Western Sword Primer

Training Primer

By Gary Arthur, Companye member and founder of Warrior Arts Research Society.

Below is a primer for anyone not familiar with some of the basics of the western sword. For some of the attendees with experience in Japanese swordsmanship I will be using some terms that are understandable to them also. I hope you find this of use.

Postures:The two best known sources for medieval sword fighting are the Flos Duellatorum (Flowerof battle) by Fiore Dei Liberi (approx 1410) and Hans Talhoffer. (three volumes 1443, 1459, 1467) These sources mention a number of postures from which one can defend or attack. Primarily it seems there are four, namely Von Tag (from theroof) where the sword is held on the shoulder, or in the Italian system wherethe sword is held above the head as in the Japanese sword posture Dai Jodan.However this is harder to do with a western sword due to the Quillons (Guard),Alber (The fool), where the sword is held pointing towards the enemies foot(Jap: Gedan No Kamae), mostly with the right foot forward (I’m presuming peopleare using the sword in a right hand forward grip), and sometimes with the leftleg forward (Jap: Tosui Gedan No Kamae), Ochs (The Ox) where the blade is heldhorizontal to the ground but next to ones head (Jap: Hiryu/Kasumi No Kamae),and finally Pflug (Plough) where the sword is tucked into the side, although the Italian systems seem to have it more central like the Japanese postureSeigan pointing towards the eyes. There are also other postures such as PostaDi Donna (womans guard), Nebenhut (Tail Guard), Kron (Crown) and Hangenort(Hanging Guard) etc but these are not as important as the primary four.

Note these postures goback to Master Liechtenauer in the 1380s and are mentioned in the Solothurner Fechtbuch, they also form the basics of the Palus Kal Fechtbuch of 1480. Of course the Italian systems have their own names for these postures namely above the head (Similar to Von Tag=Posta Frontale Ochs = Posta De Finestra (window Guard), Alber = Posta De Ferro(Iron Gate), and Posta Lunga (Long guard) inTalhoffer Der Lange Zornort (Long Guard of Wrath)

Striking (Colpi):According to the German Fechtbuchs (Fight manuals) there are a number ofdifferent types of strikes (slicing cut, pushing cut, thrust etc) carried out in nine directions (8 quadrants of a circle plus a thrust). Although quite late George Silver in his “Paradoxes of Defence” (1599) gives us some good advice about Striking. He talks about the four true times

1/ The timing of the hand

2/ The timing of the body

3/ The timing of the foot

4/ The timing of the feet.

Now whilst its quite difficult to get a handle on what George Silver is saying here, its possible that what he is talking about is that cutting using the hands will have an effect but is better if the body is used as well, and even better if the foot is used, and finally the best is when the hands, body and feet are used in conjunction or a concept in Japanese known as Ken Tai Ichi Jo (The body and weapon are one thing) i.e. all working together in unison although the hands move first. By doing this it means that not only do you have real cutting power using your entire body in motion you are also using an evasive (Jap: Taisabaki) movement at the same time and not giving away an indicator to your intentions.

This is maybe why he also has the four false timings.

Remember that when you cut you should end up in the next posture. So for example if cutting from Von Tag to the collar bone (Zornhau:diagonal cut) you may end up in Pflug after a Versetzen (setting the sword aside like a parry) in preparation for the next attack. Remembering of course that the German systems tend to be very aggressive and every defence is an attack. Also remember to end in a strong line with the blade of the sword (Blade pointing towards the attacker NOT at the ceiling) but we will talk about this tomorrow.

Footwork: Finally this brings us onto footwork or bodymovement. What we see in the fight manuals is two people standing in a posture either waiting to kill each other or in the process of trying to do so. Of course a picture is a picture and whilst better than words misses out the methods of movement employed to make these killing strokes or techniques. Again George Silver talks about the four governors. I’ll only talk about the last two here namely “Pressing in” and “Flying out”. There are times when one wishes to move in say against a cautious fighter or because you have seen an opening, or if the attacker presses the attack on you, for you to move back (Fly out) yet still cut. Sigmund Ringeck 1389-1440 states that if one is making an attack from your right side make sure you left foot is forward (Say from Von Tag), “If you strike oberhau (Cutting down literally overhand) from your right side then follow the blow with you right foot”. So basically your right foot must follow with the cut of the sword. (See above regarding George Silvers 4 timings). The obverse is also true if flying out in that you step back with you left foot past your right. As Manuscript 39564 (A newly discovered English manuscript dating to the 1400s) refers to when it talks about “Voyding” (possibly avoiding) i.e. slipping back the leg when striking. At all times try to finish where if your right hand is forward your right foot should also be. And although there are exceptions to this, in most case where you have your right foot forward but your left handforward you will be off balance and exposing a weak point (Jap: Suki).

I hope this is of help.

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