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Kunst des Fechtens: The Liechtenauer Tradition of German Longsword Fencing

https://www.jamescolton.com/articles/liechtenauer-longsword/

Introduction

Johannes Liechtenauer was, most likely, a German fencing master in the early 1400s. He is widely regarded as the founder of the Liechtenauer tradition of swordplay, also known as Kunst des Fechtens (KDF, “Art of Fencing”), which was the most influential fencing system in the Holy Roman Empire.

Liechtenauer codified his method in the Zettel, a poem that summarizes all the major points of the system. The Zettel can be thought of as a top-down approach to teaching swordsmanship. It begins with strategy and tactics, then introduces the high-level concepts that inform the strategy. Finally, it goes through individual techniques, but touches on them only briefly. Liechtenauer assumes that the reader has already been taught how to fight, and the Zettel is simply a memory aid. A reader with enough combat experience can expand the generic advice in the Zettel to fit many specific situations.

Students of Liechtenauer wrote several commentaries on the Zettel. These commentaries go into greater detail, explaining its principles and offering examples so that those who weren’t taught by Liechtenauer directly could understand his system. Some noteworthy masters in Liechtenauer’s lineage include:

  • Peter von Danzig
  • Pseudo-Peter von Danzig (an anonymous author whose work is often misattributed to the real Peter von Danzig)
  • Sigmund Schining ain Ringeck
  • Joachim Meyer

This article is a non-exhaustive summary of the fencing system presented in the Zettel and its commentaries, as applied to the longsword.

Techniques

Stance

Fifteenth-century fencing masters didn’t record much of anything about basic posture. However, period illustrations and modern experimentation have provided us with the following guidelines:

  • Feet are shoulder-width apart (about 1–1.5 foot lengths)
  • Lead foot is about 2 foot lengths ahead of the back foot
  • Lead foot points directly at the opponent
  • Back foot is turned 45° outward
  • Knees point in the same direction as their respective toes
  • Lead knee is bent so the shin is perpendicular to the ground
  • Back knee is bent so the shin forms an accute angle with the ground
  • Weight is evenly distributed between feet
  • Hips are tucked in
  • Spine is straight
  • Torso is turned 45° away from the opponent (chest should face the same direction as the back foot)
  • Shoulders are relaxed, allowed to settle down and back
  • Head is upright, facing the opponent

Grip

There are two main grips used in German sword arts. The first, commonly called the handshake grip, is as follows:

  • Grip is firm but relaxed
  • Middle knuckles should line up with the blade’s true edge
  • Sword is canted forward in the hand, forming an obtuse angle with the forearm
  • Lead thumb wraps over top of the index finger

In the other grip, known as the thumb grip, the lead thumb is pushed up onto the flat of the blade. This causes the sword to rotate 90° clockwise in the hand (for a right-hander), making certain techniques easier to perform.

Guards

There are four primary guards:

Ochs (“Ox”)
Hold your hilt next to your head at the level of your temple. Direct your point toward the opponent’s eyes. When holding ochs on your right, your forearms will be crossed; on your left, they will not be crossed. You may use either a handshake grip, in which case your quillons will be nearly vertical with your true edge upward, or a thumb grip, in which case your quillons will be nearly horizontal with your thumb underneath. This guard is also called the upper hengen.
Pflug (“Plow”)
Hold your hilt next to your hip. Direct your point toward the opponent’s eyes. When holding pflug on your right, your forearms will be crossed; on your left, they will not be crossed. You may use either a handshake grip, in which case your quillons will be nearly vertical with your true edge downward, or a thumb grip, in which case your quillons will be nearly horizontal with your thumb on top. This guard is also called the lower hengen.
Vom Tag (“From the Roof/Day”)
Hold your hilt in a handshake grip next to your head at the level of your temple. Direct your point upward and back at 45°. When holding vom tag on your right, your forearms should not be crossed; on your left, they will be crossed. Vom tag may also be held centered directly overhead. Keep your elbows tucked in, not sticking out to the sides.
Alber (“Fool”)
Hold your hilt in a handshake grip centered in front of you at hip level. Direct your point forward and down at 45°. Your quillons will be vertical with the false edge facing upward.

Reducing the number of guards to these four makes the mid-fight decision process much simpler. Nearly every conceivable position the opponent can take can be classified as a variation of one of the primary guards, allowing you to quickly identify and perform an appropriate counter action.

