This Is How We SHMeW It

A Guide To Happy Sword Bodies

Back in the spring of 2018, I woke up one morning to find that my left arm didn’t work. I’d suddenly lost an overwhelming amount of the range of motion in my left shoulder. The culprit was likely something at work; I hadn’t injured it while fencing. As I slowly rehabbed the shoulder, I started hearing about more and more Longsword fencers suffering strain injuries and tendinopathy in the shoulders. In most cases, the critical moment of injury was not while fencing, but rather while performing some other sort of everyday task.

As I healed over the course of the following year (imagine a year-long Leg Day), it became clear that I needed to figure out what we were all doing wrong with our shoulders. This led to a fascination with bodies and movement, particularly as they pertain to two-handed swords. I wanted to look at this in ways that were inclusive for as many body types as possible. I’d seen plenty of advice that worked for some people but not for all. I came up with a collection of ideas that I felt were crucial for healthy movement patterns. And they made sense, but I needed to arrange them in an order that made sense and come up with a catchy acronym. So I did! The result is SHMeW.

So what the hell is a SHMeW? It stands for “Shoulders, Hips, Meridian, Wrists.” It’s a self-diagnostic system for checking form and improving body awareness. Here’s the quick and dirty rundown for those of you who just wanna know what the damn thing stands for so you can go back to doing something else:

Shoulders: Are my shoulder blades engaged? Watch out for shoulder blades sticking out, pressure in the shoulder joint itself, shrugging shoulders, and upper back rounding.

Hips: Are my hips open? Watch out for your toes pointing in while you fence. While you’re at it, watch for your knees caving inwards while you move. 

Meridian: Is the space between my hands aligned with my center-line? Watch out for your hands drifting to one side or the other beyond your centerline. This is the one point in this system that needs adaptation for one-handed weapons. In that case, find the limits of the range of motion at your shoulder (arm straight) and stay within that range. 

Wrists: Are my wrists straight? Watch out for bending in the wrist in any direction. One way or another, you need to adopt a grip that allows you to form a straight line between the bones of your hand and the bones in your forearm. 

Cool, now that we’ve got that, let’s dive into it.


I chose the shoulders as the first point  because realistically, they’re the joints at the center of this system. I don’t worry too much about the feet because most issues with your feet can be solved by adjusting your hips. So we have the hips at one extreme, wrists at the other, shoulders in the middle, and the meridian running through all of this.

Let’s just take a moment to appreciate our friend, the Shoulder Girdle. The humerus (upper arm) connects to the scapula (shoulder blade). A horn at the top of the scapula (called the acromion) connects to the clavicle (collar bone). The clavicle then goes on to connect to the sternum (breast bone). That’s right. The only place where your arm actually connects to the rest of your skeleton is at the top of your rib cage, right in the middle. Every last bit of structure in the shoulder girdle comes from a complex system of muscles  and fascia that work together to keep your damn arm from falling off. The system is capable of amazing force output if everything is working together, but if we’re regularly swinging three-pound objects without taking enough care of ourselves, we find that some parts of this system are incredibly fragile. 

The muscles of the posterior side of shoulder girdle
The bones of the shoulder girdle

Big muscles are made for moving lots of weight. Small muscles are there to stabilize and make fine adjustments. Things go wrong when small muscles start trying to pick up the slack for the big muscles. A hugely important part of making sure this doesn’t happen is called scapular engagement

This can be described as “keeping your shoulder blades close to the rib cage.” A common cue for this is “down and back.” Which is part of the picture, but not all of it. This misses its counterpart, which happens due to the fine work of our friend Serratus Anterior(SA). This “saw-tooth muscle” is the one you see really prominently on boxers, just below their armpit. The SA is an important muscle for swordsfolk, as it ultimately keeps the scapula engaged. Seriously. Train this muscle and your shoulders will thank you. I won’t get into how to train it here, but it’s easy to find information on this.

Manny Pacquiao, whose Serratus Anterior muscles are well-developed due to his training

There are a couple of telltale signs that you aren’t engaging your scapulae. One is shrugging the shoulders. This is a common thing with all sorts of people, from guys that are really muscular to smaller people who normally have to fence people much taller than they are. This can happen for a number of reasons:

It sort of feels strong.

If you’re someone with a lot of upper body strength, you may well associate this shrugged position with strength and therefore safety. You might just plain spend too much time on chest exercises and shrugs. Your shoulder blades may stick out while in a relaxed state. Here’s where stability work is your friend. Overhead work like kettlebell presses and windmills will do a lot to get your traps to stop taking over.

