Do What You Can: Liechtenauer’s First Lesson

|Haw drein vnd hurrt dar 

|Rausch hin trif oder la farñ

-Johannes Liechtenauer

When I started this journey of working my way through the Zettel, I expected that I’d have quite a bit to think about with each line and with each verse. What I didn’t expect however, was the impact that each line would have.

I expected that I’d go through one verse per week, but I’m finding now that not only is that an impractical and not-exactly-feasible timeline, it’s one that I don’t really even want. The last… I don’t know, month? Month and a half? However long it’s been since the last entry–I’ve found myself fixated on this couplet. I see it as the first direct piece of advice that Liechtenauer gives us.

Strike in and hasten forth.

Rush to, let it hit, or go by.

-Johannes Liechtenauer (translated by Christian Trosclair)

It’s a bit of a slap in the face. It’s been hiding in plain sight. I went into this in the last post, but I just wasn’t prepared for how profound this would wind up being. It’s reshaped how I teach, how I fence, and probably how I approach things unrelated to martial arts as well. As above, so below, after all. 

Here’s some things I’ve learned

Take a step back

Not literally, but take a step back in your approach to the fight. What do you like to do? What are your boot sequences? Why do you like them? (For what it’s worth, “because it looks cool” is valid. Just be honest with yourself about that) How do you engage your opponent? When do you engage your opponent? From where do you engage your opponent?

Having taken a step back and assessed some of this, take inventory. What movements do you know? You probably know a lot of them.  Go through them all. Just sit down and think about it. Let your mind wander. Or don’t sit down. Stand up and flow and move, weapon in hand or not. Flow in whatever way pleases you. It’s your body, your practice, and your Kunst. Now pick one.

Take a movement and commit to it.

And I mean really commit to it. Perhaps your one and only movement is a dominant side oberhaw with a side of Hard Parry. If you’ve trained under me and are at that point, then you also know how to use schiessen. Beautiful. That’s all you need. Now tell your fencing partner. Tell them that your plan is to spam oberhaw for the entire duration of your session. And then do it.

The thing is, it’s never just oberhaw. From how far away will you give your vorschlag? Will you give it close enough to strike with the edge? Or will you give it out of distance, hanging your point long and presenting your point so that you can continue to enter? Will you attack from the right or from the left? Will you accidentally discover Zornhaw as you cut directly into your opponent’s strike? 

Will you not even give the oberhaw as a vorschlag? It may well be that you haven’t learned the term nachreissen yet, but you may well find yourself waiting until your opponent missteps or mis-judges distance, and then give your oberhaw

Maybe you’ll hit. Maybe you won’t.

Who the hell cares?

At the end of the day, is it absolutely imperative that the vorschlag hits? Is a successful vorschlag more important than exiting an engagement untouched? Nah. You can argue in favor of eating a couple of punches on the way in or even on the way out; you can’t extend the same rationale to swords. And without getting muddled down in the “well actually period doublets were very difficult to cut an–” No. That’s not what the Kunst is about. 

Any engagement that you “survive” (that is to say, in which you do not receive real or simulated damage by your opponent or their weapon) is an engagement that keeps you in the fight. Any time you enter your krieg, it must be of the utmost importance to exit safely. Rush to, let it hit, or go by.

Never assume that a wounding action is the end of the fight.

Chemically-affected humans, whether through external means or by way of their own endocrine system, are unpredictable. Bodies are simultaneously terribly fragile and nigh-indestructible. To assume that a successful hit is the end of the fight is to betray your Kunst. To step momentarily into the fantastical realm of the elusive “real fight” (I swear, my eyes roll every time I have to type that), it is this mentality that allows you to exit an engagement safely while your opponent’s body decides whether or not the fight is over.

Getting back to reality and to the simulated combative environment that we play in, it’s just plain better to get out safe. Did your oberhaw hit? Great! Get out of there. 

What about the nachschlag?

Are you training any of that today? Great! Use it. Are you not training any of that? Great! Don’t use it. Getting out of the engagement is more important than following up with a successful nachschlag. There is no shame to be had in a simple game. And the more time you spend attacking with rudimentary movements, the more complex you’ll find those very movements to be.

“Do what you can.”

To me, the real brilliance of the Zettel lies in its endless circuity. The way seemingly everything loops back into everything else. Each bit that you learn seems to change everything else that came before it. It never loses the meaning it started with, but it takes on more meanings. The tree blossoms; its branches grow. 

At the crux of this couplet is “do what you can.” The very most you can do is the very most you can do. And no matter what that happens to be, with practice, you can use that to get out safe. 

Strike in with all the joy you can muster.

Get in, do what you can, get out.

-Johannes Liechtenauer (adapted by Dan Halliday)

And that goes beyond the training hall, doesn’t it. It goes beyond fighting entirely, doesn’t it. Where does this fit into conflict resolution? Where does this fit into community-building? Looking for work? Undergoing whatever personal endeavor you might like to? I’ve got my own answers, but this is about you. This is about your training and about your life. 

Something to think about while you flow.

German terms used in this post:

Zettel :  “Recital” or “epitome.” A term used to refer to the poem that encapsulates Liechtenauer’s Art.

Kunst: “Art.” In my own understanding and usage of the term, I liken it to the “do” or “dao” of Eastern practices–giving it a connotation that points to something like “The Way”

Oberhaw: “Over-hew” a descending true-edge cut

Schiessen:  “Shooting” – Thrusting in with the point. Not to be confused with “scheissen” which is ill-advised in a fencing match.

Zornhaw:  “Wrath Hew” – Parrying an opponent’s action using a strike

Vorschlag:  “Before-strike” – an initiating action

Krieg:  “War” – the state in which you are in striking distance and are engaged with your opponent’s blade

Nachschlag:  “After-strike” – an action with is a follow-up based on the result of the vorschlag

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