Friday, 7 October 2011

A Kunst des Fechtens Roadmap

What is this HUGE post?

When I last taught at IDC, a first lesson new guy named Adam came up afterwards and asked what he needed to improve. At the time, worn out by teaching and anticipating getting thrashed on camera and in front of everyone imminently, I quoted what a BJJ (Brazilian Jiu-jitsu) black belt told me the first time I rolled with him and asked the same question - that everything was bad, what else could it be so soon? Keep training and it will all improve. Which sounds kind of profound, or at least it did to me at the time, and covers the main point: keep at it. Nothing substitutes for training.

Of course, I haven’t been training in either BJJ or HEMA anything as much as I’d like to. Partly I’ve been injured, partly life got in the way, partly “no excuses” laziness. Like most people not “shut the freak up and train”-ing, I’ve been on the internet talking about it. On the Bullshido forum, I noticed praise (which is rarely given there) for the “BJJ Roadmap” eBook by a guy named Stephan Kesting. It’s a free guide (available at here at his website if you’re interested) which doesn’t aim to teach BJJ but to “give you a basic framework to help you make sense of all the different techniques you are learning. In essence I am trying to give you a big picture which functions as a kind of filing system to help you learn more efficiently, and to access the correct technique quickly in the heat of battle.” I read it, it made sense, and it seemed to do a good job of not trying to interfere with the role of actual classes but help the student make the most of them. If you show up to your first four classes spread across 9 weeks, do eight techniques without much apparently in common, and then spar messily a few times, you may well wind up confused and lost about the overall shape of the art.

Like BJJ, Kunst des Fechtens (“Lichtenauer” longsword fighting) can get pretty complicated. I think there’s a place for a similar guide - not an instructional work on the whole of KdF, but a guide to what someone new should look to learn. KdF can be used as a pretty wide term - fighting in or out of armour, unarmed or with a wide range of weapons were all covered. This guide will be written for unarmoured longsword fighting in the tradition associated with Lichtenauer, using that system’s terms and jargon. Many of the concepts and ideas have analogues in other historical longsword fencing systems, and the many skills that you need to develop can be approached from an ahistorical, ‘pan-European’, or just plain making-it-up-yourself way of understanding a fight. It’s just that this guide is intended for people interested in “blossfechten” (unarmoured) KdF.

Starting the Map
Before I start talking about KdF, the system for fighting with the longsword, it’s probably best to get to know your longsword. There are a lot of great practice drills involving just taking a longsword (or simulator of one) and moving it about, feeling where it wants to balance and move. Remember that the less the centre of gravity (CoG) of a longsword has to move, the less work you have to put into moving it. Don’t move the sword’s CoG in a big arc when you can move it in a straight line. You’ll take longer, be more predictable, get tired, and generally die first. Get used to gripping it properly, and transitioning your hands around the grip as needed. Ask your instructor on that - I’m not going to talk about it here.
If you want to work out the overall structure of KdF, you may as well start with the moments of stillness, like places linked by roads of transitions in our roadmap. Theses are the positions you take before attacking and in binding on the opponent’s blade.

KdF ostensibly has four guards in it’s “Vier Leger” - Vom Tag, Ochs, Pflug and Alber - as well as the position of Langort. Familiarising yourself with these five positions is probably the first thing to do - I’d suggest you can leave Alber on the back burner for a while. There are other positions such Schrankhut, Kron or Nebenhut that you’ll see often enough, but they’re not as common or crucial as these five.

The Vier Leger are the positions we’re told to adopt out of distance, because we can attack powerfully from them. They threaten an attack. Remember to have the “sword side” leg to the rear. This lets you power your attack with the passing step forwards. Additionally, Ochs and Pflug are used as the “hanging guards”, they can be used to cover yourself from an opponent’s attack and bind with his sword. Langort is close to being the attack - there’s less scope for a powerful attack, but the point is right in your opponent’s face.
Next, I’d work on making sure you’ve got two types of transitions between these positions down: Winding and the Meisterhau (“Masterly Strikes”, although I prefer Hidden Strikes, a term also used in the sources). Winding is simplest to think of as changing your guard to Ochs or Pflug, even if you’re already in one. So I can wind from a bind in Langort to Ochs, or from Ochs on the right to Ochs on the left, or from Pflug on the right up to Ochs on the right (or left). Lots of permutations - look at the binding discussion later. Winding is great for moving his swordpoint out of your face while putting yours in his.

