Back to Basics 1 – Fundamentals and Footwork in Meyer

Our first look at the basics will concentrate on a few of the fundamentals of the Meyer system, particularly with an eye to contrasting them with earlier traditions and establishing a firm foundation upon which we will build our art.

The learning objectives for this post are to gain an understanding of:

  • Meyers divisions of the sword and the person
  • Body position/stance
  • Basic footwork
    • Passing step
    • Triangle step
    • Double triangle step
    • Stolen step
    • Gathering step
    • Cross step

Part 1: Of the Sword and Its Divisions

We will begin by looking at the weapon we will be using for this text; the longsword.  The form of the longsword varies slightly throughout its history, but can be chiefly described as a straight two edged blade with a handle intended to be gripped chiefly with two hands.

Wikipedia helpfully tells us that typical longswords were around 100 to 130 cm in total length, with a blade around 90 to 110 cm, weighing somewhere in the region of 1.1 to 1.8 kg.  In the historical Oakeshott typology the typical longsword would be the type XIIa and XIIIa (13th to 14th century), XVII (mid 14th to early 15th century), XVa, XVIa, XX and XXa (14th to 15th century), and XVII, XVIIB and XVIIIc (15th to 16th century)

In addition to these weapons designed for combat, by Meyer’s time there was also a training sword which was in standard use for schulefechten.  It possessed a rebated blade and square cross section, with a flattened of spatulate tip and spreading forte at the bottom of the blade known as the schilt. This sword is commonly known known as a “federschwert”, or more often colloquially, a “feder”.

This was a much safer weapon for training even than a blunted standard sword, and in its modern variants has been found to be considerably more robust and easier to care for than blunt swords of a traditional design.

In his 1570 text Meyer takes the time to describe the sword, dividing the blade into four sections:

partsOfSword

  • The “bind” or “haft” which includes the pommel, crossguard etc (yellow)
  • The strong – the second “quarter” of the sword (green)
  • The middle – lying between the strong and the weak (blue)
  • The weak – the tip of the sword (red)

This differs from earlier masters in the German tradition, who mostly simply used the term “strong” and “weak” to describe the bottom half of the blade and top half of the blade.

He also differentiates the edges of the sword as being either the true edge or false edge (these are called the long edge and short edge respectively elsewhere).  In this case there is no physical differentiation between the two edges of the sword; the term true edge is whichever edge is facing “away” from your hand/wrist, while the false edge is whichever edge facing toward your hand/wrist.  For example in the following image the figure on the right has the true edge downward and the false edge upward, while the figure on the left has the true edge facing upward, and the false downward.

longshortedge

These terms are important to know because they are fairly standardised across the longsword community lexicon; if you tell someone to cut with the weak of the sword using the false edge, most people will understand immediately what you mean.  Likewise if you tell someone to parry with the strong they should be able to understand what you mean straight away.

 

Part 2: Types of Attacks with the Sword

It may seem obvious, but there are a number of ways to attack with the longsword beyond simply swinging it at someone.  The masters in the German tradition describe three basic ways of attacking with the blade; the cut, the thrust, and the slice.  They also describe additional attacks using the haft of the blade, and grappling techniques with the sword.

Hauen (Hewing): the Cut

The cut is the most obvious and  natural of movements with the longsword.  In fact the von Danzig folio describes one of the main cuts with the sword as being “nothing other than a bad peasant strike”  This gives us an idea of how natural this mode of striking is, though as the fencer becomes more experienced they realise there are actually many subtleties to a good cut.  Cuts are the most common forms of attack in Meyer’s text and are carried out with both the true and false edges of the blade, along various angles of attack.

Stechen (Stabbing): The Thrust

The second most obvious method of using a sword.  Earlier masters make extensive use of the thrust as a technique which often follows an initial cut or defence.  By the 1500s the style of fighting was broadly cut-centric with Meyer pointing out that it is no longer the custom to use the thrust, except, perhaps, when making war on others.  The reasons for this could be debated at length, but factors might include the greater safety of the cut over the thrust in schulefechten (thrusts were banned in competition), as well as changes in the use of the longsword for self defence, with German street-fighting laws of the time forbidding thrusts.  Several of artistic depictions of longswords from this period are noteworthy for their rounded point, as a contrast to the very sharp points of some earlier blades, so it seems that the prevalence of the cut over the thrust carried across to enstfechten at this time also.

What we do know is that the commonly heard maxim that the thrust is more effective in a fight than the point is not well supported by the evidence, be it literary or archaeological.  Indeed some battlefield remains suggest that the cut was the more common cause of deaths in battle; though perhaps those stabbed died later from their wounds elsewhere.

