This time we will start moving into somewhat more unexplored and unmapped territory, working with various clues gathered from different places, to help us guide the way through the (wide) distance. The working theory is that there is a certain distance that many of us need to learn to fight at and utilize more intently and not just pass through or end up in – a distance that is little discussed in the “German” treatises, as it just didn’t need as much explaining for our predecessors since it was common practice to utilize it and thus the authors chose to focus on the more difficult issues and techniques. Let me explain…
Two different ways of fighting
All fighting is ultimately about controlling one’s opponent physically and pretty much regardless of what fencing style we look at there are basically two different approaches to do this, here and now not counting grappling with sword. These two approaches are also naturally closely connected to different distances.
- First of all we can work at long distance, in Italian terms the Gioco Largo. In German terms this concept is not as clearly defined or much discussed, only using the term Zufechten for the distance where you need to take a step to be able to hit the opponent, but where you can also step back to into safety if the opponent steps and attacks you.
- Second we have the middle distance, the Mittel or Krieg, working with the bind (crossed swords), or in Italian; the Gioco Stretto. This distance involves ‘binding’ or crossing the swords literally in the middle of the blades. In a neutral stance this is done with the blades pointing somewhat above the heads of each other, basically standing in the stance of Sprechfenster (speaking window), but in practicality and much more commonly; with both fighters struggling for better leverage, trying to strike or thrust from the bind in a “safe” way.
This type of fencing is described very nicely for example here:
… as Aristotle said in the book Peri Hermanias; opposita iuxta se posita magis elucescunt / vel exposita oppositorum cui autem [opposed near him set wise men shine forth or abandon opposition]. Weak against strong, hard against soft and vice versa . Because when it is strong against strong, the stronger one will always win. That is why Liechtenauer’s swordsmanship is a true art that the weaker wins more easily by use of his art than the stronger by using his strength. Otherwise what use would the art be?
Therefore learn well to feel [Fuhlen] in the swordplay. As Liechtenauer says [Das Fuhlen] learn how to feel. In an instant/just as [Indes] is a sharp word. Thus when you find yourself on another’s sword and feel [Fuhlen] well if he is weak or strong at the sword, then at once [Indes] follow and know what is appropriate for you to do according to the aforesaid
teaching and art. Then he will not be able to leave your sword without getting hurt. (1)
This type of fighting is in a way more technical and difficult, in German called the Edele Krieg (‘Fine’ War) and therefore also discussed in depth in the treatises, as mastering it can give you more safety than fighting from Zufechten, since in Zufechten you mostly have to rely on mental control over the opponent, as physical control is difficult at such distance. However, if you are not trained in the handling of the Krieg, then the situation is exactly the opposite; you run a higher risk at getting hurt when fighting in the Krieg, and here is where the Art comes in, as we are trained to exploit certain mechanical principles to be able to defeat opponents with greater strength, speed and stamina.
However, this treatise focus on the Edele Krieg in my opinion gives us a somewhat false picture, a picture that seems to tell us that it is more important to learn fighting from the bind than fighting from longer distance. We should be very careful with such notions as the early treatises give little advise on the frequency of the use of the various distances and associated techniques and combat principles. Meyer unusually however, tells us that half the fighting should be done with the Zwerchhauw, which is significant, especially when mirrored against advise in the earlier treatises of Hs.3227a and Ringeck, already described in earlier chapters.
The Thwart is one of the chief master techniques [Meisterstuck] with the sword; for you shall know, if the Thwart did not exist in modern combat [‘fighting of today’], then fully half of it would go out the window, particularly when you are under the opponent’s sword, where you can no longer attack with long cuts through the Cross (2)
This is very important to understand as we otherwise risk over-complicating our fencing, ending up fighting too much at close distances that put us at risk, trying to more frequently use the complicated techniques than make sense in a fight. And as we run little risk of any real consequences in our protective gear, such behaviour goes largely ‘unpunished’ and can even work reasonably well in sparring or tournament fighting, due to many fencers not being used to such ‘peasant’s brawling‘ and use of rule sets that allow for it in a way that naked skin doesn’t.
