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Q: Master Talhoffer, why should I train the Zornhau again and again?
A: Because you can’t do a Sturzhau properly!
Q: But the Zornhau is just a simple peasant strike and I am of noble birth!
A: And you will be a dead noble if you don’t use your brain.
Q: So there is a hidden secret in the Zornhau?
A: Yes, go and think about the fact, that the only pressure you can feel is the one coming from you.

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 “Zornhau-Ort” is one of the essential pieces of fencing from the Liechtenauer system. It is based on the premise that a fencer hits the other enemy to  the head or the opponent’s right shoulder from the right shoulder of the attacker called “rechter Oberhau” (right strike from above) . The adversary generates a “Vor” (ahead, before) taking a tactical advantage by being the first who attacks a lethal point. It is in the act itself that the attacked must react in the “Nach” (after, behind), if he does not want to be seriously injured or killed.

To stop the enemy, he will fight with the same means. That is that the  strike from above is answered by a strike from above. And this is done with a great show of force and vigor. Thus this strike is called “Zornhau”.  Joachim Meyer describes in his 1570 book in the chapters on the fencing rapier and Dussak this action as “Wehrstreich” (armed strike) and gives the “Zornhau” a slightly different meaning. The principle to answer with same means is  included in each book of fencing.

The mechanics of the Zufechten with the Oberhau

The opponent presents a right strike from above against the head or the shoulders. He hopes to hit by chance and luck in the first strike. There are only three way of doing this strike:

1. It is a testing strike to get in contact
Restricted to vision only based reactions for defense is pure horror compared to the contact based reactions. If you are in a binding situation where the blades touch, you always know where the blade of the opponent is. For this a lot of the fencers try to “catch” the opponents blade in their first strike, making it long and straight. This strike ends in a Langort (long point) position where – if no blade is met – a stirring movement occurs or the fencer is jumping back irritated. The opponent is forced to nothing he can stand there and look amused at the “sword catcher” because in most cases these strikes are short of distance, or if the measure is correct has a lot of opportunities to answer this flimsy attack.

2. It is a killing strike to be the first to hit heavily 
The fencer has the same fear as the one who tries to fetch the opponents blade but uses very different answer to overcome this fear. He jumps forward and strikes first with a lot of power. He hopes that he hits or the other one will defend himself by just parrying. The opponent is forced to react to this kind of berserk attack, but has a lot of options for it: evade, block, answer with the same etc. He can answer with a variety of actions, but he must change.

3. It is a tactical strike to occupy the territory
Being the first who occupies the middle line while getting into measure is a tactic you find in a lot of fighting systems. From this line you can thrust without any problems and block some actions of the opponent to your body.  The opponent is forced to create a matching opposition or will be hit in the following action without having a chance to present a proper answer. He cannot evade, because there is nothing to evade. He cannot hit you on the head or stab you in the chest, because the way is blocked. He cannot stand there amused, because without any recognizable change of the attacker’s posture the strike will mutate into a hit by changing the distance using simple body movement.

There are a variety of striking movements from above the right shoulder. But only few who really aim at the head or body of the opponent. Doing a feint or trick or any other likewise movement is nothing that matters here.

A experienced fencer chooses the tactical strike, he aims ad the opponent’s body without forgetting his own, having his own protection always as priority number one. The simple offensive rule of the tactical strike is: if you do not meet anything get forward and you meet something (“Haw dreyn vnd hurt dar / rawsche hin trif ader la var ” GMN 3227a). If the opponent do not stop your blade, you got the ticket to continue. In the fight-books from the 14th century GMN 3227a to Joachim Meyer we find the recommendation to repeat these kind of strikes for several times until we hit or meet the opponent’s blade (“vnd vmermer eyns noch dem andern treiben / ab ym das erste vele / dacz daz ander das dritte ader daz vierde treffe” GMN 3227a).

As the Zornhau is the first lesson for the fencers, it is aimed to be an answer for all these kind of fencers.

1. Versus a testing strike
The “sword catcher” will get more that he asked for. The Zornhau is a powerful strike that will destroy every feeling while smashing the blade out of the way.

2. Versus a killing strike
The Zornhau blocks the way by sheer force while it brings the own weapons point into the position for a thrust.

3. Versus a tactical strike
The Zornhau presents a opposition by changing position of the body and bringing the sword between the fencers in a thrusting position (Pflug) or a hanging position (Wechsel, Ochs) depending on the change during the end of the striking movement. Usually the Zornhau creates a hard contact and displaces the other strike by force thus occupying the middle line itself ready for a thrusting movement.

So the Zornhau is the swiss army knife for fencing-beginners even if the Twerhau presents more options and is the better strike (“Hie merke vnd wisse / das of dem ganczen / swerte / keyn haw / als redlich / zo heftik zo vertik vnd zo gut ist als der twerhaw” GMN 3227a). But the Zornhau is the fastest to bring (“zo ist im keyn haw als bereit / als der selbe aberhaw” GMN 3227a) and thus is the best to change from the role of the defender to the role of the attacker. This change is done by the the strike itself using sheer force and by the point.

To become the attacker the defender must bring an immediate threat into the game. Using a great show of force is always a threat and because he is aiming to the head and the shoulders of his attacker, the Zornhau brings the point nearer to the opponents body. If the point is not showing to the opponent at the end of the Zornhau, the Zornhau is parried effectively or not done properly. Ignoring the latter we must know that by parrying the Zornhau effectively the formerly attacker has changed into the role of the defender already and we won this part of the game.

Having the point looking eager to the body of the opponent we should not hesitate to use it. And on this the opponent has to change himself or he will be stabbed. And by using this chain of attacks (strike and thrust) we changed from being the defender to the role of the attacker.

There is a signal that is given us by the authors of the fight-books, so we can recognize if we have successfully become the attacker. It is the lateral pressure of the defending blade simply called “wert her dir” in the GMN 3227a. In the 44a8 we find “wirt er denn orts gewar | vnd vor setzt starck | vnd druckt dir dein swert auf die seittñ”. The reason for this explicit naming of a strong displacement and a heavy pressure to the side is the use of the training equipment modernly named “Federschwert”. In the Messer Master Lecküchner reduced it to “wirtt er des ortz gewar” again but he uses the Zornhau in combination with a thrust in a different way high above.

But regardless which equipment used, it is the small or big pressure to the side that signals: you just won the tactical game, now make the best out of it. (It can also mean that the opponent just fooled you but this is sophisticated fencing and thus rarely to find). To feel any pressure of the defender there must be a resistance presented by the attacker. This “resistance” is the pressure done by the attacker. And this must always be directed to the head and body of the opponent (“czu koppe ader czu leibe / vnd mit nichte czum swerte” GMN 3227a). The movement of the Zornhau is supporting this kind of pressure in an excellent way.

Because of the lateral movement of the becoming defenders hand and blade and the crossbar of the weapons handle, the most obvious answer to that movement is moving the own blade upwards until it can switch to the other side of the opponent’s blade and do some harm.

Conclusion

The Zornhau is a tactical move to change from the role of the defender of a strike from above to the one of the attacker with the same strike and a thrust. To be the attacker gives us the advantage that we can hit with a  greater chance of success that the one who defends and tries to hit while defending.

To become the attacker we have two tools on our side: the show of force in the Zornhau and the point of the Zornhau. So training the Zornhau cannot be done without the show and using of force.

We are told how to recognize if we succeed in this role change by a lateral pressure of the opponents blade we should train to feel. All action followed by this signal is only there to keep this role until we successfully hit the opponent.