I am going to take a break from my usual subject matter of CLA coaching and case studies, and talk about some historical stuff. While I have been most enthusiastic about coaching methods over the past few years, I am still very much into the historical aspect of longsword, and I am dedicated to the study of the Lew glosses. Even though this article is about comparing historical sources, I may still have snuck in some ecological approach related ideas.
In the world of early gloss-based Kunst des Fechtens (literally “art of fencing,” essentially fencing material written in German), I along with many others have chosen to focus on the traditions of “RDL”, or Ringeck, Danzig, Lew. These are three different “glosses” or explanations of Johannes Liechtenauer’s Zettel, which is a poem of rhyming couplets outlining his style of fencing, and not meant to be understood unless explained.
The three glosses all have a huge amount of overlap, their content being almost entirely the same, often down to the word. However, they are not exactly the same, and the content is sometimes tweaked or altered, and information omitted or added or moved from one location to another. It is because of these differences that we can identify the three groupings of glosses as Ringeck, Danzig, and Lew (there are also the glosses in Kal and Rast that may potentially constitute a fourth branch, but in my opinion the jury is still out on that until we get some more information, I’m personally leaning towards not counting it). In this article I will talk about why Lew has become my personal favorite over the past several years.
1. Decision Making
The idea of feeling soft and hard at the sword is ubiquitous throughout all of RDL, as well as its association with the word indes. The thing that makes Lew stand out in this regard in my opinion is that instead of presenting soft and hard as an equal binary choice, it is framed as a plan-backup plan type situation. Take this example from the wrath hew:
|Source||Wrath Hew Point||Taken Off Above||Be Stronger Against|
|Danzig||…hew in wrathfully, also from your right side, from above, without any parry upon his sword. if he is then soft at the sword, shoot in the long point straight forward and stab him to the face or chest, so plant to him.||If he becomes aware of the point and parries strongly and presses your sword onto the side, wrench up with your sword at his sword’s blade upward, off of his sword, and hew to the other side, again at his sword’s blade, again to the head.||This is when you hew in with the wrath hew, if he parries and remains strong at the sword with the parry, also remain strong against with your sword at his, and rise high with the arms, and wind your crossguard forward in front of the head at his sword, and stab in above to his face.|
|Lew||…hew above equally with him wrathfully, from your right side, also from above, without any parry, upon his sword, and let the point shoot in straight forward to the face or chest.||If he becomes aware of the point and parries with strength, wrench up with your sword upward at his sword’s blade, above off of his sword, and hew to the other side at his sword’s blade, again to the head.||This is when you hew in wrathfully with him, if he then holds strongly against with the sword, if you then don’t want to take off above, be strong against, and rise with the arms to your right side, and wind the short edge at his sword, and stab in above to his face.|
While these two passages are very similar, Lew drops the “if he is soft at the sword” aspect and goes straight for the thrust. In Danzig and Ringeck, the implication is that there is a condition that must be met before proceeding to the stab, but Lew simply has it as the next action. This simplifies the decision making process by removing a step. The stab is what you are going to do no matter what, so as soon as the blade contact is there you can go right for it, without taking another step to make the decision. Your decision to switch to your backup plan will be triggered by seeing if your point landed or not – if it landed, then you’re good to go, if not, take off above and hit.
This plan-backup plan model is ubiquitous in modern fencing texts like Make the Cut by Chow, Epee 2.0 by Harmenberg, and L’esprit de L’epee by Delhomme, Di Martino, and Carre. Czajkowski (Understanding fencing) would call this a semi-eyes open action, an action with a known ending that may change depending on the conditions. You expect to land the stab, but you may change to the taking off above. The Danzig wording, by contrast, is fully eyes open, or an action with an unknown ending, since you don’t have any expectation of using one option over the other going in, that’s going to depend entirely on the conditions (IE feeling soft or hard). While this is a valid decision making strategy that does exist in Lew (I believe the sprechfenster covers it), I think it should be simplified wherever possible, especially in the wrath hew point scenario where distances are very close and you have no time to spare.
In the “be stronger against” scenario, another action is added: the winding option. The Danzig text adds another layer of complexity here, telling you that the proper use case for this is when they parry and remain strong at the sword. It is unclear here if this is a separate case than you would use the taking off above, but to me that’s the way it reads. By contrast, Lew says “if you then don’t want to take off above,” which tells me that you will be using this in the same scenario that you will take off above, but simply choose to do this instead for whatever reason. This does not add any complexity to the decision making process, as you would have decided ahead of time whether you are going to take off above or wind to the right side.
Here is a diagram of how I interpret the decision making processes of each text (note this is how I think they are described as written, not how I think the decision is actually made in the moment, for that see my article on decision points). I did not include the following technique of “taking it down,” all that would do is add another branch from “wind” for both of the trees.
