Q: Master Talhoffer, what is the trick to do a perfect strike?
A: You strike without wanting to hit.
Q: You mean to strike without wanting to hurt somebody?
A: No, you just strike, hitting is no matter
Q: But if he strikes at me too. What is than to do?
A: You strike, the opponen’ts sword does not matter.
Q: But what matters?
A: The strike. And because of the strike being all that matters, you must choose carefully which strike you do.
In medieval German fight books you will find the term “Hau” for some defined movements armed with a sword, single or two handed, or unarmed. This raises the question if the term is defined or at least understood in a certain way, that we can deduce today. The following article looks at the understanding of the term translated here as “strike” into modern English. The translation itself is not satisfying. A “Hau” should be translated as a “Hew” because of the small distance between the German “strich” and English “strike”. The “strich” is a straight line, while a “hew” could as well be circular. But the term”strike” is in common usage and therefore I expect the text to be easier readable by using it.
A Strike Is A Motion And Not An Intention
Strikes are commonly mistaken with the intention to hit something, which maybe identical with the wish to wound somebody. But a wish or intention comes only into the real world if the potentiality to fulfill it is given. So the wish or intention exists independent of the motion. And because of any strike can happen unintentional it’s independent of any intention. A strike is a term defined by a motion.
A strike intercepted in its beginning is not a strike at all, it is an attempted strike. It can only become actual if certain conditions are met. The first condition is the existence of a starting point which is easy. The second condition is the existence and the identification of the end position, which must differ in a way from the start such that we have to move the hand up/down or left/right or in any combination of these directions (even circular). Finally the last condition is that there must be an unblocked path to get from the start to the end. If all three conditions are met the strike can become actual. But to be a strike it must be done with some force. We know by physics that force and time are correlated in the momentum. A strike done with force is never slow, and to do a fast motion with a heavy object someone needs strength. A strike is therefore defined as fast and powerful.
A Strike Or Not A Strike
The Term “Fahren”
In the German manuscripts the verb “hauen” (striking) is defined as fast and powerful motion, while the verb “fahren” is also fast and powerful. So what is the difference between them? It is in the acceleration. A strike has an extremely strong positive acceleration at the start and an extremely strong negative at the end point, while in the middle of the motion no acceleration happens. The negative acceleration could be provided by the target or the wielder of the weapon.
Driving has a constant positive acceleration until the end position is reached. Driving is not an explosive motion. At the end position there maybe some stronger negative acceleration needed (or is provided by the target) but usually only the “driving power” is switched off.
In summary a strike is a fast motion with the hand of any direction but not straight forward or straight backward with very high acceleration at the start (speed up) and end (slow down).
The Terms “Stoßen”, “Zucken”, and “Stechen”
If we exclude the straight forward and any backward move from the strike, we should explain why. In the German sources we find the terms “stoßen” (pushing) and “stechen” (stabbing or thrusting) in use of motions directly away from the own body, while “zucken” or “zurückziehen” (withdrawing) is directed back to the own body. In regard of the acceleration the pushing and redrawing resembles the striking and not the driving.
Both motions of pushing and redrawing are excluded from the definition of striking in the term “hauen” by the direction. So if we are encouraged to mutate a “Hau” into a “Stich” and vice versa, we should train to change the direction instead of applying a negative acceleration. After done so we stop the thrusting by a negative acceleration.
After we defined the strike to be a motion of the hand with high acceleration at start and end, that moves in any direction but not straight forward or backward, we could lean back and be happy. Or we can have a look at the kind of strikes we can do.
Understanding Physics In Modern Terms
The joints and bones in our arm limit how we can move our weapon in the hand. From our body the joints are shoulder, elbow, and wrist. While ulna and radius are no joints they still allow a motion similar to a joint. They enable us to do a 180 degrees turn, what is more than the elbow provides. But the most capable joint in our body is the shoulder, which is not a single joint, but we can leave anatomical details to the side and simplify it greatly here.
If we look at the following table summarizing the force of the approximated percentage contributions to the impact racket velocity during the power serve in tennis (1,2) we can learn something about strikes.
