|This is the Prologue |
1 Young knight, learn to love god and revere women;
2 thus your honor will grow. Practice knighthood and learn
3 the Art that dignifies you, and brings you honor in wars.
4 Be a good grappler in wrestling; lance, spear, sword, and messer
5 handle manfully, and foil them in your opponent’s hands.
6 Strike in and hasten forth; rush to, let it hit, or go by.
7 Thus those with wisdom, the ones who are revered, will envy him.
8 This you should grasp: All arts have length and measure.
|[3r] Das ist dy vor red |
|Junck ritter lere |Got lieb haben frawen Jo ere
|So wechst dein ere |Vbe ritterschafft |vnd lere
|kunst dye dich zyret |vnd In kriegen zu eren hofiret
|Ringes guet fesser |Glefen sper swert |vnd messer
|Mandleich bederben |vnd In anderñ henden verderben
|Haw drein vnd hurrt [3v] dar |Rausch hin trif oder la farñ
|Das yn die weyssen Hassen |dye mann sicht preysen
|Dar auff dich fasse |Alle kunst haben leng vnd masse
Prologues are funny things. How many times have we opened a book and just skipped the prologue? There are things to read ahead! Can’t wait to read them! I have, on surely more than one occasion, found myself confused at some point in a book, and looked back, only to find the resolution to my confusions among the words of the very thing I skipped in the first place.
The Zettel, I’m finding, is no different. While indeed, the Prologue seems to be set up as a straightforward declaration of values, and ostensibly a little bit of salesmanship, there are a couple of really interesting key points at hand that have really been a cornerstone of my own development as a fencer as well as a teacher for the past year or two. Even after learning the big concept that’s spoken about here, it still was quite some time before I connected the concept to the Zettel and found that it had been hiding in plain sight.
Let’s get to it.
- |Junck ritter lere |Got lieb haben frawen Jo ere
Young knight learn,
To love god and honor women
Here we’re seeing an introduction that immediately states values and ideas familiar to the target audience of the Zettel. Simple enough, I think. No idea exists in a vacuum, and I’m sure there’s loads of context that I’m missing here, but I think that I’m content with taking this at face value.
- |So wechst dein ere |Vbe ritterschafft |vnd lere
So waxes your honor
Practice knighthood, and learn…
- |kunst dye dich zyret |vnd In kriegen zu eren hofiret
[learn] art that dignifies you
And brings you honor in wars
I’m lumping the second and third couplets together. Does that make it a quatrain? Or is there something I’m failing to glean from this? Perhaps the idea shown here is so important that it had to take up two whole couplets.
In these lines we see why a young knight should love god and honor women: because doing so is how he grows his own honor. A person’s reputation is valuable social currency now, and this was perhaps even more so for wealthy people in the 15th century. I’m reminded of a discussion I listened to on the subject of The Feud In Early Modern Germany by Hillay Zmora. It was conducted by the Hema Roundtables podcast, and dealt heavily with this very subject.
With this in mind, it makes sense to be that we would see the text open with an admonition to protect one’s social currency. Especially given that one may find themself having to fight for it. Perhaps, given what we can glimpse about this idea of ere/Honor, the admonition itself was strong enough to take up as much space as it does.
- |Ringes guet fesser |Glefen sper swert |vnd messer
Be a good grappler in wrestling;
lance, spear, sword, and messer
Again, it’s pretty straightforward. We’ve seen what to do (grow your honor/increase your social currency), we’ve seen how to do it (love god, honor women, learn ways that dignify you and bring you honor is wars). Now, we narrow the scope to how Liechtenauer will help you to do these things:
Wrestling! Liechtenauer chooses to list wrestling as the first item here, and I’d like to think that this was intentional. I’d like to think that wrestling has an intrinsic value in our practice from which all other weapons-based combat is sprung. The Five Words (Vor, Indes, Nach, Schwach, Sterck) are, in my opinion, at their most essential here. With an understanding of wrestling, we can extrapolate this understanding into use of a weapon as an extension of the body. I’ll get to the Five Words at the appropriate time, as they deserve their own post.
The second line of this couplet goes “lance, spear, sword, messer (or knife). Again, I like to look at this as a logical progression which may or may not be particularly linear.
Lance: The word used here is “glefen,” which carries some interesting etymology. At a glance, the word would logically appear to be “glaive.” Which makes sense; after all, a sword on a stick is quite useful and its use would translate into pollaxe, which is certainly an important part of the knightly skillset. However, upon further inspection, it seems that there was a lexical split at some point. Wiktionary tells us the following about “glaive.”
From Middle English glaive (“weapon with a long shaft ending in a point or blade; lance, spear; lance used as a winning post in a race, sometimes also given to the winner as a prize”), from Old French glaive (“sword”). The further etymology is uncertain; one possibility is that the Old French word is from Latin gladius (“sword”), while another is that it derives from Proto-Celtic *kladiwos (“sword”), with both ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *kelh₂- (“to beat; to break”). The Oxford English Dictionary notes that neither of these words had the oldest meaning of Old French glaive (“lance”). The English word is cognate with Middle Dutch glavie, glaye (“lance”); Middle High German glavîe, glævîn (“lance”), Swedish glaven (“lance”).
