A Taxonomy of Technique: Meyer’s 5 Things

“Even though this art must be learned chiefly through the practice of the body, yet it is certain and true that as with others, students can conceive it in their memory much better when it is assembled, written out, and placed before their eyes in a proper pedagogical order, and afterwards it can also be more readily learned and grasped through the practice of the body, than when it is recounted to them only by mouth and presented in piecemeal fashion.”[1]

 

So we are told in the foreword of Meyer’s Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens (A Thorough Description of the Art of Fencing).  On opening the text we are then confronted with a thick volume replete with unfamiliar terminology and techniques, the diversity of which often leaves students slightly dazed and confused.  Part of the reason for this is that we lack an understanding of the language of Meyer’s time – merely remembering the words kurtzhauw & sturtzhauw, or wechselhauw & windthauw, is a hurdle in itself.  However even when we render the terms into English we are faced with an array of new terminology that can be difficult to remember and to internalise.

How then can we best array this wealth of knowledge to assist in teaching and learning Meyer’s art?

Previously we have discussed fencing with the analogy of language acquisition.  We have a set of “nouns” in the guards and stages of the fight (Tag, Zornhut, Abzug etc) , and another set of “verbs” in the strikes and handworks (Zornhauw, Verfliegen, etc), and even some adjectives and adverbs (Indes, Gleich etc)  By combining these we can construct simple sentences to describe an action. For example:

“From Zornhut, Zornhauw to Langort; Ablauffen through Hangetort, then Umbschlagen, and Zwerch to their Upper Right Opening.”

With time and practice most students readily acquire this new language, be it in the German or Anglicised version.  Usually this is accompanied by repetitive practice of each movement in isolation as well as placed into its context with other verbs and nouns, to create a “stücke” (which we might translate as play, sequence, exemplar, or technique).

After considerable practice many students begin to notice implicit relationships between techniques, even pointing these out to the instructor as they’re placing then in their stücke context.  It’s not unusual, for example, to hear something like this in class:

Student: “Can you show me how to do the Kurtzhauw again”

Teacher: “Sure, you do this.” [demonstrates]

Student: “Oh, so it’s kind of like a Krumphauw that goes underneath their blade instead of above it”

Teacher: “Bingo!”

Perhaps not the best example as the text literally says cut a Krumphauw short beneath their blade to form the Kurtzhauw, but even when not explicitly told this they often make the connection themselves in the same way.  This relationship between the nouns and verbs of our new “Fencing Language” (Fechtsprache?) should come as no surprise.  The same semantic relationships exist between more workaday terms – consider the relationship between walking, running, skipping, sprinting, jogging, and so on, in English.  Just as we can collect verbs into tentative families, so can we take the techniques of a fencing system and collect them into groups of similar kind.

Such relationships may help the fencer to better understand their system and accelerate their learning as they apply the mechanics and considerations of a cut to the related cuts in its “family grouping”.  Further they provide a mental framework and taxonomy which can assist the fencer when trying to understand the text itself, or solve real-world fencing problems.

Chris Slee points out a process which extrapolates this into the tactical and strategic domain in his excellent paper “From Text to Training” [2] in which he describes the progress from atomic actions, to recognising situations, then drawing out the higher level strategies.  In Meyer we are given a multitude of actions, situations, and even strategies, however we are placed in a situation of not being able to see the forest for the trees.  There are so many terms and techniques that we might not spend enough time “recompiling” what we know into a concise abstraction.  As students and teachers of fencing it is this unpacking and repacking of semantics that underpins our understanding of the sources we are working from, and provides a framework which will help accelerate the learning of fencing by new students.

This article comprises a case study of one such a process for a subset of Meyer’s techniques, followed by some speculations on wider applicability to Meyer’s system.

