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The sources we use to reconstruct the historical martial arts are written in a language that is not fully understandable to us. Words change meanings or have multiple meanings and so we need to interprete not only the martial art, it already starts with interpreting the text in a critical manner. This includes reading it word by word and look up the meaning even if it seems to be obvious.

One specific word troubling the interpreters is “var”. It appears very often in the texts and may have very different meanings. To understand it takes some effort.

Looking up the dictionaries

“var” as a noun has the following meanings

  • “danger” and in the version of “gevar”. This is supported by the Latin/German dictionary created by Dasypodius in the 16th century, also by Grimm and Weigand.
  • “bull” in Middle-High-German according to the standard reference for that language of BMZ.
  • “colour” (feature) today “Farbe” used like an adjective to be found at BMZ
  • “motion” in various forms supported by a multitude of dictionaries like BMZ, Lexer, and Grimm.

“var” as a verb

  •  “endanger someone”, “being after someone in an evil manner” by BMZ.
  •  “moving/driving” also in every form and meaning by BMZ, Lexer, Grimm, and others.

Evolution of the word

“var” as a word has several forms of evolution. All meanings are based on the meaning of a fast motion. A fast motion to somebody could be seen as an attack, so the meaning of “an var” to somebody is an aggressive action against somebody (still available in modern German “jemanden anfahren”). Somebody who is in “an far” is in danger of getting attacked.

Danger

The usage of the prefix “ge” to the word “var” which makes it a “gevar” was a process that is located in Old High German. The prefix typically creates a package of more than one thing (1). So somebody who is in “gevar” was not going to be attacked by a certain other person in a certain defined way and at a certain time, but could be attacked by any means at any time. Somebody who is in “an var” is someone who is going to be attacked by a certain person at a certain (now) time. The meaning differs by the indeterminacy of the “gevar”. Practial usage and poetic art shortens both the “an var” and the “ge var” to “var”. The interpreters of the historical texts had often only poetry at hand to build up their dictionary. Thus it is not clear if a word was used that way in common language or only in the poetry.

Motion

At the same time the word “var” had still the meaning of a motion in the practical and in the transferred sense. Especially if combined with any adposition defining a place or a direction: “an”, “auf”, “durch”, “unter”, “hoch”, “hinter” (to, on, through, below, high, behind). If the adposition is positioned as a postposition “var an”, “var durch”, “var auf” the translation has still to decide if it is only a motion or already an attack. If the adposition is positioned as a preposition “an var”, “durch var”, “auf var” it becomes complicated.

“ane” Confusion

Most prepositions are easy identified but not the word “an” (“to someone or something”). The reason for this is that it exists in the versions of “an”, “ane”, “on”. This matches fairly the word “ohne” (“without”) which exists in versions like “öne”, “one”, and “ane”. And it matches the “ane” as “einer” (“one”) in many dialects. More to it it matches a sloppy “anner”, “ane”, “öner” (“the other”, or “the second”).

Thus the words “ane var” could mean “without danger”, “move once”, “move to the other side”, or “attack” something. The latter may help us in some readings if a target exists to wich the attacking motion may move. But “an” does not always needs a target, it can be used as an undetermined direction.

Thus for “ane var” no safe reading is given without a context.

Applying statistics

If the dictionary does not give us the answer we can use some tools to identify a meaning of a word or a word combination. In the following I will use the Codex 44a8 of the Biblioteca dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana in Rome, Italy, as an brillant example to illustrate the problem and the methods. It is a compilation of multiple treatises and written in a dialect flowered German somewhere between Middle High German and Modern German. It contains fencing poems and glosses.

The first method is to build up statistics. How often is a word used and which words like adpositions form the direct context. If we look at the Codex 44a8 we find in the longsword section more more than 100 times the word “var” meaning a motion or an attack characterised by a direction or target. Additionally we find the word “gevar” (“Der scheitlar dem antlützt ist gevar“) in its full form as “gevardlich”, “gevär”, “gevar”.

We find the word “var” with adpositions of any kind “var hoch”, “durch var” (“var durch”), “var nach”, “var auf”, “var ym … an” (a target like the neck). Nearly every direction someone can move a sword to. “an” is used as a pre- and postposition.

With overwhelming numbers of the usage of “var” as a motion (or attack) and the word “gevar” in usage we could safely deduce that the probability of the meaning of “var” as danger in the glosses of that book is extremely low.

Poetry is changing the rules! We could eventually still find “var” without the leading “ge-” in the meaning of danger. And the book is full of poetry called the Zedel. So using numbers is not enough.

Applying the context

As an additional tool we must use the translation doing try and error. If the translation to a modern language with known meaning of words makes sense, we may have found a solution. But often more than one solution makes sense to the reader. In that case the riddle can’t be solved and the translation of a critical edition should mark that. I will provide some examples from the book.

