Intro and Scope
The idea for this prompt was from a post that Michael Chidester made on Facebook, pondering how many three-to-five thousand word explanations of Liechtenauer he could get from people if he asked. I thought this would be a fun idea, so I’m doing it now. I add the disclaimer that this is fairly off-the-cuff, and as such I will probably miss, forget, or not be as clear on some things as I could.
The scope of my text will almost entirely be the Lew gloss, though I may reference Ringeck or Danzig at times. My interpretation is shaped in ways by the way Lew specifically formulates the gloss, so I will focus heavily on it over the others. I know the prompt was for Liechtenauer, but I will not make any claim that this is an interpretation of Liechtenauer’s canon. I consider Lew’s gloss and interpretation of the Zettel to be my primary source in its own rite, and I don’t aim to use it as a tool to derive any kind of pure original Liechtenauer system, nor use it in conjunction with other sources to triangulate what Liechtenauer’s system might have been.
I will start by giving the context on which I will base this interpretation. It is difficult to pin down a specific context for the original sources for a number of reasons, which I don’t want to go deeply into here. My best guess at this point is that the system was physically used primarily in fechtschule competitions, though that still leaves open questions about where all of the material that would be illegal in fechtschule as we know it (IE most of it) fits in.
Therefore the running assumption, for lack of better evidence, will be that the system is a “tool box” of sorts, basically a set of pieces and principles that can work in many different scenarios. Some may work better in some contexts than others, but depending on what you are doing you can pick and choose the specific pieces that you need from the system, and the underlying principles and overall style should still hold true. I realize this is a big assumption, but I have to take a stand somewhere, otherwise this will never get off the ground.
The specific context in which I will be using this tool box and basing my interpretation is fencing with feders in modern gear. I know that this is probably not a context in which anyone who wrote these books would have imagined, but I still think it’s a good one for a couple of reasons. First, it gives us the freedom to do a very high percentage of pieces presented in the glosses, since both thrusts and cuts can be done safely. Second, and most importantly, it’s what we have available to work with. To me, fencing in the gear we have is a canvas on which we can paint whatever idea of fencing we want. It’s not the end goal, but a medium, like oil paint or charcoal. The paint is not the art, the art is what you create with it.
Modern gear also provides us with a method of verifiability – fencing is an objective test of skill, and the pieces and methods that we use can be optimal or suboptimal, and in either case they can be investigated and refined. It may be the case that optimal play in modern competition lies more outside the source than inside. If this is the case, for whatever reason, then we can still glean useful information by asking the question “why?” For example, there has long been a trend of many high level competitors, even those who identify as Liechtenauer practitioners, fencing primarily with their dominant (usually right) foot forward. It’s possible that their interpretation is not as strict as mine and they don’t think it’s as important, but it still brings up the question: is this the optimal way to play? After years of left foot forward practice and investigation of this question, I believe that it’s not, I think that non-dominant foot forward can be equally or more effective in modern longsword fencing. This study would never have happened if the question had not arisen in the first place.
I mentally categorize the general lessons (gemeine lehre) into three parts:
- Gloss of verses 9-16: Defines and describes the general default disposition of a fencer using the system
- Gloss of verses 17-20: Defines the general theoretical framework of how an exchange will be defined in the system
- Gloss of verses 21-26: Description of the contents of the main body (I will not go into more detail on this below)
Part 1: General Default Disposition
In my interpretation, the first four passages of gloss can be distilled into these general points:
- Start with the opposite foot forward from the side which you cut, cut with a passing step
- Have an offensive disposition, don’t only parry (this does not mean constantly do stupid attacks, defending is okay, just don’t only do it)
- Aim for your attacks to land (there’s more to this which I will address)
- Try to attack from your dominant hand side, because it is strong
When taken together, this gives a general description of how one should approach an opponent when fencing. I do not believe it is the only good way, or the only way recommended by the gloss, but in absence of any other plans, this can be the default approach to fall back on. These lessons have shaped the general style and look of my fencing more than any other single piece in the gloss, aside from possibly sprechfenster.
