Before, During, After

“Men do not rest content with parrying the attacks of a superior,

but often strike the first blow to prevent the attack being made.” – Thucidydes

In previous sections we have encountered the word “Indes” (instantly/at-the-same-time) in our notes on performing techniques.  This is one of several terms which are commonly heard in German fencing systems, along with  “Vor”, and “Nach” (Before and After).  It is often taken for granted that students of the system will know what these mean and so they are often given little class time.  It seems timely, then, to take a few moments to investigate them in the context of Meyer, as well as earlier masters, as this complements our learning objectives from the PvD classes.

Instantly (Indes)

The term “indes” we already encountered when it came to techniques such as winding.  In this context it described the immediate assessment of a person’s attack (strong, weak, etc) and immediately reacting accordingly (winding in, for example).  Using this example we can extrapolate the term as meaning “in the moment” which is to say that actions taken in the moment are not pre-empted or planned in advance.  Choosing the correct motion “indes” is actually what fencing is all about.  After all, it’s only in the moment that our opponent’s attacks happen, and our responses to them.

We develop a feeling for choosing the right technique in the moment only through repeated drilling of known sequences of attack and defence.  In the post on fencing as language acquisition we found that we first learned a handful of basic examples of “word use”, then we overgeneralised a derived rule “always perform attack X when we see our opponent doing Y”, and only after this do we learn to “freestyle” the rules, choosing the correct one in the appropriate context.

We can improve our chances of choosing the correct action “indes”, however, by first pruning the search space of possible techniques.  This is where we find the importance of the “vor” (before).

Before (Vor)

By contrast the term “vor” seems much more clear cut; the “before” of a fight is the sequence of actions you take to engage your opponent.  Classically it is thought of as “taking the initiative”, which typically would be engaging first so you force your opponent to react to you.  In mathematical terms what we’re doing here is applying a heuristic (rule of thumb) to prune the search space of possible techniques.

Consider two combatants standing just out of distance; at this point the search space of possible techniques is the set of all techniques within the whole fighting system (or all possible fighting systems if we don’t know our opponent’s fencing style).  As soon as we engage, however, we reduce the set of viable techniques our opponent is likely to use, so there are less options for us to deal with.

For example, if I attack with a zornhauw to his upper left opening, I know that he will have to react in one of several known ways to neutralise this, and so I’m ready for those techniques and am prepared to attack accordingly.  We could describe this better with set theory or even by a graphically shown directed acyclic graph

Taking the initiative, however, is not limited only to attacking first.  It is possible to take the vor by eliciting a reaction by the opponent to a perceived weakness or opening.  We might fall into a very vulnerable looking low guard, for example, to encourage a high line attack.  In this case we are still taking the vor, but in a passive way.

We can even use movement to take the vor; if I back my opponent against the ropes in a boxing match just through movement, then I’ve cut down the search space of possible movements made by my opponent by reducing his mobility.

Interestingly taking the initiative still involves indes.  We constantly evaluate the opponent to take the initiative in the right way.  For an aggressive opponent we make the instantaneous decide on luring an attack.  For a timid opponent we decide in the moment to crowd them with strikes and press them with movement.  Even the timing of the vor is indes; an opponent changes guard and in that moment we attack (as in nachreisen).

After (Nach)

This is the “after”, and can refer to either of two things.  First it is the reaction to your opponent when he attacks you before you gain the initiative; how you’re going to counter him.  Again, this is decided in the moment and should be calculated based on how you’re being attacked.  Let’s say, for example, that your opponent is aggressive and heavy on their feet and launches forward with a heavy handed oberhau.  We would use a technique here that counters the opponent, but also takes us offline into an advantageous position.  Alternatively if our opponent attacks with lighter attacks we might react “in the nach” with a more decisive attack of our own, launching a zornhau, for example.  Either way, we’re reacting “indes” – we don’t calculate the movement at a conscious level, but react based on training.

The second meaning of nach, as described by Meyer, refers to what we do after we’ve engaged and wish to withdraw.  In involves the countering of the opponent’s attack, withdrawing safely, and placing ourselves in a good position for the next pass.  In this way we’re once again operating “indes” so that once again we can achieve “vor” in a position of maximum advantage.

During (Gleich)

Meyer also adds “during” to his assessment of the steps in fighting.  This is the point in which we’ve begin what he calls the handwork (handtarbeit) of the fight.  This is the point we typically see “indes” coming up in peoples’ examples: we’ve taken the vor with a zornhau, he has reacted with one of his own, and indes we take away and cut to the other side.  This is the during – the time in which we’ve made our initial attack, our opponent has reacted, and we’re moving to counter it.  

Remember, however, that this is also a time in which we’re assessing our opponent – is he strong, weak, pushes forward, retreats, circles around.  Much of what you discover about an opponent’s style is made “during”.

Let’s put all of these together in an example using unarmed fighting.  When two fighters P1 and P2 start out they are generally both very wary, moving around, sizing each other up.  P1 notices that P2 is standing in an orthodox stance – one ideal for striking but not for grappling.  In the moment (indes) he shoots in and grapples at the body; by taking the initiative (vor) he has reduced the search space of techniques his opponent can deploy, taking away kicks and longer strikes.

His opponent reacts (during), P1 feels his opponent shift body position to change to a grappling posture.  Instantly (index) he uses the moment of instability to launch a hip throw, but P2 is a crafty adversary, countering with a sacrifice throw of his own which threatens P1.  P1 immediately (indes) releases and rolls to a guard position ready to counter the opponent if he follows up, or move in to attack if not(nach).

The fight continues, but now the two have learned something from one another and will change the next initiative taking (vor) accordingly; P1 has adjusted their heuristic so that the predictability of P2’s reaction is improved.

In summary, then, we see that before, during, and after operate as a closed loop, all modulated in-the-moment to minimise the set of responses from our opponent, and maximise our chances of victory.

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