Kunst des Fechtens: The Medieval Art of Longsword Combat

Martial arts aren’t just the cultural province of the Orient. Read along to learn more about the western equivalent, known as longsword, that developed in Europe.

Oct 2, 2021By Michael Smathers
medieval longsword fencing

 

The sword has always been a weapon associated with skilled and dedicated warriors. Most people know about the samurai of feudal Japan and their skill with the katana; a skill expected of a dedicated noble warrior-class. In medieval Europe, knights wielding a longsword studied swordplay derived from a system of combat that was just as effective: Kunst des Fechtens, German for “the art of fighting.”

 

“Young knight, learn

To love God and revere women

Thus your honor will grow

Practice knighthood and learn

The art that dignifies you

And brings you honor in wars…”

— opening of the Zettel, Johannes Liechtenauer, 14th century

 

German Longsword Combat: The Sources

Johannes Liechtenauer
Illustration of Johannes Liechtenauer, from Cod. 44 A 8, Peter Von Danzig,1452, via HROARR.com

 

Before delving any further, it must be mentioned that the fencing traditions of Europe have not been fully preserved. Everything known about these fighting systems today comes to us from manuals and treatises written by swordsmen of the time, and there’s no knowing how much was lost. Virtually all medieval longsword teachings descend from a poem called the Zettel, written sometime in the 14th century by Johannes Liechtenauer. The poem is a collection of German rhyming couplets and English translations exist that preserve the rhyme.

 

On its own, it is almost impossible to decipher. This is intentional; the poem was likely intended as a study aid for Liechtenauer’s pupils rather than for anyone else. A handful of longsword masters, collectively called the Society of Liechtenauer, have taken it upon themselves to decipher the Zettel. Were it not for their efforts, medieval longsword teachings would have been lost forever.

 

Core Tenets of German Longsword

longsword with ring guard
Longsword with ring crossguard, via Stevens Institute of Technology

 

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Kunst des Fechtens in medieval warfare can be divided into two categories, Blossfechten (unarmored fighting) and Harnischfechten (armored fighting). Similarities exist between the two skills, but, as one might expect, the presence of armor changes the focus quite a bit.

 

The core tenets of German longsword fencing are as follows:

 

Boldly Go

 

Medieval German longsword combat requires the swordsmen to seek the quickest and most direct opening as if connected by a string. Bold, decisive action lets a warrior leave a duel more or less intact. Attacking is the first priority. Even defensive actions carry a strike in them or put the fighter in a position to immediately follow up.

 

Getting to the Point

 

The German longsword is a thrusting weapon as much as a cutting weapon. Therefore,  manuals advise that “all that is done with the sword begins and ends with the Ort (point).” Presenting the sword as a threat before the body comes into range keeps the fighter safe.

 

The Four Quadrants

 

The German systems of swordplay divided the human body into four quadrants. Each quadrant is considered an opening; a line drawn vertically through the body separates it into left and right and a horizontal line at the navel separates it into upper and lower. The lines of attack are diagonal going into one of each of the four sections.

 

Just a Step to the Right

 

All opening attacks are done starting from the dominant side with a step forward and off-line with the rear foot. That allows the torso and hips to augment arm strength as well as moving the swordsman out of harm’s way. Of course there are some exceptions to this. If already at a distance, one could simply step forward and finish his opponent with a thrust to one of the available openings.

 

Before and After, Strong and Weak, in German Longsword

longsword nachraisen
Swordsman (left) performing Nachreisen, from The Fencing Ring, and Tournament Book, by Paulus Hector Mair, 15th century, via SLUB Library Dresden

 

“Before and After, these two things are to all skill a wellspring. Weak and Strong, always remember the word Instantly.”

 

Strategy in German longsword fighting rests upon a series of opposites. Vor (Before) and Nach (After) refer to the initiative or control. Whichever fighter is in Vor is in control. Liechtenauer’s teachings advise seeking the Vor as soon as possible. Nach is the opposite: the fighter in Nach is at the mercy of his opponent. The moment of transition between the two, even if both act at once, is called Indes (“instantly”, sometimes translated as “in the moment”). For example, one can employ a tactic called Nachreisen (Chasing After), which involves striking at openings that present themselves after a sword has missed its mark, thereby retaking control (Vor).

 

Sterck (Strong) and Swech (Weak) refer to how the relative pressure feels during the moment of blade contact — but they are also parts of the sword. The strong of the blade is from the crossguard to halfway up the blade. The weak is the upper half to the tip.

 

The Guard Positions in German Longsword

longsword ochs and pflug guards
Swordsmen in Ochs (left) and Pflug (right) guards, from Fechtbuch, by Paulus Kal, 15th century, via the Munich Digital Library

 

“Four guards hold, and shun the common. Ox, plow, fool, from-roof should be known to you.”