You want a little more range.

If you’re someone who’s on the smaller side, you may find that you have a tendency to shrug your shoulders in an attempt to get more reach out of your actions. This is normal and reasonable. However, it tends not to be very helpful, screws with your movements, and puts you at greater risk of injury. Keep the scapulae engaged and find the positioning that works for you. Hip-hinging will go a long way here.

Zornhaw against a much taller opponent. You can hold your ground and keep your scapulae engaged, you just need to hinge a little and turn your hips
The follow-up wind and thrust. Shoulders are still in a healthy position, even as I attack my 7’6″ opponent.

It feels like your chest is getting in the way of your arms

Fencers who have a large bust may habitually do things like shrug their shoulders as an adaptation for getting around it. They’ve likely been told that the only way to cut all the way through into a low position is to do so with perfectly straight arms and with the word “structure” getting thrown around a lot. So, adhering to the “arms must be straight” advice, they adapt their bodies in ways that conform to this admonition, which often ends in frustration and uncomfortable positions, and possibly in eventual injury.

Fortunately, you don’t have to cut with your arms dead-straight. In fact, that’s one of the really cool things about Longsword. See, here’s the thing. Structure can appear in a couple of ways. Let’s think about tables. On one hand, you have a trestle table. It’s supported by two wide, thick legs, which are further supported by a “trestle” which keeps the table from racking and swaying. It gets its structure through rigid, straight lines that transfer force.

Trestle table

On the other hand, we have what we call a “tensegrity table” (tension-integrity). This table derives its structure from chains that pull against one another in harmony. The tension that exists within the table gives it its structure. Intuitively, it looks like something that shouldn’t exist. But sure enough, they can support plenty of weight.

Bodies work the same way. It’s how you can punch without your wrist flopping around (more on this in the “wrists” section). It’s also how you can cut “short” (that is, with arms that have a little bend in them) and still have everything structurally sound. What’s unique about longswords is that you have both hands on the sword and therefore can provide tension by rotating externally. 

A biotensegrity model. The “bones” are floating. It gets its structure from the balanced tension between all of the strings around the bones–Just like you and me.

Hold your (not sharp) sword out in front of you, palms down, and bend the sword as if you’re trying to make your elbows touch. Do this with your scapulae engaged and with your arms only as extended as much you find comfortable. You should feel this throughout your back. Sit with this feeling and become comfortable with it. What you’re doing here is externally rotating your shoulders. This is an important part of functional strength. One cue when bench pressing is “bend the barbell in half.” This is of course not feasible, but the tension generated by doing so is a big part of moving as much weight as you possibly can.

Now do this with your sword. Hold it out as far as you’re comfortable doing so, and apply that same external rotation. With your lats engaged (the big slabs of meat that run down either side of your back), you can hold a position really well. And the best part? This is not a rigid position. If you need to wind in either direction, all you need to do is release tension on one side. Try it out. Stand in Longpoint, arms however you need them (as long as your scapulae are engaged). Apply tension, and then let go with your left hand. You immediately wind to the left, complete with the turn of the sword. Reset, apply tension again, and let go with the right hand. You immediately wind to the right. This is some martial arts juju that’s all about moving by releasing tension rather than applying it. Truth is, we do it all the time. Play around with this.

Now suppose you do want your arms straight. This is still feasible. You just need to hip hinge. More on this is the next section. Figure out how low you can get your arms while keeping them straight. When you can’t comfortably go any further, you’ve reached your limit. With your arms straight, as low as they can go, hinge at the hips until your arms are parallel to the floor. Everyone has to do something on this spectrum of movement to keep their arms straight. Whatever it is that you have to do is your own personal movement trait and it is just as fantastic as anybody else’s.

Another tell-tale sign that the scapulae are not engaged, is a rounding of the upper back (thoracic flexion). This is a direct result of the scapulae not being engaged. Note that when you pull them into place, your back straightens out. Not only does this help your fencing, it helps your overall posture! Thoracic flexion leads to things like hitting the floor with your sword. Because of the tension that’s lost by not having that engagement, it gets harder to keep your wrists straight as well, all of which ties into hitting the floor with your sword. Correcting this problem corrects the problem of over-swinging, as your body forms its own “brakes” on the cut. Getting the sword someplace like Alber can now happen with a hinge at the hips, while a more upright posture will make it easier to get the sword into Longpoint instead of going all the way through.

