While Meyer’s longsword appears to have had an ongoing practitioner base for many years, his rappier system (which seemed to exist in the shadow of the longsword and dussack parts of the 1570 text) has been rising in popularity quite slowly in comparison.
Happily the readership of this part of the text has increased to a point where special-interest communities in social media are appearing, and perhaps more telling, it is giving rise to controversy and questions as to what Meyer’s text is actually describing in specific sections. This is nothing new; HEMA practitioners love to argue interpretation as much as they love to play with swords, and Meyer students are well versed in the discussions around how “the rose” is best performed, or what the blind-strike movement looks like. It is no surprise then that one such discussion which arose recently surrounded folio 2.75V of Meyer’s 1570 work on the rappier. The specific text being:
On the face of it the broader elements of this technique are readily apparent; the opponent attacks to your high right opening, you parry high against it and counterthrust – simple! A good analysis of this from a decision-making standpoint can be found in James Roberts’ article comparing Meyer’s 1560 and 1570 sidesword texts. However it is the highlighted section that has drawn criticism or confusion (or both) from some quarters, in which Meyer admonishes the fencer to:
“pull the hilt back out behind you above your right shoulder to gather for a powerful thrust”
When considered in isolation this seems like strange advice. Having parried our opponent’s blade (and established what amounts to a high bind with their weak on our strong) we withdraw from the bind so that we can perform a more powerful thrust? At best this will give the opponent time to prepare for your counter, while at worst (and more likely) they will simply change through and thrust as we withdraw, either harassing our extended right arm or thrusting straight through to the face or body. This leads some to conclude that there may be something fundamentally wrong with Meyer’s approach, at least for these kinds of movements, and if this interpretation were correct then I’d tend to agree; on the surface of it it does seem like a technique which is more likely to endanger the fencer than to result in a good counterthrust.
Seeking Rational Explanations
First let’s assume that Meyer had some plausible reason for this apparent withdrawal motion, and in this particular case I would contend that at least part of the confusion arises more from Meyer’s writing style and a chronological misattribution of the order and duration of events.
Breaking down the text for clarity:
“Now if he cuts or thrusts […] at your right side, also diagonally from above”
No problem here – if we steal some of the plates from the text it might look something like this:
The fencer on the left has stepped around the straight parrying and is cutting in from above right. The protagonist, on the right, is too far extended to effectively stop thrust, and even if he did so would still be cut by the attacker’s blade.
The next line:
“then again turn your long edge and hilt with extended arm against his incoming blade to parry or catch it”
Again this seems straight forward enough:
Having used the plates as a source you’ll notice that the fencer on the right has become more upright in this movement. This may be more of an artistic artifact than anything else, however it makes sense to draw back the head a little from the attack regardless. So far this looks like a standard kind of rapier play from any other source, and typically we would thrust from here at the opponent. There are two observations worth making here.
- Moving from straight parrying to a high guard in this way is quick, but still doesn’t give much safety margin to perform the parry in time.
- In other sections while performing this action Meyer advocates moving the body away from the direction of the attack (to give adequate safety margins).
Luckily the next lines resolve this, though they are also where the controversy occurs:
“…as you thus extend your hilt to parry against his weapon,
then at the same time step out sideways from his blade with the left foot toward his right.
Then as soon as his blade clashes on yours in the parrying, pull your hilt back
out behind you above your right shoulder to gather for a powerful thrust.”
The bold text on the word “then” will be explained shortly, but for now we find here that we should have been stepping out to the left with our left leg; this immediately resolves our two observations from the previous section – we’re now using a lateral movement to give more time for the parry and to mitigate the risk of the parry being unsuccessful by moving out of the way.
What is not immediately clear is how far across this step should be, and indeed how far forward the left leg should move.
One could argue that this could either be a large passing step diagonally out to the left or it could be more of a horizontal movement perpendicular to the opponent’s line. Meyer’s rappier footwork tends not to be as clearly described in this respect as the footwork in the longsword section, for example, though I’m entirely happy to entertain the idea of broad passing steps.
Critics might argue for a more moderate approach, however. Indeed, the section immediately preceding this describes the same movement on the opposite side, and uses a deep cross step with the left behind the right, so we’ll make a working assumption for the time being that the step is at most out in line with the front foot perpendicular to the attacker’s line, or more likely somewhat behind it.
