Guards! Guards! Notes on the Many Postures of Meyer

An observation often made of late period German fencing (such as that described in the work of Mair or Meyer) it that it uses a surprisingly large number of guard positions.  In fact some criticism can be made that there are in fact too many postures, depending on the fencing background of the reader.  

One of reason we might question the presence of so many guards arises from the earlier Germanic fencing tradition upon which Meyer’s art is largely based, particularly when reading Liechtenauer’s zettel which admonishes us to distain all but  four guard positions:

 

“Four guards alone hold;

And disdain the common.

Ox, Plough, Fool,

From the Day should not be unknown to you.” [2]

 

These guards, which are named in Meyer’s texts for their importance as the “four principal guards”, cover all of the openings – high, low, left, and right, as well as providing credible threats and techniques from above below and both sides, often combining offence and defence simultaneously.  The four positions also form the basis of the various secondary guard positions described by Meyer, and many of the techniques described from the secondary guards can feasibly be executed from their primary guard “ancestor” (with varying degrees of modification, of course).

Consider the relationships between primary and secondary positions:

 

Ochs

Pflug Tag

Alber

Schlussel

Hangetort

Einhorn

Eisenport
Langort

Kron

Mittelhut(?)

Zornhut

Wechsel
Nebenhut

Schranckhut

 

As students of the later system we must consider the reasons behind the presence of so many postures, especially if (based on our relationship table above) they are potentially redundant.  After all, if the principal guards do everything, what’s the point of learning any of these other postures?  

The answer, of course, is more complicated than simply discarding these guards as irrelevant, and compelling reasons behind the conundrum of this diversity can be found both explicitly and implicitly within the body of the text itself.  Moreover the structure of the text, its historical and social context, and the practical application of the techniques therein, further inform us on the nature of the many postures of Meyer.

Pedagogical Semantics:

At their very simplest level ware are told that among other things, the guard positions embody the many transitional point which are realistically encountered when fencing.  We are told, for example that for our primary cuts:

“whenever you go through one of the lines, you always find at least three postures[1]

Here we are given an example of an oberhau/scheitelhau – it begins in Vom Tag, cuts through Langort, and ends in Alber.

Because I’m a software developer, I feel the need to express this through pointless diagrams, especially graphs.  If we consider fencing as a graph of ‘nodes’ which we traverse as we move, then each of these nodes within the Meyer system represents a guard position.  For example, consider the graph for a simple zornhauw cutting fully through the target:

A simple zornhauw, then is a three position movement with attending footwork.  In this case the nodes become keyframes in a conceptual animation sequence for a movement.

 

We now have a working definition for the movement.  If we have transitioned through each of these positions, then we have performed the cut correctly.  This alone is a useful teaching tool.  By giving a student three positions to transition we have given them an overall “shape” to a large movement, in this case a cut.  Beyond the atomic cuts we can also describe a more complex series of movements by appending nodes to the graph to represent the subsequent body movements.

Here we have the schematic for a fencer who cuts a failing zornhauw which flows of to the right into a zornhauw from the left, which is immediately followed by a krumphauw.  This kind of expanded schematic gives us a representation of the secondary cuts as well as other movements, a windhauw, for example, transitions through several guard positions – starting in alber, moving up to einhorn, cutting down through longpoint, through schranckhut and back over.

We could expand this further by adding further movements or decision points so that our graph of positions now becomes tree like, bifurcating at decision points in the fight.

Teaching guards as transitional frames in a larger movement is beneficial in a number of ways.

First, this approach with guards as transition points gives both the student and the teacher a means of assessment and correction of their fencing technique.  As a student learns the basic motions of the sword they can stop and check against their conceptual “animation” of the movement to ensure they’ve done everything correctly.  The animation teaches the broad strokes of a movement, so the instructor need only correct finer mechanical details.