Despite all of of this, however, Meyer still does actually describe defences against the thrust using the longsword, and also uses the point as a way of keeping the opponent at distance.

Schneiden (Slicing): The Slice

The last of the three wounders is the slice. Slicing is exactly what this attack does; the blade is placed on an exposed region and drawn along the flesh to cause a lacerating wound.  The slice can result from a cut or thrust which has not hit its intended target; for example a thrust which was deflected to the side, but still manages to run the sharp edge along the target somewhere), or as an intentional action.

Meyer typically uses slicing on the arms of the opponent whenever they take the sword away from the bind in an attempt to strike to another opening.  In this cases he advocates rapidly laying the edge on the exposed arms of the adversary with a slicing motion.

The slice is certainly not as deadly as the cut or thrust, but the psychological effect of a large wound which would no doubt bleed profusely is not to be underestimated.

Pommel Strikes

Striking with the pommel or crossguard is a reliable fallback technique which can daze or injure an opponent and give the fencer valuable moments to follow up with a deadlier attack, or withdraw to safety.

Within schulefecthen the pommel was frowned upon, and pommel strikes in competition attracted harsh penalties, including what some people would describe as percussive behavioral correction.  As such Meyer makes little use of the pommel for striking, but he does make considerable use of the pommel and crossguard for levering and wrenching at the opponent’s hands in order to hinder their movements and provide openings to attack with the blade or grappling.

Ringen: Wrestling

Wrestling is one of the oldest competitive fighting arts to be found in literature and finds a natural fit in schulefechten.  Wrestling is both effective and safe and it is no surprise that a the works of Meyer and earlier masters describe diverse wrestling techniques.  These techniques include arm locks, throws, disarms, and various other grappling techniques either “at the sword”, which is to say using the sword for leverage, or at the body of the opponent.

Part 3: Of Man and His Divisions

Early fencing masters divided the opponent into quadrants which indicated attack directions.  As you can see in the diagram below, however, Meyer differs slightly from earlier masters in his division of the human body.  Whereas earlier masters divided the body into a simple four quarters (upper left, upper right, lower left, lower right) Meyer also divides the head into four quarters.  One can speculate that this represents a focus on blows to the head in 16th century fechtschule as a means of “scoring”, though it may simply be a natural extension of older terminology to provide more accuracy/precision in practice.  In either case this adds a slight layer of complexity to the interpretation of Meyer as he doesn’t always specify whether we’re aiming for the openings to the head or to the body, though in many cases it’s safe to assume that it doesn’t really matter.

openings

Part 4: Body Position/Stance

Throughout the various devices listed in Meyer participants move through a variety of body positions and stances.  There exists, however, a general stance which forms the basis of all of the others.  This is the stance we adopt at the beginning of the fight, and aspects of it are reflected through all ensuing movements.  Consider the following guard position:

guard

This stance is fairly typical of guard positions in many respects.

  • The head is held upright, not gazing down nor upturned.
  • Hips and shoulders are aligned and toward the target, not held at an angle.
  • The back and hips are one unit; the spine is not excessively arched nor hunched, and the core is tight.
  • Hips are tucked under so as not to introduce spinal instability.
  • Front leg points directly toward the opponent, knee bent so that the lower leg is roughly perpendicular to the ground, you should just be able to see the toes of the front foot if you glance down.
  • Rear leg extends back and to the side slightly.  Also bent somewhat to allow for movement.
  • The foot faces out to the right at an angle which can between 45 degrees and perpendicular to the front foot.
  • The front and rear feet are best placed on opposite sides of an imaginary centre line in order to stay well balanced.

It is interesting to note that the features of the basic stance closely echo the advice given for kenjutsu practitioners in Go Rin No Sho (Book of Five Rings), by Miyamoto Musashi in the 1600s.  Further, it also bears similarity to the posture practitioners of classical dressage attempt to achieve, which we know is a practice deriving from military cavalry movements.

Hereafter we will refer to this as a generic “fighting stance” (as opposed to an attention stance, for example).  So a left fighting stance is one where the left leg is forward.

Part 5: Core Footwork

Not all of the fencing texts from history are clear as to the type of footwork which should be used. Meyer, however, does devote a section of his text to this topic. He describes four specific types of footwork; passing steps, triangle steps, double triangle steps, and stolen steps; we’ll use the term ‘canonical’ for these types of footwork. Through the body of his text he also refers to other methods of stepping without explicitly describing it in the footwork section, including gathering steps, cross steps, and glide/side steps.