For “lance,” we have to following:
Now I’m not exactly sure what this means, but it’s still an interesting thing to look at. We know that Medieval people loved puns (no, really. Loved them) and dichotomy. Is this meant to carry a double meaning? Either way, this first word surely points to “lance,” which makes sense. Again, we see the importance of social currency in a weapon of the Tournament. I can’t speak too much for jousting as I know very little about it, but the act of riding towards an opponent, crossing lances, striking a target, and continuing on is central to my understanding of fencing. And it seems to begin to flesh out the things about fencing that build upon the Wrestling base while also being the very furthest thing from wrestling on this list. We are approaching a target from a single unstoppable vector and learning to prosper using only our point.
But suppose it was also meant to include the idea of pole weapons that are heavy on one side and light on the other? This really just amounts to idle musing, and I think that the “lance” translation makes a lot more sense to KdF as a holistic system, but maybe there was meant to be a small hint at polearm use.
Spear: Seemingly straightforward. We move from the Lance to the spear. The things that we learn about interfacing with an adversarially-oriented hafted weapon appear to extend to use on foot. We introduce vectors outside of the constrained course of the joust. The pressure that the joust provides us is now dispersed as we’re free to explore other vectors of attack. And at this point, the tip of the weapon is where our concern lies. Indeed, there is more to spear than thrusting with the tip, but from a pedagogical standpoint I think that there’s an interesting progression here.
Sword: All of the bove, but now you have edges to deal with. At this point you must work closer to your opponent. Hewing and slicing develop from points of leverage and distance to the Wounders that we are told about later on. The role of wrestling in the weapon’s use increases.
Messer: This one is interesting. And I’d call this a case in which we’re led to consider dichotomies and multiple connotations nested within a word. Is he referring to “langes messer” or is he referring, in fact, to a knife? What about a dagger? I think that this serves as a juxtaposition with “sword” to showcase the direct relationship between weapon length and grappling. Whether it means “langmesser” or “regular ol’ knife” or “dagger” seems irrelevant to me. It’s presenting a gradient that travels back to wrestling as the weapon length decreases and variables increase. As an aside, “messer” rhymes with “fesser” while “degen” does not.
Yeah, this couplet is an interesting one and upon closer examination, I think it gives some interesting pedagogical direction? I’m gonna play with this some more.
Coming back to this after a few days, I really like the idea of this showing us a pedagogical progression:
We can wrestle. Great. Now take everything we know about that, and start with weapons. Provide a single modality (point) and a single vector. Then, remain with a single modality, but more vectors (angles of attack, distance management, etc). After this, introduce more modalities in the form of edges. Vectors are more or less the same, but we’re starting to see more vectors as wrestling becomes slightly more prevalent. From here, the weapons continue getting shorter and our reliance on wrestling continues increasing until we find ourselves back at wrestling, which is now fully integrated with weapon arts.
- |Mandleich bederben |vnd In anderñ henden verderben
and foil them in your opponent’s hands
This one cracks me up. It’s an awkward translation. However, as I’ve come to understand it this far, mandleich is just meant to be read as “well” or “efficiently” or “correctly.” I’m sure there’s something about the word that’s hiding in plain sight that’s just part of the water that flowed beneath the plain speech of the time. But there we have it.
And the second line, mess ‘em up! All together? Do swordz gud. Mess up other guy’s swordz. Maybe this points once again to social currency. Be damn good, and look damn good doing it. And if we’re being honest here, that’s an aspiration I can get behind
If we’re being perfectly honest… Eh. I’m not totally satisfied with this. But it’s something. At face value, it’s a helpful admonishment. That’s all I’ve got right now.
- |Haw drein vnd hurrt [3v] dar |Rausch hin trif oder la farñ
Strike in and hasten forth; rush to, let it hit, or go by.
Okay, as fond as I’ve grown about ringes guet fesser, I think that this couplet is still my favorite part of the prologue. Here we see what I’m comfortable calling the first concrete bit of fencing advice that he gives us.
“Strike in and hasten forth.” Your opponent’s right there! Get’m! Do so without hesitation.
But surely that’s suicidal, right? Not necessarily. Second line, “rush to; let it hit, or go by.” Do what you’ve got to do, and do whatever is within the realm of your abilities, but do something. Give your opponent something to respond to. How skilled a fencer are you? Are you capable of working beyond a first-intention action? If not, and your first attack doesn’t make it, don’t sweat it. Get out safely and do it again.
I love this line because to me it holds the very most basic nugget of tactical reasoning employed by Kunst des Fechtens and I believe that everything else builds on this. If you wanna fence, you gotta fence. And it’s hard. This is where we start learning to put aside our fear and trepidation. It’s where we begin to come to terms with the fact that our first attempt may well not make it. But that regardless of this, if we flow through the fight, exit to safety as needed, and re-engage when we see an opening, then we can be assured that we will remain in the fight, one way or another.