In either case we are safely out of harm’s way.
Second we encounter this gathering the hand back issue.
As soon as our sword encounters theirs we should pull our hand back for a “powerful thrust”.
We will begin by constructing the lateral step from the plates:
Here I’ve been extremely conservative about the step to the left with the rear leg. The red X shows the previous rear foot position, so this is the smallest of compassing movements to the left. I would suggest a much more pronounced movement for this, much as we saw in the previous section of Meyer’s text with the left cross-step to the right, but this modest movement will do for now.
We immediately notice something when this cross step is introduced. The right arm, which was noticeably extended in the parry without a step, is now much steeper and further back. In fact even with this small step the hilt is now pulled right up above the right shoulder.
This I believe, is the crux of our confusion, and the solution to it.
In performing the lateral side step you implicitly move your arm back above your shoulder to maintain the blade contact in readiness for the counterthrust. The wider the step the further “behind” you your sword is in relation to body line. The “pull the hilt back” section changes from a point of confusion to a common sense movement – as your body moves to the side and forward the hilt of the sword stays in a constant position relative to the opponent’s blade, but changes position relative to the fencer’s own shoulder.
This is supported by the preceding example in the text (which as I’ve said does the same movement on the left side but makes no mention of the withdrawal).
It is also supported strongly by the wording of the text itself. The use of the word “then” is not being used to mean “after you’ve done the thing in the previous sentence”, but rather as “as this event happens”. I’ve put the “then” in bold in the earlier text for this very reason.
So we might paraphrase the text as:
“As you parry his blade,
at the same time step out sideways from his blade with the left foot toward his right.
As you parry his blade,
at the same time pull your hilt back above your shoulder”
Remember that as with striking the hand in the parry moves before, and much faster than, the foot, so the clash of blades in the parry will occur long before the step has reached its completion; in fact if we were a scholar of Silver we might make some comment about the time of the hand as compared to the time of the hand-body-and-foot here, but we’ll leave that debate to others.
If we take this as being correct then we simply need to finish the movement.
“thrust straight at his face on his right side, with a step forward on your right foot, so that in the end of this thrust you again stand with your weapon extended in the high Longpoint.”
There is little controversy here – a thrust with a lunge on the right foot:
Okay, so the thrust in this image isn’t really in high longpoint, but there wasn’t a plate which matched what I wanted, so I’m using this image to get the point across (no pun intended). Typically the thrust would be down “along” the antagonist’s blade, keeping contact in the movement.
So the movement would be:
To summarise, if we made a timeline of movements then we might arrive at something like this:
My proposal is that the slower movements of the foot are performed at the same time as faster movements of the hand, leading to confusion about the description.
It’s important not to think of this movement as a single linear movement with the “lean forward” of the body being artificially added. Consider:
These images (created by one of the participants in a conversation which inspired this post) show two versions of a technique quite like the one being described by Meyer, but not quite the same.
In the right column we have the parry at the top, follows by a lunge-thrust forward with arm and body extended. In the left column we have the parry then a lunge thrust with the body forward but the arm retracted. In the left case the body-shoulder alignment is entirely artificial and adds nothing of value – it is a synthetic artifact of trying to achieve the “pull back” in the text.
Neither of these shows the movement described by Meyer – his technique is characterised by the step of the left foot in the parrying. It is this step which seems to organically and intrinsically engender the arm withdrawal as a means of maintaining this parrying-bind. The final lunge-thrust being a standard hand-body-foot technique. This is represented in the sequence below.
It is important to note that the foot and hand movement in the second and third images have been artificially separated simply to show the natural “withdrawal” of the hand as the lateral step is taken – in reality this is a continuous synchronised movement.
A similar high guarding action (in a slightly different context) can be seen in the following dussack plate:
Other References to the Phenomenon
Is there any reference to the draw back of the rappier before thrusting? In fact there is, in the very start of the chapter on thrusting (Chapter 5).
This seems a much clearer cut circumstance of a draw back on the thrust. We’ve removed the parry as a concern and so now we might conclude that yes indeed a (seemingly) suicidal draw back on the hand is involved in the thrust. Based on our previous explanation, though, is it possibly that some body movement is involved in this “draw back” action?