Species of Strikes

Given this observation that we can tentatively collect techniques together into related groups just as we might collect animals together into species, we can begin to experiment with a limited case study using the strikes of the Meyeresque system.  Consider our menagerie of cuts:

  • Oberhauw/Scheitelhauw (Over/Scalp Strike)
  • Zornhauw (Wrath Strike)
  • Mittelhauw (Middle Strike)
  • Unterhauw (Under Strike)
  • Krumphauw (Crooked Strike)
  • Kurtzhauw (Short Strike)
  • Sturtzhauw (Plunge Strike)
  • Zwerch (Thwart)
  • Glutzhauw (Clashing Strike)
  • Schielhauw (Glancing Strike)
  • Wechselhauw (Change Strike)
  • Prellhauw (Rebound Strike
  • Windthauw (Wind Strike)
  • Blendthauw (Blind trike)
  • Kneichelhauw (Knuckle Strike)

In the text each strike is accompanied with a small tactical and technique briefing, and some of them are actually built from more than one cut.  With this in mind we can begin to group them based on similarities and relationships.  Though this is a fairly subjective and arbitrary task Meyer has (for the strikes at least) given us an launch platform in his introductory sections.

“The strikes with the Sword are many, belonging to two groups, which are common to both the direct and indirect strikes which we shall name. The first group is named the Lead or Principal strikes, on which all other strikes are based, and which are four, Over, Under, Middle, and Wrathful strikes. The others are named the secondary or derivative strikes” [1]

Later in the text Meyer also explicitly relates cuts as being crooked or not.  Fundamentally we can combine these two classification methods into:

  1. “Long” Cuts: derived from principal cuts, which strike out with the long edge and extended arms
  2. “Short” Cuts: which strike out “crossed” arms or blade.

Notice in the second instance the “crossing” may refer to crossing of the blade at an angle, much like saw teeth [3].

Summarising this we arrive at:

Long/Principal Strikes Short/Crooked Strikes

Oberhauw

Unterhauw

Zornhauw

Mittelhauw

Prellhauw

Windthauw

Wechselhauw

Krumphauw

Kurtzhauw

Sturtzhauw

Zwerch

Glutzhauw

Schielhauw

Prellhauw

Blendthauw

Kneichelhauw

Windthauw

Notice that some strikes such as the Prellhauw appear in both columns.  These composite strikes use both principle and crooked techniques and so fall into both categories.

Given this grouping students now find that they really only need to learn two cuts – effectively the “principal” cut and the “crooked” cut.  Everything else is simply context.  When we test this out in practice we find that this breakdown is actually quite effective and fits well with Meyer’s various plays.  Despite naming the many cuts Meyer often simply says “cut with crossed hands” in his devices, leaving the reader to puzzle out which specific named cut he is talking about.  With this simplification into two types of cuts we’re freed of some of this intellectual burden.  If I tell someone to cut long to the upper left opening (a simple verb/noun pairing from our language analogy), for example, it’s reasonable to assume a Zornhauw.  If I say cut with crossed arms to the upper right, a Zwerch might be the candidate.

Based on experimentation with this in classes it seems that as long as we’re using the correct family of cuts and addressing the correct opening the devices tend to work out fundamentally the same without named cuts as they do when we are given specific naming in the text.

Recompiling the Handworks

In the case of the strikes Meyer has given us a clear differentiation within the text.  In the Handworks section we are also given some hints and instructions for collecting techniques together, though again these categories are fuzzy at the edges, as one might expect.

Summarising the Handworks we have:

  • Anbinden
  • Fuhlen
  • Bleiben
  • Nachreisen
  • Schneiden
  • Umbschlagen
  • Ablauffen
  • Verfuhren
  • Verkehren
  • Verfliegen
  • Absetzen
  • Schlaudern
  • Zucken
  • Doplieren
  • Umbschnappen
  • Fehlen
  • Zirckel
  • Rinde
  • Winden
  • Wechseln
  • Abschneiden
  • Hendtrucken
  • Verschieben
  • Außreissen
  • Sperren
  • Verstullen
  • Ubergreiffen
  • Einlauffen

Some techniques here show plausible relationships while others are a little more opaque.  There are dozens of ways we could slice this particular pie, so we may as well take a stab at it (no pun intended) by starting with the first entry in the list: Anbinden.