 

Four primary guards, or positions from which to fight, exist in medieval German longsword combat. Because of the aggressive nature of this system, standing in wait in a guard is frowned upon by Liechtenauer. Instead, fencers should switch between guards to present different openings.

 

Ochs

 

This is a pointing guard designed to protect the upper quadrants. It also threatens the face. This guard is taken by stepping forward with the right foot and holding the longsword at head height on the left side. It can also be taken on the other side.

 

Pflug

 

This is the other pointing guard, designed to protect the lower quadrants. The feet remain in the same position, but the sword is held at hip height. Thrusts from Pflug allow a transition to the opposite-side, in Pflug or Ochs.

 

Alber

 

This guard has the sword pointed at the enemy’s feet, leaving the entire body open. A classic strike to the head (Scheitelhau) can be used against this guard, because it takes longer to raise the sword to defend the head than it does for the attack to fall.

 

For this reason, Alber is called the “Fool’s Guard” because at first glance taking it is suicidally foolish. On the other hand, it can be used to goad an attack to the head — because taking the obvious bait is also foolish. Relying on one’s own reaction speed to outpace an attack is risky. If, however, the swordsman knows to expect it, he can step off-line, deflect the incoming blade and use the energy to prime his own cut.

 

longsword alber and vom tag guards
Swordsmen in Alber (left) and Vom Tag (right) from Fechtbuch, by Paulus Kal,15th century, the Munich Digital Library

 

Vom Tag

 

The fourth of the major guards of medieval longsword combat, Vom Tag is the default attacking position. Each of the master strikes (Meisterhau), as well as high cuts (Oberhau) and low cuts (Unterhau), can be initiated from this guard. The sword is held beside the dominant shoulder, allowing the swordsman to launch an Oberhau. Another variation of the Vom Tag has the sword held in a centered position above the head, able to attack either side equally.

 

Langenort

 

Langenort (Longpoint) is the so-called hidden fifth guard of German longsword fencing. It is not a guard itself so much as a transition; any point during a cut or a thrust during which the sword is extended is said to be a part of Langenort. This position is probably the most threatening because the sword is extended in a possible thrust.

 

The Five Meisterhau, or “Master Strikes” in Longsword

longsword zornhau
Swordsman (left) performing Zornhau-Ort, from Fechtbuch, by Paulus Kal, 15th century, via the Munich Digital Library

 

German longsword combat consists mostly of attacking. It’s built on the concept of five opening strikes called Meisterhau (Master Strikes). Four of these are guard breaks, and are ideal responses to seeing an enemy take a specific guard. After the basics of footwork and sword handling, students learn the five Meisterhau. Despite the name, these actions aren’t difficult to do. The name refers to the fact that to be considered a skilled swordsman requires knowledge of how and when to do these strikes most effectively.

 

Zornhau (Wrath Hew)

 

“Who comes from above, the Wrath-hew threatens with the point.”

 

After cutting strongly from the shoulder, this strike intercepts almost any attack and threatens the enemy with the point. The sudden presence of a sword point directly in line with the face makes even the boldest fencer reflexively flinch and focus on self-preservation. Even if the initial Zornhau does not strike true, other actions that stem from it work just as well.

 

Krumphau (Crooked Hew)

 

“Crooked on him with nimbleness, throw the point upon the hands.”

 

The Krumphau is the most awkward-looking but deceptive of the five Meisterhau. It involves turning the sword in the hand so the edge is sideways and striking to the wrists or the flat of the other sword by pulling the pommel. If done from the Vom Tag guard position, the cut looks like a standard Oberhau (Upper Hew). The turning of the sword brings it to bear against the enemy’s right side rather than his left. Krumphau is useful against an opponent who has taken the Ochs guard position.

 

longsword krumphau
Swordsman (left) performing left Krumphau, from The Fencing, Ring, and Tournament Book, by Paulus Hector Mair,16th century, via SLUB Library Dresden

 

Zwerchhau (Thwart Hew)

 

“The Thwart Strike takes whatever comes from the roof.”

 

The Zwerchhau is a powerful horizontal blow that can be used to protect the head from an incoming attack while at the same time striking the enemy. Along with Schielhau, it is done using the short edge, or the edge facing inward when the sword is held in a normal grip.

 

This cut easily chains into another Zwerchhau from the left side, then back to the right as the situation warrants. Zwerchhau is used to force the enemy out of the guard position, Vom Tag.

 

longsword zwerchhau
Both swordsmen in the midst of Zwerchhau, from Fechtbuch, by Paulus Kal, 15th century, via the Munich Digital Library

 

Schielhau (Squinting Hew)

 

“The Squinter breaks into whatever a buffalo strikes or thrusts.”

