Longsword Combat

Historical Background
Longsword Combat
The Rise of the Rapier
WMA Practice
What HES Is Not
Since it required two hands to use effectively, the longsword was not used in conjunction with any kind of shield or buckler, as earlier swords had been. Instead, the sword itself had to take on the defensive role of shield, and this simultaneously defensive and offensive use of a single blade came to characterize European swordsmanship ever since. Even after the longsword gave way to later types of single-handed sword, such as the rapier (the long civilian dueling weapon of the 17th century) and its descendants the smallsword and epee, the basic principle that the swordsman relies on the sword for defense as well as attack has remained operative. There are, however, different ways – and different philosophies – of how to attack and defend.
Historically, European martial arts were no more uniform than those of Asia. The Alps were a major cultural dividing line across Europe during the heyday of the longsword. Just as the paintings of the 15th-century Italian masters Botticelli or Fra Angelico look very different from their northern contemporaries such as Durer or van Eyck, different regional sword arts of the 15th century also look very different.
The Italian masters of the period, Fiore de Liberi and Filippo Vadi, taught a style of longsword that had a distinctive Latin elegance and flair; as the modern longsword teacher and writer Guy Windsor puts it: "Though Italy as a unified political entity was four hundred years in the future, the Italian style, which would culminate in Ferrari and Armani, breathes life into the pages of [their] long-forgotten treatises." Several modern schools teach the Italian style, including, in the U.S., Schola St. George and the Chicago Swordplay Guild; and in Europe, Schola Gladiatoria (London) and Windsor's School of European Swordsmanship, Helsinki.
The northern school was quite different. If Fiore's proud and elegant style of swordfighting breathes the same spirit as Armani or Ferrari (i.e., glorifying the human body, in keeping with humanistic principles that were central to the Italian Renaissance), the efficient German style reflects the cultural spirit of Bauhaus or BMW. Most authors of German fighting manuals – or fechtbucher – acknowledge the founder of their art to be the 14th-century German fencing master Johannes Liechtenauer.
Little is known about Liechtenauer. He was probably a traveling fencing teacher, who may or may not have actually invented the method that is associated with his name; it is possible he simply codified and recorded a system that was already in wide use. Either way, he earned his place in history by setting down his teachings in a cryptic poem – a typical pedagogical device of the time – which promoted both retention of material by his students (it was a mnemonic poem) as well as secrecy from the uninitiated: You couldn't understand it unless you had already been taught the fighting system by somebody. Fortunately, several heirs to the Liechtenauer tradition (who may or may not have been his actual students) not only recorded this poem but also wrote their own commentaries on it. The mid-15th-century fechtbuch of Sigmund Ringeck, for example, explained in detail what each line of Liechtenauer's poem meant. Ringeck's work, as well as books by Hans Talhoffer, Hanko Dobringer and several others (all paying homage to Liechtenauer), have been the basis for the modern reconstruction of the "Liechtenauer" fighting method.
The German efficiency of swordplay engineering can be seen in the overriding preference for single-time as opposed to double-time attack and defense. Single-time means attacking with the same motion with which you defend yourself; double-time means using separate motions for each purpose. Modern foil or saber fencing, for example, utilizes double-time attack and defense, and thus you may see sport fencers fight in a rapid alternating rhythm: attack-parry-attack. In the German longsword system, there is ideally no attack that does not simultaneously close off a line of attack from your opponent, and there is no defense – no parry – that does not at the same time threaten (ideally, hit) your opponent. This produces a very distinctive-looking sort of fight, with a distinctive temporal flavor and rhythm. As a result of the preference for efficient single-time motions, the German system is built around five meisterhau or "master-strikes" – moves that fulfill a simultaneous offensive and defensive function. (There is nothing similar to the master strikes in the Italian system, although the Italian masters also laud single-time, or mezzo-tempo, actions.)
Schools that teach the German method include, in the U.S., the
Virginia Academy of Fencing and MASHS (both in the Washington, DC – Baltimore area), the Selohaar Fechtschule (CT), and the Rocky Mountain Historical Combat Guild (CO), as well as Ochs Historische Kampfkunste in Germany, and Stoccata School of Defence in Australia.
Next page: The Rise of the Rapier

All material copyright 2005
Eric Wargo