In practice, I carry this out in several ways:
- Standing with left (non-dominant hand side) foot forward – This will be reinforced over and over again throughout the gloss, as the majority of pieces and examples begin with the left foot forward. If one defaults to a right foot forward stance, then getting some of these pieces to work is a non-starter.
- Making default sword position shoulder guard on the right side (and never using shoulder guard on the left side) – A left side shoulder guard or point high guard is never described in any of the glosses, and if you stand in one you’re automatically giving up your strong side attack. This comes to the forefront in right hander vs left hander situations, it can be tempting to switch to your weak side to better oppose the attack of the opposite hander, but I believe it is more advantageous in the long run to learn to deal with the mirrored situation and keep your strong side advantage.
- Practicing direct passing step attacks that land as a stab or cut and making them my default threat – This is both prescribed by the gloss, and a necessity when fencing non-dominant foot forward.
- Trying to press forward and look for ways to attack at all times, rather than waiting and reacting – This doesn’t mean always attack and never defend, this would make no sense since the majority of the pieces in the gloss have the reader in a situation in which they are defending.
Part 2: Framework of an Exchange
The gloss of verses 17-20 explain the author’s opinion of the words before (vor), after (nach), strength (stercke) and weakness (sweche). The word indes is touched upon here, but not explained in depth. In my opinion, the four (not including indes) describe the author’s formulation and classification of a fencing exchange. I think that the classification is descriptive, by which I mean you can use it to describe what has already happened in an exchange, rather than prescriptive, in which the fencers think about each component and deliberately do them in the moment. This does not mean they have no effect on fencing; if you think about fencing in this way and analyze exchanges using this framework, it will have a retroactive effect on how you understand fencing, and therefore how you engage.
My general opinion on this framework is that when fencers first engage each other, the “before” and “after” are pertinent, and when swords have made contact the “weakness” and “strength” ideas take over.
- Initial engagement
- Fencer who strikes first is attacking “before”
- The author specifies that you are in the before if they “must parry,” by this I interpret that if you swing and miss, you are not attacking “before,” and the engagement has not yet started; if you swing and hit your target, then the exchange is over and determining “before” and “after” is not necessary.
- Fencer who moves second is “after”
- It doesn’t matter if there was any provocation, goading, luring, or mind control, first is always “before” and second is always “after”
- While Ringeck and Danzig express a preference for acting “before” here, Lew’s language remains neutral (no preference for “before” or “after”)
- Above is a temporal conceptualization of “before” and “after,” a spatial conceptualization could be as follows:
- “Before” is going “for” an opponent’s opening with the sword
- “After” is going “after” an opponent’s sword
- Fencer who strikes first is attacking “before”
- After swords clash
- Both the fencer who is “before” and the fencer who is “after” are advised to work indes.
- “Before” and “after” have now been resolved, and the operative words become “weakness” and “strength,” and who is better at working with them – every action you do while swords are in contact affects the other sword, therefore “before” and “after” have less meaning.
In general, I think the gloss presents us with big picture ideas. Many of the details that our modern minds often consider important are not present in the gloss, such as specific footwork, angles of cuts and steps, distances, specific body positions, and specific contexts. In general my approach is to not try to “fill in” any of these supposedly missing parts with information from other sources or practices, but instead focus on what we do have, and try to achieve the goals laid out under those constraints.
The Five Hews
My general take on the five hews is that they accomplish two things:
- Shove in as many examples of tactical scenarios as possible – A wide variety of tactics are covered throughout the five hews, including attack, attack on prep, counterattack, feint and fake, parry riposte, and other more specific scenarios. Other than attack (which is questionable), the gloss does not seem to have a preference for any particular tactic over another, for example it does not seem to prefer counterattack (with opposition) over parry riposte.
- Theoretical advice – Most of the theory is front loaded under the wrath hew category, but there are bits and pieces throughout the other four.
OP cuts at head, you cut against their cut and either stab (wrath hew point) or cut (taking off above). This first piece perfectly follows the paradigm laid out in the “before” and “after,” though the words are never used in the text. OP cuts (before), you cut against their blade (going “after” their sword, or being obliged to parry), and then respond with the best action based on the situation (stab or cut).