From binding we might advance the argument that this is something that happens as a result of intercepting someone’s blade, or conversely having our own blade intercepted.  Having thus gained the other’s blade we are obliged to control the bind to our advantage.  Using this as our starting point we might suggest:

Gaining & Controlling the Sword (Anbinden)

Bleiben (Remaining)

Fuhlen (Feeling)

Absetzen (Setting Off)

Sperren (Barring)

Verschieben (Deflecting)

Abschneiden (Slicing Off)

Verkehren (Reversing)

Winden (Winding)

Einlauffen (Running In)

Nachreisen (Chasing After)

Glancing through the remaining items one’s eyes might immediately alight upon the slicing (Schneiden) – this isn’t gaining and controlling the blade, but rather controls the movements of the other person through threat and pressure to their arms.  Looking further in the list several related techniques stand out.  Further to this, Meyer himself has placed a convenient collective handwork term within the list – specifically Verstullen (forestalling/blocking), which is described in the text as when you:

“Pursue him closely with the slice on his arm, and thus block his course so that he cannot work”  [1]

So Verstullen encompasses slicing and other techniques to block his course. To this we add Hendtrucken (Hand Pressing), which is described as resembling the slices on the arm.  We continue in this manner through the named techniques to arrive at:

Forestalling/Blocking (Verstullen)

Schneiden (Slicing)

Außreissen (Wrenching Out)

Hendtrucken (Hand Pressing)

Ubergreiffen (Overgripping)

Nachreisen (Chasing)

This is progress!  Our long list is now greatly reduced in length as we move items to their respective categories.

As we have dealt with controlling the blade and arms of the opponent, we can look at the other side of the coin and postulate a set of techniques which leave/avoid the bind in order to attack elsewhere.  Of course there are many ways we can leave the bind to attack another opening – we can go beneath their sword, above it, or even leave then re-enter from the same side.  Within these techniques we find an underlying common thread of deception – we’re tricking the opponent into defending one opening only to attack another.  Again, Meyer has done some of the work here for us in his list of deceptions which already includes most of the entries in this category.

We will use Meyer’s collective term of misleading/deceiving (Verfuhren) which is summarised as:

“When you act as if you intended to lay on to one of your opponent’s openings, but you don’t do it, and instead deliver the stroke to another opening where you believe you can arrive most conveniently without harm” [1]

Meyer follows this by enumerating some of the technique here, including Zucken, Zirckel, Ablauffen, as well as more obvious Fehlen and Verfliegen among others.  Under this heading we can add:

Misleading (Verfuhren)

Umbschlagen

Ablauffen

Verfliegen

Zucken

Doplieren

Umbschnappen

Fehlen

Zirckel

Rinde

Wechseln

Nachreisen

This leaves only Schlaudern (slinging) which is in fact no more than a way of throwing strikes, so can be duly relegated to the cutting of the strikes to begin with.

A brief note on Nachreisen.  Chasing/following after is one of those concepts which can be used in any of the categories.  In the Kneichelhauw, for example, when the opponent lifts their arms we use Nachreisen to follow after with the slice, preventing their cut and thus falling under the category of Verstullen.  Alternatively when we threaten an opening, then when the opponent shifts their guard we chase with Nachreisen to the opening they just left (a kind of Umbschlagen), we are engaging in misleading.  Finally we can use nachreisen to gain the bind as specified when we are told:

“You shall cut in quickly and skillfully, using those cuts and techniques from which you can at once achieve a parry” [1]

This instance highlights the fuzziness of the categorisation: while some techniques sit isolated within the compass of their category, others blur into other categories in an expanding venn diagram.

