The first rules of the common laws of fencing in the most prominent manuscript on Liechtenauer fencing tells us about the geometry of fencing and how we should step. It is a chapter about correct footwork. In general it tells us that the art of fencing is not in jumping forward and hit with the longest reach, but in overcoming an superior opponent who does so. And of cause the book advertised Liechtenauer as the provider of such an art.
First of all, remember and know that the point of the sword is the center, the middle and the core of the sword, of which all techniques start and end in again. Thus, the hangings and windings are the pendants and perimeters of the center and the core. Of which as well many good techniques of fencing come. These are created and constructed such that a fencer who goes directly to the point by strike or thrust will not hit, but the one who uses those techniques (for strike, thrust, or cut) will hit by a sidestep or jump. And when someone let his point forerun and reach out with shooting or a lunge, he will be fetched and shortened by winding and stepping or giving way with a step. Such that his opponent will get him there again, where certain techniques and principles of fencing apply, in which strikes, thrusts, and cuts are applicable. If it is done according to Liechtenauers art from all techniques and principles of the art of fencing come strikes, thrusts, and cuts.
From GMN3227a, 18v on „The common laws of fencing”
While there seems to be little data on footwork in the early manuscripts of fencing the evidence of its importance is strong. To help the historical fencers to get alongside with the Liechtenauer tradition and improve their footwork I created five rules directly from the early manuscripts.
1. Keep your weapon between you and the center of the opponent
You move properly as long as our weapons are between us and the enemy (a good reference point is the spine of the opponent). You step wrongly if some part of the body can be reached directly by the opponent. The opponent should always be forced to do some extra movement to reach your body parts.
If you can reach the opponent and he can do the same in the same timeframe (fencing-time), it is not worth the try. If you are a “step ahead” you can get him wherever you like. Until then see that you are safe (which doesn’t mean that you are defensive or passive), and step wisely.
The weapon is your main shield, often your only one, sometimes accompanied by a secondary. Never think that your buckler or parrying weapon is your main shield. It is less scary to your opponent; thus he does not fear it as much and will not move to void it.
Rule 1b – if Rule Number 1 is broken by any action of you or your opponent, see that it is fullfilled again as soon as possible.
2. If the weapon moves, it moves first, not the body
And remember and know, when Liechtenauer speaks “WIltu kunst schawen sich link gen vnd recht mete hawen” he says that a skilful fencer, steps with the left foot forward and strikes together with right three strikes to the opponent, as long as he sees where he can get him well and reach him with his steps.
From GMN3227a, 19v on „The common laws of fencing”
The weapon almost always moves in before the motion of the feet! If we cannot hit the opponent with the combination of foot and hand movement and retreat in a safe distance, the weapon must arrive in front of us and stop the opponent (one way or the other). It must be our shield. But every shield has a vulnarable spot like the swordhand and -arm (especially if your weapon lacks in a larger handguard). Thus be aware of the guard or bind you end in.
If we can hit the enemy hard, the order may not matter anymore. But in fact, we do not hit with every strike and incapacitation by the hit is not guaranteed. Thus, the hand must act in front of the foot. According to Liechtenauer (and Joachim Meyer) the hand must be able to move the blade in three motions while doing only one step. This is to practice.
If you can find an opening while doing so, your next step should lead you to the opposite site of the opening while your blade runs toward it (see rule number four). By doing so you will always cross the direct line between you and your opponent until you safely got him. Do this even in wrestling and it will open him to your throws.
3. Keep measurement in your steps
And you shall have the correct measurement in your fencing. You shall not step to further than that you can instantly correct by another step (forward or backwards if needed). It is often more appropriate to do two small steps than a large one. And often it’s needed that a fencer must rush with many short steps, and often that a fencer must do a great step or jump.
From GMN3227a, 15v in the „Introduction into Liechtenauers art”
Even in the heat of fighting you should keep in measure in the movements. You should not step or jump too far, but in such a way that a step can be taken back immediately, no matter whether it takes place to the front, to the sides or to the back. Better are two short steps than long one. A big step or jump is only appropriate if you have to gain a lot of room and you know that the place of landing is a safe one and you have your blade in front of you (see rule number one and three).
There is little danger in letting someone go. Don’t get lured into following a retreating opponent. If your opponent first puts pressure on you and retreats in a large step, do not follow into the trap. Do a small step to the side, a little forward but out of reach, and see what he will have for you. If you put pressure on a opponent, and he gets two or three steps back, let him go. You may have had a good plan for the first two steps, but latest at the third you following him straight and break the next rule number four.
4. Find an angle
So says Liechtenauer that no one should walk or step in the same direction as the strikes, but to the sides or circular around. Such that he comes to the sides of the opponent, where he can get him better as from the front by a lot of things.
From GMN3227a, 19v on „The Common Laws Of Fencing”
In no case should the foot take the same direction as the blade. Try always to angle the opponent. In some of the thrusts the foot can follow the direction in exceptional cases, but if there is a lateral alternative is the safer and better option. The best way to apply this rule is to strike to the left while stepping to the right and vice versa. Remember that the perimeter is a circle. Not only left and right are creating angles, it is as well high and low. For example: if you step left while lowering your body, you strike upwards to your right side. Next you rise and step to the right, while you strike to your left downwards. Feel happy to switch from long to short edge as well.
As long as the defence of the opponent isn’t broken, the movement of the legs is completely relaxed. If an opening is there to reach it the legs move fast and purposeful. But even then, while the weapon seeks the direct and straight path to the enemy, you should not run straight towards him. It is critical to find the best timing, in which you reach the opponent safely and in a good angle.
And know that in fighting a fencer should try to get to the right side of the opponent, because he can get him there better by all the means of fencing or wrestling, than in the front. And who knows these techniques wisely and apply them, isn’t a bad fencer.
From GMN3227a, 16r on “Introduction into Liechtenaur`s art”
The openings behind the sword arm high and low are hard to defend. Thus, the recommended pattern to attack a right-handed sword fencer would be, that to each step on the own right side, there should be two steps on the own left side. If you combine it with rule number two, see that you do at least two blade motions to each step in that pattern.
5. Be aware of the height
And one should always prefer to gain the higher openings (and not the lower), and should move the blade brave and fast over his hilt by a strike or thrust. As soon as one gets into reach, it’s better to be over the hilt than below, because it is much safer fencing. And the upper hits are better than the lower, with the exclusion that the lower opening maybe closer to gain (which often happens).
From GMN3227a, 16r on “Introduction into Liechtenaur`s art”
Since your own blade can be below or above the opponent’s blade, you should make sure that your own body is significantly on the other side. This rule applies if there is a binding between the blades or not. Easy to remember is the rule for no blade-contact: “In high guards stand high, in low guards stand low”.
A little more complicated (because of the fast change of over and under) is the situation in the bind. If you are “superior” and your blade is on top, you can be upright and tall. He may to seem invited to attack your lower openings, but he can’t without fleeing the bind and by this get a hit to the arm or head. Due the sky offering unlimited space and your legs are faster in a more upright position, being superior is recommended.
If your blade is under the other, you are “inferior” and an upright posture would be an invitation to the large upper openings. The perfect stance would be to make yourself so small that he cannot reach your head with his longest reach (your head is far below his shoulder height). But this would be a stance in which you are not versatile enough in stepping. The movement of the blade is limited because of the legs, the lower body and the ground being the boundaries. Therefore, being inferior is less preferred.
The rule here is: He who is superior makes himself great; whoever is inferior, makes himself small. In your upwards strikes get low, in your downwards strike rise.