A criticism here is that our initial definition of the strikes is a poor one – cutting all the way through the target into wechsel seems like it leaves us unprotected, but this is again both a pedagogic and tactical choice.  When students begin practical cutting of targets it is always easier to teach good cutting mechanics all the way through the target first, only moving to more “on point” moves as the student becomes more experience.  Any experience at test cutting with sharps bears this out, and is just as we see it in Meyer – as we move through the text we begin to find more constrained and on point techniques as the student (presumably) progresses in their learning.  As an aside, there are certain techniques where we wish to cut through, maintaining the momentum of our movements, but these fall into a separate category and warrant further discussion elsewhere.

Second, and more importantly, linking guard positions as transitional points of cuts and handworks ties the two together and provides students with the understanding that the guards and strikes are not separate things but part of a larger whole.  That is to say:

“Now as regards the postures, I would not have you remain long in any of them, since they are not invented or devised for this purpose, but so that when you draw up your sword for a stroke, and it is time for you to cut in the middle of pulling up as you gather your joints, you will know how to send your sword at once quickly back against him when you reach the furthermost point in drawing up your sword.”[1]

And again:

“Now the guards or postures are a graceful but also necessary positioning and comportment of the whole body with the sword”[1]

Without the guards, there can be no cuts, as one encompasses the other and vice versa.  When we move between guards we cut, and when we perform a cut we move between guards.

The nature of this relationship is often under-appreciated; we don’t just stand in guards or perform cuts and other handworks as separate acts.  They are two sides of the same coin;  we dynamically flow through the guards to perform the cuts themselves.

Teaching Context

A second major reason for the diversity of guards in the later German systems may be linked to the style of teaching used in this era.  This is linked to the more explicit method of teaching movements described in the previous section.

Having multiple well defined postures which can be described with a single word is of considerable benefit as the size of the student group increases.  Where earlier traditions may have been (and most likely were) taught in much smaller groups or one-on-one between teacher and student, by Meyer’s era learning seems to have become a group activity with townsmen meeting to learn and practice techniques in numbers much larger than earlier eras.  The use of discrete terms for many postures, strikes, and even steps  is more suitable to larger group training sessions such as those which were likely seen in fencing guilds in the 16th century.  

In a many-to-one ratio of students to teachers it is easier to perform a particular technique sequence if you have explicitly named movements.  First you teach the isolated movements (primitives of the system), then you simply concatenate them to construct various devices.  A  gathering up to einhorn followed by a glide step to the left into langort, through schranckhut into ochs with a triangle step right would be difficult to convey to a dozen students simultaneously without this kind of ontological lexicon.  As we are reduced to the few-to-one ratio of students to teacher in earlier eras such details are less relevant: you can simply show the movement and correct in real-time.

In making this point it is important we not conflate 16th or even 17th century training with the kind of kind of military training represented by systems such as 19th century sabre techniques.  Even though some of these later schools of fence often discussed one-on-one combats and even sport-fencing, the systems themselves were designed to be taught en-masse to large groups of soldiers in a simplified, and fairly dogmatic way.  The advantage of this approach is that it dramatically prunes the tree of techniques, paring them down to a minimal subset that can be passed on quickly efficiently in military training.  

The systems in Meyer’s time, on the other hand, were not intended for this kind of industrial-era mass teaching.  Like other contemporary styles the system retains a considerable focus on individual expertise in a broad syllabus of techniques, adjusting the way these are passed on to suit larger groups of non-military students.  This training was dissimilar to the 19th century military approach in that German cities were largely towns “under arms” – the citizens of towns from every profession were expected to practice with weaponry as a matter of course, which is quite different from the military training given in later times to professional full time soldiers.

This focus is borne out even in the the polearm section of Meyer.  If the methods were intended purely for mass-military training one might expect to exclusively find simple techniques suitable to shoulder-to-shoulder fighting in blocks of pikes and halberds.  While it is true that these movements do have their place in Meyer’s system (as one would expect), they are found side-by-side with other more complex devices much more relevant to fighting individually, which contain core fighting principles drawn from earlier sections of the text.

