Q: Master Talhoffer, did I well to improve my stance?
A: Yes, your standing firm and safe.
Q: I trained hard to be rooted like a strong tree. Standing deep, low and balanced.
A: Sure, like a tree waiting for the axe coming.
Q: The axe? What do you mean by that?
A: If tree stands firm, the axe will make it fall. Better you fall before the blade will reach you.
Q: We should fall down?
A: No, my dear Scholar. You should learn to fall on your feet.
Q: And how shall we do it?
A: Go and ask Master Kelly, he is a real expert in it.
This dialog is fictive and you won’t find it in any old manuscript. Master Talhoffer never explained his fighting in the art of a dialog. But I took the freedom of an author to put his figure in the tradition of teaching dialogs. This very old way of reflecting the thoughts on a subject from different point of views is more amusing than the dry treatises and usually motivates the reader to think on his own. The master Kelly, mentioned above is the extraordinary dancer Gene Kelly. His way of dancing was seemingly effortless like gravity let him fall his feet to any place he wants.
A lot of recommendations exists on the way we should stand and move in combat. Some emphasis that only a very deep stance gives you the protection and the stability others argue that your reach and agility is the best if standing high. Let us look, what is found in the old manuscript and what is feasible in fighting with weapons. This article concentrates on the longsword handled with two hands and the sword for one hand.
welcher fu vornn stedth, sey gebogen der hynnter gestrackt, zyrt den leyb oben hoch gefochten myt starckem leyb, gewaltig possenn aus der lenge threyb, streych unnd thrid mith eyn ander, und sez deynn fues wyeder eyn ander, wer thryd nach heyenn, der darff sich khunst nichtfreuen, Hans Czynner (see also Egenolph)
Length and Modesty
To be aware of Length and Modesty is cited often in the manuscripts like in the Codex Wallerstein:
dy leng das ist dastu hinter deinem swert stest und reckst dich / dy mass ist dastu nider stest ... mach dich klain mit dem leib so pistu gross in swert The Length is, that you stand behind your sword and stretch yourself / the Modesty is that you stand low ... be small with your body so you are large in the sword.
Length in the sword fight means to hold the enemy on its own. It does not mean to make the body long. But to keep the opponent far away of you. For it is not right to act with long and straight arms in Zufechten and to lash out (see GMN3227a 40r), but in the binding you should raise your arms and extend to keep the distance and gain reach while still protecting yourself. It should be noted that a complete extension is just as wrong. It is a question of the correct measure (see Moderation/Modesty/Temperance in the article The Virtues of Fighting).
Smallness in the sword fight means to make yourself small by Moderation, using common sense and prudence, to present no options for the enemy to attack, to give him less opportunities to attack, to escape through foot work, and last what of his opportunities may be left should blocked by your own defense. Therefore, big wide movements you should avoid severe. This also applies to the stretching of the arms and the pushing forward of the shoulder, where you obtain the longest range, but also the greatest instability to lateral forces.
Present the front or the side towards the enemy?
In fighting on thrusts, kicks or punches it is generally possible to rotate the body so far that an opponent’s momentum can be weakened or even avoided by the turning of the hip. This is due the fact that any linear force directed toward a rotating object is deviated. As long as the force is not directed at the center point, the force can be lead off.
In more modern fencing with a bell, a basket, or a cage on the cross of the handle the function of increased coverage works. With this enhanced protection a purely lateral position makes sense. The fighter is able to “hide behind the weapon”. However in a strict lateral position the mobility of the musculoskeletal system is reduced to a more or less linear movement forward or back. Every bigger side-wise movement will cost extra time.
A cut has a momentum forward, sideways and up or down. To try to escape these impulses through a lateral posture is promising little success. You can also bring your second (eventually armed) hand hardly in action if it is completely backwards. Therefore place yourself to the enemy that you can move quickly and well to all sides and at the same time try hiding behind your weapon. Important for the attitude is the consciousness of three facts:
- That is not the head or the breast bone is the cornerstone for our fencing, but that the sword is “assembled” on the shoulder.
- That the center of your body is your spine. It is what is needed to be protected by your weapon. Because it needs the movement of the complete body to evade a thrust or strike directed to it.
- Everything extending your body will be easy to hit and hard to protect.
