The Strange Duality of Early Kunst des Fechtens Glosses
One of the most intriguing questions about the early KDF sources (Danzig, Ringeck, Lew, etc.) is, “What were they?”
Were they a “how to” manual? A student’s or teacher’s working notes? Perhaps a form of advertisement? Were they intended to be part of a wealthy burgher’s or noble’s library? If yes, were they working tools, or were they displayed in bookshelves for the sake of impressing guests? Was ownership and knowledge of sources regarded with fear and respect, implying that the owner was privy to the secrets these tomes contained?
One clue to the nature of KDF is the structure of its glosses. Assuming that the sources were meant to convey information, many of us likewise assumed that the order in which the information was presented was important . Many (including me) believed or still believe that the sources presented a coherent system of combat and that the order of the information represented a pedagogy. The glosses can indeed be viewed as a series of sequential lessons, particularly if you follow the “hyperlinks” contained in the early sections to flesh out your understanding of later material.
And how you shall drive the Windings, and how many there are, you will find described in the last technique of the Epitome, which says “Whoever drives well and correctly breaks…” – Codex 44.A.8, “Von Danzig Fechthbuch,” translated by Cory Winslow.
This “hyperlink,” which points the reader to a later section, appears after the discussion of the Three Wounders, which briefly mentions the Windings. This implies that the sources are instructions for those who don’t know what the windings (and other KDF concepts) are. But for an instruction manual, 44.A.8 is quite sparse and non-specific. In fact, it took modern people with an unprecedented information sharing technology more than twenty years to figure it out, and we still aren’t certain if we understand it correctly. And this includes people who “otherwise can fence.” Not a particularly effective instruction manual, these sources. But then again, medieval medicine wasn’t particularly effective either, so this does not rule out that possibility. Technical writing is both an art and a science, and it was quite rudimentary in both respects at the time these sources were written.
Even with earlier sections linking to later sections, the resulting pedagogy is quite odd. For example, why are actions from the four guards taught well before the guards themselves? To explain that, many KDF instructors have come up with creative interpretations of the imposed teaching structure. Some of these include the idea that students shouldn’t focus on guards before they understand the actions that these guards facilitate. As logical as that sounds, you still have to teach a student how to stand and where to hold the sword before beginning these actions. You are, in effect, teaching a guard, whether you call it a guard or not.
Another question is, why are such complex winding actions (e.g. Zornhau winden) taught before the concept of winding itself? Or before even simple concepts like Nachreisen? One possible explanation is that material is fed to the student as various problems are introduced, so solutions to common problems come first. For example, the plays of the Zornhau may be designed to teach possible actions from the most common form of bind. But one of the very first plays taught is the inside wind, which is arguably the most complex action in all of KDF. If the order is to be believed, then this is taught to students who were, just a few short lessons ago, taught to not leave their non-dominant leg forward when attacking from their dominant side. This is akin to teaching calculus right after basic addition and subtraction. The Zornhau bind is a great place to introduce Indes and Fühlen because of its simplicity. But why not teach much more simple actions first? Or even introduce the student to the concept of winding before teaching the most complex of the winds?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Codex 44.A.8 and other typically structured glosses, is the apparent duality of the manner in which it presents information. It seems to consist of two discrete sections. The actual lesson plan, from a logical start to a logical conclusion, and the five hews, which is a jumbled mess of the various techniques of KDF, presented in an order that is seemingly more philosophical than pedagogical. In fact, if you skip the sections describing the five hews and their various plays, you are left with a coherent and well ordered lesson structure. Consider the order of techniques/concepts that would be taught:
1. General Teaching: This is an introduction to some very basic and fundamental concepts. Strike from the right if you’re right handed (and vice versa), don’t cut from the right if your left leg is forward without putting your right leg forward, always fence with the strength of your entire body, the five words (before, after, weak, strong, Indes), etc.
2. The Vier Leger: These are the four primary guards. For any action you teach, there must be a starting position. Therefore, regardless of how you present it, you are always teaching the guards first. This would be a good place to teach the basic strikes, thrusts and defensive actions that come from each guard. This is not present in the KDF sources, presumably because the art is for people who “otherwise can fence.”
3. The Vier Versetzen: These are the four strikes that break the four guards. This would be a good place to teach these four hews and the plays in which they are used to break the guards.
4. Don’t Parry: Here you are taught the folly of parrying, and some techniques to use against those who parry. You are also taught, or at least told, what you should do instead (parry with cuts and thrusts).This would be an excellent place to teach the Zornhau and some of its plays, as it is an example of a defensive strike.
5. Vier Ansetzen: The four settings on (four thrusts into an opponent’s preparation), two from above, two from below (one on each side). This is the point at which you are taught what most people would consider an “absetzen thrust” (it isn’t, it’s ansetzen). This is a fundamental way to defend with a thrust.
6. Nachreisen: The “travelling after.” This is a fundamental concept in all fencing—the void. When someone attacks you, one of the best actions to take is to step away (back or sideways or both) so that the strike does not hit you. Thus a fencer who strikes before closing distance (who steps into range with his or her cuts) can be defeated without risking a bind. Some plays are presented to account for various possibilities.