The answer might be found in what is meant by “raise your right foot for a step forward” and the later “take a broad step forward”. If we assume a standard foot position from the outset then this kind of discrete raising of the foot is difficult to imagine. In a deeply forward weighted stance a pronounced lift of the foot would be impossible because of that forward weighting.
It is plausible that there would be a backward transfer of weight onto the rear leg prior to the step (much as some of the cuts in Radaelli sabre do), though this doesn’t seem very “Meyerish” in style.
One other compelling explanation, however, finds its roots in the footwork of the dussack section of the text. When describing cuts with a step forward of the lead leg, Meyer says:
“… And so [step] forward for the first cut. Then step and cut with extended arm… in this cutting you shall always keep your right foot forward in standing and stepping, and gather yourself for the stepping to that you have a step forward for every stroke”
The gathering motion here is more fully described later in section (2.4v1), which uses “take a step forward”step forward and backward:
“and as you have drawn the rear foot up to the forward foot in the cutting forward, so that you can step furthur forward with the front foot, likewise when you will step backward in cutting, you must also give ground with the front foot as far as the rear one, and as you have previously stepped forward for the stroke with your right foot, so you must now step back in the cutting with your rear left one.”
Here we have a description of an advancing step which begins with the rear foot moving up behind the front, then the front foot stepping forward.
By comparison this step would place us in the ideal position for a lift of the foot without losing balance.
Looking at the images it’s also apparent that if we use this gathering movement of the rear foot then we have effectively created a movement in the upper body. This is the exact same kind of movement that gave use the “pull back” of the arm to maintain hilt position in our offline parrying example earlier.
Could this be an explanation? Surely Meyer would tell us to step with both feet. Not necessarily though. Meyer often uses the term “spring” or “take a step” this way when referring to a movement with both feet (spring left, for example, uses both feet to move offline, as seen in prior rapier sections). Many of these include a “bringing the front foot backward into a normal guard”, just as the high thrust does, so yes, this could provide an explanation to this phenomenon.
The only other evidence which might counter our argument might be this confusing image which seems to have no strong connection to the text:
It does give us a moment’s pause, though, and lead one to ask if there are any other plausible explanations to this draw back.
In fact there is one other possible explanation – one that is much simpler than the body-movement example, though also has its problems. And that explanation is deception.
Meyer is a great proponent of deceptions in his fencing. Indeed, more than any other German source he talks about blows intended to be wiped aside, feints and lures, and all kinds of other interesting methods of drawing a reaction from our opponent. His rappier treatise is no exception in this regard and contains an entire section on how best to deceive the other fencer. One things that this withdrawal of the blade allows is the opportunity for mutating the thrust as we make it.
This change could be to another thrust, as we see in Meyer’s deceitful thrust (among others), but could equally threaten the thrust and then become a cut instead. Meyer’s high cuts start from a high withdrawn hand so the thrusting position could easily change to a cut from below, or a schielhauw, or any number of other cuts as defence or attack.
From a defensive point of view is our defence truly compromised by assuming this position? A much more exaggerated withdrawn blade is seen in the schlussel (key) guard in the longsword section:
On the key, Meyer says in 1.38V:
“This guard is called Key because from this posture all other devices and postures can be countered. For although this can also take place from others, yet you must apply more power to it than in this one […] so all other techniques can be countered from this weak posture (as it seems to be) without particular difficulty, artfully and elegantly.”
The drawn back hand means that the other fencer can’t easily strike at our extended arm (important considering the relatively uncomplicated guard on Meyer’s rappier), yet we still threaten with the point.
If our opponent should attack with our own thrust then we can use a suppressing cut or powerful counter-thrust to set it aside. Would the fencer be able to do this in a timely manner? Since this thrust is being launched from deep lunging distance our opponent must traverse the hands, body, and feet, in the same time that we parry just with our hand, so again if we were to consult Silver on the matter he would judge our time the advantageous one.
Perhaps then this simple explanation is sufficient to explain everything.
Comparisons with Other Systems
We should also, of course, add in some comparison with other systems to see if this drawn back hand position exists elsewhere.
