This week, I have to decided to post a more technically orientated HEMA post. At first, I thought about writing a post of the importance of studying principles over techniques, but that subject has already been written on many times (see Theory and Reality of Fencing or The Importance of Principles over Techniques (Hand, 2005) for example). So instead, I decided to approach the topic of principles from a slightly different perspective. Can we over apply principles? This essay will focus on the principles of Liechtenauer, however I will also be looking at George Silver as a point of contrast.
The quotes taken from Liechtenauer himself have made made red to mark them out, quotes from any other source are in black.
A while ago, I posted on the ARMA forum asking if someone could provide me with a source for a version of Vom Tag held by some modern practitioners, in which the hilt is held next to the temple, and the blade is pointing straight upwards. I told them that I was only aware of Vom Tag resting on the shoulder, or held above the head. This led to a 6 page argument about whether or not it was acceptable to rest Vom Tag on the shoulder. A lot of ARMA members argued that you couldn’t let the blade rest on the shoulder because of Frequens Motus, or constant motion, a principle given to us by the HS.3227a: “Here note that constant motion [Frequens motus] holds the beginning, middle and the end of all fencing according to this art and teaching. That is you should quickly do the beginning, the middle and the end without delay and without any hindrances from the opponent and not letting him strike at you.” (17v)
Apparently the same principle is also discussed by George Silver in his Paradoxes of Defence: “And if one of them shall run, and the other stand fast upon…some advantage the runner has, because he is an uncertain mark, and in his motion” (paradox 6) He also lists continual motion as a principle of the true fight in all weapons. So obviously Silver thought continual motion was important too, although it appears he thought so for slightly different reasons to the writer of the HS.3227a. Silver thought continual motion was useful for defence, as it makes you an “uncertain mark” and therefore makes it harder for the opponent to find the place, or the true place for that matter, on you, as the place will be continually moving. In contrast, the HS.3227a seems to see continual motion as offensive in nature, continual motion is the act of relentlessly attacking. There is no reason why continual motion can’t do both, in honesty. It’s useful both in offence and defence.
So we can agree that continual motion is good. Does this mean that resting the sword on the shoulder is bad? I would argue not. Perhaps while you are in striking range of the opponent, then stopping moving could be bad (although there are exceptions to this as I will explain below), but what’s wrong with resting the sword on the shoulder while you are out of effective striking range? If you are closing in to the distance where you can strike, but have not yet reached that distance, then why is there a need to move your sword? We should not move for the sake of it, as that is nothing other than a waste of energy. If motion helps either our offence or defence, then yes, we must do it, however refusing to rest your sword at any point, even while outside of striking range, does neither. Frequens Motus does not mean that every single part of us must move at all times. After all, if Frequens Motus means that we cannot rest anything, does that mean we have to waggle our toes, or do we have to shake our heads from side to side while fighting? Obviously not, as that is completely pointless motion, and adds nothing. So if it’s okay not to shake our head, why MUST we move our sword at all times?
Another principle I will address here is that of the Vor, or before. The HS.3227a tells us continually how important it is we control the Vor and take the initiative: “And when you must fight for your neck [i.e. for your life] , then you shall use the earlier described teachings and seek and win the first strike” (27v – 28r)
“Fence with good mind and always win the first strike” (29v)
“Therefore Liechtenauer does not hold the guards in such a high esteem; he is more interested in that you try to win the first strike” (29v)
I could go on and find more examples, but I’m sure you get the point. The writer emphasises again and again how crucially important it is that you get the Vorschlag and control the Vor. Not all the writers seem to agree though: “That which is called the “long point (Langenort). Before you come too close to him in Zufechten, set your left foot forwards and hold the point towards him with outstretched arms towards the face or the chest. If he cuts at you from above and down towards your head, wind with the sword against his cut and stab him in the face. Or if he cuts from above or from below against your sword and tries to knock the point away, change through and stab him on the other side into the opening. Or if he meets the sword powerfully with the cut, let your sword snap round. Thus you strike in against the head. If he rushes in towards you, grapple or slice him. Watch out so that it does not go wrong for you!” (MS Dresden C487. 47v, 123r)
Sigmund Ringeck added his own section on using Langenort, and in it he doesn’t describe a single method for attacking, but only describes counters. From experimentation, it can easily be seen that remaining in Langenort while out of a bind is very safe, in that the opponent has trouble reaching you, and you can easily hold them back, it is pretty much impossible to attack an opponent effectively from Langenort. To cut or slice, you have to pull the sword back, telegraphing, and thrusts, while possible, lack power and reach, as your arms have nowhere to extend to. So Ringeck thinks it’s acceptable to wait while apparently Liechtenauer and the writer of the HS.3227a don’t. How do we explain this contradiction? Simple. Ringeck, Liechtenauer and the writer of the HS.3227a are all different people.