So SHMeW really starts at the shoulders. Really, this encompasses most of the thorax, but the shoulders themselves are where problems arise, and they’re just plain good as a reference point. From here, we move on to the hips.


I don’t tend to think of footwork as footwork. I tend to think of it as hip-work. Your feet matter, of course, but they don’t go anywhere on their own. Your feet move because your hips move. Your hips are the real stars of the show (they don’t lie). And our biggest question here is “are they open?”

Let’s zoom out and talk about stance for a second. Stance ought to be discussed in relation to the hips. “Shoulder-width apart” is a mnemonic that works well for one body type: people with broad shoulders and narrow hips. It just so happens, that when a person with this build stands with their feet shoulder width apart, they wind up with their feet a little wider than their hips. Use the hips as a metric for stance. It’s entirely possible that you’ve been keeping too narrow a stance for a long time. 

Back to hips.

If you stand, and your knees are pointing towards each other a bit, your hips are closed. If your knees point away from each other, your hips are open. You can also say that your hips are externally rotated. If you were to look at your right leg, the whole thing would be rotating clockwise. Having open hips gives us the freedom to move wherever we’d like. We can step in any direction we’d like, including across the line. 

It helps prevent another two really common injuries: ankle rolls and ACL tears. An ankle roll usually happens when you land on the outside of your foot. As fencers, this most commonly happens to us when we’re fencing with our toes pointed in a bit. Keeping our hips open as a general rule helps to correct this problem for reasons similar to how scapular engagement helps to keep our wrist structure from collapsing. In this case, it helps to keep your toes on your lead foot pointed towards your opponent, if not a little to the outside (Slightly to the outside is fine. To the inside is bad)

Open hips also help to prevent ACL tears. This can happen when the knee meets lateral force from the outside. This of course can happen if the knee is struck, but it often happens when the knee is buckling to the inside when a landing takes place. Developing strong hips will save your knees.

There’s another component to your hips that affects your posture; we call this “pelvic tilt.” The pelvis is capable of tilting forward (anterior) and backward (posterior). It does this to facilitate the wide range of movements and positions that humans need to perform in order to function. But when fighting or working under load, pelvic tilt can cause problems. It disrupts the smooth force transfer that happens with well-aligned joints (similar to what happens when you cut with bent wrists). It can also affect your ability to reliably keep your hips open. When you have anterior pelvic tilt, the  part of your hip that attaches to your adductors (groin muscles) sits further back than it normally would. 

Since the adductors are there for bringing your legs towards your body, making them start out in a position that’s already shortened a little bit makes it harder to keep your hips open. 

Posterior pelvic tilt, on the other hand, can result in rounding the lower back. This is the sort of thing that, when under load, can cause lower back dysfunction. 

How do we figure out where our hips are at? Imagine your pelvis as a bowl of water. Tilt your pelvis anteriorly, and water will spill out of the front of you. Tilt it posteriorly, and water will spill out the back. Neutral pelvis is the point in which the bowl is not tipped. 

@pheasyque with a fantastic image describing the “bowl of water” model of the hips

Something of a sidebar here is the hip hinge. This is a movement that describes bending at the hips while keeping a neutral spine. Deadlifts (and particularly their Romanian cousins) are an example of a hip hinge. When we fence, we can expand our range of motion by employing the hip hinge to get our sword into positions that we otherwise can’t reach, and to do so with stability.

Roland Warzecha displaying a fantastic example of hip hinge

Note how Roland Warzecha bends at the hips (not the waist) and keeps his scapulae engaged. By doing this, he’s able to comfortably hold his shield at extension in a way that doesn’t put too much strain on the small delicate muscles of his shoulder girdle


The Meridian is the imaginary line that runs down the body and separates left from right. For us, it serves as a guidepost having to do with where we can put our hands. So, what does this mean and why is it important?

Let’s start with that range-of-motion assessment from before. Stretch your arm out straight, parallel to the floor. Keep your thumb facing up. Keep your shoulder blades engaged. As you move the arm towards the front, you’ll probably find that once it gets perpendicular to your shoulders, you start having to work to push it any further. Your arms don’t like going past the middle of your body; not while they’re straight.

Now take your sword in two hands. Hold it straight out in front of you. Notice that the space between your hands is in line with your center. Now go train. Do some cuts, do some flow work, and pay attention to where your hands end up. Are they drifting to one side or another of your body? If so, it’s because your hips aren’t where they need to be. 