 

Perspectives from Information Theory

Further, there is evidence that the pedagogical implications of Meyer’s method extend beyond the relatively fine-grained issues of transition points and applicability to group training.  The advances in availability of printing techniques in the 16th century meant that it was possible to publish much more voluminous works on combat in a (somewhat) cost effective manner.  This, coupled with evolving ideas about the “science” of combat and how it should be best taught dramatically altered the way fencing texts were laid out in the later period, changing their focus from being “top-down” to a more a “bottom-up” approach.

Consider earlier works which gloss the original markverse of Liechtenauer, which is structured as a set of verses intended to be used as a kind of mnemonic.  Necessarily a mnemonic verse must, by its very definition, be semantically dense, providing a highly compressed account of an entire fencing system.  This is the beauty of the markverse and part of what attracted many of us to it in the first place.  The brevity and structure conveys much through little.  This mnemonic structure is useful in a period where publishing was difficult and costly (texts being largely hand-written) and fencing instruction rarely intended for group consumption.  The diversity of the various glosses show that individual fencers unpacked the markverse and in doing so included a large amount of what we must be assumed to be common knowledge; the markverse pass on the conceptual intricacies, while everyone within the fencing lineage simply knows the basics through practical training.  In this way the earlier German method is very top-down.  It begins with compressed abstractions and “unzips” the compressed data via the glosses and the fencing masters themselves.

By the 16th century the printing press was widely available and in science and art there was a trend toward categorisation and explication and passing on information precisely and (often) verbosely.  This is common to texts of the period, with publications from Italy and France (eg. Marozzo, Viggiani, Sainct Didier) making expansive use of a similar breakdown of techniques from first principles.  Cuts and guard positions are described at length, and we begin to see enumeration of movements and geometric diagrams being employed to teach fundamentals, with complex set plays demonstrating application.  Meyer’s Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens (1570) follows exactly the form we would expect of this era, beginning with the very basics and moving through complex applications before moving on to tactical and strategic concerns later in the text.

In this way later texts are much more bottom-up in their approach.  We begin with all of the minutiae of how to move and cut, and as the text progresses we move toward the abstraction of the knowledge into principles as the student’s own knowledge increases.  This is a useful teaching tool in groups; by having many specific named movements we can quickly bring students up to facility in those movements, and over time the student derives for themselves the interrelationships.

Visually we could compare early and late period German approaches as follows:

On the left we have early German, which expands high level concepts into numerous specific techniques.  On the right we have late period German in which specific techniques are distilled into high level concepts.  Note that in both cases we can have orphan or childless techniques; these are techniques which are “one off” or don’t strongly relate to other movements in the system as a high level concept.  

From an information theory perspective we might say that the early German approach results in higher data compression, but is very lossy.  The core concepts are stored, but the implementation details may not be.   One of the unintended side-effects of this is that different practitioners of the system might extract the data from the markverse in different ways.  We see this in earlier glosses which, while they generally agree on the core of the system, often differ in their focus on various points of importance, or on the details of a particular meaning. Interestingly these same texts often include advice on usage of guards which are not-canonical to the markverse. The reason here seems clear enough; the writer is trying to convey a movement or concept upon which the mnemonic verses are opaque.

By comparison the much more extensive text of Meyer, with its many names cuts, guards, devices and movements, is rather more lossless in its compression.  Consider the variety of cuts we see in Meyer’s longsword section.  We begin with a vast variety of named cuts compared to earlier systems, with each named cut corresponding to a specific usage and being used in specific circumstances.  Over the course of the longsword section of the text we become aware that there are really only two types of cuts; principal cuts and crooked cuts, it’s just the circumstances that vary – we have abstracted many cuts into few through application and understanding.

