Doing what we are told or what we are taught?

Here's an old but still always relevant question for us HEMA practitioners to ask ourselves: When we read the old fencing treatises, should we only practice what we are told to do in the treatises or should we try to continue with the next step of playing with it and even do things that we are not explicitly shown or suggested to do in the various stücke?

To be able to explore this question; here's a specific topic that constantly keeps returning in various debates: Meyer is said to not be teaching thrusting with the longsword. Yet, we know for certain that he was familliar with the works of several older masters like Ringeck, Liegniczer, Syber, Marozzo and Huntfeltz. The concept of thrusting with a longsword and the associated techniques were quite clearly familiar to him. So why did he choose not to teach it and how does that affect our training?

To get to the bottom of this we have to start with why he chose not to teach it the same way that the old masters taught the Drei Wunder (three wonders) cut, thrust & slice. Here are some simple suggestions that may be part of the explanation:

Meyer himself explains that:

"But I will here remind the friendly reader at the outset, since there is a great difference between sword combat in our time and how it was practiced by our predecessors --- And as to the practice of former days, when they fought dangerously both with cuts and thrusts, I will discuss it in its proper and separate place."

This in turn might be explained by the fact that the three weapons of the Fechtmeister were the longsword, the dussacken and the Halbenstangen. The latter two were made out of wood & leather and were reasonably safe to thrust with and thus were used for exactly that.

Detail from artwork by Franz Brun ca 1559. Notice the ball point.

The rappier had ball points for safety even in Meyer's time as can be seen in the retouched image by Franz Brun on the right and even in the preparatory sketches for Meyer's treatise of 1570 by Hans Christoffel Stimmer. Furthermore, the wooden training daggers and the practice halberds also often used such ball points to enable thrusting to the face, which is clearly seen in Meyer's treatise of 1570.

However, such ball points would likely have fallen off with the powerful and fast cuts of a longsword and consequently were not used for the steel training swords.

A wooden training longsword could theoretically have been used as it would have been safe enough for thrusting, but then it wouldn't have been so for striking (while actually hitting the head) and a choice promoting the cut seems to have been made. A thrust would have been reasonably simple to add to a core of cuts and windings, but the opposite is not as true.

Sketch in chalk and ink by Hans Christoffel Stimmer for Meyer's 1570 treatise

About 100 years later we have good depictions of thrusting points used even with the staff as seen in the image below.

Practice weapons used by the Marxbrüder and the Federfechter in 1689

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Another explanation might be that Meyer's treatise of 1570 is one of the first martial arts treatises meant for mass distribution, and that he therefore might have wanted to avoid being responsible for permanent injury amongst enthusiastic young fighters which studied primarily with the book as their main source of learning. In his foreword he even directs himself both to

"... youths who wish to dedicate themselves to this art --- also so that the experienced practitioner may understand..."

This book is quite different from many earlier sources in the sense that it is largely a book that teaches you how to train, not only how to defend and attack. This is a hugely important distinction.

Furthermore, his book was dedicated to and, according to Meyer himself, written after he had been repeatedly asked to do so by Johann Casimir von Pfalz-Simmern. Meyer appears to have had military experience from several conflicts and in several countries and his teachings may very well have been intended to teach Casimir's troops and more specifically together in group training, as opposed to the old, traditional one-one-one training of teacher & noble student. This would involve more risks while training, so minimizing the risks of troops maiming or killing themselves might be a good idea. Mass training is quite different from personal training and this treatise might reflect this.

Today, the situation is quite different, since we are using fencing masks and throat protection that keeps us safe enough against thrusts to the face.

So, did Meyer thrust with the longsword or not and what should we do in our attempts at recreating his Art?

This is a tricky question.

As described above, we know that he taught the thrust with the weapons that were reasonably safe to thrust with; the staff/halberd, the dagger and dussack and the rappier. We also know that he taught us to threaten with the trust for the longsword in several stücke, for instance provoking the opponent from Schlüssel, by thrusting in, our slightly out of, range, thereby causing him to strike at our sword, and then make the old Schnappen and counter-cut to the opening created at where the opponent struck from.

As shown in the top image, we also see stances where the thrust could well be used in the illustrations. He uses the longsword guards of Ochs, Pflug and Eisenport which all encourage thrusting and in fact he describes the Pflug as:

"... aim the tip or point at your opponent's face as if you intended to thrust at him from below."

And the Eisenport is described as:

"Thus you have your sword in front of you for protection like an iron door; for when you stand with your feet wide, so that your body is low, you can put off all cuts and thrusts from this position."

In his fourth stuck on the Oberhut he says:

"... cross your hands above your head (the right over the left), so that it seems as if you intended to thrust at his face..."

In the first stuck on Schlüssel Meyer says:

"....then thrust straight in front of you at his face from the Key into the Longpoint. He must fend off this thrust if he does not wish to be hit."

Notice that he actually says that the opponent has to parry or he will receive a thrust in his face.

He even shows us a fencer keeping the point right between the eyes of the opponent in plate G shown above. To be fair, it is after a cut, a very controlled Schielhauw, but given the amount of control displayed, and the fact that the thrust was taught with all other weapons, we can be fairly sure that he would know what to do if the Meisterhauw didn't connect properly.