When I teach cuts, I teach them initially as perfectly vertical actions. Oberhaw starts off straight down the middle like you’re chopping wood. Unterhaw starts off as just plain raising your arms. These things become cuts that travel laterally because we are turning our hips.

Think about absetzen. Starting in right pflug and intercepting a cut by winding up to left ochs. It’s the hip turn that gets you there, not your arms. All your arms did was move up and flip the sword over. Think about twerhaw. That cut is not a whole lot more than extending your arms out in front of you with the sword pointing to your right. It’s your hips that turn it into the devastating lateral cut that it is. 

Drifting past center has a couple of effects. One of them is that one shoulder tends to shrug as you attempt to maneuver your hands into a space that your body is not quite prepared to deal with. This is a break in your posture. It’s the sort of position that a wrestler looks for when they want to execute a throw. Keep the scapula engaged and you won’t drift past center. Move your hips and your action will go where you need it to go. 

Another is that it tends to affect your hips–especially when you deviate from center with your scapulae engaged. Our hips and shoulders are connected in a pattern that we call the “spiral line.”The left hip is connected to the right shoulder and vice versa. When you over-extend past center, it pulls on one side of the hips, which in turn affects your knees, as this tension is then applied to the knee ligaments. 

Take the example of a right-handed fencer, standing in right-side vom tag at the shoulder with their right foot forward. They reach directly in front of them to strike their target with an oberhaw. Their hips are open, their wrists are straight, and their scapulae are engaged. The only problem is that their hips are already pointing past their opponent. The space between their hands now aligns with the right hip instead of the meridian. This engages the spiral line that connects their left shoulder to their right hip. As they do this, the hip starts wanting to rotate even further to the left than it already is. This tension continues down the leg where it gets stuck in the weakest point in this chain: your ACL. Fortunately, there’s a way to relieve this tension: take the weight off of your heels and let your right leg rotate externally. This will turn your hip to the right, which (albeit an awkward position) will relieve the tension in your knee. Coincidentally, it will also put your hands in line with your meridian.

The spiral line of the human fascial system.


Okay, so a few terms here. Put your hand out, palm down. If you lift your hand up at the wrist, that’s extension. If you lower your hand at the wrist, that’s flexion. If you move your hands towards the pinky side, that’s ulnar deviation. If you go towards the thumb side, that’s radial deviation

Cool. So we got that. Wrists are ridiculous things. They’re a pile of rocks sitting on top of two bones and the things that make hands work start up near your elbow. The forearm muscles are what keep your wrists stable. Different fingers are controlled by different muscles, which stabilize your wrists in different ways. Maximum stability is in the form of a fist. All of the fingers are tensed, which means that the muscles which pull on different parts of your hand are balanced, all of them working to stabilize your wrist in all directions. Now if we let go and just squeeze with the index and middle finger, something happens. The wrist is stable and won’t flex or extend, but there’s almost no resistance if we go to deviate the wrist. Likewise, if we squeeze the pinky and ring finger, we have loads of stability towards deviation, but almost none for flexion and extension.

This is why we’re advised to squeeze with the bottom two fingers when we cut. They are the ones that are connected to the muscles that keep our wrists from collapsing while cutting. And yet, wrists still collapse. Let’s look at some reasons for this.

Trying to reach further

This comes up in a couple of places: Longpoint, thrusts, and cuts. One root cause for all three is just plain trying to reach too far. Your regular old vanilla Longpoint will always form a little bit of an angle between the sword and the rest of your arm. That’s just how wrists and hands work. Just as you’ll always have a bit of an angle with cutting as well as while thrusting. Ask yourself what you need and what needs to happen for you to get that. You probably need to either move closer or change your grip.

Neutral grip, with the sword held in Longpoint. If the wrists are to stay straight, there needs to be an angle between the sword and the arms.
This is what happens if you try to straighten out the sword without altering your grip. This is not a healthy position for your wrists.

Bottom hand is too tight

This comes up early on and usually works itself out, but it’s worth addressing. Grip is dynamic. When winding, one hand needs to loosen a little in order for the wind to work.

Grip does not match goals

If I need to give an oberhaw, I need one grip. If I need to give a high lateral cut to the head, I need a different one. If I need the sword to project in a straight line with my arms, I need another one yet. The correct answer for “what grip should I use” is “the one that gets you where you need to be while keeping in with SHMeW. 