However, there is also a host of secondary guards which aid in teaching the motions of KDF’s various techniques:

Einhorn (“Unicorn”)
From ochs, turn your true edge upward and raise your point offline.
Hengetort (“Hanging Point”)
From ochs, extend your arms forward and lower your point across your body.
Schlussel (“Key”)
From ochs, lower your entire sword by bending your elbows out until your blade rests on your arm at shoulder height, pointing at the opponent.
Eisenport (“Irongate”)
From pflug, shift your sword until it is centered in front of you, keeping your point online.
Langort (“Longpoint”)
From pflug, thrust forward until your arms are fully extended (but don’t lock your elbows). Also called sprechfenster (“speaking window”).
Zornhut (“Wrath Guard”)
From vom tag, drop your point and shift your weight back, coiling your body until your sword crosses behind you, resting on your shoulder with the point slightly down. Pivot your feet as you coil your body to relieve stress on your joints.
Kron (“Crown”)
From vom tag, switch to a thumb grip and extend your arms forward so your sword is vertical in front of you, with the hilt in front of your face and the flat of your blade facing the opponent.
Mittelhut (“Middle Guard”)
From right or left vom tag, uncoil your arms until your sword points out to the side and slightly back, parallel to the ground.
Wechselhut (“Change Guard”)
From alber, move your sword to one side so it points down and out to the side with the false edge facing the opponent.
Nebenhut (“Side Guard”)
From alber, move your sword to one side and rotate the hilt so your blade points down and back with the true edge facing forward.
Schrankhut (“Crossed Guard”)
From alber, rotate your hilt so your true edge faces the opponent and the blade points downward.

Unless a guard specifically says otherwise, your quillons should always be aligned with your lead forearm. This protects your wrist from the opponent’s cuts, and also serves as a visual aid in edge alignment when throwing your own cuts.

If a guard is held on one side of your body, the opposite foot should be in front. If a guard is held centered, either foot may lead.

Guards in German longsword are not static positions of defense; they are checkpoints within larger actions, usually a strike.

Strikes

There are three main categories of strikes in KDF:

Cut
A hewing attack delivered with the edge of the blade
Thrust
A piercing attack delivered with the point of the blade
Slice
An attack delivered by pressing the edge of the blade against the target and pushing or pulling it across

The cuts are further divided into three basic types:

Oberhau
Falling cut
Unterhau
Rising cut
Mittelhau
Horizontal cut

All of the basic cuts are performed thus:

  1. Stand in guard with your sword on the side from which you want to cut, and the opposite foot forward
    • For an oberhau, start in vom tag
    • For an unterhau, start in nebenhut
    • For a mittelhau, start in mittelhut
  2. Push directly toward your target with your lead hand to activate your point
  3. Align your blade’s edge with the trajectory of the cut
  4. Extend both arms directly toward your target by straightening your elbows; this motion should be mostly forward
    • For an oberhau, also lower your arms from your shoulders
    • For an unterhau, also raise your arms from your shoulders
  5. Pass forward with your back foot, causing your torso to turn 45° in the lateral direction of the cut so that it is squared with your target; both feet should now be pointed forward
  6. Hit your target; this should coincide with your foot landing and your arms reaching full extension (in the guard langort)
  7. Cleave through your target by continuing to raise or lower your arms (which remain extended) and rotating your torso another 45° in the direction of the cut by pivoting your back foot outward 45°, ending in a guard
    • For an oberhau, end in wechselhut
    • For an unterhau, end in einhorn
    • For a mittelhau, end in the opposite mittelhut

Each of the above steps should flow seamlessly into the next, so that it all appears as a single smooth motion. Throughout the cut, your hilt should be centered with your torso, so that both your arms are as extended as possible.

Note that a cut’s vertical motion is powered by raising or lowering your arms and, in the case of an oberhau, gravity. All horizontal motion is powered by the rotation of your torso.

A cut with more power sources is more powerful, therefore we can rank cuts in order of power:

  1. Diagonal Oberhau (gravity + lowering the arms + rotating the torso = 3)
  2. Straight Oberhau (gravity + lowering the arms = 2)
  3. Unterhau (raising the arms + rotating the torso = 2)
  4. Mittelhau (rotating the torso = 1)

The straight oberhau beats an unterhau because the unterhau fights against gravity, while the oberhau works with it.

Also note that the cuts can be defined as transitions between guards. This is an important point; in German sword arts, guards are not meant to be static positions of defense. Instead they are checkpoints within larger actions. At high levels of mastery, the concept of guards disappears entirely, being absorbed by their parent actions.

From the basic cuts are derived five meisterhau (“master cuts”). The meisterhau are the core techniques of KDF, providing solid attacks, defenses, and counters.

