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Q: Master Talhoffer, what is the true meaning of the Five Words of Master Liechtenauer?
A: Try to connect all four fingers tipps of your hand to the tip of the thumb. How does it look like?
Q: It looks like the number 5 on a dice. Two fingers are opposite and two are next to each other and the thumb is in the middle.
A: And there you have the true meaning of the Five words!
Q: But how to I apply them in a fight.
A: Use the things that are next to overcome what is opposite.

opposita iuxta se posita magis elucescunt / vel exposita oppositorum cui autem

Aristotle states in the Peri hermaneias that there are certain logical relationships between the four kinds of categorical proposition. These relationships became the basis of a diagram originating with Boethius (6th century). In the “Liechtenauer System” all opposites used are contradictory to each other, for those things that are defined as “weak” cannot be strong.5s4opp

From the moment on it is observable a thing must be either “strong” or “weak”. As long as it is not observable (it can’t be felt) it is unknown.

“Oppositions shine brighter when put next to each other, Even if they had been put opposite to each other.”

The quote of the most important manuscript in Liechtenauer’s tradition (GMN 3227a, Nürnberg) refers to Aristotle’s book. The unknown author plays with the geometric relationship of the “oppositions” of Liechtenauer “Swach weder stark / herte weder weich / et sequitur“ (Weak vs Strong, Hard vs. Soft, etc.).

“Vor noch schwach sterke / yndes das wort mete zu merken”

Let us shortly read what the opposites are in the manuscript 44a8 (Peter von Danzig) in the Transcription of Dierk Hagedorn.

“Hier merck was da haist das vor

| Das ist das du albeg solt vor kömen es seÿ mit dem haw oder mit dem stich | ee wenn er | vnd wenn du ee kumpst mit dem haw oder süst das er dir vor setzeb mües | So arbait | Inndes behentlich In der versatzung für dich mit dem swert | oder sünst mit anderen stucken | So mag er zu kainen arbait komen ~

Hye merck was da haist das nach5s4opp2

| Das nach das sind die prüch wider alle stuck | vnd häw die man auff dich treibt | vnd das vernÿm also | wenn er ee kumpt mit dem haw | wenn du das im versetzen muest | So arbait Inndes mit deiner vorsatzung behendlich mit dem swert zu der nagsten plöss | So prichstu ÿm sein vor mit deinem nach”

Hier merck die swech vnd die sterck des swertz

| Die swech | vnd die sterck | vernÿm also am swert von dem gehültz pis in die mitt der klingen so ist die sterck des swertz | vnd fürpas vber die mitt pis an den ort ist die swech | vnd wie du mit der sterck deines swertz nach der swech seins swertz arbaitten solt das wir dir hernach vorklert”

So we see that we got two pairs of opposites, which contradict each other. But we are missing the fifth word: Indes / In-between in all descriptions of the manuscripts. All we get is the information that the Indes comes into the play at the moment when the opposites switch from one to the other and that there is no play in the manuscripts in which the Indes is used without a contact between the fghting opponents.

The Model of the Five Words

5s4opp3Liechtenauer’s Five words are constructed from two opposites and something in-between them. To identify the analogy used here we don’t have to look far as we know that the three guilds of the fencing masters and the free fighters are aligned to the four evangelists.

  • Lukasbrüder – Luke/Ox
  • Freifechter – Matthew/Man
  • Marxbrüder – Mark/Lion
  • Federfechter – John/Eagle

What is in-between the evangelist is often displayed as a lamb like in this 10th century ivory plaque with Agnus Dei on a Cross between the emblems of the four evangelists.

The Five Words of Liechtenauer are to be visualised in the diagram to apply them in a fight. It consists the aspects of time and impression. Contradictory opposites are put opposite to each other. The diagram only works with the Five words. If you replace the aspect of time with another aspect of impression it won‘t work.


We can understand the five words if we use their multiple meanings in our mind. This helps us to appraise the situation correctly in which we are in a fight.

Where To find the five words

5s4opp5Aristotle took observation to be crucial. What we observe is the outer world and our inner feelings.

The inner feelings are not ignored in the manuscripts (“by guter vornunft“, „habe froelichen mut mit limpf“ , „mit gutem mute“, etc.) but in this article.

You can observe the outer world. The outer world is represented by your opponent in a fight. You can well observe him. But you cannot observe yourself without a mirror. Thus all you do is only observed in the reflection and reaction of your opponent.