A serve in tennis is not really comparable to a strike (even not to the Zornhau) of the sword, but we can use the data to gather some knowledge about force generation. The table tells us that the shoulder and the upper arm add 65% to the force while the forearm and the hand only add 35% to the force. While the research had shown that a strike of a bat in baseball or serve with a tennis rack are complex motions, hard to understand, there is a huge amount of studies done already available. They indicate the fascinating complexity of body motions like the path of the elbow (left image below) and the elbow speed in the vertical and horizontal directions (right image below – the horizontal speed is negative since the elbow moves from right to left).
This and further research by Rod Cross (4) provides us with the information that the angular speed of the racket resembles an inverted “V” by telling us that
1. it grows BEFORE contact
2. it has the MAX at the contact
3. it decreases AFTER the contact
That is no big surprise here because it is felt by every strike done by a sword fighter, but it is always better to scientific data behind assumptions. A small surprise is, that the angular speed of the hand (!!!) grows for a very short time after contact and decreases later on (strongly recommended readings: publications by Rod Cross on the physics of baseball, softball and tennis). Now we need to translate that to medieval terms.
Understanding Physics in Medieval Terms
To understand how medieval fencing masters may have observed the effects of a strike we will use their terms of “weak” and “strong”. Those terms are not only part of the famous five words of Johannes Liechtenauer but define features of sword like weapons up today. We remember that from the point to the middle of the blade is the “weak” and the second half near to the hand is the “strong“.
If we take this to the human arm we call the forearm the “weak” and the upper arm the “strong”. Those definitions are easy understood if we test them when we press or lift with the hand only, the forearm only, or the upper arm only. But we all know that the best effect is to use a combination of the whole system and supporting strong angles of the joints. While we get the badest results if we use weak angles or no angles at all. Thus elongating the arm early creates weaker results than keeping strong angles until reach is needed.
The weakest link in our arm (ignoring fingers) is the wrist. Nevertheless it’s an essential part of the system (see results by Rod Cross above).
With these definitions in our mind we look again at the strike. We can deliver strikes by the wrist, the elbow, or the shoulder alone while the other joints are outstretched and stable. We know already that using the complete system is the best way. But it may be useful to emphasis by timing some joints more and others less to create certain wanted effects.
Timing Is The Key To Motion
Stretching (extending) the arm can be done at the start of the motion or at the end. Theoretically it can be done at the exact middle as well but practically not. We look at the start of the strike, because of two reasons:
- Modern research teach us that at the start of the motion is the biggest force applied,
- A strike may get intercepted at any given time, so that the force applied very early is essential.
A strike done with an early elongated arm is called weak because it starts with the weak part of the arm. A strike started by the strong of the arm is called strong. Thus the strongest strike will start with the shoulders, continue with the elbow, and end with the wrist. Which is exactly the way the so called “Zornhau” should be done.
eyn öberhaw slecht von der achsel / heisset den czornhaw / wen eym itzlichem in syme grymme vnd czorne
Two handed weapons and hand positions
If using two handed weapons with a long handle (which allows the freedom of movement of one hand) the combination of the whole system for the start of a strike could be strong-strong, strong-weak, weak-strong, or weak-weak. Thus the strongest and the weakest two handed strike would both be done with both hands close to each other. Such that both arms can start the strike with the shoulders to be strong or with the elbow or even the wrist to be weak. The two strikes with the combination of weak and strong of both arms would be done with the hands far from each other. This allows to work quite variable in the use of strong and weak.
Auch wisse das eyn guter fechter sal vör allen sachen syn swert gewisse vnd sicher füren vnd fassen / mit beiden henden / czwischen gehilcze vnd klos / wen alzo helt her das swert vil sicher / den das hers bey dem klosse vasset mit eyner hant / vnd slet auch vil harter vnd sürer / alzo / wen der klos öberwirft sich vnd swenkt sich noch dem slage das der slag vil harter / dar kumpt / den das her das swert mit dem klosse vasset / wen alzo / czöge her den slag / mit dem klosse weder / das her nicht zo voelkömlich vnd zo stark möchte dar komen
Again we can find the recommended way to strike strongly in the sources by both hands close to each other, while images of variable and elaborate fencing show both hands far apart from each other. E.g. The two hands far apart from each other will allow to add another effect in which the leading hand is weak and the following hand is strong. The leading hand extends early while the following hand is pulling strongly. Thus the weak rotation will get a strong impulse by the following hand.