Zornhau (“Wrath Cut”)
Diagonal oberhau; used offensively, it is your most powerful cut; defensively, it’s a good parry against an oberhau, and is called abschneiden
Krumphau (“Crooked Cut”)
Zornhau with a bit of a “windshield wiper” motion; from the right, hit with the true edge and crossed arms; from the left, hit with the false edge and uncrossed arms; best performed with the thumb grip
Zwerchau (“Thwart Cut”)
Mittelhau with the hilt above your head and the lead thumb underneath the flat of the blade (i.e., thumb grip), resulting in a “helicopter” motion; from the right, hit with the false edge and uncrossed arms; from the left, hit with the true edge and crossed arms; also called a twerchau
Schilhau (“Squinting Cut”)
Similar to a zwerchau, but as an oberhau instead of a mittelhau, and always hits with the false edge
Scheitelhau (“Parting Cut”)
Straight vertical oberhau through the top of the opponent’s head

The meisterhau are designed to break or counter the guards. They do this by denying a given guard’s most direct line of attack. This means that if the opponent wishes to perform a simultaneous strike, they must take a more indirect and longer route. Doing so would ensure that your attack landed first, making a simultaneous strike suicidal. Therefore, a properly executed meisterhau forces the opponent to focus entirely on defense.

This aspect of the meisterhau can also be used defensively to perform single-time counters against the opponent’s attack. In this sense, they can be thought of as parries, although you should always use them to simultaneously strike the opponent, not just block their strike.

Counters
Guard/Strike Is Countered By…
Ochs, Langort, Overhand Thrust Krumphau to the hands combined with a deep step forward and to the side, evading the opponent’s point
Pflug, Langort, Underhand Thrust Schilhau to the sword followed by a thrust to the neck, using your hilt to push their blade out of the way
Alber, Unterhau Scheitelhau combined with a small step backward to evade the opponent’s attack; this technique is called überlauffen
Vom Tag, Oberhau Zwerchau, catching the opponent’s attack on your hilt and hitting them with your point

As soon as you perceive that the opponent enters a guard or is about to launch an attack, you should immediately perform the appropriate meisterhau.

Handwork

Handwork is a useful catch-all term for techniques that don’t fit neatly into the categories of strikes and guards.

Ablauffen (“Running Off”)
If the opponent is hard in the bind, lift your hilt and drop your point so that their blade slides off yours, then cut around to the other side
Abnehmen (“Taking Off”)
If the opponent is hard in the bind, lift your sword over theirs and cut back down on the other side
Abschneiden (“Slicing Off”)
Block the opponent’s strike by performing an oberhau or unterhau against their arms
Absetzen (“Setting Off”)
Turn your true edge against the opponent’s blade and thrust, using your hilt to push their sword out of the way; a type of winden; when initiated from a bind, it is called winden am schwert (“winding at the sword”)
Duplieren (“Doubling”)
If the opponent is hard in the bind, let them push your hilt out while you turn your point in behind their blade, allowing you to cut or stab their upper opening; a type of winden
Durchlauffen (“Running Through”)
Parry by raising your hilt overhead and letting your point drop to the side, then close the distance to grapple with the opponent
Durchwechseln (“Changing Through”)
Dip your point underneath the opponent’s blade and bring it back up on the other side
Hendtrucken (“Pressing Hands”)
Perform winden against the opponent’s hands or wrists
Hengen (“Hanging”)
Transition between the guards ochs and pflug to parry an attack, keeping your point forward to threaten the opponent
Mutieren (“Mutating”)
If the opponent is soft in the bind, turn your point down over their blade and thrust into their lower opening, using your hilt to push their blade out of the way; a type of winden
Nachreisen (“Chasing After”)
If the opponent creates an opening (by changing guards, drawing back for a strike, or missing with a strike), strike to that opening immediately
Schnappen (“Snapping”)
If the opponent is hard and is bound against your hilt, rotate your sword around the hilt, maintaining the bind and cutting to the other side
Überlauffen (“Overruning”)
If the opponent attacks your lower opening, withdraw your lead leg and strike to their upper opening
Winden (“Winding”)
Rotate your blade against or around the opponent’s, maintaining the bind and keeping your point forward at all times (e.g., absetzen, duplieren, mutieren); I’ve written more about winden here
Zucken (“Pulling”)
Pull your sword toward yourself to deceive the opponent by avoiding a bind, and strike to the other side of their sword

Strategy

Effective fencing requires quick decision-making—something that can be downright tricky in the chaos of a fight. Liechtenauer simplifies things by breaking combat down into just a few basic concepts.

Initiative

Initiative is the most important concept in German sword fighting. Whoever has the initiative can win the fight; whoever lacks it must first seize it if they ever hope to win. This is why Liechtenauer emphasizes offense so heavily in his strategy.