Everything from here on in is an expansion upon this axiom.
It makes me think of how one should instruct. It makes me think of how one should engineer a training culture. All of the violence in the training hall is simulated. Which is great! We get to tweak and tune it to levels that work for us. And for this reason, the sanctity of the training hall lies in its safety. We all start somewhere, and we all have our own personal journey in martial arts. It is imperative that we feel safe enough to try stuff out.
We feel this kind of comfort and safety by taking care of one another. We communicate with our training partners, we tell them what we want to work on, and together we come up with training modalities that help all of us. We learn to trust one another. That trust is important between training partners; it’s sacred between instructors and students. And it starts right here. Hell, a lot of us come in terrified of hitting one another. But we, in our clubs and in our training sessions, have the opportunity to help one another. So wechst dain ere. That’s right, we’re taking this art and we’re making it ours. Social currency is different for us. We’re not astronomically wealthy 15th century nobles. We are, by and large, working class people doing what we love. Our ere is kindness. It’s the ability to help others, to leave whatever we may encounter better than we found it.
And it starts right here in the training hall. Where we cultivate our guter mut–that PMA. That courage. If the fight’s gotta start, then the fight’s gotta start somewhere. Know where you’re at, know what you can do. Know yourself. Get in, do what you can, get out.
I did say I was a fan of this line.
- |Das yn die weyssen Hassen
|dye mann sicht preysen
Thus those with wisdom, the ones who are revered,
will envy him.
Ech. This one. Okay, look, this couplet is weird. First of all, why? It’s either out of character or redundant to be like “yeah, you’re like totally gonna make guys jealous with this One Weird Trick” and yet here we are. And what’s with that meter? I don’t get it. I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about it and I just don’t get it.
I dunno man, maybe it’s a meme. Like, no, really. It’s so damn hard to tell. Honestly, that’s all I’ve got for ya here.
- |Dar auff dich fasse
|Alle kunst haben leng vnd masse
This you should grasp:
All arts have length and measure.
Here we are. The last couplet of the prologue. I can remember coming across this line early on in my fencing. It was in Keith Farrell’s German Longsword Study Guide. This line stood out to me though I had no idea what it meant. And it wasn’t until relatively recently that it really made sense. And we make sense of it by understanding that “length and measure” doesn’t quite convey the meaning. At this point, I’m confident in defining “length and measure” as something more like “breadth and moderation.” Here’s a snippet from 3227a:
And whatever you conduct and begin, always have measure and moderation. Like, if you have won the fore-strike, then don’t do it so impetuously and so powerfully that you then cannot recover yourself for the after-strike. About this, Liechtenauer spoke: Thereupon you hold, all things have moderation and measure. And also understand this about the stepping and about all other plays and principles of fencing, etc.
Everything that we do exists as a point somewhere on a spectrum. Remember the importance of dichotomy in our understanding of Liechtenauer. Also from 3227a,
And this goes to the Authorities. As Aristotle spoke in the book Peri Hermanias: “Opposites positioned near themselves shine greater, or rather, opposites which adjoin augment. Weak against strong, hard against soft, and contrary.”
We ought to probe for extremes. We ought to explore them in ourselves, in our fencing, and in any other place that it serves us. When I practice with my pell, I can strike as hard as I possibly can, with lots of hip travel and momentum that carries my feet some distance. I would not do this with a training partner, of course, outside perhaps of sufficient gear and clearly negotiated parameters, but I can do it to a post wrapped in rope and that gives me all the feedback I need. I practice giving a strike “so impetuously and so powerfully that [I] cannot recover [myself] for the after-strike” so that I know what this feels like.
On the other hand, I practice the same, but moving slowly, never making contact with the pell. I move smoothly enough, but without any force at all. In fact, I’m restraining the mass of the weapon and not allowing it to flow in space.
Somehow, in some way, every strike that I give lies between these two points. All of those strikes are somewhere on this spectrum. There is a worthy pursuit in exploring the extremes of our actions. How hard can we drive? How effortlessly can we yield? When do we go to one side of the spectrum or the other? When do we stay in the middle?
Leng und masse. Liechtenauer doesn’t simply advocate for extremes and likewise doesn’t extoll some virtue of staying right in the middle. If you spend all of your time in moderation, you will likely find yourself either too hard or too soft most of the time. Neither of these concepts can exist in our fencing or in our lives without the other.
Know yourself. Know where you’re at. Know where you need to be.
This has turned into a lot more than I expected. This whole thing is here so that I can document what’s going through my head. I’m trying to think in terms of what it means to me. What lessons can I learn from Liechtenauer beyond the obvious? How do I make this art mine? How do I grow into the art to become not only a better fencer, but a better human? The last five years have been a whirlwind of personal development in ways that I couldn’t have foreseen. What will it be like after I finish this project? I’m excited. Thank you, once again, for joining me in this.