The Hidden Strikes are topics in themselves. In terms of what to focus on when training them as a beginner, may I suggest the mechanics of throwing the cuts, and timing? Not timing vis-a-vis your opponent, just in your own movement. Ask your regular scheduled instructor for more details, or ask me to expand on it here, but timing of movements within a blow are important. Once you can throw it as a coordinated movement, work on distance. Learn how far away you can hit comfortably is important. As the “Dobringer” glossa of Lichtenauer’s Blossfechten says, “It is terribly embarrassing to see someone thus stretched out as if he wanted to run after a hare”. Learn your reach and fight to it. Finally, learn how to use them as active counter-attacks against an opponent’s attack. This will involve an introduction to the timing of sword-fighting, and the Vor/Indes/Nach (Before/During/After) and concepts used in KdF.

So let’s draw up a list of what you need to learn before you can start doing relatively free-form sparring:
[Editor's Note: In this section Pete talks about 'the line' a bit. You may not know what that is at this stage, so excuse me while I get some conceptual, theoretical baggage out of the way for him. Imagine two blokes holding longswords staring at each-other, like in the freeze-frames above. Now imagine an invisible line between them, stretching from one's sternum to the other. That is the 'centre-line'. Suppose that Bloke A reaches out to stab Bloke B in chest without stepping. Bloke B doesn't like this, so he might step to move the 'line', or displace the other guy's sword to gain control of the 'centre-line'. I hope that this makes sense. Go ask your instructor if it doesn't.]
  • The basic principles that will help you do KdF well probably begin with Rule 1: Be efficient, and Rule 2: Stab him in the face. Then consider Rule 3: Strength is in structure and Rule 4: Fast isn’t fast - smooth is fast, and slow is smooth and Rule 5: Be weak where he’s strong, strong where he’s weak. These aren’t from Lichtenauer, by the way. They’re me. Except the stolen ones, which are most likely my own teacher, Adam Roylance. [Editor’s Note: And the fifth one, which is actually something Liechtenauer-y! See Codex Döbringer (MS 3227a), folios 21r-22v.]
  • Focus. Don’t whip a longsword around your head like a Braveheart extra, hoping to win by intimidating your sparring partner into quitting rather than get walloped by you after he’s stabbed your face. Intensity is easy to crank up. Skill is hard. Try and rely on skill in sparring.
  • Those five positions, including both the withdrawn and extended versions of Ochs and Pflug. Recognising them will let you have some idea what’s going on in Zufechten - “I’m in Vom Tag, my opponent is shifting down to Alber - could I hit him in his head?”
  • A basic grasp of distance. KdF more or less divides distance into Zufechten (“Coming to the fight” - I can’t hit him right now) and Krieg (“War” - I can). The point where the two meet - where you can hit him with a step as you strike - is going to be focus of a lot of your early work. You want to know when your opponent can hit you and when you can hit him.
  • Footwork. How else can you control distance and angles? It also rather helps with most everything else, from cutting to disengaging. Experiment and find out. Focus less on leaping about like a ballerina or worse, sport fencer, and more on just staying moving. Frequens Motus is a term that gets used a lot in KdF sources. Dead things stay still.
  • The four openings to target. “His Ochs is covering his upper right opening. So I... hit him somewhere else?”
  • The five “Hidden Strikes”. I’m not going to particularly detail them here. Suffice it to say that learning them teaches a number of key principles at the same time. As examples: Zornhau teaches controlling “the line” and basic cutting mechanics in the Vorschlag (Before Strike - the first attack as you enter distance, to cover that transition), Zwerchau teaches using Ochs to cover yourself, Schielhau teaches using Pflug as an extended hanging guard, Krump teaches lateral footwork and beats, and Scheitelhau teaches why you shouldn’t just reach for the opponent’s legs if he’s ready for you...
  • Absetzen - using any position where the point is aimed at your opponent’s face to cover you while stabbing him in the face.
  • Winding to cover the line once bound.
  • Abnehmen - taking your sword out of the line. Why and how is a matter for a lesson, but at the least get a handle on the back up and cut down the other side style and Durchweseln (disengaging your blade under his). Think of them as going over and under.

Purposes, Not Techniques:
That sounds like a lot. There’s a few more things that will really help - Duplieren and Mutieren especially - and we haven’t even started on the wonderful world of wrestling at the sword. It’s honestly not that complex, once we’ve got past the German Jargon and don’t discuss individual techniques but their purpose. Honestly. If we look at that previous list, it can all be broken down into three things that for you to learn:

  1. How to cut and thrust.
  2. How to cover yourself.
  3. How to control the bind.
1. I talked earlier about timing in the movement of throwing a cut. I’m not going to go into detail, hopefully, about technique here. I’ll instead suggest you observe Rule 1 as well as timing/telegraphing issues. Developing your technique is a matter for live training, but a rough guideline - go from hitting a held target (I think it’s much more helpful than repetitive air cutting, just like boxing padwork is more helpful than a karate air-punching kata) to hitting one while you and your partner move about, to using it in “competitive” drilling. “Chain” attacks together and get used to not stopping or standing still. C-c-c-combo maker. Get feedback. Test cutting will also help, if your group is in a position to practice it.

