German school of fencing

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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 (Blossfechten).

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:

At the centre of the art lies emphasis on swiftness, as well as balance and good judgement:

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.[1]

What follows is a list of technical terms of the system (with rough translation; they should each be explained in a separate section):