In general footwork should be performed while maintaining the broader elements of the posture described in the previous section; the body and hips should act as a single motion segment and the line of motion should not move up and down through the stepping (which is to say no bouncing in the steps should occur, motions should be smooth and even), the head shouldn’t tilt or move, steps should be smooth and fluid, not choppy and uneven. Neither should the foot be stamped down hard (this immediately stiffens the leg and makes you prone to having your balance taken from you).

Generally stepping can be broken into two broad groups; steps which pass through a central point before continuing (transitional steps), and steps which simply go directly to their destination (non-transitional steps)

Transitional Steps

These steps can pass through a central transition point before moving to their destination. This transition point acts as a decision point at which the step can still be changed into a different type of stepping. A passing step can become a stolen step, for example, by reversing the direction of the foot at the transition point and moving back to the original position.

It is not always necessary to use this transition point (an offline passing step, for example, might go directly to its destination), however the theory is useful in many circumstances.

Understanding the Diagrams

In the footwork diagrams the initial position is shown in GREY, with the GREEN footprints showing the second position, and RED if another movement follows after.

Passing Step

This is the simplest form of stepping and the most natural – essentially it’s a large pace forward. The foot passes through the transition point and continues forward so that the front and rear leg have changed their relative position.

Often the passing step will be performed offline to one side or the other as part of a particular technique. For example as our opponent attacks with a straight down cut we might passing step forward to his side to achieve our own technique or counter. The passing step can also be done backwards, in the same way.

Glide Step/Side Step [non-canonical name]

Sometimes when describing a passing step which moves offline, especially while retreating, Meyer refers to the motion as a Glide Step. Consider the retreating passing step offline shown in the previous section – this is the Glide Step from Meyer’s windthauw description.

Stolen Step

The stolen or broken step is a lesser used step which is nevertheless effective when used properly. It is basically a simple half stepping motion which moves one of the feet to the transition point, then moves it back to where it came from. It is “broken” because it is a passing step which we “break” halfway through and return to our starting point, likewise it “breaks” the gathering step in the same way.

This is useful as an evasion or a feint, and also to manage distance if the opponent moves closer unexpectedly while you were stepping.

A forward stolen step is done as follows:

  • Start in a left forward weighted posture.
  • Step with the right foot, moving it to the transition point to the side of the lead foot
  • Step the right foot back to where it began.

There are variations which can be done on this step; one may step forward with the right then back with the left, or, more commonly, use a backward stolen step as an evasion:

  • Start in a left forward stance.
  • Step back with the left foot, bringing it beside the right or just in front of it in a kind of T shape.
  • Step forward with the left foot, placing it back where it began.

An example of this backward stolen step is often seen in nachreisen techniques; the fencer takes a half step back to let the blade pass by, then back forward with the same foot, cutting at the same time as they come into measure. This same technique is seen in kendo and works by breaking the measure slightly be giving the opponent the idea that one is about to take a step. He reacts accordingly, and thus he finds himself out of measure slightly, be it too close, or too far away.

Gathering Step / Linear Step [non-canonical name]

The gathering step is a simple shuffle forward which gathers a short distance between fencers. It is not described explicitly as the gathering step within Meyer’s text, though he often describes its use within his various devices and admonishes the fencer to “gather for a forward step.”

Gathering steps come in two types; rear leg and lead leg gathering.

In rear leg gathering the movement begins with moving the rear leg forward so that the feet are close together (ie. gathering for another step) to our standard transition point, and placing the foot down. The fencer then steps forward again with the front leg back out to distance.

Beginning students might be concerned that this telegraphs the fencer’s action to the opponent. However a gathering step can be deceptive – the final movement may be a gathering step, and offline step, a passing step, a triangle step, or some other stepping motion, it is difficult for the opponent to tell until the motion is made. In this case it telegraphs to the opponent that the fencer is doing something even though they will not know what until the step is completed.

The alternative version of the gathering step is the lead leg gathering.

In this case it is achieved by lifting the front foot slightly and springing yourself with the rear, following immediately with the trailing foot to arrive in the same stance in which the fencer began. Likewise the backward gathering step is executed by lifting the rear foot and pushing off with the front to spring slightly backward.

The lead leg gathering covers a shorter distance than the rear leg gathering because it is made as an abbreviated lunge and gather, however it is useful because it allows a single action cut or thrust with a short advance, with no telegraphed action.