In Lew in particular, the decision is not made as a 50/50 between the stab and the cut, but it is presented as the stab being the default response that you will try no matter what, with the cut only being done as a backup plan. I believe this is the first glimpse into how Lew specifically treats soft and hard, which differs from how it is presented in Danzig and Ringeck.
Note that there is no footwork, distance, or details of either cut described in the text. I don’t believe there is a specific distance, cutting angle, or cut style that this only works against, and I think the exact form of the piece will be different depending on each individual situation. Footwork is whatever needs to be done to support the action in any given scenario. If done at close distance, the hands may need to be lifted in order to get the point on target for the wrath hew point. This may create a situation that looks like what some would consider a winding to the left, which is fine because when he talks about the winding as a follow up, Lew specifies a wind to the right.
The wrath hew category also contains the most important theory regarding attacking.
- The idea of before and after is reiterated, with the addition that the windings at the sword are the “war,” and you shall not be too rushed with them. My take on this is that sometimes it’s better to wait half a beat to see what your opponent will do and act accordingly than to attack immediately with a pre-planned action. I do this in fencing sometimes, after making an attack and being blocked.
- There is some modern science that corroborates this idea: professional baseball outfielders tend to wait about 100 ms longer than amateurs before running to catch a fly ball so they do not run in the wrong direction, and soccer goalkeepers tend to wait as long as possible (depending on their action capacity of traversing the goal) to act when defending a penalty kick. Fencing obviously runs on much smaller time scales, but I believe the same idea applies. The general idea is that rather than moving as fast as possible (as one would expect), high level athletes tend to wait as long as possible before acting.
- Attacking the four openings in the war, and choosing the correct of the three wounders – stab, slice, and hew. This ties in with the previous idea of not being rushed, and making sure you are doing the appropriate action. This was physically demonstrated in the first piece – from the bind, stab with the wrath hew point, cut with the taking off above, or if you don’t want to take off above, then stab from a shortened winding position. These are the appropriate wounders for each of those situations, which you determined by feeling soft or hard.
- Aiming for the four openings. This one I feel is the most important advice in the gloss regarding attacking – plan to attack one of the openings, attack it without regard for whatever OP does. If the attack doesn’t work, now it’s time to worry about plan B, but make sure you are committed to that first attack and aiming for an opening. The idea from the common lessons of aiming for the body and not the sword is once again reiterated. This advice is extremely influential to my personal fencing, the idea of committing to a strong direct or indirect simple attack.
- Note that I do not think this means the glosses want us only to attack directly – on the contrary, there are plenty of compound actions in which the first attacking action does not aim for the body. But, when the opportunity arises and we are going for that simple attack, Lew wants us to commit to it.
- Breaking the four openings – here we are presented with two pieces, the transmutation and the duplication. My take on these are that they are kind of stand-ins for default actions for when you feel soft or hard. If we go back to the wrath hew, the point is a stand-in for the transmutation since you are actively taking the blade and attacking on your strong side, the winding to the right is like the duplication since you are attacking them behind their sword. This is stated more explicitly in the second piece of the crosswise hew, where you transmute to the neck or to the lower opening once you take their weak with your strong.