In folio 4r of the 44a8 we find

| Vier plössen wisse
| Reme so schlestu gewisse
| An alle vare
| An zweÿfel wie er geparr

A translation with motion (ane = direction) would result in
| Know the 4 openings
| strive, you will hit for sure
| move to all of them
| be wary of how he behaves

A translation with attack (ane = direction) would result in
| Know the 4 openings
| strive, you will hit for sure
| attack all of them
| be wary of how he behaves

A translation with danger (ane = without) would result in
| Know the 4 openings
| strive, you will hit for sure
| without any danger
| be wary of how he behaves

All three translations makes sense in a way. The reader now must decide if a fast sword-motion, an attack by the sword, or the promise of no danger makes more sense to him.

FOLIO 4r PROVIDES:

| Wer dir öberhäwt
| zorñhaw ort dem drawt
| wirt er es gewar
| Nÿm oben ab öne far 

A translation with motion (öne = direction => other side) would result in
| Who strikes at you from above
| Is threatened by the point of the wrath strike
| If he gets aware of it
| Take it away move to the other side

A translation with attack (öne = direction => other side)  would result in
| Who strikes at you from above
| Is threatened by the point of the wrath strike
| If he gets aware of it
| Take it away attack on the other side

A translation with danger (öne = without) would result in
| Who strikes at you from above
| Is threatened by the point of the wrath strike
| If he gets aware of it
| Take it away without danger

IN FOLIO 4R WE FIND

| krump wer dich Irret
| Der edel kriegk in vor wirret
| Das er nicht weiß vor war
| wo er sey ane far

A translation with motion (ane = direction) would result in
| Strike in a curve to whom fools you
| The nobel war will confuse him
| Such that he doesn’t know for sure
| where he is without moving

A translation with attack (ane varen = attack) would result in
| Strike in a curve to whom fools you
| The nobel war will confuse him
| Such that he doesn’t know for sure
| where he is attacked

A translation with danger (ane = without) would result in
| Strike in a curve to whom fools you
| The nobel war will confuse him
| Such that he doesn’t know for sure
| where he is without danger

The translation with “motion” makes no sense at all. In the combination with “ane” the translation with “attack” makes as much sense as the one with “danger”.

Folio 6v of fighting on horseback provides:

| vnd merck ler wol starck schütten
| Allen treffen an far do mit nött in
| An setz an far
| wer straifft heng im zu dem har

A translation with motion (ane = direction) would result in
| Learn to protect well with strength
| Move to all meetings (of the blades) with that, such that he not
| may move to stick on
| to whom grazes hang to the hair

A translation with attack (ane = direction) would result in
| Learn to protect well with strength
| Move to all meetings (of the blades) with that, such that he not
| may attack by sticking on
| to whom grazes hang to the hair

A translation with danger (ane = without) would result in
| Learn to protect well with strength
| All meetings (of the blades) are without danger, such that he does not
| Stick on without danger
| to whom grazes hang to the hair

The translation with “danger” makes no sense at all. Thus only the other two make sense here.

Summary

There is no foolsafe way to read a Late Medieval text in absolutely the sense of meanings the author may have intended. So it is more or less only an opinion the reader of the book builds up along the line of facts, assumptions, and personal preferences.

Personal preferences lead me to the opinion that there is no such thing like a danger-free technique in weapon based fighting. Some authors like the unknown of the GMN3227a tell us to act “kuenlich und risch” (“keen [not anxiously] and fast”). But next to “Kunheit und rischeit” he adds “vorsichtikeit list und klugheit” (“cautiousness, cunning, and wisdom”). He tells us to avoid “Tumkunheit”  (“daredevilry”) and “oebermut” (“haughtiness”). So while the authors tell us to be in good spirit and not afraid, he wants us to stay calm and be careful. Such way we will get not hurt.

Thus in any case in which a translation of “var” with a motion or attack makes sense, I will use it.

Dictionaries
(Dasypodius) DICTIONARIUM LATINOGERMANICUM, Petrus Dasypodius, Straßburg, 1537
(BMZ) Mittelhochdeutsches Wörterbuch, Benecke, Müller, Zarncke; online version
(Lexer) Mittelhochdeutsches Handwörterbuch, M. Lexer; online version
(Grimm) Deutsches Wörterbuch, Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm; online version
(Weigand) Deutsches Wörterbuch, Karl Weigand, Gießen 1880

Other books
(1)’ALTHOCHDEUTSCHER BEDEUTUNGSBAUKASTEN’ zusammengestellt von den Teilnehmerinnen und Teilnehmern des PS Althochdeutsch im Wintersemester 2000/2001 an der Universität Tübingen, Dozentin: Dr. Henrike Lähnemann

Special thanks to Christian Tobler providing me some quotes (without fully agreeing in my case) .