Putting Everything Together

We now have a taxonomy of sword movements which looks like this

  1. Cutting Long
  2. Cutting Short/Crooked
  3. Binding
  4. Forestalling
  5. Misleading

To these there is one more set of verbs we might want to add, and that is stepping, for it is with stepping that we can add additional spatial information to our techniques. We would argue, however, that stepping is largely presupposed within the instructions for cutting, so for the sake of simplicity we will leave steps out for the time being.

Astute readers will also have noticed there are two further categories which have been ignored.  The first of these is the “nouns” of our Fencing Speak – we have made no mention of guard positions or posture weightings.  The reason for this is simple – our compiled source is a list of actions taken rather than passive positions.  By concentrating on verbs we find that the guard positions largely disappear – they are merely waypoints along a path rather than things we actively strive to do.  They are subsumed by the actions of the cuts and hence omitted.  As an interesting aside we find a similar phenomenon in early fencing treatises; the guards are often left scantly described in contrast to the proactive movements.

The other category which has heretofore been entirely ignored is tactical and strategic advice (fencing theory).  Eliciting tactical advice is a topic unto itself and as Chris Slee’s paper [2] discusses this more extensively and eruditely we will leave the full analysis of Meyer’s tactics and strategy to another time.  Instead we will give a terse précis which provides a preliminary breakdown of fencing theory.

  1. The 5 Words – Vor/Nach/Indes/Stark/Schwach
  2. The Four Openings
  3. The Stages of the Exchange – Zufechten/Krieg/Abzug
  4. Three types of Attack – Provoking/Taking/Hitting
  5. The Four types of Opponent

There are plenty of other elements we might feel tempted to add to these lists, but for now we wish to provide a minimal subset of learning objectives that describe Meyer’s system of fencing, and this is just what we have done here.  In summary we can propose that Meyer’s system is composed of 5 physical actions, and 5 theoretical concepts thus:

Actions Concepts

Cutting Long

Cutting Short/Crooked

Binding

Forestalling

Misleading

The 5 Words – Vor/Nach/Indes/Stark/Schwach

The Four Openings

The Stages of the Exchange – Zufechten/Krieg/Abzug

Three types of Attack – Provoking/Taking/Hitting

The four types of Opponent

NOTE: the two columns don’t relate to each other horizontally – it’s just a summarised list of both actions and concepts.

Conclusions & Further Discussion:

We began this discussion by asking the question:

“How then can we best array this wealth of knowledge to assist in teaching and learning Meyer’s art?”

Through the article we have attempted one such breakdown, but there is a terrible secret to be shared here.  This breakdown is entirely fallacious! To assume that there is a single “correct” taxonomy of techniques and concepts in Meyer’s system, let alone that the one presented is just such a one, is to draw a long bow indeed.  Just as language is amorphous and words can be related in any number of ways, so it is with fencing.  This article puts forward one plausible clustering pattern in a semantic web of fencing actions – other fencers may arrive at different results.  As Meyer says:

“It depends entirely on everyone’s character and custom in combat: as one fights wrathfully, another circumspectly, this one swift and fast, that one slowly…” [1]

It is the same with analysis of fencing; each student’s character and custom will result in a different approach, as will their level of knowledge, commitment, and experience to their art.

This art of semantic association and distillation may have reached its pinnacle in the markverse of Johannes Liechtenauer which conveys his whole art in mnemonic verses metered and measured better than any other example we have.  However, to simply piggy back off of someone else’s solution (to a related but not identical problem, one might add) is to beg the question of how best we can learn and share the knowledge of late 16th century fencing.

In striving for this goal we must construct our own personal theoretical edifices, then in turn we must burn them entirely to the ground without fear or regret as we gain in shared experience and knowledge.

This article is not the solution to this problem.  It is simply a solution.


References

  • [1] Meyer (1570), Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens
  • [2] Slee, Chris (2017), From Text to Training
  • [3] Roger Norling (2017), Correspondence

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