If the wrath hew was the only time the texts diverge in this way regarding decision making, I would probably chalk it up to a fluke, or a random text change, or a small curiosity. However, similar differences happen elsewhere in the text as well, the biggest example being in the second piece of the zwerhaw, “zwer with the strong,” which describes follow up actions for when your initial zwerhaw does not land. I will not give this text the same treatment here as I did for the wrath hew, but instead leave it as an exercise for the reader to investigate, which I hope you do because it’s cool.
2. Placement of “counter” actions
Where should actions that counter other actions be placed? A logical choice would be next to the descriptions of initial actions. This is the path that Ringeck and Danzig take, in several cases they will describe a piece, then a “break” or “counter” against that piece. On the surface level this makes sense, learn something then learn how to counter it. However, Lew mixes up this format in a way that I think is more sophisticated.
I’ll give two examples of this occurring: the counter to the taking off above, and the counter to the zwerhaw. In Danzig and Ringeck, these are located right after the original is described, as expected and said above. Lew places the counter to the taking off in the section on vberlauffen, and the counters to the zwerhaw in the section on nachreissen. Why does the author do this? I can’t speculate on the exact reason why the decision was made, but the result creates an interesting dynamic in the text, and spurs ideas about fencing that may not otherwise have arisen.
In the example of the counter to the taking off, Lew places it in the vberlauffen section right after advising the reader to remain strong at the sword and work towards an opening. What is likely to happen if you are strong on your opponent’s sword? They are likely to cut around. When they cut around, the counter you need is now here. The zwerhaw counters being moved to nachreissen are similar – they happen in a situation where you are blocking them as they rise from below, which is a case where they are likely to cut around.
There are two reasons that I think this formulation is much better. First, it brings to the forefront the idea that your actions are going to affect the decisions of the opponent. By and large the RDL texts are very reactive, “OP does this, you do that,” etc. We get the idea of “feeling” quite often, in which you make a decision based on whether your opponent is soft or hard at the sword. In reality, your opponent is doing the same thing, and your choice to be soft or hard at the sword will also affect what they do, which is an idea that I think is lacking in Danzig and Ringeck compared to Lew. You are not a passive observer of your opponent’s actions, you are an active participant in the mutual fencing environment.
The second reason is because it challenges the “X counters Y, Y counters Z” mentality. We sometimes call this the “video game” mentality, where the perceived goal of fencing is to find the exact perfect counter to every action, and when you find it you will be good at fencing. The Danzig and Ringeck formulations feed into that, because they give you a direct series of counters for each piece going back and forth. In reality this is not how fencing works, while there are some actions that will beat other actions if used correctly at the right time, there is a lot more going on in a fencing bout, of which choosing the right action plays only a small part. Again, I don’t know if this was the intent of the author of Lew, but I believe details like this help to shape the way we think about fencing.
3. Added detail
There are several places where Lew adds a small detail which adds tactical context. Often the context information gathered from these details punches way above its weight class in terms of how many words were used. I’ll give two examples, again from the wrath hew and the zwerhaw:
|Source||Be Stronger Against||Zwerhaw first piece|
|Danzig||This is when you hew in with the wrath hew, if he parries and remains strong at the sword with the parry, also remain strong against with your sword at his, and rise high with the arms, and wind your crossguard forward in front of the head at his sword, and stab in above to his face.||When you approach him with it, stand with the left foot forward and hold your sword at your right shoulder. If he then stands against you and holds his sword with up-extended arms high over the head and threatens to hew in above to you, you come “before” him with the hew, and jump with the right foot well onto your right side against him, and in the jump, wind your sword with the crossguard in front of the head so that your thumb comes below, and strike him with the short edge against his left side, to the head.|
|Lew||This is when you hew in wrathfully with him, if he then holds strongly against with the sword, if you then don’t want to take off above, be strong against, and rise with the arms to your right side, and wind the short edge at his sword, and stab in above to his face.||When you go to the man with the intent to fence, if he then stands against you and holds his sword with up-extended arms upward high over his head in the guard and waits upon you, note when you come near to him, set the left foot forward, and hold your sword with the flat at your right shoulder. If he then steps to you and threatens to strike, you come “before,” and jump with the right foot well onto your right side, and in the jump, turn your sword with the crossguard in front of your head, so that your thumb comes below, and strike him with the short edge to the left side of his head.|
Although the differences are minute, these two additions add a lot of context. With the zornhaw winding, we get the detail that we are winding to the right side. The way I had been taught when I first learned LS, and the way I see it done in online tutorials and shown by other instructors, the winding was always to the upper left side. This makes intuitive sense, winding to the upper left locks out their blade on the outside where it can’t hurt you.
So what does the addition of “to your right side” do? One thing it did for me was to add freedom and wiggle room to my wrath hew point interpretation. The way I do it now is cut against the blade, then get the point to their face or chest, which because of the closing distance often ends me in a position much like the left side winding. It doesn’t make sense that the winding option would happen almost every time, but since the winding is on the right side, the initial sequence becomes the wrath hew point, then if it is parried I can move to the winding on the right or take off above.
