The German school of fencing (Deutsche Fechtschule) is the historical system of combat taught in the Holy Roman Empire in the Late Medieval, Renaissance and Early Modern periods (14th to 17th centuries), as described in the Fechtbücher ("fencing books") written at the time. During the period in which it was taught, it was known as the Kunst des Fechtens, or the "Art of Fencing". It notably comprises the
techniques of the two-handed longsword (Langschwert), but also describes many other types of combat.
Most of the authors are, or claim to be, in the tradition of the 14th century master Johannes Liechtenauer. The earliest surviving treatise on Liechtenauer's system is contained in Ms. 3227a. The system as presented puts much emphasis on simplicity, speed and efficiency, forming a deadly martial art fit for serious combat, with later works thought to be more inclined towards sporting. This Historical European Martial Art has since undergone a revival of interest and currently has many modern-day practitioners.
The history of the German school spans roughly 250 years, or eight to ten generations of masters (depending on the dating of Liechtenauer), from 1350 to 1600. Our earliest source, Ms. 3227a
of 1389 already mentions a number of masters, considered peers of Liechtenauer's, Hanko Döbringer, Andres Jud
, Jost von der Nyssen, and Niklaus Preuss. Probably active in the early 1400s were Martin Hundsfeld
and Ott Jud
, but sources are sparse until the mid 15th century.
The mid 1400s mark the peak and decline of the "Society of Liechtenauer" with Peter von Danzig, Sigmund Ringeck and Paulus Kal. Kal's contemporary Hans Talhoffer was possibly involved with the foundation of the Brotherhood of St. Mark who enjoyed a quasi-monopoly on teaching martial arts for the best part of a century, from 1487 until 1570.
Late 15th centuries masters include Johannes Lecküchner, Hans von Speyer, Peter Falkner, and Hans Folz. With the 16th century, the school becomes more of a sport and less of a martial art designed for judicial duels or the battlefield. Early 16th century masters include Hans Wurm and Jörg Wilhalm.
In the mid 16th century, there were first attempts at preservation and reconstruction of the teachings of the past century, notably by Paulus Hector Mair. The foundation of the Federfechter in 1570 at Vienna falls into this late period. The final phase of the tradition stretches from the late 16th to the early 17th century, with masters such as Joachim Meyer and Jakob Sutor. In the 17th century, rapier fencing of the Italian school becomes fashionable, with treatises such as Salvator Fabris', and the German tradition, falling into disfavour as old-fashioned and unrefined among the baroque nobility, was discontinued.
Master Johannes Liechtenauer based his system of fencing upon the use of the Longsword
. He used this weapon to exemplify several overreaching martial principles that also apply to other disciplines within the tradition. Ringen
(wrestling/grappling) was taught, as well as fighting with the messer
, and staff
. Also part of the curriculum were fighting with the dagger Degen
(mainly the roundel dagger
) and with pole weapons
. Two other disciplines besides Blossfechten
involved the sword: fencing with (single-handed) sword and buckler
(or a large shield in the case of judicial combat
according to Swabian law
), and armoured fighting (Harnischfechten
), the latter reserved for nobility.
The principal discipline is unarmoured fencing with the longsword
At the basis of the system are four basic wards (Leger, Huten), five 'master-cuts' (Meisterhäue), and five words (fünf Wörter) dealing with concepts of timing and leverage.
A characteristic introductory verse of Liechtenauer's, often repeated in later manuscripts, echoes classic 14th century chivalry, not withstanding that during most of its lifetime, the German school was very much in bourgeois hands:
- (fol 18r) Jung Ritter lere / got lip haben frawen io ere / So wechst dein ere / Uebe ritterschaft und lere / kunst dy dich zyret und in krigen sere hofiret
- "Young knight, learn to love God and revere women, so that your honour grows. Practice knighthood and learn the Art that dignifies you, and brings you honour in wars."
At the centre of the art lies emphasis on swiftness, as well as balance and good judgement:
- (fol. 20r) vor noch swach stark Indes / an den selben woertern leit alle kunst / meister lichtnawers / Und sint dy gruntfeste und der / kern alles fechtens czu fusse ader czu rosse / blos ader in harnuesche
- "'Before', 'after', 'weak', 'strong', Indes ('meanwhile'), on these five words hinges the entire art of master Lichtenauer, and they are the foundation and the core of all combat, on foot or on horseback, unarmoured or armoured."
The terms 'before' (vor) and 'after' (nach) correspond to offensive and defensive actions. While in the vor, one dictates his opponent's actions and thus is in control of the engagement, while in the nach, one responds to the decisions made by his opponent. Under Liechtenauer's system, a combatant must always strive to be in control of the engagement—that is, in the vor. 'Strong' (stark) and 'weak' (swach) relate to the amount of force that is applied in a bind of the swords. Here, neither is better than the other, but one needs to counter the opponent's action with a complementary reaction; strength is countered with weakness, and weakness with strength. Indes means "meanwhile" or "interim", referring to the time it takes for the opponent to complete an action. At the instant of contact with the opponent's blade, an experienced fencer uses 'feeling' (fühlen) to immediately sense his opponent's pressure in order to know whether he should be "weak or "strong" against him. He then either attacks using the "vor" or remains in the bind until his opponent acts, depending on what he feels is right. When his opponent starts to act, the fencer acts "indes" (meanwhile) and regains the "vor" before the opponent can finish his action.
What follows is a list of technical terms of the system (with rough translation; they should each be explained in a separate section):
- a basic position with the sword held above either the right shoulder or the head. The blade should be pointing nearly vertical (as pictured above) or nearly horizontal.
