In the paper “Limits of Understanding in Historical European Martial Arts Studies” my friend Eric Burkhart introduced a variation of the Semiotic Triangle to the field of Historical Martial Arts Research. The Semiotic Triangle is an old concept found already with Plato and Aristotle in which an real life object (or a matter) is associated with an impression of it and expressed by a symbol: a word, a sign, or an image. Thus a triangular relationship in every direction exists between the symbol, the thought/impression, and the matter itself.

The Semiotic Triangle was modified and repeated through the centuries in various forms.  In more recent linguistic science the triangle was reinvented by Charles Kay Ogden and Ivor Armstrong Richards (Ogden & Richards, 1923). Simply speaking they removed the real object from the triangle and replaced it by an abstract referent that can exist totally independent from the real thing. The “referent” is the common understanding of one thing, or of many things that have a certain feature in common (which was cultural adequate for abstraction). Therefore, a Referent is deeply embedded in the social context of the respective (peer-)group and time. The writer has a Thought that he wants to express and refers to the Referent. Thus he chooses the Symbol which is connected to the Referent to express his Thought.

We follow the argument of Ben Spatz and accept that “If technique is knowledge, then practice can be research” (Spatz, 2015, S. 164), and understand that the aim of the fight-book is educational. By this we must rightfully assume that the Thought persisted in the fight-book is neither the body-motion, nor the technique, but the educational means of how to teach or train the technique.

As Eric Burkhart states absolutely undeniable: today the Medieval/Renaissance peer-group, the social context, and the fighting culture is lost to us (see also “Understanding Historical Records of Technique, Epistemological and Hermeneutic Problems in the Study of Lost Martial Arts”, by Erik Burkhart July 2016 Martial Arts Studies Conference, Cardiff). There is no way to establish a similar environment or culture of sword fighting men today (and it is not desirable). As a fact what is connected to the Referent is not available anymore, and further without the context of the Referent we cannot understand what the Thought of the author or illustrator was. Of the three parts of the Semiotic Triangle the Thought, and the Referent is lost to us. We only have the Symbol, the text and the images.

With only the Symbol in the hand, we are doomed to fill the gaps with what we have at hand. The Symbol perceived by the modern interpreters may evoke a very different matter than what is the Thought of the writer. In most cases this may not result from carefully researched and reviewed scientific methods, but from martial arts alike stuff taken from everywhere. Personal (Asian associated) martial arts knowledge or sport educations, and a mixture of martial arts and knight movies are the modern Referents which had been in great usage in the first decades of the Historical European Martial Arts development. With a decreasing amount this is still the case. The logical thing would be to accept this fact and rename the Historical European Martial Arts as Historical Like Pseudo-European Martial Arts.

In the following series of articles I will demonstrate that there is no need to rename HEMA and that we can overcome some of the limits in understanding the martial arts depictured in the fight books, and that we can happily accept, that we do not understand them completely. But first I will need to illustrate the process how the Symbols found their way into the fight-books. In the further text I will use the term “Symbol” not as a single sign, but as word, a definition, a verse line, or a picture.

From Real Body Motions To Symbols

The definition of the term Symbol in regard of fight-books it is not restricted to the use of textual expressions but to images as well. In the investigation of the usage of existing symbols we must separate the image from the text because in most cases it was separated in the process of production (Kleinau, 2016). Only a few authors had probably been the source of the image as well.

The author (not the scribe) of the fight-book is the one who provides us with the Symbol and by this with a Referent to the real motion (used to teach the technique). In case of the image the illustrator provides us with the Symbol and was (eventually) instructed by the authority how to depict the fighting scenario which symbolizes the technique (to be taught). The image contains Referents to known motions (e.g. a raised hand is a Symbol linked to the Referent of a strike from above). Furthermore the image depicts a scene that allows a direct comparison with the motion (even if the meaning differs from the depicted content). The image delivers a context that may be plainly visible or may to be unlocked by iconographic investigation (Kleinau, 2016). But it exists. The image may depict some armor, or a type of weapon that has a different size than what is to be expected. By this the context of the body motion can be assumed or directly identified due physical and mechanical needs. The context of a word of is more vague and hard to reconstruct.

Words As Symbols

If the authority uses a given term in fencing tradition or invents a new one is not of relevance. The method of transmission and persisting the Thought via the Referent is the same. To understand what the Thought is we assume that the authority wants to educate the reader (better user) of the fight-book (Kleinau, 2016). So we expect to find educational content that is put into the book by the choice of the term as the Symbol. In most cases the term uses at least two words/Referents and the connected symbol of it as a single one is not enough. In German the usage of compound words is very common.

If naming a single body motion like a strike[1] the author selects a Symbol that matches the general understanding (common Referent) of such a motion like “Hau”. It is understandable that this may be enough for a verb in a sentence “hau zum mann” to emphasis that every strike – regardless which – should be directed to the opponent. But it is not enough to revoke the Thought to a very specific body motion.