False Step/Cross Step [non canonical name]

The cross step is a movement where you step one leg “across” in front of the other either directly toward the opponent (a linear cross step), or stepping through with the rear leg across the opponent’s line. In either case the fencer ends in a cross step posture with an out-turned lead foot, and generally on the ball of the trailing foot.

The linear cross step allows the fencer to maintain hip alignment through the step. For example, a fencer in a left forward forward weighted posture would be facing slightly to their right with the hips. If they made a regular passing step through to a forward weighted posture on the opposite side their hips would now face slightly to their left. If they took a cross step, however, the slight angling to the right could be maintained. Often this linear cross step isn’t a full passing step through, but rather a half step through followed by a regular passing step.

In Meyer’s text when a cross step is performed ‘through’ between the fencer and their opponent, it is described as a false step. For example, if Fencer A is and Fencer B are standing with their left foot forward facing each other, and Fencer A steps through with a cross step of the right leg out to fencer B’s right side, then this step in the text would have been described as a false step. In class we use these terms interchangeably.

In both cases we pass through the transition point, allowing transformation into a passing, gathering, or broken step as required.

The diagrams show the cross step of the rear leg – it is also possible to cross step through with the front leg as is often seen in the rappier section, as well as in the longsword where Meyer tells us to step across in some of the devices.

Passing Step

This is the simplest form of stepping and the most natural.  From a left stance we simply step forward so that the right is now in front.  This should be a gliding movement with no bobbing up and down, legs remaining slightly bent throughout.  Neither should the foot be stamped down hard (this immediately stiffens the leg and makes you prone to having your balance taken from you).

Often the passing step will be performed offline to one side or the other as part of a particular technique.  For example as our opponent attacks with a straight down cut we might passing step forward to his side to achieve our own technique or counter.  The passing step can also be done backwards, in the same way.

Non-Transitional Steps

These steps are usually lateral steps which do not pass through a transitional decision point.

Triangle Step

The triangle step is extremely common across the Meyer syllabus as it allows the fencer to move offline with a change of the lead leg, while controlling the change in distance. A triangle step can be used in place, as a way of moving forward and offline, or as a way of moving backward and offline. Sometimes the triangle step is referred to as a compass step.

There is a single triangle step and a double triangle step, with the single triangle step performed as follows:

  • Stand in a right forward stance.
  • Step the left foot around in an anticlockwise direction behind the lead leg, taking you offline to the side.

This is shown in several plates of the text. The following dussack plate augments the depiction with additional geometric details on the ground which shown the actual triangles that Meyer is talking about, and which we use in our footwork diagrams.

The movement across can simply compass around, though often moves into a cross step posture. At this point your overall posture will be very “meyeresque” in that your lead foot will be turned outward to your overall facing very slightly, and your rear leg will be bend and up on the ball of the foot somewhat.

While it is not canonically named, Meyer also makes use of the triangle step in the other direction. For example in a right lead position the fencer steps around to the left with their left foot. This doesn’t require the twisting/crossing over motion that results from the triangle step to the right from a right lead, but achieves the same purpose.

Combined Steps

By concatenating the various stepping methods we can achieve fluid and varied motion.

For example, one of the most common combinations of footwork used in longsword is an offline passing step, followed by a triangle step. This allows the fencer to step well offline, then correct their facing with a triangle step, as shown below.

Double Step/Double Triangle Step

The double triangle step is a form of combined footwork and follows from the triangle step. Typically it is performed thus:

  • Standing in left forward stance
  • Passing Step forward with the right
  • Triangle step to the right with the rear (left) foot.
  • Step further forward right with the right foot to come back to a regular, right forward weighted posture

Notice that we’ve prepended a passing step to the front of the regular triangle step. This is simply because this is the manner in which Meyer most usually uses this footwork (referring to it as the Double Step for simplicity).

Notice the intervening “scissor” stance in which the legs cross slightly.  The actual movement need not be so exaggerated as this, and simply be stepping around in more of a standard fighting position, however, the slight crossover seems supported by the text and consistent with experience. Initially the crossover stance may seem unwieldy or out of balance, but this is it’s exact intent.  It provides excellent mobility at the cost of balance, and we are leveraging this moment of imbalance as a mid-motion stance which allows us to move rapidly in any direction as required.  Certainly it is not an ideal stance for protracted use, but as a transitional point in a technique it is an excellent means of stepping.  It should come as no surprise that most all cross-discipline martial arts utilise a stance such as this at some point  in their practice.  Consider the entry to a judo hip throw shown below.

judoThrow
Notice the prominent use of the scissor stance on the entry to the throw.  Once one becomes aware of the cross step one begins to see it time and again in diverse martial arts.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *