Saturday, 19 October 2013

A reply to Alex Bourdas on distance.

I recently came across a post by Alex Bourdas on The Historical Academy's blog about the correct distance to fence in. I can't help but disagree with its conclusions. This post will be a bit of a rebuttal of his.

Firstly, I feel that MS 3227a doesn't support the argument that he's making. Meyer might, but he's a Leichmeystern whose advice is often directly contrary to the original zettel and the earlier sources (I'm half-joking. His fencing comes from a different context, with different aims and so on.)

As for the English source - interpreting the English sources is incredibly difficult as they're so fragmentary, lack context and so on. The source takes the form of "The . iij . lesson ys a sprynge vpward . wt an hauke quarter . downe by ye cheke . wt iij . doubylrowndys stondÿg borne on ye hed . wt a dowbylrownde born in wt ye foote . w . iij . outwards." - I find it difficult to believe that in the particular case that Alex quotes the author is referring to a simple measure of distance (as Alex himself agrees).

Anyway, to Alex's quotes:
“…they perform strikes that miss and create openings in themselves. They have no proper reach in their fencing and that belongs not to real fencing but only to school fencing and the exercises for their own sake.”
MS 3227a, folios 14r-14v

I read MS 3227a as saying that there's no point in attacking out of distance, when you're not even trying to hit your opponent. Doing so only creates empty tempo for them to exploit. In any case, Alex's conclusion that 'our strikes should end in the four hangings, rather than a more extended position' is a direct contradiction of the same source talking about the Ort position, as seen below.

“And as soon as the opponent binds your sword then your point should not be more than half an ell [30-40cm] from the opponent’s breast or face.”
MS 3227a, folio 24r, translation by David Lindholm

When you've bound, don't stop threatening your opponent with the tip of your blade. Doing so just creates openings for them to exploit. In fact, the passage in question gives advice for what to do if your opponent has won the vorschlag, and you have to parry in the nacht. It's basic advice to seize the initiative after a parry, and not to leave it (creating an opportunity for the opponent to push on and get the hit).

And look at those who use the long sword and who goes about it with outstretched arms and outstretched sword in order to look dangerous and to look good, using all the strength of the body.
It is terribly embarrassing to see someone thus stretched out as if he wanted to run after a hare. And this has nothing to do with turning in [Winden] or Liechtenauer’s art, since this art does not require strength. If it was not an art, then the strong would always win.”
MS 3227a, folio 40r, translation by David Lindholm

So, you shouldn't fence widely. You should fencing compactly. You shouldn't need to rely on strength. Let's put that quote into context, this time from the Stoeppler translation:

 Just as the Leychmeister disdain them and say that fencing from the winding is weak and they call it from the shortened sword because that they are done simple and stupid. And they mean that these are fenced from the long sword which is done with outstretched arms and extended sword and also aggressively with all strength of the body only by pressing themselves forward.
And this is painful to watch! If one stretches just as running after a rabbit this is not the way, neither the windings nor Liechtenauers art, because there is no strength against (the opposing strength)! Whoever does it differently should prefer strength.
MS 3227a, f. 40r

In order words, if you over-extend in the bind then you're in a mechanically weak position. I don't think that this is referring to the first strike, but rather to the subsequent windings. If you look at Paulus Kal, Cgm 1507, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Munich, Germany, c. 1470, f. 59r it shows the zorn-ort technique with bent arms. I think that all the earlier sources advise you not to straighten your arms when winding. Looking at a vorschlag-centric match like Peter Smallridge vs. Anton Kohutovic and the only time that a fencer ends up in an extended Langenort (Pete, c. 34 seconds), it's because he's failed to acknowledge that Anton stole the initiative and moved out of distance quickly enough, and it costs him the point when Anton re-engages with a stronger winding. Just as the text says. In any case, I don't think that the text supports Alex's conclusion that cuts should end in a hanging guard, but rather the text acknowledges that extended langenort is a crap position to be in, as you're mechanically weak in the bind.

