Sword fighting is not that complicated: you take a sword and hit hard. But to explain and teach the art of sword fighting is complicated. Sword fighting is to break down in contacts and free movements. While you have contact on the blade or on the body, you are not free to move in every direction but you have to analyze the situation to gather your options. Thus the contact situation is the most complicated to explain. A good reason to start with the simpler one: the free movement.
A movement is (if not endless) needs a starting point and an end point. The latter could be declared as a point of change ore return, but for the original movement it is the end point. Between the two points there is the way of travel. You can travel by a straight line or a curve. The fastest in the meaning of physics and mathematics is the straight line. But as humans are built with a limited set of joints, the curve may sometimes travel faster than the line. But let us put this to the side for later use. Let us get to the first definition of the start and the end points. And as a medieval fencing master we need to explain that to illiterate and children (or illiterate children), because this is our main target group. We dream of having rich customers who want to discuss the philosophy of Aristotle in sword fighting. But alas most of our paying customers have not learned to read and write or just have no practice in it. Because of that, we need to find other ways to explain to them the art.
The start and end points
Any our customer has played simple games as a child in which the body simulates an object or an animal. Let us play a game like that. Stand upright and begin with your hands down at your side.
Now lift your hands up in the air. The hands are now in the sky at the position of the high noon at day. So let us call this position: “sky” (“Himmel”) or “day” (“Tag”).
Put both hands together above your head. Now your arms and hands form a roof. That is a good name: “roof” (“Dach”). We got that. Bring your hands into “sky” again.
Rotate your arms down to forehead level and stretch them forward in front of the body. Point with your forefingers. Bring your head down all little bit. By this you simulate the horns of a “bull” (“Stier”) or an “ox” (“Ochs”) attacking with his head down and ready for the thrust. Are that good names for this position? Yes they are.
Move both hands with arms slightly bent down to the height of your lower rib cage (sternum height) in front of the body with the palms facing down. By this you mimic a medieval farmer holding a “plow” (“Pflug”). There had been a lot of different plows (with and without wheels) in late medieval times. But they had in common that at least one hand (mostly both) where at this position. Such that is a good easy to remember name too.
At last lift the two hands together with arms outstretched at chest level and point with long arms to another place. So let us call this one “long point” (“Langort”)
So here we are. We have defined all start and end points. And not only that: we have defined certain line of heights too: over the head, at forehead height, at sternum height, at crotch height, and by the “long point” at shoulder height.
If someone begs you to move your hand from “left sky” to “right plough” you would understand perfectly what you should do. Everything seems fine as long as you do not have any sword in your hand. Because if you put a sword in your hand, your sword point can move on it’s one, depending on the twists and turns of your arm and hand. While our hand and underarm has such a great construction the sword in itself can move while the hand travels from start to end point. Thus we need to define and explain the way the sword behaves during the “travel-time”.
The behavior of the sword
Hut, Stich, Hau, Zorn, Krumb, Twer, Schiel, Scheitel
The sword is grabbed by the hand and by this it is attached to the underarm. The angle between the underarm and the hand creates an effect on any target getting hit by the sword. The blade may keep or change its angle in relation to the underarm during the travel of the hand from start point to the end point. This is all very abstract and nothing you may use in teaching to medieval burgess. We have two methods we can use for teaching:
- Explaining the behavior with defined positions
If I define a start position where the point of the sword points up in the air and an end position where the point is down to earth, we know that the point has to travel a curve by rotating the sword in our joints. And if we say that the point is up in the air and points to the left side of the opponent in both, start and end position, we define another behavior.
That way we can define any possible behavior as a difference – a change – between two positions. But the problem is: I need to define a whole lot of positions. Let us call them “guards” (“Hut”).
- Explaining the behavior with the movement
Using terms for a movement is the ideal way to create an abstract definition, because we only need few points (let’s say six) to explain the whole art, and we can give the movement a name “strike” (“Hau”, or “Haw”). That seems irritating but any movement needs a term. Even in physical terms in German we use the term “Stoß” which is related to a very physical push by the hand. There are only two terms for a free sword movement “strike” (“Hau”) and “thrust” (“Stich”). If you reduce the thrust to the sword movement alone, relative to the arm, it has just one direction with the point forward. It is the hand that pushes another blade to the side, let us say in “tierce” or “quarte” (spoken in 17th century terms, in the lack of equivalent medieval terms for the turning of the hand). In the thrust the sword itself moves simply forward. Thus the thrust has a single motion that is named “thrust”. Not so the “strikes” there are five prime variations: moving blade (with the point) vertical or horizontal, keeping the point the same and the blade diagonal, trying to straight, or in a perfect angle.
