Making Mutieren work in sparring

The "Mutieren" technique, shown in the Goliath manuscript: MS Germ.Quart.2020, folio 17v.

The “Mutieren” technique, shown in the Goliath manuscript: MS Germ.Quart.2020, folio 17v.

Following on from my article about how to make techniques work in sparring, I would like to present a case study from my own recent training. Over the last two or three months, I have begun to have more success at applying the Mutieren during sparring with the longsword.

If you are unfamiliar with this technique, it is somewhat similar to the croisé in classical and modern fencing; winding an attack from the upper openings down to thrust into the lower openings, maintaining blade contact with the opponent’s sword for greater safety.[1] With the longsword, because it is so easy for the opponent to lever his sword around to make another strike, it can be quite daunting to try to attempt this technique, and it is often a technique that many longsword fencers struggle to perform successfully.

This is the process through which I have learned to apply the technique more successfully.

What does the book say?

I began by reading the source material to find out what it says.

The Mutieren [mutating] works like this: when you bind him upon his sword with the Oberhaw or something similar, wind the short edge against his sword and go up with your arms; and hang the blade of your sword out over his sword and thrust into him in the lower openings. This can be done on both sides.[2]

This is relatively simple to understand, but quite difficult to do in practice!

What does this actually mean?

The next step was to try to parse the source material to understand the context of the technique:

1 – you bind upon his sword

2 – wind the short edge against his sword and go up with your arms

3 – hang your sword outward over his blade

4 – thrust into the lower opening

This means that first of all, one of us must establish a bind. If I am to “bind him upon his sword with the Oberhaw”, then it means that either I have attacked him and he has parried, or he has attacked me and I have used the Oberhaw as my defence.

I then turn my short edge into his sword and also lift my arms. Why would I do this? Well, if the bind happens roughly middle of sword to middle of sword, or just slightly stronger to slightly weaker on the blade, there is not quite enough mechanical advantage for this technique to be successful. So I have to improve my situation to gain sufficient mechanical advantage for my technique to have any chance of success. Therefore, I turn the short edge into the bind to prepare for the following part of the action, and I lift my arms (a little) to bring my strong onto his weak, to take control of his blade. Now I am in control of the bind and he cannot force his way through with strength alone.

Once I have gained control of the bind, I have to hang my blade over and outside his. This means I need to keep pressure on his blade, I can’t release that pressure just yet. So, pressing (a little) into the bind with my right hand, I can lift my left hand with the pommel and let my blade folder over and outside his. In this motion I should retain control of his sword by keeping my strong on his weak.

Then, finally, once I have gained control of the bind and created the threat of thrusting into his lower opening by hanging my blade over his, I should carry that threat and take the thrust into him. If I try to do this too early, then either my targeting won’t be correct or I won’t have control of the bind. In either of these situations, the technique is clearly compromised, and so will have a much greater chance of failure.

What stimulus do I need?

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction; this is one of the rules of physics. For fencing, the equivalent rule is that every response needs an appropriate stimulus, otherwise it is the wrong response to the situation. The stimulus is always correct, no matter how dumb it is; if you end up getting hit, the only mistake is yours, for responding incorrectly to the situation.

Therefore, it is only worth attempting the Muterien when an appropriate stimulus is given. For any other stimulus, it would be more effective to make a different response. So what is the correct stimulus?

If we both enter the bind with an Oberhaw, so that the points are angled upward and the hands are lower, then I find the Mutieren to be very difficult to apply. I have to go higher with my hands to control the bind (which makes it slower), my point runs the risk of getting tangled in his blade or crossguard, and overall it is just not very effective for me. In this situation, against this stimulus, I find a Zwerhaw or similar winding attack to the upper openings to be more effective. My opponent may also just strike around when he feels that I am lifting my arms and beginning to wind, and the technique fails if he leaves the bind before I can secure his sword with mine.

However, if he starts pulling his hands upwards and moving into some kind of Ochs or hanging guard, leaving his weak forward and less supported, this gives me a brief moment of opportunity, where I can lift my arms and hang my blade over his, gaining control of his sword. When he leaves the weak of his sword out in space, without taking it away, I have enough time to take control of it. If he snatches his weak away in order to strike round, I don’t have time to make my wind, but that time is present and sufficient if he tries to lift his own arms rather than striking around.

According to this analysis, what I need for success is for my opponent to try to move into an Ochs or hanging guard, perhaps in his own (not quite correct) attempt to wind against me, or perhaps in an attempt to perform Ablauffen and strike around from a hanging position. So many people have what I call a “default Ochs”, where they shove their hands upwards in a bind purely out of habit, or because they believe that “winding to Ochs” is the best thing to do whenever a bind occurs. This is quite clearly wrong, it is a behaviour that exposes hands and forearms to unnecessary injury, and it leaves the weak of the sword out in space where it can be controlled by the opponent; but nonetheless, so many people still do this when they fence.

Putting it into practice

The first step of putting it into practice was to learn to identify the opportunities during sparring. I didn’t stress myself about trying to make the technique work, all I wanted to do was to identify the moments when a Mutieren could have worked had I made the attempt. I wanted to identify the moment where my opponent gave me the desired stimulus, so that I could recognise it and what it felt like against my sword.

The second step was to discipline myself to remain on my opponent’s sword rather than lifting off to strike elsewhere or to make some other parry. This meant that I gave fewer hits to my opponents in sparring, because I tried to remain on their sword rather than hitting. It also meant that I took more hits in sparring than usual, because I was not preparing to parry the next strike, only trying to remain on the sword in the bind. I accepted this state of affairs, because learning how to stay on my opponent’s sword is a critical part of learning to make a successful winding technique.

The third step was to try to perform the technique whenever I identified the stimulus in sparring. Even if something else would have been easier, even if it meant that it didn’t quite work and so I suffered a double hit or afterblow in the process, I pushed myself to attempt the technique every time I perceived the stimulus. Although afterblows and double hits are not good, they are simply a fact of life when you are trying to gain a new skill and have not quite worked out the fine tuning just yet.

Finally, I began to have success, perceiving the stimulus at the right time, remaining on the sword without hurrying elsewhere, having the poise and balance and presence of mind to make the Mutieren instead of some other technique, and having the repetitions under my belt to understand where and how to move my sword to make it work.

Conclusion

I would hesitate to say that I have mastered the technique; in fact, I would say quite happily that I have only begun to make it work for me, from time to time. However, by working through all of these stages, by paying attention to stimuli and by using sparring as merely one of my training tools rather than worrying about “winning” every fight, by allowing myself to “lose” fights and take hits while improving my skills at the technique, I am finding more success.

I am sure that there is quite a long road ahead of me before the I can rely on the Mutieren in all aspects of my practice (see my blog article on validating what we do in HEMA, and my more refined article in print[3]), but I hope that showing my progress so far has been an interesting case study in taking an interpretation from the drawing board to success during fencing.

Footnotes

[1] Roger Crosnier. Fencing with the Foil: Instruction & Technique. London: Faber and Faber, 1967. Pages 182-184.

[2] Sigmund Ringeck. MS Dresd.C.487. C.1504-1519. Folios 23v-24v. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2016.

[3] Keith Farrell. “Validating What We Do in Martial Arts.” In: Keith Farrell (ed.). Encased in Steel Anthology I. Glasgow, Fallen Rook Publishing, 2015. Pages 199-208.

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