Anyway, here are some counter quotes from the same source that strongly disagree with Alex's interpretation, from Stoeppler's translation:

The Vorschlag is a great advantage in fencing and you will hear more about this later in the text. Liechtenauer says only five strikes, with their following techniques are useful as opening methods for fencing. And he teaches these, according to the real art, to execute these straight and simply to the nearest and most accessible target as possible.
MS 3227a, f. 14v


And then, if he manages to get to him, and he knows the measure and thinks the adversary can and will reach him now, so he should hurry to him without fear, quickly and nimbly, going for the head or body, not caring if he hits or misses. So he should win the Vorschlag and not let the adversary come to his own fencing.
MS 3227a f. 16r


Also know, when one wants to fence in earnest, he should plan a ready technique, whichever he like, and that technique should be complete and well-practiced. And he should take this seriously into his mind and will, just if he should say “That I want to do”. And then he must gain the initiative and with the help of God it will not fail. He succeeds in doing what he should do, if he bravely hurries and rushes in with the Vorschlag; about that you will later hear often.
MS 3227a f. 16v


These have been invented so that a fencer, who immediately strikes at the Ort and yet does not hit instantly, may employ the before mentioned Techniques in combination with strikes thrusts and cuts, with stepping off or in, and with stepping around or jumping, in order to hit his adversary. And if someone has shot his Ort out too far, by thrusting or lunging, he can recover or shorten it by employing the Winden or stepping off, so that he again may use those appropriate techniques and principles of fencing. From there he again may strike thrust or cut, because according to Liechtenauers art, strikes thrusts and cuts stem from all fencing techniques and principles. And later you will hear, how one technique and principle stems from the other and how they can be used in succession, so that if one method is being defended, the other hits and succeeds.
Ms 3227a f. 19v


If he now wishes to begin correctly, he should gain the Vorschlag and not his opponent. Because one that strikes his opponent is safer and is protected easier because the opponent has to watch out for the attacks. If he now gains and executes the Vorschlag, may it hit or miss, so he should do instantly without pause in the same rush the Nachschlag, be it the second, third or fourth or fifth strike, be it strike or thrust so that he stays in constant motion, doing one after the other without pausing so that the opponent may not come to strike. Liechtenauer says: I tell you truthfully, no man defends without danger, if you have understood it he will not come to strikes. So just do as it is often written before and stay in constant motion.
In all teachings, turn the point to his face. And whoever swings wide around, will often be ashamed. To the very nearest, bring your strikes or thrusts surely. And see to it that your adversary does not act before you, so you may well stand your ground against a good man.
MS 3227a f. 64r-v

My conclusion from these quotes is that this source strongly emphasizes the importance of entering distance with the first cut, with the initiative (and that subsequently, you can use your superior skill in the bind, never taking your sword back for another big cut in distance). Now Alex admits that he "can’t always force opponents to fight at the distance I’d like to fight at, but when I can fight from a closer distance, I find it much easier to start carrying out techniques from the treatises, especially winding." [Alex Bourdas, 18/10/13]

My counter claim would be that he needs to work on his ring-craft, on his sense of tempo and his ability to securely strike without telegraphing the vorschlag. In other words - that he can't secure the first strike well isn't a problem with the vorschlag principle, or with fencing from the edge of distance!

I feel that that controlling the initiative and entering with a vorschlag were sadly neglected parts of long-sword fencing until relatively recently. Anyone can make big swings in distance, but I don't consider that skilled fencing, or true to the earlier sources like MS 3227a. I can't remember if Alex and I fenced when I was up at HEMAC Glasgow, but I came away with the feeling that tempo wasn't a particularly strong part of the regional style, and at the time I put it down to their training methods. I hope that Alex will be at Swordfish, and we'll get an opportunity to discuss it in person.


  1. The Hs.3227a is a very difficult source to interpret, because it makes wide sweeping statements and contradicts itself regularly. It is an immensely valuable resource but it can be read in many different ways.