The longsword, and the bidenhänder, although unfashionable compared to the rappier, certainly saw their use in the 1560/70's and even several decades later. The longswords were certainly not as common on the battlefields of Meyer's time, but we should keep in mind that this was a time of deep religious conflict between Catholics and various groups of Protestants and this involved wars not only on the regular battlefield and the professional landsknechten and noble officers in armour, but with peasants, burghers and nobles alike fighting on fields, in woods and in the cities, with many forms of weapons, like rappiers, halberds, pikes and bardisans, and occasionally even peasants with farming tools like transformed scythes, flails and simple thick branches. Longswords were certainly used, and encountered in plenty of these battles.

Furthermore, Giacomo di Grassi tells us in 1570 that the two-handed sword is used to protect the highest ranking officers and the banners.

"The two hand sword as it is used now and & daies being fower handfulls in the handle —But because one may with it (as a galleon among many gallies) resist many Swordes, or other weapons: Therefore in the warres, it is used to be placed neere unto the Ensigne or Auncient, for the defence thereof, because, being of it selfe hable to contend with manie, it may better sauegard the same. And it is accustomed to be carried in the Citie, aswell by night as by day, when it so chaunceth that a few are constrayned to withstand a great manie."

Giacomo diGrassi “Arte of Defence”, English translation from 1594.

We should also keep in mind that Dom Diogo Gomes de Figueryedo wrote his treatise on the two-handed Montante as late as in 1651, advising on both battlefield and urban combat.

Combining all of the above, I firmly believe that Meyer would have thrusted in an actual life-and-death situation involving longswords. He might even have done it for real in combat.

So how should we approach the above?

On the one hand we could stick to the text and the stücke described therein and thereby be safe in the knowledge that we are not making things up. The Art of Meyer would remain pure and clean since we only focus on the techniques that are described in the treatises of Meyer. The huge disadvantage however is that this could potentially, perhaps even likely, make things more undynamic and unflexible as we are taught through a book and still interpret things without being corrected by the master himself.

On the other hand we could try to read in between the lines and try to understand the principles that Meyer is trying to teach us through the use of various techniques, thus making his Art our own, and hopefully thereby make it come alive again.

In his 1570 treatise Meyer himself states that:

"Further you shall also know that although I have assigned to every posture its particular devices, it is not my intention that these devices shall not be executed or take place from other postures. The chiefest reason that I have assigned some devices to one posture, others to another, is so they can be discussed in an orderly fashion.

Also these devices are not so set in stone that they cannot be changed in practice - they are merely examples from which everyone may seek, derive, and learn devices according to his opportunity, and may arrange and change them as suits him. For as we are not all of a single nature, so we also cannot all have a single style in combat; yet all must nonetheless arise and be derived from a single basis."

Reading his treatises with this angle we would more be looking for things like body & weapon's mechanics, strategies, tactics and psychology. The techniques are in a sense the embodiment of these and with understanding of these the techniques will come by themselves, even if you haven't practiced the actual techniques. This also means that a technique often can be performed in many different ways, which Meyer even suggests himself several times.

We could also ask ourselves what Meyer himself hoped to do. To me that answer is simple: To create the best (German) fighters possible, and particularly such that could serve under men like Johann Casimir. He was not teaching techniques as much as he was teaching principles and strategies for fighting. I sincerely believe that Meyer and his men would certainly have thrusted with any weapon that was suited for it and the longsword is indeed designed for that. Thrusting with the Zweihänder can be debated, but we know that the contemporary Italian Giacomo di Grassi actually advised primarily thrusting with the large two-handed swords.

With all of the above in mind, I would suggest we try to include thrusting into Meyer's longsword and that we read the stücke with the thrust in mind to see if adding thrust would change Meyer's teachings in a way that affects mechanics etc or if it would complement it naturally. The step from threatening with a thrust and actually completing it seems short enough.

Now, the reasoning on thrusting in Meyer longsword above is just an example that explores a tiny bit of a much broader question given in the very title of the article: "Doing what we are told or what we are taught?" It is my strong belief that we always need to try to look beneath the surface of the techniques and see what principles that lie underneath them and what ties them together. That way we can deepen our understanding considerably.

This is also the case with Meyer's concept of Reitzen-Nehmen-Treffen (provoking-taking-hitting), ie if you hit with your Vorschlag, make sure to take out his counterstrike and withdraw safely in the Abzug. You can also first provoke him to open up so you can hit him or if he countercuts while you are attacking, then take it out and finally hit him properly. This concept lies underneath a very large portion of Meyer's teachings and is in a way his "Drei Wunder". But without this understanding, we can easily misinterpret his stücke as involving many complex hits that really make no sense.

So my answer to the main question would simply be: We should strive to practice and use what Meyer is trying to teach, not what he actually says. The latter is a key to the former, but nothing more and once we truly understand the principles, the proper techniques will come forth by themselves.

However, this does not mean that we can or should skip training techniques. Quite the contrary. We need to analyze them and practice them in order to understand the underlying principles. This is hard work and can take several years before we reach proper understanding.

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All translations of Joachim Meyer are taken from Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng's book referenced below.

References:

Meyer, Joachim (1570): Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen unnd Adelichen Kunst des Fechtens, Straßburg, Thiebolt Berger

di Grassi, Giacomo. (1570: Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l'Arme. English translation of 1594, London.

Forgeng, Dr Jeffrey L. (2006: The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570 . Greenhill Books & Palgrave Macmillan, New York

 

 

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