It is to remark, that by the limitations of our body some strikes could not be done with two handed weapons without limiting the reach by crosssing the arm. Thus most strikes will have the need of a leading hand providing the emphasis of the strike as weak or strong.
The features of the strikes
The fencing masters used the strong and weak of the arm to create certain effects. We can see that in the so called five strikes. The Zornhau starting extremely strong while the weak travels behind. The Krumphau starting very weak but getting extremely strong on the path. The Twerhau being most variable with one strong and the other arm weak. The Schielhau as the pendant to the Zornhau is again strong and the Schaitler as the pendant to the Krumphau is weak.
What does it mean if one strike is the pendant to another? It means that one strike is done with the Long edge (knuckle bones side of the hand or unarmed the forehand) while its pendant is done with the Short edge (thumb side of the hand or unarmed the backhand). Practitioners of historical German fencing will object here. They will point out that the Schaitler (Scheitelhau) is not done with the Short edge (it is only turned in the “Kehr”) and the Schielhau ends only with the Short edge. I probably need to explain another thing here.
Short edge strikes may start with the long edge
As mentioned above our joints have limitations. Therefore we cannot fulfill the requirements set up by geometry and physics without cheating. We cannot do a strike from above starting with the strong of the arm and the Short edge of the sword. Also with the weak the start of a strike with the short edge would be extremely uncomfortable. The only way to do it is in a horizontal movement: the Twerhau.
So despite that they start with the Long edge the Schaitler and the Schielhau are Short edge strikes. They need to start that way for anatomical reasons. But they create their effects on the opponent by the turning to the Short edge. It happens that the strikes hit or are intercepted before they can turn to the Short edge, and this can even be a wanted situation. Thus we find many of the interception situations in the manuscripts, in which the short edge strikes are not turned and still have the Long edge in motion.
The best strike of all
The only strike which is easily done by both edges is the Twerhau, and furthermore it can be done by starting with the Strong or the Weak part of the arm. That’s why the authors of the manuscripts called it as the best 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 /Vnd der get dar / zam dy twer / czu beyden seiten mit beiden sneiden / der hindern vnd der vördern / czu allen blossen / vnden vnde oben
The Lego System of Hans Liechtenauer
The author of the GMN 3227a says that by Liechtenauer’s five strikes every other strike may get constructed. If we look at the properties and features of those strikes we find indeed every option covered. The following table lists the five strikes and the way the should start with the strong or weak part of the arm. The strikes end with a certain edge, Long or Short. The point moves along a certain path, this could be a curve or a more or less straight line. A strike must always be offensive according to the authors of the manuscript, but the question is if the self-protection of the strike is defensive by blocking the line of attack of the opponent, or if it is evasive such that the fencer must step out of the strike. Thus not only Talhoffer tells us (see image above) if you step left with a right strike, you must do a strong one. Such way you will use the defensive feature of the strong strike.
|Strike||Starts with||Ends with||Path of the point||Self- protection
|Zornhau||Strong arm||Long Edge||Straight Line||Defensive|
|Krumphau||Weak arm||Long Edge||Curve||Evasive|
|Twerhau||Strong arm||Long Edge||Straight Line||Defensive|
|Weak arm||Long Edge||Curve||Evasive|
|Strong arm||Short Edge||Straight Line||Defensive|
|Weak arm||Short Edge||Curve||Evasive|
|Schielhau||Strong arm||Short Edge||Straight Line||Defensive|
|Scheitelhau||Weak arm||Short Edge||Curve||Evasive|
The five strikes describe a meta system of strike motions. It is a toolbox for the fencer to choose from. In theory the fencer can select any combination that he wants but in reality his anatomy sets the limits. But it seems that there is already a fault in the system: it takes care about the difference between horizontal and non-horizontal strikes. In the most prominent descriptions the Twerhau is a horizontal strike, which is done preferable with the short edge. The same is with other strikes, they all seem to prefer a certain direction in their descriptions, but nearly no crucial strike is done from below. A question comes to the mind that had been issued quite often.
Why Are There No Crucial Strikes From Below?
