Lessons on the Poleaxe: 1st The Oberhau

This series of articles handles NOT the interpretation of poleaxe plays. It shows the use of a codex as a training curriculum for learning. It is true that if you want to learn the pieces shown in the codex you cannot pass by the valid interpretations. But this book is about learning the principles behind the pieces and not about the choreography.For this training manual I use mainly the Talhoffer book called Gotha Codex (Ms. Chart. A 558). Talhoffer started with this book in the early 1440ies and kept the book at least five years with him. It contains the very beginning of his art in the poleaxe, starting with simple blows and binds and ends with some more sophisticated tricks.

1st Lesson on the Poleaxe: The Oberhau

The Oberhau, the blow from above is executed in three ways: from the head, from the shoulder, and sidewise with the change of hands. Independent from the way of the Oberhau, you have one common problem: the exposure of the leading leg.Poleaxe Oberhau

A) The first thing you have to do in every Oberhau with a two handed weapon is to make sure, that the leg in the front is not on the same side your hitting from. Because every inch of your body under your raised arm is unprotected and an invitation for your opponent.

To address the problem of the leading leg, you got some solutions like:

    • Retract the part of the body where you hew from by stepping with the leading leg back and lean a bit forward with your upper body (left fighter in the picture).
    • Step forward and to the side with the other leg.
    • Lift the leading leg in the air and put your body weight on the leg behind (found rarely in medieval European pictures – seen more often in Asian Martial Arts Staff exercises). It does not fit to armoured fighting very well.
    • Protect the leg with a blow or rotation with the rear end of the weapon (right fighter in the picture).

These are not exclusive solutions, there are others, or they may be combined, or you got a partner who shields you, or the opponent is unable to take the invitation (e.g. pressing sidewise), or anything else. As long as you are aware of it and take care, everything is fine. But you better exercise on this heavily. There are a lot of tricks you can learn to harm people who do not care about that fact.

B) The second thing is, that we blind ourself during the raising of the weapon. The picture above shows the right Oberhau and a way to avoid the blinding as much possible. But even in the best possible motion there is a short blink of blindness where a good timed thrust will hit us with suprise. This is effect is much greater in the Oberhau from the left side. That is the reason why Liechtenauer told us: “Ob dw linck pist Im rechten aug sere hinckes” – “if you are on your left (side), you are limping with your right eye painfully“. A lot of fencers raise the right arm in that way, that they blind themself on the right side. If you see somebody doing that, you have a victim willingly helping you to win the fight.

      What to do against blinding is pictured above. Raise the arm in that way. It depends on your anatomic indivuality how you do this the best. Just make sure that in the end the ellbows will point as much as possible in the direction of the opponent without blinding yourself. You can’t completely avoid it, the arm and the weapon has to pass your sight. So see that you are not in reach or that your opponent is well occupied at that very moment. Exercise on the arm movement heavily. Get flexible in your shoulders

C) The third problem is the exposure of the arm. Everything that is raised (like the head) and moved toward the opponent is in the very danger to become wounded. It is the nature of the Oberhau, that the arms are raised and will go forward. So they are a lovely target for evildoings.

    • Hide the arms under your weapon. This is accomplished by aligning the left arm to the weapon’s arm and raise your right arm nearly stretched as pictured above. A lot of fighters tend to bend their leading arm. In my books are wonderful pieces that you can do if you see such behaviour. Doing it like above gives you cover and enables you to thrust very fast with the rear end of your weapon.

With these three major points in the back of your mind go and exercise on the mighty Oberhau. Do exercise on the…

  • …Oberhau from above the head crossing from left to right and vice versa covering a lot of volume in front of you hand having a lot of power and reach (left fighter in the picture).
  • …Oberhau from your shoulder crossing from left to right and vice versa but staying all the time in front of your body (right fighter in the picture). Good for fencing in short distance.

The Oberhau on your side will be covered in a later lesson.

3 thoughts on “Lessons on the Poleaxe: 1st The Oberhau

  1. How do you ever blind yourself when striking a blow from above? I’ve been in literally hundreds of pollaxe bouts and never had this happen, not even in drills in class. Start with your pollaxe head over your left shoulder and the tail down by your left knee. Now strike diagonally down and forward. Your axe never blocks your sight even for a moment.

    You can block your sight in guard if you stand in a high tail guard (i.e., your head is back over your right shoulder and your tail is pointing straight at the enemy), but that just requires you to move your left hand a bit to your right so you can see. It’s not a problem when you strike from that position, however.

    Also, when you strike, always step with your rear leg and pull your tail up to your left side. The combination of the step, the push of your right hand and the pull of your left hand, combined with a slight rotation of your body into the blow are all necessary to achieve the level of force necessary to do damage to an armored man.

    Nor is this any different from your left side. The Liechtenauer quote you posted is really about how right-handers shouldn’t strike from their left sides with the longsword because they are weaker on the left side when they get into the bind. Liechtenauer never wrote a single word about the pollaxe, so you’re taking him out of context. When you strike from the left with your pollaxe you simply reverse what I said above on the left, and you’ll never block your line of sight.

    You cannot leave your tail forward to protect your leg, as you say, because that means you aren’t creating the proper push-pull motion necessary to achieve enough force. We know this, too, because we never see it: When a blow has been executed, the tail is always back, as in this picture from Paulus Kal:
    http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/bsb00001840/image_83

    As for having your arms struck as you attack, you can’t hide them under your axe as you move–after all, your hands are the best target on the arms, and they are always exposed. Instead, the proper way to protect your arms (and your legs) is to use one of the most basic principles of the Liechtenauer system: Follow the blow.

    If you follow the blow correctly your opponent can’t strike at your arms or legs without exposing himself to death any more than he could in unarmored longsword because by doing so you force him into the Nach: He must defend himself before he can even consider attacking.

    Finally, I believe you’re trying to get more out of the drawn pictures than is really there. You’ll see the same move drawn sveral different ways in various Fechtbücher, and this is nothing more than the artistic whim of the illustrator. The master is not the one doing the drawing, and it’s a mistake to try to see too much subtlety in them.

    Regards,
    Hugh

    1. Thank you for your comment and displaying an other point of view. I leave it uncommented to avoid the typical discussions in HEMA. The sources accept various point of views. I respect your readings of the Talhoffer and other plays even when I do not share them. And I surely use an other way to generate power. I would be happy if your response to my writings will make the reader think for his own.

      Regards,
      Hans

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