And this reaction is explained in the quoted manuscript 44A8 above:

  • YOU are in the VOR (Before) – if your oppponent needs to react on your doing e.g. he needs to parry your strike
  • YOU are in the NACH (After) – if your opponent is ahead of you and you will get hit if you don’t apply a technique to break his play

So your situation mirrors the situation of your opponent as there is the rule that if correctly observed only one of two opponent can be in the Vor the other must be in the Nach. The only way to observe correctly and not to be trapped in false assumption is to observe the opponent. Because if the opponent is correctly observed you know you should be on the other side of the mirror or you are mistaken and probably very soon wounded.

Thus the VOR and the NACH are always with your opponent. You are just on the other side of the mirror.

The same rules goes to STARK (strong) /SCHWACH (weak) alas the description in the manual is very simplified explained with the sword. But we all know that a powerful strike can beat the Weak through the opponen’ts Strong of the sword especially at the flat of the blade. So there is more to it than only the measures of a blade (and in fact those are the things we get taught in the Zornhau play very soon).

We know that we know nothing

5s4opp6The Five Words are to be found at your opponent. So your opponent is STRONG/WEAK or BEFORE/AFTER or someplace IN-BETWEEN.

Before we do observe, we know nothing. We don‘t know if the opponent is strong, fast, weak, hard, or anything else.

The circle representing our opponent in the diagram is a huge ball without any direction.

But we know that we cannot survive without observation and while we observe and appraise we need to be sure in our distance („und sal auch mit dem / in synen schreten gewisse sein / und sal dy haben recht zam gemessen / das her nicht zu korcz ader czu lank schreite“) and fight him off („ das iener nicht czu slage kome“).

We know what we SEE and FEEL

5s4opp7The best way to observe the opponent is when we add the sense of feeling to our eyesight. This happens in the INDES or In-between, when we get contact to any part of the opponent.

As this additional sense only is helping while we have contact, the ball is now of the same size or smaller as the In-between.

If you move that ball anywhere in the diagram, you will see, that it can never bee in four regions at the same time. And the more you know about your opponent and the smaller the ball gets the more precise the localization of the ball will be.

We know what we KNOW

5s4opp8If we observed correctly we can put the opponent at his place in the diagram and we see that if there is Weak or Strong there is the bind.

  1. Strong in the bind but After because he is not threatening me
  2. After because he tries to parry but even that does not work
  3. Weak in the bind but not decided if Before or After
  4. Before and I am not getting him into a bind
  5. Before and binding me by his Strong
  6. We are In-Between, nothing is decided yet

We Know where we are

If we observed the opponent correctly we know where we are. We are divided by the binding axis in the middle of Strong and Weak. So along the axis we both can be Strong or Weak at the same moment, but we both can never be Before or After together.

So if he is Before and Strong, we could be Strong and After, or Weak and After. But we can never be in the Before quarter. If we think that we are there, we are deluding ourselves.

So best is, not to care about where we are, but how we get him, where we want him to be.

We know what we want

5s4opp10If we know where the opponent is now and we want him to be someplace else in the diagram, we have to pass through the bind. If we want him to stay where he is, we elude the bind. Every play can be visualized by this diagram of the Five Words.

The orange arrow is essential what we do in the first play, the Zornhau. Therefore the play has two options (dotted arrows): the way over the Weak and the way over the Strong. And these two options are what we are taught in the play. Those options can be used separated or chained (snake like curved arrow). How huge such a chain might get are we taught later on inthe War (Krieg).

 We Know how to get there

5s4opp11If we analyse the plays of the Liechtenauer tradition we find that success depends on the correct observation where your opponent is in the diagram and that you mirror him.

So if he is Before you attack him and you don’t want to change that you applay the plays belonging to After like “Nachreisen”.

But if you want to change the situation with him in the Before and be yourself in the Before your path will lead through the In-between. In the In-Between there is the bind and in the bind is Strong and Weak. To win the bind the simplest way is to attack his Strong with your Weak. The more complicated ways is to weaken his Strong by using the effects of the blade geometry (e.g. blade vs edge in the plays of the Twerhau) or the mechanics of joints and muscles (e.g. bent vs elongated arms driving him high with the arms in the plays of the Scheitler). If you weaken the Strong you seem to attack the Strong with the Strong but in fact you attack the Weak (weakened Strong) with the Strong.


The Five Words of Liechtenauer are not only a way to assess your opponent, and the current fighting situation, but they offer a path to win a fight. The diagram is a method to visualize this in a (relatively) understandable way. If the diagram was used by the old masters is questionable and unknown. We can assume that it was known to some of them as they were highly educated men. But there is are only a few indications and the knowledge that diagrams like that were highly common. For us today it may help to understand the plays and principles better. If that raises the quality of our fighting is another question, that cannot be answered by words but by exercises in the gym. But try to observe fighting situations correctly, fight with mind and body, and your chances may get better to win.