Crooked, Crosswise, Squinter, Peaker
The other four hews continue with tactical examples and theory
- Tactical examples:
- Attack – krump vs ox
- Counterattack, avoiding initial cut
- Low guard clue: This example is given from schrankhut,an off-center low guard
- Parry riposte – strong beating cut as a parry followed by a cut or stab
- Feint disengage – deceptive
- The idea of creating an opening on yourself and exploiting their action against it (later seen in absetzen)
- Tactical examples:
- Attack on preparation – zwer someone as they are stepping in to attack from vom tag
- Counterattack with opposition – zwer against someone’s cut
- Riposte/renewal from a bind – whether you are attacking or defending from a zwer, follow up based on feeling
- This once again follows the idea of before, after, and indes – once you are in a bind, whether from the before or after, work strong to weak, and act based on soft or hard feeling in the same way as it was laid out for us in the first piece of the wrath hew
- This reinforces the idea of Lew’s “feeling” being immediately taking the soft option (in this case mutieren to the neck or lower opening), and switching to the hard option (duplieren) only if the soft option does not work
- Targeting multiple openings in quick succession
- Feint cut around, with several variations
- Using threat of a stab to enter grappling
- Low guard clue: This and the fehler both start from under hews in Lew, I believe they help build an idea of how you are supposed to fence from low guards, for which we will get more clues later on
- Make sure you jump to the side with each zwer, and also keep your head covered
- Tactical examples:
- Attack – Stabbing from a cut when they are retracted
- Counterattack with opposition – squinter against someone’s cut
- Attack while taking the blade
- Feint to a deep target, hit a shallow target
- “Fencing short” – Situations where the opponent is shortened can be countered by an extended thrust
- Low guard clue: “falling upon” a low guard can be disengaged around
- “Fencing short” – Situations where the opponent is shortened can be countered by an extended thrust
- Tactical examples:
- Attack – attack from above against a low guard
- Renewal – slice against a high parry
- Withdrawing with a slice
The Twelve Pieces
The pieces I believe are a more generalized set of concepts and actions. Each of the twelve hauptstucke is represented in the five hews in one way or another, and are explained and sometimes expanded upon here. Sometimes it does take some inference and abstraction to connect them, and sometimes the connection seems clear.
- Descriptions of the four main guards, and that you should use them
- Note that in Lew, only the overhead variant is listed for vom tag, therefore I refer to point high LFF guard on the shoulder as “shoulder guard”
This piece is separated into three main subjects:
- The four hews
- “If you are parried”
The main overarching theme of this piece is attack – we are given cuts for attacking different guards (dubious though some might be) from a cutting position (all descriptions of the attacks from the five hews started in shoulder guard, except for the peaker which starts in vom tag), then how to follow up if our attack is parried, then how to attack from a point forward stabbing position.
This piece is separated into three main subjects:
- First pursuit
- Outward appearances
- Feeling and indes
This section is a bit oddly formulated I feel, because a) it is not clear exactly what pieces they are talking about with eussere mynne, and where that concept begins and ends, and b) the section seems to be bisected by the section on feeling and indes – which is fitting, the idea of shoving indes in the middle.
Although it’s not the most clear subject, my interpretation of the overarching subject matter of pursuit is gaining an advantage via timing, and holding on to your advantage. The first piece has you taking advantage of a missed cut (or possibly someone who has cut out of range as a prep). The outward appearances describe continuations of this situation in which you continue to pressure your opponent by being one step ahead of them. You’ve gained an advantage over your opponent through the initial timing of your cut, and if you don’t convert it right away, keep the pressure on so you don’t lose it. This once again reminds me of the lesson on vor and nach, acting from the attacker’s side after a bind.
- Low guard clue – OP falls upon your sword, this time you don’t disengage around it, so remain in the bind and be better at winding than they are
Feeling and indes
Indes is probably the most well described concept in the gloss. As it is described, feeling and indes are linked, they arise when two swords bind together, you feel soft or hard in the bind, and act immediately once you sense it. I believe the idea of indes exists only in the bind in Lew, as it is necessitated by feeling and sensing at the sword.
The word indes can be a conjunction or an adverb, as a conjunction it roughly means “meanwhile” or “at the same time,” and as an adverb it roughly means “instantly” or “immediately” or “as soon as possible.” While other sources sometimes use it as a conjunction, it is consistently an adverb in all of RDL. That means “indes” is a property that modifies an action, it is not an action itself, and it does not modify a noun (a fun way to think about it is that you do an action “indesly”). This usage is consistent throughout the gloss whenever the word indes is used – it’s always an adverb, and always when there is a bind.
After the main explanation of indes, there is a list of rhyming coupled lines that give examples of pieces that can be done indesly from a bind.
The concept of indes is very important in Lew, it is given special treatment, and the reader is admonished that one who can’t feel and doesn’t know indes is not a master, but rather a buffalo. To me, this implies an emphasis on improvisation. Lew wants you to be able to come up with the right answer in the heat of the moment, when things have gone wrong. If you attack and hit right away that’s great, but what really shows your skill is when your initial plan doesn’t go perfectly and you still are able to put it together.