The exact stance is depending on your style and school. Some thrust oriented fencers tend to stand in a straight line but turn the breast more to the front to enable the second hand to interact, pushing, and displacing. Most of the cut and thrust fencers use a foot stance that is not in straight line.
From the point of coverage and own opportunities, it is the best in the fencing on cut and thrust that you present yourself not frontal and not lateral but in an angle.The extent to which angle you prefer depends on how your body is built, how flexible you are and how agile you are. It usually extends from 45° to 60° from the direct line of your shoulder to the shoulder of the enemy.
Should you stand high or low?
First of all: do not stand, because if you stand, you do not move and who is not moving is dead. Second the rule is simple: towards high guards move up and move down towards low guards. It is all like Philippo di Vadi states in your knees.
E chi queste chiave cum seco non averà / A questo giuoco poca Guerra farà. Le gambe chiave se po’ben diri / Per che li ti serra e anche ti po’ aprire.
So move only in low stances doing strikes from above if you aim at low targets like the knee and when you are very certain, that your opponent is busy with everything else, but not with a strike from above to your head. Each strike from above develops a significant proportion of a downward momentum (not only thanks to gravity). It would be foolish to give that away, when it can be directed against the enemy. This requires that in the possible clash (between your own and the enemy’s masses) you are positioned in a way that the target is lower as the “mounting” of the strike (which is your shoulder). If you move around with the rear dragging on the ground this is hardly possible.
If you strike from below, this is a movement from the bottom up. This should be fought with all of your body, because it goes against the downward momentum of the enemy and must compensate this (GMN3227a 19v). In a strike a from below to a target below the hip level or in a strike across at a low target you remain low. If you thrust low stay low.
High and low positions serve to bring the weapon in an advantageous position but it brings danger. In a deep position, the knee is close to the enemy and must be protected by the weapon. In a high position the head is close to the enemy and must be protected by the weapon.
Commonly you always get a slap on the cap if you stand in a deep position. Thus you may think that the head is exposed. But the reason is more that one leans his upper body and his head forward in a thrust and thus presents the head to the enemy. These are attempts by greed to obtain more range than one is entitled. It fails woefully to keep the measure. So you should never thrust from below if you are not in a range that you can protect yourself simultaneously.
Stepping, one by one
To change the distance you need to step. There are several elaborated ways to step, but they all lead back to two versions (where the leading foot is defined as the one standing in the direction you like to get).
- Advance the leading foot in the direction you want to move and drag the rear foot next in the same direction.
- Let the rear foot pass the leading one. And by this leading and rear foot change their roles.
The first way of stepping has the wonderful feature that the dangerous moment, where both feet are unmovable, does not exist. But it is in the passing step. In passing there is the moment where the weight of your body moves from one feet to the other. During this movement you are not able to lift one feet from the ground or even move your body to evade something. Because the gravity center of your body is traveling, you usually need both feet on the ground. Most martial arts developed very special passing step strategies to avoid that problem. There are lot of tricks to help it or to protect yourself. But the effect cannot be nullified.
For this the first version of stepping is always to prefer. I like to cite Master Vadi again on this.
Tu vedi el sol che fa gran giramento / E donde el nasce fa suo tornamento / Il pé com el sol va convien che torni / Se voii ch’el giuoco toa persona adorni. El pié stanco ferma senza paura / Como rocha fa che sia costante / E poii la tua persona serà tuta sicura
But I nearly forgot one of my words in the title and the dialog: The Falling.
There are to ways to get to a place: pushing and falling. By Pushing with the rear foot you shove yourself into the new position. Your weight follows the force of your rear leg. By Falling you move your weight first without moving the feet, see that it is safe or not, than lift the leading foot a bit and fall into the direction. There is nothing like pure pushing or pure falling in our steps. It is always a combination of both. But you are able to emphasis one of both and you do so in fighting. Most people tend to push in sword fighting.
While pushing can cover more range, falling is faster and helps you to avoid big movements. Falling onto your feet looks a bit like a drunken monkey if you drive it to the limit but is very effective. It is our natural way of walking. We lean forward and fall onto our feet. Now the only thing you have to learn is not to lean forward to move the weight of your body. Sounds easy. But it isn’t.
Nearly all of the martial arts have some kind of Falling Step in their respective footwork. In swordfighting this kind of step should be trained hard and in any direction. It is one of the main keys of fast and safe footwork.