To detail the motion from general to specific the author picks a certain property he thinks of very prominent for this motion. This feature may be found in other motions as well, but it is the one, that makes this motion at this stage of communication outstanding. So the feature giving the name for this body motion is not exclusive to this motion, it can be used in many other motions as well. The referencing term for the feature may not have any further use in later stages of the syllabus. It may even be that this Referent does not describe the prominent features of this body motion. It must not be descriptive. But it is absolutely prominent at this step of teaching or learning. Such a name is the “Zornhau”. The motion of the strike is not very special, it is a simple one. The described motion happens to appear in many techniques of the sword. But at the very early stage of learning the authors reduced the strike to a single motion from one side. Furthermore he uses a motion of which he thinks is known to everybody ever used a farming tool or stick to strike furiously at a target.


The naming of a body motion in the Thought of a teacher depends on a general Referent to similar motions and to a prominent feature Referent at the current stage of the syllabus. It is a compound Symbol to at least two Referents.

From Principles To Symbols

The educational content which is taught by training a real body motion can be understood as a principle of martial arts. Those principles are represented as fencing terms sometimes only a single word wide e.g. “Veler” (for a feint), sometimes a term combination e.g. “Zornhau-Ort” (for a thrust following a strike), or a mnemonic e.g. “Ligans ligati contrarij sunt & irati / ligatus fugit ad partes laterum peto sequi” (for not letting the opponent recover safely to the side).

The shorter terms must be understood as commands. They are shortened mnemonics which can be used during teaching practice – leading back to the knowledge and research (Spatz, 2015, S. 164). The student will experience what works in a practice when excecuting the command. The link to the mnemonic will allow him to understand and execute the principle. The “Veler” will recall “Veler wer fürt |Von vnden nach wünscher rurt” and the “Zornhau-Ort” will recall “Wer dir öberhäwt|zorenhaw ort dem drawt”.

In Renaissance texts printed we often find only the Command left of the mnemonic. The idea of creating a poem, the Zedel, for structuring the educational content was replaced by the concept of structuring the text based on technical demands in printing, selling books and single-leaf-prints. The command became a title which may still be linked to the educational content but more often is loosely put into place as a page header (e.g. Andre Paurnfeyndt, Ergründung Ritterlicher Kunst der Fechterey, 1516)

From Techniques To Symbols

Giving a complex technique a single name is of little use in a teaching syllabus and therefore rarely found. In the GMN3227a there are techniques of “other masters” named “gefechte”. These are Referents to visualizations of the main features. The “eyserynen pforten” has the function of an iron gate protecting the body behind the sword if attacked by many opponents. The “noterczunge” and “krawthacke” are named because of the motion of the sword. Collections of techniques often do not follow the strict concept of a syllabus and are Referents in the most colorful way.

In a teaching syllabus of the 15th century fight books techniques are Referents by a combination of symbols presented in a rhyme. Each single word in the verse Referents a thought of the author. The first technique in the Liechtenauer syllabus is “Der dir oberhawet / czornhaw ort deme drewet”. The author starts with the opponent “Der” who acts against the reader “dir” by a common motion “haw” that comes from above “ober”. The opponent “deme” is answered by a common motion “haw” everybody does in wrath “czorn” of which an incomplete action “drewet” by the point “ort” may frighten him.

The verse line in the teaching syllabus is an extremely compact form to refer to a complex situation and series of actions in an exercise to teach fighting. They are glossed to explain the exercise in the interpretation of the respective author.

Reconstruction of the Referents from the Symbols

A Symbol can be an image, a complete technique description, a verse in a single line, or can be broken down to the fraction of a combined word. Such symbol is the word “Hau” (best translated as “hew” but commonly translated as “strike”). We find it in multiple usage as a verb and much more as part of carefully defined terms like “Zornhau”, “Krumphau”, “Schielhau” etc. In old and modern German language the “Hau” is a body motion that may be targeted to hit something or somebody, or a place to cut wood in the forest. Such a research is easily done by looking up appropriate dictionaries. But this is a common meaning that does not need to fit to the peer group of the fight books. While we can safely remove the wood-cutting as a Referent we do not know if a “Hau” was meant to hit always or not (this is actual a point of discussion in the community).

To reconstruct the Referent we can search through the fightbooks. The search will result in a body motion that is targeted to hit. We may find few accounts of the word “Hau” without a notion of a hit, and there is rarely a fully clear evidence that this is a free motion (e.g. GMN3227a, 52v Fechtschul). Our task must be to find written evidence in books or letters of people belonging to the same cultural context. This may be 14th or 15th century soldiers, law executing forces, knights or citizens of known fighting experience. In this case we have e.g. Referents of using this word together with the motion of a sword in the laws of the city of Freiberg on judicial combat reported to be set around 1300. As we know that the 15th century fencing masters often had strong connection to judicial duels we can count this in.

“so sal der vorderer ienen suchen mit drin howen, alse recht ist: zwene howe sal he howen uber sime schilde, umme sin houbt in der luft; mit dem dritten slage sal he zu ieme kumen also nahe, daz he treffe sinen schilt oder sin swert oder den man selbe” [1]

In the quote of the city law there are three body motions with a sword and only the last one is directed to hit something or somebody. The first two are to be made in the air rotating over the own shield and head. The author does not create a Referent to an actual hit. It is a free body motion. Further research will lead us to the following definition:

A “Hau” is a defined by the common understanding of the 14th and 15th century experts of martial arts as a martially intended body motion done with the arm (using an weapon or not). A “Hau” may be aimed at a target but must not.

