The Modern Gloss is a project created by, written by, and edited by Cory Winslow (MEMAG), Jake Norwood (CKDF), Mike Edelson (NYHFA), and Ben Michels (BP). It is a modern take on Liechtenauer's zettel documenting our understanding of the early Kunst des Fechtens system for fighting with the longsword. This is a living project and, as such, the posts are subject to being updated or added to as we move forward. The posts themselves should not be taken in isolation, but as part of the system as a whole. All currently available posts will be catalogued on this page for easy reference.
The lessons contained in the following verses form the tactical framework for the Art of the Sword. Within this section are teachings on hewing, seizing the initiative, how to attack your opponent, from what side to attack, strategic principles, and special hews; making up the commonly applicable lessons of Grandmaster Liechtenauer’s Art.
The Five Words
Before and After, these two things,
Are to all Art a well-spring.
Weak and Strong,
Indes, that word therewith mark.
So you may learn
Working and defending with Art.
If you readily frighten,
No fencing ever learn.
This lesson is on the fundamental principles of fencing, encapsulated by Master Liechtenauer in Five Words. The first two of these words, Vor or Before and Nach or After, describe the timing of actions made by yourself and your opponent in relation to one another. These words are to be understood before all other things, because they contain the most basic lessons of attack and defense. The next two words, Swech or Weak and Sterck or Strong, describe physical parts of the blade, and their relation to each other while in the bind, which in turn determines what actions may be made therefrom, according to leverage. Finally comes the word Indes or Meanwhile, which applies throughout the fight, utilizes the other four words, and relates to acting at a time within your opponent’s or your own actions. The lessons contained by these Five Words are the foundation of actual combat, and if they are not understood, then no skill can be achieved. These principles are not limited to fencing with the long sword, but are eternally applicable to all weapons and disciplines, so study and learn them well.
The Before (Vor)
If the opponent does not act first, then you should act Before him by attacking his head or body with your sword, whether it be with a hew or a stab. It is safe to launch an attack against your opponent in this situation because you are acting Before he makes his own attack against you. This situation can come about for many reasons; if the opponent hesitates, if the opponent does not understand proper distance, if the opponent waits for you to act, etc… Always be sure that you are indeed acting in the Before when you attack, otherwise you may be struck due to your mistake. It is a great advantage to act Before your opponent, and you should always do so when possible, because doing so forces him to be defensive and not take control of the fight. Once you have ascertained that you may act in the Before, then attack him bravely and quickly, and the opponent must parry this or be struck. If he does manage to parry, then do not tarry after your attack, with your mind and body hesitating where you’ve struck, but work Indes within his actions, continuously attacking him with skill while staying in constant motion, so that he must always attempt to defend himself and not be allowed to attack you. Examples of utilizing the Before will be described in detail later.
The After (Nach)
If the opponent acts Before you by attacking first, then you must go After him by defending yourself. Therefore, the After consists of the defenses you employ against your opponent’s attacks when he goes Before you. The opponent may force you to go After him if he rushes upon you with great speed, better utilizes distance, you hesitate, etc… It is best to not be forced to go After the opponent, but if you must, then defend yourself well, and with your parry work Indes within his action, counter-attacking him with skill, so that you defeat his attack and take the Before back for yourself, so that he is then forced into the After, where you further work Indes, within his actions, and stay in constant motion with your attacks, as was explained before. Examples of employing the After will be described in detail later.
The Weak (Schwech) and the Strong (Sterck)
These two words describe the upper and lower halves of the sword’s blade, and how they interact with those of your opponent’s. From the hilt of the sword to the middle of the blade is the Strong, and further from the middle of the blade to the point is the Weak. These names refer to the amount of leverage these parts of the swords have when bound against another sword. With the Weak of the sword, you are not physically able to hold against the opponent’s Strong. When he pushes your Weak harmlessly away with his Strong, then Indes freely leave his sword and attack him on the other side where he has exposed himself. The Weak of your sword is used primarily to attack your opponent, since it has the most reach and velocity while attacking. With the Strong of your sword, you may manipulate the opponent’s Weak. Use the Strong of your sword to force his Weak out of the way and Indes attack him where you may. The Strong of your sword is employed primarily to defend yourself against your opponent’s attacks, since with it you may forcefully oppose your opponent’s hews or stabs. Specific examples of using the Weak and Strong of the sword will be described in detail later.
Indes refers to the time within another action, after it has begun, but before it has ended. Acting against your opponent in this time results in a great timing advantage. Its proper use is written about above in the description of the other Words, since it is present in all of them. You may act Indes with prudence against your opponent, both at long distance when you approach him, before your swords have bound together, and also at close distance, after you have bound upon his sword. Indes is essential to the concept of Feeling or Fuehlen, which is the act of sensing your opponent’s Hard (Hert) or Soft (Weich) pressure in the bind, allowing you to then act accordingly with the correct techniques against the Weak and Strong of his sword. In order to properly utilize Indes, one must correctly internalize each technique, through training, to the point that they may immediately utilize it once properly stimulated through Fuehlen. This makes use of the subconscious mind, which does not rely on conscious cognition before acting, thereby circumventing the slower processes involved in such, and allowing the fencer to make instantaneous, almost mechanical, reactions. The use of this word will be described in more detail later in this book.