But, before we move on to the long distance fighting, we will again have a brief look at what the middle fighting involves.
Fuhlen, Indes, Hard and Soft, Weak and Strong
These six terms are hugely important for the middle distance when working with the bind. Most of them relate to the principle of leverage, which in turn has to do with working with different parts of the blade as described in the previous chapter. Depending on what part of the blade you are using, you then have different choices of actions, some of which will mean you change the bind to another part of the blade for a different subset of possible techniques.
The concept of leverage is theoretically simple: Having your opponent’s weak part (red & orange) pressing against your strong part (blue and green) makes you effectively stronger than the opponent. The more extreme the difference between the binding points of the two of you, the more leverage one party will have. Consequently you can wind your blade to make this more or less extreme and then thrust or cut.
The older treatises seemingly focus more on thrusting from the bind, but also mention that you should always use the best option, which could theoretically mean that you should use any of the Drei Wunder (three wounders/wonders); cut, thrust or slice. With the longsword Meyer focuses on cutting from the bind, thereby turning the Winden into an extensive and quite particular art of cutting and actually expands quite a bit on the earlier rather limited range of Winden techniques. Likely, in my belief, for practical pedagogical reasons, as the thrusting was considered too dangerous for a beginner studying his book.
Having equal or better leverage we can use techniques like e.g. Inwinden Ort, Duplieren, Windthauw, Kronhauw, Rosen, Krumphauw, Verkehren and many other similar techniques. However, if the opponent has better leverage, then we can meet strong with weak and use techniques like e.g. Schnappen, Zucken, Auswinden Ort, Mutieren and Blindthauw where we give in to the opponent’s greater leverage and use it against him/her. Preferably one should also try to maintain a bind for as long as possible and regain it as quickly as possible when we leave it, so we can again control the opponent.
This concept of working with the bind is expressed quite clearly here:
Therefore when you win the first strike [Vorschlag] then it is no matter if it is good or painful for the opponent, and you will also be sure in your steps and should do them well measured neither too long nor too short. When you now do the first strike [Vorschlag] if you hit then follow up the hit quickly, but if the other defends against the first strike [Vorschlag] whether it was a strike or a thrust and turns it away and leads with his sword, then you shall remain on the sword if you were deflected from the opening and feel if the opponent is hard [Hart] or soft [Weich] and strong [Stark] or weak [Swach] on the sword.
And when you notice this, then be hard or soft against the opponent as he defends himself. And then in an instant [Indes] should you do the after strike [Nachschlag] before the opponent
has a chance to come to blows, that is as soon as the opponent defends against the first strike [Vorschlag] as you do that, attack other openings [Blossen] with other techniques speedily. (3)
Thus Liechtenauer says “Strike so that he moves, if he withdraws from you”. After this teaching you understand how you will win the first strike [Vorschlag] and as soon as you have done this, then quickly and without any delay do the after strike [Nachschlag] that is the second, third or fourth strike, cut or thrust so that he cannot come to blows himself.
If you then find yourself on his sword, then be sure that you feel [Fuhlen] and do as before has been described, since this is the
basic tenet of swordsmanship: that a man is always in motion and never at rest, and it is also based on feeling [Fuhlen]… (4)
… But if it is so that the opponent remains on the sword after his defence and is on the sword, and it has occurred that you remain with him on the sword and he has not done the [Nachschlag] then you shall turn [Wind] and remain with him on the sword. (5)
Fuhlen and Indes roughly mean Feeling and Instantly, respectively. Using tactile sensation is quicker than simply watching the opponent’s blade and arms move, and it also liberates your visual perception so you can watch the whole opponent without focusing on details. This quickness also means you can act more Indes, without thinking too much, and instead fight more intuitively.
However, as touched upon already, this is only one of the two basic ways of approaching the fight, with the second, and perhaps even more common way of fighting back in the day being completely different.