The disadvantage here, however, is signal-to-noise ratio, or more poetically “not being able to see the forest for the trees”.  There may be a tendency to ignore the abstraction stage of learning, and simply mimic the techniques described in the book “as is” without taking the time to reflect upon their meaning and the underlying principles involved.  Meyer himself warns us against this:

“… achieve the ability to extend the art in your own right, and from your clarity attain and exude the proper judgement in Stance and Strikes so that Youth will not have to learn this art unguided and, because of your unspoken word, ill is wrought and they thus learn wrongly to the detriment of the art. Once achieved, we need your words and thoughts in this art, first from notes you would clarify, then onto subjects important to read in training, then to other subjects you want to develop further, so that the discipline of fencing grows on properly understood principles you have contributed to, rather than relying on mindless juggling, thus greater the difference between juggling and fencing will become, and the Knightly art of Fencing will grow from Warriors far and wide, particularly to Citizens at large, but beware the Juggler, to whom the unseemliest losses are and who is found everywhere in the world, until all are put away.”

It is worth noting that both approaches, bottom-up and top-down, often agree on many of the high level concepts of fencing; they simply come at it from opposite ends.  Techniques from the markverse begin with a more presuppositionalist approach from a set of rules of fencing, while the later approach begins with very many basic techniques, then combines them through various lessons to arrive at a winnowed down set of core concepts.  Neither of these is approaches is universally right or wrong, neither are they better nor worse than each other, they simply differ in their approach.

Realities of the fight

The final point to be made is that the guard positions in Meyer represent the positions that actually emerge when we put our philosophical fencing knowledge to the test.  While we might ideally shun the secondary guards, realistically the chaos of the fight we are forced to deal with less than ideal postures, both our own, and those of our opponent.

If we never visit these postures in practice then how are we to safely fight from them?  Certainly with experience we recognise the circumstances and can apply high level concepts, but it is often easier to drill from the guards so we have consistent and repeatable behaviour at all times.

Meyer recognises this:

“And as he comes within range of the opponent, he will lay on and cut with advantage and sound skill, and conduct himself against his opponent such that his opponent cannot cut at him without injury: instead when the opponent works at his openings, either he makes himself open, while the combatant deprives him of the opening he expected to have with a step forward or around; or at least when the combatant is provoked from his advantage through this attack he can take out his opponent’s blade to hinder and intercept him in his work.”[1]

Of course, as with earlier sources we are advised not to linger in any one guard position:

“Now since in all combat, whatever you should cut, work parry, or execute by way of work you must not remain in one guard, but always move from one to another and transform one into another” [1]

And again:

“Now a good combatant should not expect to wait long in his posture, but as soon as he can reach his opponent he should attack him and carry out his intended device. For long waiting requires many parries, from which it is hard for a man to come to strike”[1]

If we have practiced fighting from the many possible guard positions (both ideal and less than ideal) we learn to immediately execute the right techniques at the right time,  whether that technique be in the vor, or in the nach.  This is of course a two way street; if we know what we should do when we are in a posture ourselves, we will also know what an opponent is likely to do once he reaches a certain posture.  Specifically we should be:

“…readily able to perceive and recognize the technique your opponent might execute against you, and encounter him more appropriately.”[1]

Conclusions

There appear to be a number of reasons for the presence of the various guards within later German fencing systems. Largely these focus on the teaching aspect of Meyer; many guards makes learning the basic movements of the sword easier, and allows beginning students to come up to speed on the fundamentals of the system much more quickly.  This follows the general pattern of texts from the era and represents a broader change in pedagogics and overall approach to teaching fencing.

From a human factors perspective we lack any useful measures of effectiveness for this bottom-up approach and in comparing the quality of fencers it produces it cannot be demonstrated as being better nor worse, than the top-down approach of some earlier systems.

Most importantly we find that the guards are a holistic part of Meyer’s system which give us specific instructions on the very movements which make up the art itself.  To transition between guards is to cut, and to cut is to transition between guards.  This is important in defining and assessing the movement style of a Meyer fencer, and is inherent to the system.

As with most things HEMA we can conclude that context is key.  Because of the social, technological, and philosophical context of the style it is different from earlier German.  This difference is neither an overwhelming positive nor particularly negative, it simply is what it is, and that in itself is enough to make it interesting.

References

[1] Meyer Joachim (1570), Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens.  Translation by Jeffrey L. Forgeng  (2006)

[2] Attributed to Johannes Liechtenauer, Cod.44.A.8 (1543)  Translation by Christian Tobler 

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