When you have truly learned and understood these Five Words, then you will have great skill with the sword, and in all the Art of Fencing. However, be forewarned that those who frighten easily should not learn this Art for use in earnest combat, for in such a fight with sharp swords, he who has a despondent heart will be defeated regardless of all his skill. This is because it takes a brave fencer who is confident in his abilities, who trusts his sword and the Art, to enable him to defeat his opponents, otherwise he will not utilize the Art correctly, but forget its use and succumb to his opponent’s attacks.
The five words revolve around determining, maintaining, and retaking the initiative. Vor and Nach describe your state and determine if you should be immediately concerned with striking your opponent or defending against his actions. The relationship between strong and weak helps you determine who has the advantage in leverage within any given bind, and Indes is your mechanism for making decisions based on your state, your advantage or disadvantage, and the feeling (fühlen) you are perceiving from your opponent. Fühlen is a critical component of the art, and fühlen comes before the next action. It is not incidental to the action, nor is it merely noticing the success or failure of your action after the fact, but must be perceived before a decision is made Indes.
The Five Words allow a fencer the ability to determine if they have the right to attack. Not just the ability to, or if they could, but straight up if they have earned the right to attack. Are you in or can reliably claim the Vor? Do you have the advantage in the bind you are in? Can you make the correct decision indes? If you answered yes to all three of these, you have the right to attack. Otherwise, assume you're about to get attacked, and focus on dealing with your opponent's weapon first, ideally in a way that allows you to reclaim the Vor and earn the right to attack.
Vor and Nach can be traded back and forth many times over a single exchange. If Fencer siezes the Vor in the onset by striking left Oberhau to Opponent’s right Vom Tag, Opponent is forced to respond. Opponent is responding in Nach. If Opponent defends themself with the strong of their sword and with the point upwards, Opponent has a leverage advantage in the bind, but Fencer is likely still the fighter in the Vor. Fencer may choose to perform a zeckrur Indes to the other side after determining that they are in the Vor but that the bind is disadvantageous, but not threatening, to them. Opponent, having not yet presented a threat, remains in the Nach and must defend against this zeckrur. Instead of performing a simple defense. Opponent, also Indes, determined that Fencer was leaving the blade to strike to the other side. Instead of performing a simple parry against the second strike, Opponent decides to parry while moving the point in front of Fencer’s face. Opponent was forced to defend in Nach, but instantly retakes the Vor if this defense with an advantageous bind an immediate threat is successful.
Additional Comments: Jake Norwood
The following video, beginning at 58:15, is a more in depth explanation of the five words and how they fit into Liechtenauer's system.
Learning what the Five Words and their definitions are is a good introduction to Liechtenauer’s system, but internalizing the use of these words is critical. Slow sparring at speeds, somewhere around 30% where it’s likely no one will ever really get hit, becomes incredibly useful when focusing on these concepts. As you move through exchanges slowly, occasionally freeze mid-action and talk about who is in the Vor and Nach, who has the advantage in the binds, who may be pressuring more than the other, who is moving in or out of distance, etc. This exercise will help you learn to make these decisions, and then apply the same orientation and decision making skills at higher speeds.
Note: Slow sparing in itself is a difficult skill to learn. The fighter who is defending needs to be as honest as they can with their defenses, as it is natural for the defender to speed up just enough to ensure a defense is successful. Fighting in this way requires that both fencers approach it as if the fight is full speed. Once an action is committed to, it should not be altered in a way that wouldn’t be realistic at full speed just because you’re more clearly able to determine what your opponent is performing mid-action.
The Five Hews
Five Hews learn
From the right hand. Who they defend,
They we vow
in Arts to reward well.
There are Five Hidden Hews or Fuenff Verporgen Hau, sometimes called the Master-hews, which are not commonly understood by those fencers who have not learned Master Liechtenauer’s Art. Some of these hews are simple to perform in themselves, their chief hidden use being found in their implementation rather than their basic execution. Others are executed in more specialized and strange ways in addition to their ingenious implementation. All of these hews are initially executed at the beginning of the fight from the fencer’s strong side, and if performed and utilized correctly, are very difficult to counter. They are used to either defend and counter-attack, or attack the opponent in a safe manner, or both, depending on the given situation. Whoever understands how to fight using the Five Hews, and against those who use the Five Hews, has a great advantage in their fencing, and will be greatly rewarded in their endeavors. How to execute and fence with these Five Hews, including the techniques which subsequently arise from them, will be explained in detail later in this book.