In fencing, I consider a “bind” to be whenever two swords make contact. In a full speed bout, binds happen on very short timescales, and while extended binds do occasionally happen, usually they happen very quickly. In my interpretation, this still provides enough time to perceive and act according to the affordances that your opponent’s attack or defense give you when the swords clash, and all of the pieces and ideas can and still do occur without the need for the buy-in of both fencers agreeing to play out extended bind situations.
In my interpretation, this piece presents two general ideas:
- A high attack or attack from above can out-reach or beat an attack from below (related to squinter against plow)
- After the swords are bound, the sword on top is in a stronger position than the sword below
Additionally, Lew provides a counter to the “taking off above” in this section. I think this is important for two reasons:
- It is an acknowledgement that not only are you reacting to your opponent’s feedback (as has been a theme of the gloss), but they are also reacting to yours, IE if you are strong on their blade, they are likely to cut around instead of hanging out and letting you stab them.
- Unlike Ringeck and Danzig who place this piece after the “taking off above”, Lew places it here. The reason I think this is noteworthy is because I think that placing counters to pieces right after the original piece encourages a kind of “video game” mentality, in which a fencer just needs to find the right move to use to counter their opponent’s move, rather than focusing on things like position, timing, and other aspects of fencing that lead to a successful hit.
Examples of parry-riposte starting from a point forward guard against a stab and a cut. Main ideas:
- Set the opposing attack aside, then wind into a stab. In general I personally don’t think it has to be a stab in order to be considered an absetzen, I think the key feature of the piece is the “setting aside” part, rather than the finishing stab.
- Creating an opening that your opponent is likely to attack, in order to exploit it (related to crooked hew).
Avoid an opponent’s parry, beat, or general blade engagement by dipping the tip down and going to the other side of their blade. Related to the squinter (“fencing short”) and the crooked hew (short hew).
Theory: don’t disengage if their point is in the middle or else you’ll get stabbed, only do it if their point is off to the side
Move the sword to the other side of theirs by drawing back your hands and in this way lifting the tip of your sword until it clears their blade, then drop it back in for a stab. If they see it coming and guard preemptively, then act like you are going to come to the other side of their blade, but stay on the same side and stab back in.
Generally separated into two categories:
- Body wrestles: Big hip throws; some of them resemble throws that can be achieved using alternate mechanics such as reaping a leg, but the hip is referenced in all body wrestle throws.
- Arm wrestles: Grapples that involve gripping an arm or the sword.
Wrestling pieces all involve the context of the opponent running in to you and you reacting, though we did previously get instruction on how to enter into grappling ourselves, in the inverter piece under the zwerhaw, which running through relates to.
- Low guard clue – Protagonist starts in low guard or with a low attack, OP falls upon the blade, some pieces for dealing with that. Follows the general theme of acting from a bind.
- The four slices: two below against someone running in, two above against someone cutting around. Related to the peak hew.
From a lower slice, you can convert to an upper slice and withdraw. Related to the peak hew.
Hanging is mostly explained in the winding category, here we mostly get another reminder that we should feel soft or hard, and correctly choose a hew, stab, or slice. The real highlight of this piece is:
The speaking window in some ways is the culmination of the entire system so far. The text uncharacteristically praises this technique over others, calling it the “noblest and best defense at the sword.” Aside from this, the only things that the text gives praise to are someone who can counter the five hews, the squinter, and feeling and indes. In the Zettel, we get a direct repetition of a line, “I say to you truthfully/ no one protects themselves without danger/ if you have heard/ he may rarely come to strike.”
In Lew, it is made clear that there are two things that are both speaking window, they are:
- From a cut: When you cut with an over or under hew, leave the point in front of their face and react to whatever their response is. In theory they are supposed to bind onto your sword, but in practice this does not always happen. From the bind, this is a continuation of the ongoing theme of acting from a bind after an initial strike and parry.
This shows us the idea of an attack with an unknown ending, or a “fully eyes open” feint as Czajkowski might call it. In this case you don’t expect to land the initial strike, you will land with your point in front of their face, and decide how to finish based upon your opponent’s reaction. This contrasts with what I talked about in the wrath hew, in which you have a default action (the stab) that you expect to hit, and only switch if it doesn’t work. What makes the difference here? You are more in control of the action, you are initiating and gauging their response. In the wrath hew and zwerhaw, you’ve already reacted to them and are now in a close bind distance, and there is a much more serious time constraint.