But giving a defined way to move a unique term is not that easy. If we say that the point of the sword is making a “curve” we can call it that way, in old German this would be a “Krumme” (“Krumb” or modern “Krumm”). Or if the point travels from one side to the other, we would name it “cross” (“Quer”, or in old German “Twer”). These are very easy to understand movements and terms because the terms are two dimensional, and the movement is only three dimensional because of the traveling the sword does by the hands. But if we want to explain a sword movement in three dimensions, things get complicated.Today we may use geometric terms like “diagonal” but this was no option for the medieval fencing masters. The ideas of Euclid were prominent to the refined persons, but the vast number of people would not have a clue of it. They needed to use well understood terms, such that they could be associated. Like most of the terms, they preferred expressions known to people common with agriculture work. So the defined for the diagonal position a term that people use when they cross an acre diagonal from one corner to the other: “slanted” (“Schiel” or “Scheel”).
For the position of a more or less straight angle they used the term “wrath” (“Zorn”) as seen in a most natural way to strike with a club. When the sword moves in a position that is aligned to the forearm, they called it “crest” ( “Schaitel”, “Scheitel”) like the long top edge of the roof.
Explaining sword movements by only few positions (from which and to which the hands move) and terms for the movement of the sword itself, you only need very few terms at all. For the most prominent hand positions only four terms are needed (because two of them just depend on the left and right side). And for the movements of the sword itself there is the need of only five terms: circular, cross, straight, diagonal, and the most effective angle. For the thrust you need no term but the thrust itself. So if you get asked to do a “curve/krumb” strike from “roof/dach” to “plow/pflug” on your left side, you know that you have to do a strike where the hands travel from over your head to your left hip while the blade rotates from upright to a downward pointing position. If you are requested to that with a “diagonal/schiel” sword movement, you see that your point stays higher than your hands and the blade crosses your body such that the point is on the other side than the hands.
But sadly it did not work. It was too theoretic, too abstract, and the language did not cover that. To explain the term “Zorn” soon a further explanation was needed: “like a peasant strike”. The dialect word “Schiel” did have a complete other meaning that was more prominent in northern parts of Germany than in Swabia: “squinting” with the eyes. The double meaning of “scheitel” with “parting of the hair” and “crest” became irrelevant in times in which the goal was to hit someone on the head in the Fechtschule to earn the golden coin for the so called highest “Blutrühr”.
So the original meaning of the terms got lost and the better system on regards of utilizing it in mass instructions and in books won: the system of the guards. But because of the techniques depending on the sword and hand movements were highly effective and the didactic by categorizing sword fighting on the effect of such combined movements was brilliant the terms survived as a categorized collection of techniques. This collection got mixed up with the system of guards. In those combined systems, the terms of the strikes were used to define certain lines and ways to move sword and body as special strikes: “masterstrikes” (“Meisterhäu”). But because of the decay of sword fighting this too had no chance to survive. The system of guards had won entirely.
Getting in contact is the aim of any free movement of the blade. While the defining of the movement of the blade may implie the turning of the hand, the implication alone is not enough if it comes to contact. In example: the use of the start point “right day”, the endpoint “right ox”, and the movement of a full “curve” requires the turn of the hand by the ulna and spoke, such that the sword turns the edges when the thumb moves from up to down. This movement resembles an “overthrow” (“Sturz”) or falling by accident, what gave it its special name. If the sword may get contact in such a strike it can happen with one of the edges of the weapon. Thus we need to define the edges by terms. We can name them according to the different edges of the knife as a “short” and “long” edge, or “true” and “false” edge in regard to one of the many explanations for “true” and “false”. In the German fencing manuals it was the definition of “short” (“Kurz”) and “long” (“Lang”) that was common. The dull edge of a knife was called “Stumpf”. And the flat sides of the blade were called “flat” (“Fläche”).
A contact can happen near the own hands or far away from it. As the lever rule tells us, the farther from the own hand, the weaker I am. This is easy to experience by getting pressure on the blade near the hand and near the point . Thus the name for the part of the blade far away from the hand is called “weak” or “feeble” (“Schwach”), and the part next to the hand is called “strong” (“Stark”). Because there is no real middle a contact is always either in the weak or strong part of the blade. In later times the wish to define this experience more in detail the expression “half strong” (“Halbe Stärke”) and “half weak” (“Halbe Schwäche”) was added. The blade was parted in quarters: full strong, half strong, half weak, full weak.