It is interesting that in the GMN 3227a the author offers another model of explaining the strikes when he explains the Messer:
Eyn man hat nür czwn hende / vnd hat von ider hant czwen slege oben / vnd vnden auch czwene / aus den komen stiche vnd snete / als of dem swerte ist / mit den winden
Every man has two hands and has of each hand two strikes from above and two from below, which are in my opinion the Strong and Strong strikes. The Strong strikes feature the thrusts and the Weak strikes the cuts. Those strikes can be done with the Winding, which means with the Short and Long edge. This model is nearly identical to that of the Five Strikes. Interesting is, that while he uses no strike from below in the model of the Five Strikes he includes them in this far more vague model of Two Hands.
There are of cause anatomical restrictions to the strikes from below especially with the two handed weapons, but that does not explain why the strikes from below are nearly non-existing in the Liechtenauer tradition. We have the so called Fehler, that is the Krump executed from below, but it is not a single strike, it is a full play with teasing the opponent into a trap.
We can only place assumptions here. The easiest one would be that the strikes from above are more powerful and those from below will leave the head unprotected from the start. But this is quite fast eliminated by the fact that what comes from above will go down and needs to get up again. So the strikes from below must have at least some defensive meaning and as we all know they hit with enough power to wound fatally.
The most reasonable assumption is that due the fact of gravity we all walk on the ground and the ground is solid. That makes it impossible to do the same cuts from below that we do from above where we cut effortless through thin air. So the number of strikes from below is so few that they are not explained separately but are implicitly included in the techniques of the other plays. This assumption gets more weight if we look at the fact that fighting on horseback reduces the options of strikes from below enormously.
It may be the case that by the strikes from above the effects and features of the strikes had been explained enough, thus there is no need to repeat it again with the strikes from below. Especially not if there is a reduced number of useful strikes from below. They get explained together with the plays. And in fact we find them there.
Baptising the strikes
A strike got a name. But what does the name say? Where does the name come from?
The Liechtenauer five strikes are named after the following method:
- Krumphau => Krump => Curve, describes the path of the hand/point
- Twerhau => Twer => Across, describes the path of the hand/point from one side to the other
- Schielhau => Scheel => Diagonal, describes the path of the hand/point e.g. from top-right to bottom-left
- Scheitelhau => Scheitel => Parting, Crest, describes the path of the hand/point that stays high firstly and than turns to either side while going down. This is comparable to the motion of the hand while parting the hair with a comb.
- Zornhau => Zorn => Wrath, an emotion, strike without thinking about the motion like a peasant using his axe.
So we have four descriptive and comparative name and one abstract in the five strikes. A strike name is descriptive if the name describes what happens with the sword/hand during the strike. A strike name is comparative if the name uses an analogy from common knowledge. Abstract is a name of the strike if it has no analogy and no descriptive meaning. Let us look at some more names
- Wechselhau => Wechsel => Change, describes the path of the hand/point coming from above and getting up again
- Pfobenczagel => Pfauenschwanz => peacock’s tail, describes the path of the hand/point an analogy to a bird’s tail
- Krawthacke => Krauthacke => weed hack, describes the path of the hand/point in analogy to hacking the weed out of the ground
- Noterczunge => Natternzunge => adder’s tongue, describes the path of the hand/point in analogy to a snakes tongue
- Weckemeister => Weckmeister => unresolved. The word stems from the bakers of white bread, but today it has no meaning for us. There is the possibility that this describes the path of the hand/point that resembles the move of a baker making the famous Brezel, which is the coat of arms of the Weißbäcker/Weckmeister.
- Sturtz Hauw => Sturzhau => Overthrow, describes the path of the hand/point suddenly falling down while tumbling over to the other side
- Flügel haw => Flügelhau => Wing, describes the path of the hand/point going up and down at the side
There is a strong indication that the names of the strikes describe the path of the point/hand. It has nothing to do with footwork or any other parts of a technique. It has mostly nothing to do with the direction. There seems to be a common understanding (by coincidence or practice) to name strikes that way.
In very few exclusions like the “Prellhau” by Joachim Meyer we find the effect mentioned in the name. This is due the modernization of the names that had always been part of “creating” a new fencing book based on the mastership of the author.