- a position with the sword held to either side of the head, with the point (as a horn) aiming at the opponent's face.
- a position with the sword held to either side of the body with the pommel near the back hip, with the point aiming at the opponent's chest or face. Some historical manuals state that when this guard is held on the right side of the body that the short edge should be facing up and when held on the left side of the body the short edge should be facing down with the thumb on the flat of the blade.
- low position, the sword is pointing forward and to the ground.
Additional wards: Liechtenauer is emphatic that these four wards are sufficient, and all wards taught by other masters may be derived from them. Later masters introduce richer terminology for variant wards:
The following are transitional stances that are not properly called wards.
Liechtenauer and other German masters describe three basic methods of attack with the sword. They are sometimes called "drei wunder", "three wounders", with a deliberate pun on "three wonders".
- Hauen, "cuts": A hewing stroke with one of the edges of the sword.
- Oberhau, "over cut": A stroke delivered from above the attacker.
- Mittelhau, "middle cut": A stroke delivered from side to side.
- Unterhau, "under cut": A stroke delivered from below the attacker.
- Stechen, "stabbing": A thrusting attack made with the point of the sword.
- Abschneiden, "slicing off": Slicing attacks made with the edge of the sword by placing the edge against the body of the opponent and then pushing or pulling the blade along it.
Called "five cuts" in 3227a, later "hidden cuts", and in late manuals "master cuts". These likely originated as secret surprise attacks in Liechtenauer's system, but with the success of Liechtenauer's school, they may have become common knowledge. All five are attacks from the first phase of the fight (zufechten
) and long range, accompanied by triangular stepping.
- A powerful diagonal hewing stroke dealt from the vom Tag guard that ends in the Wechsel guard on the opposite side. When a Zornhau is used to displace (Versetzen) another oberhau the impact and binding of the blades will result in the cut ending in a lower hanging on the opposite side. This strike is normally thrown to the opponent's upper opening.
- A vertical cut from above that reaches across the direct line to the opponent, traveling left from a right position and vice versa. The Krumphau breaks the guard Ochs.
- A high horizontal cut, with the 'short' (backhand) edge when thrown from the right side and with the 'long' edge when thrown from the left side. The Zwerchau breaks the guard vom Tag.
- A short edge cut dealt from the vom Tag guard that ends in an upper hanger on the opposite side and usually targets the head or the right shoulder. The Schielhau breaks the both the Pflug and Langen Ort guards and can be used to counter-cut against a powerful Oberhau.
- A vertical descending cut that ends in the guard Alber. This cut is dealt to the opponent's upper openings, most often to the opponent's head, where the hair parts (hence the name of the cut). Through the principle of überlauffen, “overrunning” or “overreaching”, a Scheitelhau is used to break the guard Alber.
Other terms in Liechtenauers system (most of them referring to positions or actions applicable in mid-combat, when the blades are in contact) include:
- Absetzen: 'setting-aside', deflecting a thrust or cut at the same time as stabbing.
- Duplieren: 'double', the immediate redoubling of a displaced cut.
- Durchlauffen: 'running-through', a technique by which one combatant "runs through" his opponent's attack to initiate grappling with him.
- Durchwechseln: 'changing-through', name for various techniques for escaping a bind by sliding the sword's point out from underneath the blade and then stabbing to another opening.
- Händedrücken: 'pressing of hands', the execution of an Unterschnitt followed by an Oberschnitt such that the wrists of the opponent are sliced all the way around.
- Hängen: 'hanging' (upper/lower, left/right)
- Mutieren: 'mutate', change of attack method, changing a displaced cut into a thrust, or a displaced thrust into a cut.
- Nachreisen: 'chasing', the act of attacking an opponent after he has pulled back to attack, or an attack after the opponent has missed, or an attack following the opponent's action.
- Überlaufen: 'going-over' or 'overrunning', the act of countering a cut or thrust made to below with an attack to above.
- Versetzen: 'displacement' or 'parrying' (upper/lower, left/right), to parry an attack with ones own weapon.
- Zucken: 'pulling' a technique used in a strong bind between blades in which a combatant goes weak in the bind so as to disengage his blade from the bind and stabs or cuts to the other side of the other combatant's blade. This technique is based upon the concept of using weakness against strength.
Combat in full plate armour made use of the same weapons as Blossfechten, the longsword and dagger (possibly in special make optimized for piercing armour), but the techniques were entirely different. Attacking an opponent in plate armour offers two basic possibilities: percussive force, or penetration at joints or unprotected areas. Percussion was realized with the Mordstreich, attacks with the hilt holding the sword at the blade, and penetration into openings of the armour with the Halbschwert, which allowed stabbing attacks with increased precision. From the evidence of the Fechtbücher, most armoured fights were concluded by wrestling moves, with one combatant falling to the ground. Lying on the ground, he could then be easily killed with a stab into his visor or another opening of the armour.
- Clements, John. Masters of Medieval and Renaissance Martial Arts: Rediscovering The Western Combat Heritage. Paladin Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58160-668-3
- Heim, Hans & Alex Kiermayer, The Longsword of Johannes Liechtenauer, Part I -DVD-, ISBN 1-891448-20-X
- Knight, David James and Brian Hunt, Polearms of Paulus Hector Mair , ISBN 978-1-58160-644-7 (2008)
- Lindholm, David & Peter Svard, Sigmund Ringeck's Knightly Art of the Longsword, ISBN 1-58160-410-6 (2003)'
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