- Before a bind: Approach your opponent with the sword already extended towards their face or chest, also called “longpoint.” It says at the beginning of the passage that this is another guard in addition to the four that we’ve already learned (schrankhut and shoulder guard notwithstanding). Of note here regarding fencing is that the left foot forward is specified, as it is for the majority of pieces in the text. For my personal fencing, this is a position that I use quite often, and I think the left foot forward aspect is important. While the passing step is only described for a cut in the general lessons, I use the same technique when attacking with a thrust from this position. Also, while it says arms extended, I do not think this means that the resting posture must be at full arm extension, because that is awkward and doesn’t provide any wiggle room for extra extension in the attack. The same verbiage is used for vom tag overhead, and I think it’s self evident that straight-arming your sword straight up overhead is not intended, though I could be wrong.
From there, it gives us several examples of pieces that we can do depending on how our opponent engages us. At the end of the passage, it tells us that we can do anything from the system using the speaking window. We are not given any specific attacking actions from the longpoint version, but since we can do anything in the system, I think it’s safe to infer that the intended attack is something like ansetzen, since I feel that is how attacks from point forward positions are presented.
Here we reach the final culmination of the system, in which many of the important points that we have previously been told are reiterated and reinforced. In the Zettel, the final line is a close though not direct repetition of a line from pursuit, “Test the movements/ nothing more than soft or hard.”
Of note here is the admonishment to be well practiced and prepared so that you can choose the right one.
- Description of “hanging” positions as ox and plow to both sides
- Four prescriptive upper “windings,” starting in Lox, winding against a cut and then back, and then doing the same thing from Rox
We are then told that you can do the same thing from the lower hangings, plow to both sides, making 8, but they are not explicitly described. Then from those 8 we are told we can do a hew, stab, or slice, which makes 24. My take on this is not that there are supposed to be 24 specific set piece plays that we should keep track of at all times, but an admonishment to be creative, improvise, and use the correct action in the right situation.
Conclusion: What does a “Lew fencer” look like?
As far as interpretation goes, this is really the million dollar question, and it’s one that I still don’t really have a solid answer to. A shallow answer would be someone who uses all of the individual set pieces presented in the text, and I think there is a grain of truth to that, we should be trying to use some of the pieces (otherwise why are they there in the first place), but I don’t think it’s the beginning or the end of the picture.
First of all, there are a wide variety of pieces, covering a range of tactical scenarios, many of which overlap with one another (IE many counters to a strike from above). So how do we resolve this? One way is to try to find a discrete, specific situation in which we can do each specific piece, and incorporate all of them into your fencing. While it’s possible to do this, I don’t think it meshes well with the ideas that have been repeated over and over throughout the text, which are feeling only soft or hard, improvisation, and committing to your choice.
A corollary to this situation that I like to use as an example is judo. There are 68 throws in the canon of judo, many of which have heavily overlapping use cases. In competition, no individual uses all 68 throws equally, finding the exact specific moment for each, instead they choose a few throws that cover all of the situations that they need, and work well together. On an individual basis you may only see a judoka use a few throws, but on a whole at a competition you will see a wide variety, because not everyone chooses the same throws since everyone has a different body style and play style, and different throws are better or worse for each. Likewise with the pieces in Lew, I don’t think everyone has to use every piece in order to be considered a good practitioner of the system. Some pieces may benefit different attitudes or body styles, or an individual can simply be good at some and not others.
While my views on using the pieces may be a bit liberal, I do think that an effort should be made to do things in a certain way to facilitate their use. For example, almost every piece in the text starts with left foot forward, so if you are right foot forward, the idea of using those pieces is a non-starter, you’re not even giving yourself a chance. That being said, will I say something is not the piece from the book if done RFF instead of LFF? Probably not, but my feeling is that it may have been written that way for a reason, so maybe we should give it a chance.
All that being said, what do I think a Lew fencer looks like? I don’t know, but I hope to someday know it when I see it.