There is a great difference if you receive contact on a soft target like a pillow or on a hard target like a stone. In one of the oldest still existing fencing manuals the GMN32274 we find an instruction for hardening steel. The problem of getting a sword of steel hard and soft at the same time was well known. A soft iron is not expected to break but it does not cut well (“Item wiltu eisen weich machen”). A hard steel may cut sharp as a razor but will break in the edge (“Item ad indurandum ferrum”). A sword has to be pliable enough to resist impact and cut perfectly. This problem of hard and soft (pliable) was prominent as the aspect of the impact during contact was defined in words. So the bending of the blade (or the man behind the blade), the giving way was called “soft” /”pliable” (“Weich”). The complete block of way, like a rock was called “hard” (“Hart”, “Härte”).
The only way to analyze a situation in contact is to learn the correct feeling. Like getting and training a new sense the blade becomes the extension of the tactile sense. Knowing this one of the most prominent term is “feeling” (“Fühlen”). But like the blind man’s stick it is not only the tactile sense alone but it is assisted by the hearing too. But not by the eyes because they could be fooled easily leading us to anticipate something that is not becoming real. The term “feeling” is to be taken literally.
Contact needs always two objects and in this case two persons. While they are in contact they communicate directly without anything between them. The blades are just the medium of communication. If one presses hard with the sword, the other will receive this message instantly. There is no transport time only a lack of acknowledging and understanding of the message: the absence of correct “feeling”. Because this communication between two combatants is instant, it is called that way “inbetween” (“Indes”). A term that includes the aspect of time and two persons (or weapons). Before and after contact there is exactly this: “before” (“Vor”) and “after” (“Nach”). This almost simple concept “before contact”, “contact”, “after contact” was extended to the case where contact is anticipated to happen but in fact does not happen. So if one fighter is committing his strike in anticipation to receive a contact (blade or body) but his opponent steps aside avoiding the contact and strikes on his own, the concept would be changed to “before no contact”, “no contact”, “after no contact”. Because an avoided contact results in zero, it vanishes completely and the “before” and “after” stands for themselves. This was welcomed because it fits perfectly in the Aristotle opposites which had a great influence in most abstracting of that time.
Chaining the actions
Fehler, Zecke, Rühr, Duplieren, Mutieren, Winden, Krieg
Chaining free movements is simple and needs no general expressions. There are of cause terms for special combinations of free movements with the intention to teach tactical principles. One of them is simulating that you failed, named “error” (“Fehler”), another is a series of tiny thrusts biting like “tick” (“Zecke”) or small strikes touching here and there “touches” (“Rühr”). But these are already tricks and techniques and do not match the criteria of a abstract general term.
The prime chaining terms concern the contact situation. Let us assume that the contact had been created by a strike. Thus the first chaining action would be: strike again. It is named “doubling” (“Duplieren”). The other chaining action would be mutating the strike into a thrust in a way of extending the forward movement. This is called “mutating” (“Mutieren”). Both very simple to understand terms to which we get the safety rules that we shall double the strike if our sword is above the other and mutate into a thrust (with raised hands) if our sword is below the other.
A little more complicated movement is needed if the sword point is not in position to thrust. That way we loose the option to mutate, because a direct thrust is not possible. For that we have to turn the point back into the face and toward the body of the opponent. It is like winding up a rope with the opponents blade as the turning point. In most cases this winding will be an horizontal movement. A winding is not reduced to a horizontal movement, it could be any movement bringing back the point into the aim again. Winding does not implicit needs a turning of the hand from thumb up to down or vice verse. Because it resembles a winding of a rope it is called “winding” (“Winden”).
Chaining actions while in contact is the most complicated thing in fencing. It is like a war in which every small detail can favor one combatant that much, that he wins the war. This may be the reason why this situation was called “war” (“Krieg”).
For the basement of German fencing only a few terms are needed: 4 guards, the thrust and 5 motions/strikes, and five words for time and contact. Only three more to chain them together.
To abstract a complex art and find terms from everyday life to explain it was eventually the work of one genius: Johannes Liechtenauer. But it may be that his system was to evolved for practical application. It was based on a strong teacher and student relationship, in which further explanation was made. The distribution of that work by manually created or printed copies reduced the explanation to the interpretation of readers and commentators, who may have had contact with the original teaching or not. We can see that a concept changes when the central terms change in meaning. And we see that the evolution of weapon and armor changed the meaning too. If we try to read and understand the old manuscripts we must try to understand what is the meaning of each term anew. We can not take it for granted that the meaning stays the same.
This small article is intended to give the reader the basic understanding of the idea behind the original application of the terms and the concept behind them. The single definition of each term is by no mean matching to each manuscript. It may only give an hint how it may be to understand.