Initiative is comprised of four concepts:

Vor (“Before”)
You are in the vor when you present a threat against which the opponent must defend—if they don’t they will be struck. While they are defending, you present another threat. Thus, the opponent is always defending, never attacking. Put simply, you have the initiative, and work to maintain the initiative. This is the preferred mode, since you must be in the vor in order to win a fight.
Nach (“After”)
You are in the nach when the opponent presents a threat against which you must defend—if you don’t you will be struck. Your defense then creates an immediate threat against which the opponent must defend, and thus you steal the vor. Put simply, the opponent has the initiative, and you work to reverse the initiative. Although the vor is the preferred mode, it is not necessarily a bad thing to be in the nach; it opens up many tactical opportunities, and can often be the safest way to enter the vor.
Indes (“Meanwhile”)
You act indes by intelligently responding to the opponent’s actions at exactly the right moment in order to achieve a certain end. When you are in the vor, this is the precise moment in which you perform a followup technique to maintain the vor. When you are in the nach, this is the precise moment in which you perform a counter technique to steal the vor. Put simply, indes is the means by which initiative is maintained or reversed.
Gleich (“Simultaneously”)
You act gleich when you and the opponent simultaneously attempt to claim the vor by presenting threats against which the other must defend. You will either both be struck by the other’s attack, resulting in a double, or you will both break off to defend, resulting in a stalemate. Gleich is bad for both parties, since at best it accomplishes nothing, and at worst gets you both killed.

Leverage

Leverage is how much pressure you and the opponent exert on each other’s blades during a bind. You can be in one of two possible states:

Hard
You can resist or push through the opponent’s pressure
Soft
You either can’t or choose not to resist the opponent’s pressure

Each state counters the other. Acting soft against a hard opponent will throw the opponent’s blade out of position. Acting hard against a soft opponent allows you to push through the bind and strike.

Which state you are in depends on three factors:

  • Raw physical strength
  • Body structure
  • Where the swords cross each other

The last two can be used to level the playing field against a stronger opponent. Good body structure involves a stable stance and proper skeletal alignment with your blade. As for the third factor, the blade itself is divided into two sections:

Strong
From the hilt to the middle; difficult for the opponent to move
Weak
From the middle to the point; easy for the opponent to move

Whichever combatant can place their strong against the opponent’s weak gains a leverage advantage.

Fülen (“feeling”) is the ability to determine who is hard and who is soft in the bind.

The Four Openings

Rather than call out individual targets (e.g., head, right shoulder, left arm, chest, etc.), Liechtenauer divides the opponent’s body into four quarters, or openings. These are:

  • Upper Right
  • Upper Left
  • Lower Right
  • Lower Left

Application

The preceding concepts create a strategic framework to guide the use of KDF’s techniques. This framework can be summarized by the following decision tree:

  • At the start of an engagement (the zufechten):
    • Can you claim the vor?
      • Which of the opponent’s four openings is most vulnerable?
      • Attack that opening indes, preferably with one of the meisterhau
    • Are you forced into the nach?
      • Defend until you have an opportunity to act indes and steal the vor, using either a meisterhau or handwork
  • In a bind (the krieg):
    • Are you in the vor?
      • Is the opponent hard in the bind? Give way to the pressure indes and strike the most convenient opening
      • Is the opponent soft in the bind? Push through indes and strike the most convenient opening
    • Are you in the nach?
      • Is the opponent hard in the bind? Steal the vor by giving way to the pressure indes and striking the most convenient opening
      • Is the opponent soft in the bind? Steal the vor by pushing through indes and striking the most convenient opening
  • At the end of an engagement (the abzug), perform a defensive meisterhau while retreating

When you’re in the bind, you can use the following decision tree to determine which technique to use:

  • If the opponent is soft and makes no attempt to be hard: stab them (this is called zorn-ort (“wrath-point”) or ansetzen (“setting on”))
  • If the opponent is soft, but they try (and fail) to be hard: mutieren
  • If the opponent is hard, their point is moving offline, and they bound against your point: durchwechseln and thrust
  • If the opponent is hard and their point is moving offline: abnehmen or duplieren
  • If the opponent is hard and their point is online: winden am schwert

Plays

The Liechtenauer glosses illustrate the concepts and techniques of the system through a series of plays. I’ve compiled a list of the most important ones in a separate article, which can be found here.

Resources

  • Liechtenauer Compendium edited by Michael Chidester
  • Peter von Danzig by Pseudo-Peter von Danzig, translated by Harry R.
  • The Art of Combat by Joachim Meyer, translated by Jeffery Forgeng
  • Fighting with the German Longsword by Christian Henry Tobler
  • The True Swordsman by Adam Sharp
  • Keith Farrell’s Blog