A wrath hew point sequence in the wild, with no winding
The zwerhaw example is a more straightforward case, and an interesting tactical detail. Instead of a vague idea of using the zwerhaw to attack someone who is in the guard vom tag, a setup is added, they are stepping to you about to strike. From here we can derive that the intent is more like an attack on preparation, we’re letting them close the distance and attacking into it before they attack. This gives some direction when it comes to figuring out how to train this action. There are other examples peppered throughout the text, such as the fehler, inverter, ansetzen, and more.
4. Removed detail
Possibly more interesting than what material was added is what material was left out. I say “added” and “left out,” but in reality we don’t know which texts came first, because we don’t have the originals of any of the branches. We don’t know what was copied from what, or how deliberate of a choice each change was. It may be tempting to try to combine all of the branches, and make one super-text that includes all of the details included in all of them, but by doing this we might miss some nuance. It’s possible that some material was left out for a reason, and if we operate under the assumption that all choices were deliberate, we get some interesting and cool implications.
If you know me, you’ll know the main one I have to bring up is the “parrying like the common” passage in the versetzen section. Right after we get the explanation of the four versetzen hews, we get this:
|Ringeck||And beware of all parries which the simple fencers perform, and note when he hews, hew also, and when he stabs, stab also. And how you shall hew and stab, you find that written in the five hews and in the set aside.|
|Danzig||This is that you shall not parry as the common fencers do. When they parry, they hold their point high or onto a side, and that is to understand that they do not know to search for the four openings with the point in the parry. Therefore, they will often become struck. Or, when you want to parry, parry with your hew or your stab, and search indes with the point for the nearest opening. So no master may strike you without his harm.|
|Lew||And how you shall perform the correct technique from the four hews against the guards, you find that written before in the hews. Additionally, beware of attacks against the guards, if you otherwise don’t want to become harmed with strikes.|
I feel that mis-readings of the Ringeck and Danzig portions of this text have led to the prevalence of the counterattack heavy (“single time counter”) interpretation of RDL as a whole. It is still very common to hear people say things to the effect of Liechtenauer being only counterattacks with no parry riposte, and parrying is bad, and all of the five hews are single time counters with opposition. In reality, these assertions are easily debunked by other sections of the text (IE there is no universe where the schaitelhaw lesson is describing a “single time counter”). This is not to say that I don’t think there are counterattacks in RDL, there definitely are, it’s just that there are also parry ripostes, attacks, and various other tactics, as you would expect to see in any good fencing system.
That’s not to say that I think the Ringeck and Danzig text is wrong here, but I think the reading requires some nuance. Danzig specifically says that you shouldn’t parry like the common fencers, with your point high or to the side. They want you to parry in a specific way (IE with a cut or a stab, followed immediately by searching for an opening), rather than not parry at all. This is supported by the text, in the wrath hew you cut onto their blade, then shoot the point; in the crooked hew you cut on top of their blade, then go to the opening with the point or edge.
If Lew had been the first RDL or early Liechtenauer text discovered and translated, then the face of modern Liechtenauer study as we know it could be totally different. Instead of being stuck in the “single time counter vs parry riposte” false dichotomy, it’s possible that the approach could have been more nuanced, and allow for the tactical variety that I believe exists and is encouraged by the RDL sources.
While this section may have ended up being a critique of commonly held entrenched views on KdF, there are other examples of things that are left out that I find interesting if nothing else. The bit about attacking with nachreissen and einschiessen is omitted, with Lew only focusing on the idea of picking a target and going for it. Some “counter” techniques are not there, shoulder high guard is not officially classified as “vom tag,” there’s no counter to a low leg cut, and some other things too.
Dishonorable mentions: things that I don’t like about Lew
Although it’s my favorite, I do not think that Lew is perfect, so for the sake of fairness I will list some things that I don’t like about it:
- It doesn’t include the sword taking where you grab both blades. This is a cool piece and should be included even though it’s hard to do.
- Danzig says “that is the key to the art” at the end of the passage on feeling and indes, and I think that’s a cool line.
- I wish the schaitelhaw was a little bit more clear about whether I should be cutting or stabbing (though I don’t think it hugely matters since the tactic is the same either way).
- It would be cool if the earliest copy had a picture of Liechtenauer.
- The Salzburg version of the text contains a bunch of extra passages that often get misconstrued as text from Lew even though it was probably a later addition by someone else. I would prefer it if this confusion didn’t exist.
I hope this has been a useful primer on why I personally like the Lew text better than the others. Ultimately most of the content is the same throughout the three texts, so it really doesn’t matter which one you choose to focus on. I also believe that the Zettel and glosses deal mostly with big picture issues, formulating a system that is largely not strict or prescriptive when it comes to specific implementation. In that sense, the small details like word changes here and there are not hugely significant, though they can sometimes shape the big picture ideas that the glosses deal with. Small changes can also compound into a larger idea if they are changed consistently throughout the text, as I believe is the case with the decision making idea and the placement of counter actions. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading this, and let me know if you agree or disagree.