This seems like a simple thing, so let us do a step further with the word “Krump” as found in “Krumphau”.

Just looking the word up in the dictionaries of old German will result in two meanings “crippled” and “curved”. By putting it into context of the masterly martial motions called “Meisterhau[2]” some interpreters favored the thought of a strike so artfully, that it cripples the opponent’s hand. This was based on the verse “Krumpp auff behend / wirff den ort auf die hend” (e.g. Falkner). The explicitly different spelling of “krump” and “krumm” in “Auch meynt her das / eyner den hewen nicht gleich sal noch gehen vnd treten zonder etwas beseites / vnd krummes vmme /” (GMN3227a, S. 19v, 25v) did not help to resolve the Referent using Liechtenauer fightbooks. Referents in judicial books happen to meet the meaning of crippled in the nature of law suites, as well as they support the idea of bending the law by “krumb”.

Further research proved that the spelling of “krumb” and “krum(m)” had been interchangeable, but probably was kept as “krumphaw” by the unknown author of the GMN3227a as a Referent to the orginal spelling, while he preferred to use the spelling of “krumm” in his own explanations of the strike “der krumphaw / ist eyn oberhaw der do mit eyme guten ausschrete / krummes dar / get”. It was resolved that the “Krumphaw” was a curved motion and therefore defined as follows:

A “Krumphau” is defined by the common understanding of the 14th and 15th century experts of martial arts as a martially intended body motion done with the arm, in wich the hand or the point of the weapon describes a visible curve. A “Krumphau” may be aimed at a target but must not.

Referents could get resolved if explained by glosses or by a good amount of quotes in matching peer group writings.

Limitations in reconstruction of the Referents from the Symbol

Resolving the Referent in Symbols that are so common or used in an abstract way that the amount of options is too high to give a clear distinction is impossible. A prominent example is the “Zornhau” this “Hau” is connected with the word “Zorn” (wrath) which is an emotion and can therefore not associated with any geometrical form or any object. Hints in the sources that it is done from the right shoulder (GMN3227a) and from above, or that the “Zornhau” is a simple strike as done by a farmer, are not sufficient to give a detailed definition. Later sources of mid 16th century had been under the influence of Italian and Spain fencing masters. Taking their description into account the “Zornhau” is executed as a steep diagonal strike. But as they are influenced their use is questionable for resolving the 15th century Referent. Thus we end with the following definition:

A “Zornhau” is defined by the common understanding of the 14th and 15th century experts of martial arts as a martially intended body motion done with the arm, which resembles a simple strike done by a farmer, comes from above, and is done from the right shoulder. A “Zornhau” may be aimed at a target but must not.

To define a body motion, a minimum of information needs to be provided by the authors. If the Referent is too vague, no definition can be provided from the sources. A different method of research must be applied.

But even if we can resolve a symbol. We must take in account that the original Referent of the writer may got have lost during the transmission done in Medieval and Renaissance times. A good example is the “Schielhau”. The two meanings of “Schiel” as “diagonal/cross” and “slanted”, resulted in correct copies of the verse and even some of the techniques, but resulted as well in wrongly explanations of the name in the sources: “So halt dein swert an der rechten achsel | vnd schil mit dem gesicht zue dem ort | vnd thue als dw ÿm dar zue hauen wöllest” (44a8). As modern interpreters happen to come across the 15th century explanation they adapted the Referent even it was highly questionable. Resolving the Referent to the original meaning would provide an understanding of the original body motion but would not cover entirely the understanding of some of the 15th century fencing masters. The process of critical examination of the fight-books must resolve that not only the Thought of the later quoted poem may differ from the Thought of the original “inventor” of the Symbol, but the Referent as well, even if the Symbol is identical.


To define a body motion, a choice needs to be made if multiple Referents to the same symbol had been used, but are pointing to different thoughts. This choice is always with a certain source or source group.


Burkhart, E. (2016). Limits of Understanding in Historical European Martial Arts Studies. Historical European Martial Arts Studies, I: Modern Practice and Its Connection to the Source Material, Paper 536-a. University of Leeds.

Burkhart, E. (2016). Understanding Historical Records of Technique, Epistemological and Hermeneutic Problems in the Study of Lost Martial Arts. Cardiff: Martial Arts Studies Conference.

GMN3227a. (n.d.). Nürnberg: Germanisches Nationalmuseum.

Ogden, C., & Richards, I. (1923). The Meaning of Meaning. New York: 8th Ed., Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

[1] The word „strike“ is already misleading as it was associated with a certain form of straight motion, while the “Hau” is not set to a circular or straight motion. But I want to avoid the word “hew” in this article.

[2] The „Meisterhau“ is put into the wrong context as well. A “Meister-” maybe a master in the meaning of high approved quality, but probably in the understanding of the “Haupt-“, which means the main motions, from which every other motion is derived.