2. Covering yourself means thinking about the line a lot. The two key skills are reacting in time to an opponents attack (distance as well as timing!) and having an efficient counter-technique (whether a counter attack or not) ready to hand. I insist that Lichtenauer bloody well does encourage single time defense with offense, out of the bind as well as in, but any cover beats dying in extremis. When in doubt, Meisterhau.
[Editor’s note: I think Pete’s throwing out a lot of jargon here. It’s not his fault, it’s the coffee. To put it more simply, think about whether you or your opponent is controlling the ‘centre line’, the space between you and them. If in doubt, use the hidden strikes to clear that space while gaining the initiative of the fight.]

3.The bind a very complex area of longsword fighting, surprise surprise, and this will be a long section. There are eight possible binds, depending on whether you’re high or low, left or right, and bound on the inside or outside, as well as the Sprechfenster or “Speaking Window”. The Sprechfenster is a relatively neutral position, since both fencers are in Langort, but it’s still possible to “have the line” in it. Having the line is much preferred, because you can use it to obey the basic rules and stab him in the face! Efficiently!

Controlling the bind requires a strong structure in the position you’re in, an understanding of how to transition between the positions, and most importantly Fuhlen - “Feeling”. This means being able to appreciate what’s happening in the bind by feeling it through your sword, allowing you to react quicker than if you wait to see it.

One model for thinking about all this, borrowed from BJJ, is that within each position of possible bind is the postures of the fencers. If you’re in a strong Ochs, you’re able to resist your partner’s attempts to take the line easily. If you’re in a weak Ochs, then it’s likely to collapse under pressure. From this posture comes the pressures which occur. To continue the previous example, if your Ochs keeps you in line to thrust, your partner will almost certainly try to push across to take your point out of his face. From pressure comes the potential to use techniques. If he pushes sideways, he isn’t threatening you, so you can come off the bind and hit him with a Zwerch to the other side. That’s probably overthinking it a little when you’re beginning, but it’s critical to remember that each technique has a context. If you’re bound in Sprechfenster, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to Zucken - his point will be too on the line. If you’re in a very off-line Ochs, Mutieren won’t work. Various kinds of Abnehmen might, as might closing to grapple. Learn multiple options for each situation as your vocabulary of techniques grow, but it starts with “Is he weak? Stab him. Is he strong? Wind. Is he offline? Come off the bind.”


Freeplay is good. Freeplay let's you pressure test interpretations, integrate things, and feel like a badass. The problem is, it can also serve to encourage you to aim to "win" sparring, rather than using it as a time to keep training. People (and this includes me too much of the time) stick to what they know they can do rather than experimenting, rely on attributes rather than technique, and "game" aspects of sparring (by which I mean exploit the sparring rules - like whippy nylons which won't cover like steel would, shinai which bounce, not counting hand shots etc). This can lead to sparring actually damaging one's skill (if hypothetical) at fighting with a real longsword in some anachronistic fifteenth century skirmish.

What should you do as you begin free-play, then? Well, get used to being hit and hitting people. Don’t panic and forget your training, don’t worry about losing, just try to keep calm and apply what you’ve learnt. Focus on the key points mentioned earlier - cutting well to cover the entry into range, with a real threat that they have to deal with, keeping yourself covered and safe, and controlling the bind to hit the opponent.

Now I’m a fan of grappling in sword fighting. I can’t deny it. It’s not what you need to focus on right now, though. Durchlaufen (coming in under the cover of your sword to grapple, aka “Rush ‘n’ Crush”) or Ringen Am Schwert (wrestling at the sword, techniques where the sword is a part of the grappling technique) are very important areas of Lichtenauer’s KdF. However, they can easily (for me, for example) serve as a crutch for inadequate bindwork. You need to first get a handle on fighting from Zufechten, when you enter with big cuts and thrusts, and the Krieg, when you can hit him without a step (and are probably in a bind to stop him doing the same), before you close further.

Feedback is very welcome. And have a nice day.
(Rule 6: Be Excellent To One Another AND PARTY ON, DUDES!)

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