The obvious place is in other German sidesword texts from around the same time; most notably, Mair. Indeed we see one thrust with a dramatically drawn back hand position. This thrust is executed with a left passing step out to the opponent’s right side, which would be consistent with our first “body placement” analysis for 2.75v, but doesn’t directly map to the start of Chapter 5 on thrusting:
Aside from this there is one reference to pulling back, but not in the context of the ochs position.
Perhaps we should look further afield in our search for the answers. We know that Meyer describes the rappier section as essentially an art from abroad recently taken up, so we might hypothesise that this drawn back hand position is part of either an imperfect understanding of a foreign system, or of a perfectly good understanding with valid reasons.
We can begin with Viggiani, which predates Meyer somewhat (thus ideally placing it):
The image shows Vigianni’s second stance “alta offensiva perfetta” (high offensive perfect). The similarity here to Meyer’s “hand back over the shoulder” position is striking. In fact the entire description of his “Punta Sopramano” thrust is strangely familiar:
“Reset yourself in guardia alta offensiva, perfetta, and fix all of your weight firmly on your left foot, body elevated, so that the right one may be more agile, and likewise all your right leg, in order to be able to pass forward, and come toward me…and take the big step, and make your right shoulder drive your arm as far forward as you can, and with your sword hand direct the aim of your point at my breast without making any turn of your hand, until it comes forward as far as it can come.”
Paraphrasing this we have:
- Lift of the right foot (like Meyer’s “lifting the foot ready to step”) while coming into this “hand back” stance
- Lunge forward on the right leg
- Thrust forward into the chest from this high guard powerfully.
This is actually very similar to Meyer’s description for the most part, and the images match. In fact the compatibility of Vigianni’s system with that of Meyer is such that this “pulled back” hand position could be an artefact of Meyer retrofitting a German style over the Italian sidesword system (for more comparisons, try here)
This would explain much – Meyer’s more hand forward ochs becomes Vigianni’s “alta offensiva perfetta”, weighting on the left foot and becoming light on the right as we prepare to lunge, and coming into a more hand-back position, then we lunge forward as usual – a natural position for Meyer based on similar dussack movements (with varied footwork).
This is a particularly interesting observation as it retains elements of both the body dynamics (the back weighting, right foot lifting) and deceptive (hand withdrawal with an option for changing to a different attack) while speaking directly to the cultural mileu which is the rappier system.
We might also find some support for this in Agrippa’s plate K:
Under Agrippa’s system (contemporary with Meyer’s) this is a defensive movement which voids or parries an attack, but again the “hand back” position is recognisable and it’s easy to see where Meyer’s “pull the hand back for a powerful thrust” could have come from.
When it comes down to it my own opinion on the matter of whether the draw back is an artefact of body movement, or of a drawing back for a deceptive thrusting motion similar to Italian styles can be summed up as:
I actually think that the truth of the matter is that all of the explanations bear the semantic weight of Meyer’s words, and that the answer is simply that the backward movement of the arm is accounted for in part by movement of the feet and body, and in part as a means of deceiving and providing a protected hand position for attacking.
The solutions I’ve presented here are by no means definitive; if a better interpretation with supporting evidence presents itself I’ll certainly jump-ship to whatever that interpretation might be.
If the interpretations presented here are to be believed then the text matches, and all of the movements fit together into what would be readily recognised as a Meyer-like style, and a set of techniques that actually work. What’s more, one no longer need be concerned about a suicidal hand-withdrawal because now the hand movement becomes a key part of keeping the fencer safe in the parrying, and provides a launching point for Meyer’s many deceptive devices.
The kind of discussion and analysis which lead to this post are an excellent example of HEMA study in action. Meyer’s texts are an excellent resource that provide a wealth of information, however the combination of linguistic idiosyncrasies and layers of translation mean that occasionally we will encounter these kinds of confusing points.
What seems to be most important, though, is not to discard elements of the text out of hand because they don’t immediately make sense. Practice, study, practice some more, analyse, then keep practicing. My own experience of martial arts is that very often it is only at the end of a great deal of practical experience that we truly begin to understand the very basic exercises we began with. Or as it was phrased by T.S.Elliot:
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”