I think Meyer put it best: “Everyone thinks differently from everyone else, so he behaves differently in combat” (The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570, foreward, page 45)
“For as we are not all of a single nature, so we also cannot have a single style in combat, yet all must nonetheless arise and be derived from a single basis.” (The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570, chapter 7, page 16)
Liechtenauer may very well have thought that you must attack first at all times, but Ringeck didn’t. There is no contradiction here at all. If you expect a tradition spanning almost 300 years and at least 30 different masters to be homogeneous, you are deluding yourself. My co-writer Keith and I are working from pretty much the exact same sources, we have been a massive influence on each others interpretations and fighting style, yet we still fight very differently. For example, Keith often likes to wait in a low guard and counter, whereas I hate starting a fight from anything other than Vom Tag, and strike first whenever I can. Keith doesn’t particularly like ringem am schwert, even though he is quite capable of it, and would rather use push-kicks to stop his opponent from getting in close enough to grapple, whereas I love ringem am schwert and seek grapples and disarms whenever possible. I could go on. Different people fight differently. This is not an excuse to ignore Liechtenauer’s principles entirely and do your own thing, but it does mean that you cannot expect to be the exact embodiment of his style, nor can you expect any of the other masters to follow him exactly.
Liechtenauer apparently tells us never to wait, Ringeck seems tells us we can wait if we want. There is no contradiction here, just different styles for different people. Which means while the principle of the Vor, and the Vorschlag, and the importance of carrying out the latter to control the former is an excellent principle, it cannot be applied to the whole art. Okay, so Liechtenauer never waits, Ringeck sometimes does. Sorted.
Except. even if we only look at Liechtenauer, the position of the Vor is still more complicated than that. So we’ve seen that acting and attacking first is good, does this mean we can apply this principle to the entirety of combat? Many people would say yes, but this is far too simple. Ringeck appears to be basing his section on Langenort off of the Sprechfenster, in which we are given similar advice, to wait, to “Doing the speaking window: stand straight, observe what he does. Strike in, when he twitches” (HS.3227a, 47r). Bear in mind this advice comes directly from Liechtenauer. Liechtenauer is telling us to wait while in a bind. This is no way conflicts with earlier advice, because in Zufechten it is quite safe to attack continually without waiting, but while in Krieg, this prospect becomes a lot more dangerous. In Krieg, the opponent has already gained the place on you. Also, as Silver points out “the hand is swifter than the eye & therefore deceives the eyes” (Paradoxes of Defence, paradox 24). What he means by this is that if the opponent attacks us in the time of the hand (the fastest, and also shortest time) they will strike us as it will take us too long to perceive their movement. So, because the time of the hand can be used in the bind, the opponent’s attacks are harder to deal with.
Further, the principle of Uberlauffen doesn’t apply in Krieg: “what the war strikes from above, is ashamed from below” (HS.3227a, 23r). In Krieg, the opponent is at a range where they can easily hit your lower openings, while normally this is not the case. So once we start moving in for the wind, we have suddenly doubled the targets the opponent can hit. All this means that Krieg is more dangerous than Zufechten. So in Krieg while we have more opportunities to hit our opponent, they also have more opportunities to hit us. This means that that we cannot attack blindly, we must be cautious. While the opponent is in the process of moving, we have an opportunity to counter him. If he twitches, he will briefly take the point offline, giving us a moment of safety to attack. If he starts winds up to an upper hanger, we can predict that he will try a high thrust. If he tries to leave the bind, he allows us to use Nachraisen on him. These are just a few examples to show that by his movement, he lets us know what our defence and offence should be, he gives up an opening to attack. Once in Krieg, attacking in the Vor is unsafe, but attacking Indes, or in the Nach is much safer. Just because Liechtenauer endorsed the principles of Uberlauffen and of the Vorschlag, this doesn’t mean we can apply those principles to every part of the art.
Other principles espoused by the HS.3227a could cause confusion. “Do not strike at the sword but wait for the openings.” (HS.3227a, 18r) At first, this seems like excellent advice. Striking at the sword doesn’t kill the opponent, striking at the opponent does. However, at times we have to strike the opponent’s sword. The zornhau-ort requires you to first strike the opponent’s incoming sword, before you can thrust safely. The krumphau is perhaps an even better example. “And you shall strike with your flat, and when you hit the flat (of the opponent’s sword?) you shall remain on it with strength” (HS.3227a, 25v). So first he tells us not to strike the opponent’s sword, then he explicitly tells us to strike the opponent’s sword? How confusing. Except that this makes perfect sense if you don’t take the advice about not striking the sword literally. While it is dangerous to make assumptions about what the masters are ‘actually’ saying, I strongly believe that when he tells us not to strike at the sword, he is just warning us against the utterly pointless sword tag fighting we frequently see in beginners. I’m sure you’ve seen the type, where they fight at a range where they cannot hit the opponent due to nervousness, and so continually strike the opponent’s sword, to no real purpose (there could also be an element of subconscious bargaining going on here. They might think that if they don’t hit the opponent, their opponent won’t hit them back either). If we strike at the sword in order to either defend ourselves, or to create an opening on the opponent, I think this is perfectly acceptable. The principle of not striking at the sword is good. Just don’t take it too literally.
I hope I’ve made you think a bit more deeply about Liechtenauer’s principles in this article. His principles cannot be ignored, they should be remembered and considered deeply. However, make sure that you really do consider them deeply, that you seek to understand when the principles apply, rather than trying to apply them to all things. I admit that my own understanding of his principles is not as great as I would like it to be, so I love to hear some of your comments. Do you think that there are any other principles of Liechtenauer which cannot be universally applied to fighting within the Liechtenauer tradition of longsword? Or do you think that principles should be applied universally?
Frequens Motus – Constant motion.
Fuhlen – Literally “feeling”. This is identical to the sentiment de fer of modern fencing. It is the ability to measure how much pressure an opponent is putting on your blade, and where on your blade the pressure is being applied.
Indes – Literally “at once”. This mean to act at the same time as your opponent.
Krieg – One of the phases of a fight. The Krieg only refers to the act of winding your sword against your opponent’s.
Krumphau – Literally “crooked-strike”. One of the five master-strikes of the Liechtenauer tradition.
Langenort – Literally “long-point”. This refers to a position in which your sword is fully extended towards, or indeed, into, the opponent.
Nach – The after. This means to act after your opponent.
Nachraisen – Literally “following-after”. This principle covers a variety of techniques to do with acting in the nach in order to take advantage of holes the opponent has left in their defence.
Ringem am schwert – wrestling at the sword. This covers throws, takedowns and disarms, all conducted while holding your sword.
Sprechfenster – Literally “speaking-window”. This refers to the use of Langenort while in a bind to attempt to predict what the opponent might try next by using Fuhlen.
The place – A term from George Silver to mean any place where you can hit your opponent.
The true place – Any place where you can hit your opponent, but he cannot hit you.
Uberlauffen – Literally “over-reaching”. This refers to the principle that a high attack will out-range a low attack.
Vom Tag – Literally “from roof” or “from day”. A high guard for the longsword under the Liechtenauer tradition.
Vor – The before. To act in the vor is to act before your opponent does.
Vorschlag – Literally the before strike. This is the first attack thrown in a fight.
Zornhau-Ort – Literally “wrath-strike-point”. This is a technique that has you follow up the throwing of a Zornhau, another of the master-strikes with a thrust.
Zufechten – Another range of a fight. This covers everything that happens before Krieg.
HS.3227a, anonymous, circa 1389
Translated by David Lindholm
MS Dresden C487, Sigmund Ringeck, circa 1510
Translated by Keith Farrell
The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570
By Joachim Meyer, translated by Jeffrey Forgeng
2006, Greenhill Books -Thanks must go to Mike Cartier of the Meyer Freifechter Guild for finding the quotes I’ve used from this book in this article for me.
The Importance of Principles over Technique. In Teaching and Interpreting Historical Swordsmanship.
By Stephen Hand 2005, Chivalry Bookshelf. 39-46.
Theory and Reality of Fencing
By Anton Kohutovic
Paradoxes of Defence, George Silver, 1599