.81
10. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens (B3R) Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
11. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens (1.2R) Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
12. Silver George (1605 AD). Brief Instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defence into modern English by Steve Hick