7. Indes and Fühlen: Here you are taught about Indes (working in the tempo of an opponent’s action) and Fühlen (feeling if the opponent is hard or soft in the bind). After that, you are given an example of how to use that with Nachreisen.
8. Uberlauffen: Here you are taught the principle of overreaching (high strikes defeat low strikes) and some examples of how to apply it. It is interesting to note that Pietro Monte's Collectanea actually says the exact opposite, that strikes from below are a good way to defeat strikes from above.
9. Absetzen: Here you are taught a way to parry with your point threatening, and after the parry, to step and thrust. This is taught against both thrusts and cuts.
10. Durchwechseln and Zucken: Changing through and pulling are both techniques to be employed against people who like to parry and/or bind.
11. Durchlauffen: Here you are taught how to grapple at the sword and counter those fencers who close to wrestle. Disarms are also taught here.
12. Abschneiden and Vier Schniden: Here you are taught ways to leave the bind while suppressing the opponent’s sword (slicing off) as well as the four slices to the hands/arms.
13. Hangings: Here you are taught to use the positions known as hangings (plow and ochs on each side) to read whether the opponent is hard or soft, and wind accordingly (basic windings).
14. Sprechfenster: Here you are taught how to perform all of the actions previously taught from the Longpoint, which is described as the noblest and the best of guards. You can do this while engaged on the sword or standing and observing your opponent in the approach. This is a reduction of all of the previously taught movements into a compact and efficient way of fighting.
15. The Summary/Eight Windings: This is the conclusion of the teaching, where everything is reduced to these fundamental windings from each of which are employed the three wounders. You are reminded that all fencing (or at least all KDF fencing) comes from Indes and Fühlen.
If you are thinking that the above presents a coherent pedagogical system for progressing from elemental concepts to the epitome of KDF fencing, and that it is only missing the extended plays of the five hews, you are probably right. Some fundamental concepts that are present in those extended plays but not in the above are: failers (feints), parrying without the point forward (e.g. Krumphau), the four openings, and a few others. The question remains, where do you teach the various plays of the five hews? The logical response would be to mix them in among their parent techniques. The five hews themselves are taught early on in the above, and almost all of their plays can be categorized under one of the items from the list (with previously mentioned exceptions).
Consider the alternative order, or rather, the actual order in which the techniques (and perhaps lessons) are presented:
1. General Teachings: same as above, simple concepts, don’t cut with from your right with your left foot forward, prefer attacks from the right if you’re a righty, use all of your strength, etc., and then, straight to:
2. Zornhau: Cut to the center, use Fühlen, one of KDF’s two central/primary and most advanced concepts, to sense the bind, and then act in Indes (the other central and most advanced concept) to thrust. If he sees that, take off to the other side. But if your Fühlen tells you he’s hard in the bind, then execute the most advanced action in KDF, the inside wind. Wait, where are you going? Come back, the lesson is just starting!
Some concepts that are entirely missing from KDF are quite conspicuous by their absence. For example, distance management. KDF is aware of different distances for actions (e.g. Zufechten, Krieg, difference between earnest attack and not earnest attack in Zornhau) but does not discuss how to manage distance at all. Even such simple things such as being told to step back to void an attack (e.g. Nachreisen, where you are told to see that he does not hit you, but not to actually step back) are missing. Is that a cultural phenomenon (e.g. to retreat is cowardly!), or simply a gap in the knowledge of the burghers who practiced and taught KDF?
The big question remains. Why are the five hews presented up front, before any of the foundational techniques are taught? There are several possible answers. One of which is an alternative pedagogy that we don’t fully understand. For example, what if most of the things in the list above (i.e. the majority of the hauptstucke, or chief techniques of KDF) are things that a common fencer would have been expected to know? And perhaps they are only included in the sources because they are presented in a KDF-central context. This does not explain the seemingly absurd order of the lessons presented, but maybe they aren’t lessons. Maybe the information is divorced from the pedagogy. This would imply that 44.A.8 (and other similarly structured glosses) is not actually intended as a system of teaching, just a laundry list of techniques or some other way of presenting the information without intending it to be taught in that order. Perhaps the original zettel was a form of pedagogy, but the various glosses, which often contradict each other, lost touch with that pedagogy and just glossed away, keeping to the zettel only as a means of maintaining legitimacy.
We must not discount the possibility that these sources were not intended to convey accurate information at all. There could be a variety of reasons for this. Among them, not wanting to give away your secrets to your rivals/competitors and not wanting to reveal too much, so that people would still want to hire you.
The possibility that I find the most interesting is that the five hews represent the flashy and novel techniques that KDF brings to the table, those that are not present in other systems, and that is why they are placed up front. Perhaps the point of possessing such a tome in your library was a matter of prestige, to showcase the deadly and mysterious techniques that you presumably knew and that other masters “know nothing to say of.”
So what was KDF, really? We will probably never know. But I believe that it isn’t quite what most of us think it is. As to what that means, I’m not entirely sure, but the one thing I’m increasingly certain of is there was a very specific context for KDF, and without knowing and understanding that context, we will never truly understand it.
In closing, if you want to get the most of the early KDF sources, it would be worth taking a look at the implied pedagogy that results from disregarding the five hews (until you are done with most of the other material). Or better yet, break down the techniques of the five hews and seed them within their parent techniques.