… and if you like; just fuck it all.
So how do you fight from Zufechten? Well, my theory is that you mostly don’t, but rather fight at the edge of Mittel, not stepping out to proper Zufechten unless you get too tired, too confused or if you have successfully hit the opponent and thus retreat in the Abzug into a distance where both fighters need to take a full step to reach each other, i.e.the proper Zufechten.
Furthermore, neither should you thoughtlessly or hastily move into the middle distance of the Edele Krieg, as that is a distance that is hard to control, just as any combat at close range is, since it is difficult to leave it safely once you have entered it.
As Ringeck tells us:
Do not hastily seek the Krieg
He who [foolishly] aims high in the Krieg
is shamed from below
… But do not be too hasty in the attack and seek the Krieg,
because the Krieg is nothing other than the windings at the sword. (6)
So what clues do we have for this approach? Well, we can look at the “Döbringer” treatise, where we read the following:
… No matter what you do or attempt to do, always have measure [Limpf] and length [Masse]. If you have won the first strike [Vorschlag] then do not perform it too slowly, but move fast so that you can gather yourself for the after strike [Nachschlag] as well.
That is why Liechtenauer says “Always know this, that all things have length and measure”. And understand this in relation to stepping and all other pieces of swordsmanship. (7)
And when discussing stepping we see the this advise:
Also know that when you fence with another you should step with caution and be sure in them [the steps or movements] as if you were standing on a scale and adapt accordingly if you go forward or backward as is fitting. Easy and quickly with good heart and good knowledge or sense you should go and without fear, as you will know hereafter. You should also show reach in your fencing as is suitable and not step too wide, so that you can pull back and be ready for another step backwards or forwards. (8)
In his rapier section (although applicable to longsword too) Meyer tells us that it is perfectly fine to use ‘sweeping cuts and thrusts’ at long distance.
Thus when you are so near him that you can just reach the foible of his blade with your foible in the bind, then you may well execute sweeping cuts and thrusts against him. …
But when you have come so near one another that both blades bind in the middle, then you must not cut around, not go away from his blade without particular opportunity, for as soon as you go away from his blade, he can rush upon you with chasing (9)
However, wide and sweeping cuts are also dangerous if at too close distance, and you can exploit such fencers with Nachreissen.
When it comes to how to actually fight we see several techniques in the Döbringer treatise that are recognisable tactically in the texts of Joachim Meyer as well. Techniques that fencers who focus on the early treatises often perceive as “wide cutting” and “flowery”. For example, we see a “technique” called Drey Hewe that is quite similar to the Flügelhauw, combining several strokes from below and intently smacking the opponent’s sword aside before actually hitting him.
One technique is called the three strikes [Dy drey hewe]. And it is one strike from below [Uenderhaw] from the right side,
and then a strike from below [Underhaw] from the left side that strikes the opponents sword strongly to displace [Abesetzen] it
and the third is a strike that goes directly at the opponent and hits him in the forehead. (10)
Like in Ringeck and Meyer, we also see some very interesting comments on the use of the Zwerchhauw:
Note and know that from the whole sword no strike is as good, ready and strong as the cross strike [Twerhaw]. And it goes
across to both sides using both edges the foremost and the rearmost at all openings below and above.
So when you make a cross strike [Twerhaw], regardless of the side or if it is high or low, you will go up with the sword with your hand turned and the cross guard in front of your head so that you are well guarded and covered.
And when you must fight for your neck [i.e. for your life] , then you shall use the earlier described teachings and seek and win the first strike [Vorschlag] with a good cross strike [Twerehaw].
And when you thus win the first strike [Vorschlag] with the cross strike [Twerhaw] at one side, then regardless if you hit or miss, you shall at once and without delay win the after strike
[Nachschlag] with the cross strike [Twerhaw] to the other side using the forward edge before the other can collect himself
and come to blows or other techniques according to the afore described teachings.