    Generally speaking, I agree with Alex: I think a lot of the 15th century Liechtenauer tradition longsword fencing (hereafter 15thC fencing for short) was done at a much closer distance than we see with modern reconstructions. Looking at illustrations in Talhoffer, Kal, Falkner and Wallerstein, people are binding at a very close distance. In all of these sources (except for Falkner), the combatants have their swords positioned in such a fashion that a thrust forward from the bind will put the sword up the opponent's nose, which follows the advice about the half-ell distance from the 3227a very closely.

    I also believe that a lot of winding motions are much more effective if they are supported by and launched from an appropriately structured position, such as a lower hanger (as per the illustrations in Talhoffer and Kal) rather than a long extended position (such as is shown in the Goliath and in Meyer). To make these kinds of structures effectively, you do need to be closer to the opponent when binding and looking to begin winding. I believe Alex and Michael both agree with this, to some extent, but have chosen different ways to express this idea - and so it seems to have resulted in misunderstanding.

    However, I do agree with Michael: it is important to be able to close distance, and the Vorschlag is a critical part of the Liechtenauer system. It is not quite good enough just to attempt to take the fight to a shorter range, one needs to have the ability to close distance at will with a credible threat.

    That being said, I must agree with Alex: for people who are good at fighting at greater distances, it would not be a bad thing to develop some skills at fighting at closer distances as well. If an individual can develop the skill to control and dictate the fight at will, from whatever distance, with a good repertoire of both long and short distance strikes and techniques, then a greater portion of the art will be displayed and the individual will be a better all-round fighter.

    Alex has raised a very good point, that people should consider that the 15th century sources do show (and do suggest) a much closer range style of fighting than we see in a lot of modern sparring. Michael has raised an important caution that the Vorschlag and the ability to close distance in a swift and threatening fashion is also an important part of the art and should not be disregarded. I think both of you are right, and that it is a good thing to aspire to have both sets of skills to deploy as the situation dictates.

    Keith Farrell

  2. Hello, glad my article is provoking some discussion. I suppose I should clarify I'm not neccessarily arguing that there is a correct distance to fence at. Even if one treatise did explicitly outline rules about the distance you should fight from, that doesn't mean that fighting at close distance would hold for all other treatises, or for all fighters. As you say, different treatises have different contexts, and so they can outline fighting differently.

    I believe that fighting from a long distance is valid, and I don't disagree with fighters fighting from a long distance, as long as they also have the ability to fight well at a closer distance as well. My biggest problem is with people who will only fight at the maximum distance they can, whereas in contrast the video you linked showed the fencers starting at a greater distance, and closing in to a closer distance. This is very different from starting at a large distance, and then staying there the entire time.

    Anyway, onto a few specifics. The English longsword quote was included because I wanted to include every thing I knew of in regard to distance from the longsword texts, so I didn't want to exclude something, even if it is tenuous. I admit I can't be sure what the quote is talking about, but I couldn't not mention it.

    I'm also not sure why you think there is a contradiction between my opinion that in the early material you should generally end strikes in a hanger rather than an extended longpoint and the advice that you should keep the point online. I see Liechtenauer's hengen as being much more like Ochs and Pflug than a later hanging guard. Ringeck's gloss of the hangings for example is clear that the hangings are followed up with thrusts:

    "About the two hangings...
    Glosa There are two hangings from each hand and on each side towards the ground. When you bind against his sword with a lower setting-aside to your left side; hang your pommel to the ground and thrust him from below up into the face from the hanging. If he pushes your point upwards with a parry, stay in the bind and go up with him, and hang the point from above downwards towards his face."

    So the hangings should threathen with a thrust, and a cut into one of the hangings shouldn't be a big swing. I think we can agree there.

    So I don't actually particularly disagree with you, and I think it's probably more of a communication problem than anything. And I don't believe we did fight at HEMAC Glasgow. I probably won't be at Swordfish this year, but if we do meet in person, I would be very happy to tall about this more, and/or fence.