I recently saw a video by a HEMA luminary (a person who I like personally and respect professionally), and one of their offhand statements made me a little bit crazy. I’m not here to call out that particular person; in fact one of the reasons it drives me crazy is that it is said so often, both by people who study Liechtenauer and by those who don’t. It is one of those ideas that has been said so often with such authority, that people have stopped questioning it. And it’s wrong.
The statement is (and I’m paraphrasing) that Liechtenauer’s art is an advanced system that is dependant on the student having a pre-existing level of knowledge, and that it doesn’t cover basics.
I believe instead that Liechtenauer’s curriculum was composed to allow an instructor to teach an inexperienced student as much as possible in whatever amount of time they have available. If an instructor had limited time to train a student (perhaps because they were facing trial by combat in a few weeks), that working through the material in the order presented would give them the most important lessons first.
Whether that is specifically true, it is my assertion the system as presented starts with the most basic fundamentals, and progresses to more complex ideas built on those fundamentals.
And I’m going to back that up.
I work primarily with the big three “early” Liechtenauer sources: Lew, Danzig and Ringeck. These three treatises (and the various related/copied versions) share a common format (which Leckuchner later follows for grossemesser). They have some preliminary comments, then the zettel, and then the commentary on the zettel. The preface is just that. The zettel is a shorthand summary that acts almost as a table of contents (although that was not its original intent), and the commentaries are where the first actual descriptions of the system appear. There are a lot of variations in the commentaries, but the first section is pretty much the same in all three.
This is the first lesson of the longsword. Learn to strike properly so that you may fence with strength.
This is followed by a description that whenever you strike, you should follow your sword with your step. It’s a basic structural mechanic for all strikes that allows you to apply leverage with your whole body, rather than just your arms. This is the very first thing you need to know about fighting with a sword (at least if you are using Liechtenauer’s system). It does not require any previous understanding or experience.
The next lesson is that you are always stronger if you fight in a manner that when you complete your techniques, you finish with your strong side forward. After that is the advice that it’s best to act first so that you force your opponent to respond to you. If they do act first, you should respond in the same time they are acting to put them back on the defensive. This is followed by a description of the divisions of the sword. None of these are advanced concepts.
After all of that is the first descriptions of actual techniques. There is a list of what will be covered starting with the five strikes, and some commentary that these are the only strikes you need to know. The first one is the Zornhaw, and all three sources tell that it’s just a strike like an angry peasant would make!
The Dobringer Hausbuch is even more explicit that any strikes beyond these five are unnecessary. So the manuscripts are clear that they include all of the strikes a student needs to know, and the first and most important one is really easy. And even though it is easy, they describe in great detail how to do it!
At this point, complexity starts getting layered on, but a large proportion of the technical work that follows is built on a simple diagonal cut that a peasant might make. As the lessons progress, the techniques described become more complicated, but it all builds on the foundation that is established at the beginning. Towards the end of the manuscripts, the lessons become more about adding nuance to what has been described before.
So why do so many people think that the system is only for advanced students? There are a lot of possible reasons, and my next blog post will go into the ones that I think are most important!