And you shall cross strike [Twern] to both sides, to the ox [Ochs] and to the plough [Pflug] that is to the upper and the lower opening, from one side to the other, above and below continuously and without any interruptions so that you are in constant motion and the opponent can not come to blows. (11)
So, with the ‘scales‘ described in the Döbringer treatise, telling us to step both back and forth in balance and control, working with distance and measure in mind, we can also turn to a British contemporary of Joachim Meyer; George Silver, who describes similar ideas:
Let all your lying be such as shall best like yourself, ever considering out what fight your enemy charges you, but be sure to keep your distance, so that neither head, arms, hands, body, nor legs be within his reach, but that he must first of necessity put in his foot or feet, at which time you have the choice of 3 actions by which you may endanger him & go free yourself.
The first is to strike or thrust at him, the instant when he has gained you the place by his coming in.
The second is to ward, & after to strike him or thrust from it, remembering your governors
The third is to slip a little back & to strike or thrust after him.
But ever remember that in the first motion of your adversary towards you, that you slide a little back so shall you be prepared in due time to perform any of the 3 actions aforesaid by disappointing him of his true place whereby you shall safely defend yourself & endanger him.
Remember also that if through fear or policy, he strike or thrust short, & therewith go back, or not go back, follow him upon your twofold governors, so shall your ward & slip be performed in like manner as before, & you yourself still be safe. (12)
Particularly noteworthy here is Silver’s advise to always step back as the opponent steps forward, thus robbing him of his ‘place’ so his attack will fail. This gives a mental image of something quite similar to what is described in the Döbringer treatise. Again:
… as if you were standing on a scale and adapt accordingly if you go forward or backward as is fitting.
You should also show reach in your fencing as is suitable and not step too wide, so that you can pull back and be ready for another step backwards or forwards. (13)
This isn’t quite the same as stepping out into proper Zufechten, but rather slipping back just out of reach, which also means you can slip in again quickly, or continue retreating if needed. Silver’s ‘Place‘ seems in the German tradition to be at the furthest distance of the Mittel or just outside of it, and I believe this is the distance where we should both;
- retreat to in order to counter with a static parry or a Versetzen/Absetzen
- cut somewhat short with a feint or provoking cuts & thrusts
- and finally make our proper, full withdrawal (Abzug) from,
… while normally both attempting to cross and maintain this specific distance when the swords cross; a distance where cutting and counter-cutting, make more sense than remaining in the bind and work with the Handtarbeit (handworks), as we would do in the proper Mittel, where leaving the bind is too dangerous. Likewise trying to bind at too far a distance would open one up to the use of Dürchwechseln (changing under) and simple Nachreissen by slipping back and counter-cutting.
That’s it for this time. If you haven’t already, then please read the earlier chapters of this series as they are all connected, with layers together making up the “onion” we are examining…
Next time we will begin to cover the topic of ‘Kinetic energy, leverage, Versetzen and distance’.
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! Have a great weekend everyone!
1.Hs.3227a. 22V. ca 1389AD. Translation by David Lindholm
2. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens. (1.55R). Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
3.Hs.3227a. 20R-20V. ca 1389AD. Translation by David Lindholm
4.Hs.3227a. 22V. ca 1389AD. Translation by David Lindholm
5.Hs.3227a. 21R. ca 1389AD. Translation by David Lindholm
6.Hs.3227a. 22R. ca 1389AD. Translation by David Lindholm
7. C487 (Ringeck Fechtbuch). 22r-22v. ca 1389AD. Translation by Roger Norling
8.Hs.3227a. 22R. ca 1389AD. Translation by David Lindholm
9.Hs.3227a. 48R. ca 1389AD. Translation by David Lindholm
10. Meyer Joachim (1570): Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens. (2.52r-2.52v). Translation by Dr. Jeffrey L. Forgeng
11.Hs.3227a. 27-28R. ca 1389AD. Translation by David Lindholm
12. Silver George (1599): Brief Instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defence, Transcribed to modern English by Steve Hick.
13. Hs.3227a. 22R. ca 1389AD. Translation by David Lindholm