Modernization of the names
Joachim Meyer tried hard to stay in the terms of his medieval paragons. His genesis of fencing books from the manuscripts to the printed work displays not only the idea of a standardization but the idea of a easy and fully understandable book. Therefore he restructured the medieval content and modernized the names such that they got connected to certain features. E.g. he brought up the Zornhut, Zornlinie, Zornleger, and the Zornhau to create a family. The only thing missing was the Zornort which is to find at Lecküchner. Speaking of Lecküchner, he was probably the biggest modernizer in the late medieval fencing literature. His strikes and positions were widely named after military things like Zwinger, Bastey, Luginsland, or Zinne. Those partly new names did not follow the “principle” of the old ones.
Strikes, Techniques, and Plays
To nearly every strike is a technique in sword-fighting, in which the strike is embedded. This technique is bound to the effects created by the features of the strike. E.g. the feature of a strike that starts with the strong of the arm is defensive because the strong of the arm brings the arm itself, the hand with the guard, and the strong of the weapon quickly down. Furthermore such a strike will favour a thrust as a follow up motion due the arm being elongated at the end of the power generation. A technique that profits from this features would deadstop an incoming strike and answer it impromptu by a thrust.
The technique and the strike are linked by the features of the strike. Furthermore distance and footwork depend on the features. E.g. a strike with the weak of the arm will need an evasive body motion best done with a step to the side.
The assumption that it is the technique which fills a strike with some usefulness is putting the idea of the concept upside down. It’s the strike and only the strike that creates the effects.
A fencer may hit or not with the strike on chance or on purpose, thus he is in need of two different techniques. The strike and its features stay the same. The technique describes the situation in fighting and the results of the effects by the features. The technique varies.
Because of the strike determins the effects the old fencing masters categorised the techniques by them. The techniques inherited the names of the strikes.
To understand, learn, and practice the context of situation and techniques they created the plays we read today in the books. Those plays are often named too after the strike.
Learning the strike needs to be done in two steps. First the motion than the techniques. Sadly the authors of the fightbooks didn’t provide us with a detailed description of the strikes or the motion. Instead we got tons of technique descriptions and images, which are interpretations of the artist on the techniques.
Therefore the process of interpretation is quite unsatisfying. Strikes are deducted from the effects that are deducted from the outcomes of the techniques in addition to vague and rare descriptions of them. More to this the strikes are not seen as a motion of its own that stays the same through all the techniques, it is seen as part of the technique that varies too.
Nevertheless the good results from years of try and error allows us to reconstruct the original concept as displayed above. Modern interpretation may use the concepts to validate their ideas. They could work with a check list. E.g. interpretations of a technique with a weak strike without evasive footwork would need a good reason to be called valid.
Furtermore the concept could be used to identify certain keywords like “Mit schriten vil” (with a lot of steps) or “vnd spring mit” (and jump with) that the key strike of the technique could be of the “evasive” kind of type. Thus it will probably start with the weak of the arm and the point will do a curve.
Strikes are motions with a strong acceleration at the start and the end. Their names are descriptions of the path the point/hand does during the motion. They can start with the weak part of the arm by elongating the arm early, or they can start with the strong part of the arm using strong angles and elongate at the end of the motion. Depending of being weak or strong, the have certain effects. The blade’s point of the weak strike has the path of a curve and is not very good in protection. A strong strike ‘s point has the path of a more or less straight line and is good in protection. Therefore a strong strike is defensive and a weak needs evasive body motion. Techniques will tell us, how to take favour of the features and effects such strikes. Plays enable to train the techniques. But before we do so, we should be able to bring up any strike exactly the way we want to.
Books used for this article:
Various manuscripts like the:
- ~1389 “Döbringer”, GNM 3227a
- 1452 “Peter von Danzig”, Cod 44a8
- 1467 Talhoffer, Cod. icon 394a
- 1482 Hans Lecküchner, Cgm 582
(1) Elliott, B.C., Marshall, R.N., and Noffal, G. (1995). Contributions of upper limb sgement rotations during the power serve in tennis. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 11: 433-442.
(2) Elliott, B., Takahashi, K., and Noffal, G. (1997). The influence of grip positin on upper limb contributions to racket head velocity in a tennis forehand. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 13: 182-196.
(3) R. Cross, The Double Pendulum In Tennis, University of Sydney, NSW, Australia
(4) R. Cross, A double pendulum swing experiment: In search of a better bat, Am. J. Phys. 73, 330-339 (2005).