 

“Buffalo” refers here to a fencer that relies on overwhelming power, overcommitting to a cut. The Schielhau starts as any other cut, but the swordsman reverses into an inverted grip for a thrust to the right side of the attacker’s chest. As seen in the image below, it can also offset an attack, but this is a less-than-optimal use when one could simply end the fight by fully extending the strike.

 

Because a so-called buffalo charges in without much thought to survival, catching him with a thrust and at the same time stopping the other sword is simple to do. The Schielhau forces an enemy who takes a lower guard position (Pflug) to break his guard.

 

longsword schielhau
Swordsman using Schielhau to offset a thrust, from The Fencing, Ring, and Tournament Book, by Paulus Hector Mair,16th century, via SLUB Library Dresden

 

Scheitelhau (Scalping Hew) 

 

“The Scalper is dangerous to the face, and with its turn very dangerous to the breast.”

 

This is a cut to the top of the head. Scheitelhau, along with Zwerchhau, is one of the only instances in which the sword does not cut on a diagonal line. This cut works by simple geometry: from high above the head, the swordsman brings the weapon down onto the scalp, which is virtually the quickest action that can be taken.

 

For this reason, Scheitelhau breaks Alber. However, the two fighters depicted in the image below are at much closer range than they would really be. This is likely due to space limitations; the manuscripts aren’t perfect representations of the devices used, but modern practitioners reconstruct them as best they can.

 

longsword sheitelhau
Swordsman in high Vom Tag in preparation for Scheitelhau, from The Fencing, Ring, and Tournament Book, by Paul Hector Mair, 16th century, via SLUB Library Dresden

 

The Moment of Contact: Binding in Longsword

winding longsword
Swordsman (right) winding into Ochs to gain advantage in the bind, from The Fencing, Ring, and Tournament Book, Paul Hector Mair, 16th century, SLUB Library Dresden

 

Binding refers to the moment at which two swords make contact. This is one of the most critical components of German longsword fencing. Anyone can make or block an attack. What happens when the two swords meet is often what determines the outcome of a fight. The most critical concept in binding is Fühlen (Feeling). During the moment of blade contact the swordsman feels whether he or his opponent is putting more pressure upon the blade.

 

If he feels he has the advantage, the swordsman can step in with a thrust, maintaining control over his enemy’s weapon. However, if he feels overpowered there are several possible responses, mainly redirecting the other blade or disengaging and attacking a different opening. This is called Abnehmen or Oben Abngenomen (Taking Off).

 

Winding

 

Winding is a way for a swordsman to gain advantage in a bind by maintaining the point’s position and either lifting or lowering the hilt. This changes the orientation of his sword, gaining him a possible mechanical advantage.

 

For example, if two fencers cut from Vom Tag and both meet at the strong, one of them can wind his sword into Ochs. The strong (lower edge) of his sword would be pressing against the enemy’s weak (the upper edge); no matter how physically strong the enemy is, he would then not be in a position to overpower the other man’s sword.

 

Halbschwert (Half-swording)

german longswords halfsword grip
Swordsman (right) using the half-sword grip, halbschwert to grapple, from The Fencing, Ring, and Tournament Book, by Paulus Mair, via the SLUB Library Dresden

 

A fencer achieves the half-sword grip by grasping the sword midway up the blade with his non-dominant hand. The sword is not simply a cutting weapon; as mentioned earlier, the longsword can act as virtually any other melee weapon should the need arise. This grip is mainly used in armored fighting (Harnischfechten) because it allows more control of the point to seek gaps between armored plates. Also, the shortened grip lessens the amount of flex in the blade so it has a more powerful thrust.

 

Other uses of the half-sword grip involve changing the position of the hands to allow the sword to be used as a makeshift bludgeoning weapon. By attacking with either the pommel or the crossguard the sword can emulate a warhammer. This is called the Mordschlag (Murder Strike). It is not intended to be used in friendly sparring. Grappling was also a tactic that could be used with the half-sword grip.

 

The Art of the German Longsword

german longsword hand and a half
German hand-and-a-half sword, 15th century, via the MET Museum

 

Many more strategies and techniques exist in the medieval and renaissance longsword tradition, but listing them all would be the subject of a whole book. The aforementioned concepts are the basics of the art. German longsword fencing inspired a wealth of martial teachings in Europe, and many other sword masters of various nationalities put their teachings to paper, such as Fiore dei Liberi, Joachim Meyer, and George Silver.



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By Michael SmathersI am an avid student of history with a focus on medieval periods, specifically the Kamakura period of Japan. I am four years into a BA in history at the University of West Georgia. I also study various martial arts disciplines and have an interest in ancient mythologies.