For Schilhaw, where the sword does need to form a straight line with your arms, use “Hot Dog Grip” as if you’re handing somebody a hot dog (props to Adam Franti for giving us the gift of that name for it). This accomplishes what you set out to do as well as keeps the wrists in a healthy position.
This grip also works for things like Schaitelhaw in which a negative angle is typically desirable.

Tying it all together

It should be clear by this point that all of these things are connected. Your hips and your shoulders work together to generate torque. Your shoulders influence how much tension you have in your wrists. Your hips decide where your center line is which decides where your hands belong, which decides what your grip needs to be. The list goes on. The connections between these points as well as the connections with their intersections make SHMeW a comprehensive and holistic system that helps you to move better, fence better, and look better doing it. It can be as simple or as complex as you want or need it to be. Most of all, it’s fun. Taking joy in movement is easily one of the simplest pleasures in life. Cheers, friends, and happy fencing.

Schwach: How a Crying Kitten Can Teach Us the Importance of Softness.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week on ebb and flow. On force and direction. On when to push, when to pull, and when to Remain. Without getting too much into the story, I recently rescued a kitten from a storm drain. How she got there is a matter of pure speculation. However, what I found once I removed the cover was a tiny terrified kitten hiding well out of arm’s reach.

She was way back in the pipe. Impossible to reach.

There was all manner of hullabaloo over the course of this story involving several characters attempting to extract her, all while shining bright flashlights and making plenty of noise. The fire department even showed up (who I did not call) and were, to put it lightly, “unhelpful.” Once those who had gathered about the scene left, the kitten was able to be coaxed out with treats. Using red light for illumination, I suck over to the edge of the drain, reached down, picked her up, handed her off, and got her to safety. Her name is Aspen and she is unbearably cute.

So what does this teach us about fighting?

Liechtenauer teaches us that all fighting is encapsulated into Five Words: Vor (“Before”; initiating), Indes (Difficult to translate, but means some combination of “within”; “in the moment”; “during”), Nach (“After”; as a result of), Schwach (weak), and Sterck (strong). Each word fills the others with itself and each word is filled with the others. So what does a kitten in a sewage pipe have to do with fighting? This is a lesson in Schwach.

What is schwach?

In a word, Schwach means “weak.” Yet, it means so much more. Schwach is the yin of German martial arts. It is the “receiving hand,” the force that yields to power to its user’s advantage. Schwach is the how water takes the shape of its container. It molds to circumstances. It diverts and redirects and waits for the right moment to become Sterck.

Schwach is a boxer, endlessly bobbing and weaving to evade their opponent’s punches. It is a wrestler responding to a push with a pull and throwing their opponent. It is a Wing Chun practitioner using “sticky hands,” not allowing their opponent to withdraw or strike in.

And yet it’s more than that. Schwach is carpenter cutting straight to keep their saw from binding. It is momentarily conceding to an opponent’s argument so that one can return with a better argument. It is a hunter laying snares. It is the providence of resources rather than detainment and prosecution for petty theft. Schwach is letting the kitten come to you.

Why is this important?

All fighting cannot be an unrelenting attack. To drive forward endlessly and completely along a single vector is to leave oneself vulnerable. You get thrown. Your saw binds and kicks. Your prosecution becomes persecution. The kitten remains terrified and out of reach.

Softness is a part of life and it’s an important piece of the infinite puzzle that we are always solving in martial arts. And for some of us it’s a difficult thing to wrap our heads around. How do you beat your opponent or acquire the things you desire without being Sterck? Without driving forth? Is it not enough to strike first, strike fast, strike last? Well, no.

“When strength goes against strength, then the stronger always wins, but Liechtenauer fences according to the true and correct art, and a weak man wins more surely with his art and cunning than a strong man with his strength. Otherwise, what is the use of art”

-Hanko Dobringer; 3227a, 22v. Translation by Michael Chidester

How does this apply to this story?

We needed Sterck in the beginning. The drain cover was an obstacle that could not be removed any way other than making it move by force. Same goes for the smaller second cover. Yet at this point, no amount of strength could have allowed the operation to continue. More than that, all presence needed to withdraw. This meant no loud noises and no bright lights. By placing treats, she could be coaxed out, but not if the risk seemed greater than the reward. This is Schwach. It is not a purely passive state in which one becomes complacent. It’s one that receives. To be Schwach is to remain in control of the fight.

The drain cover, removed. This was the time for Sterck.

Following this, the only thing that remained to do was to reach out and grab her. Having moved the fight in my favor with Schwach, it was time to once again be Sterck. In one action, I reached down to the mouth of the pipe, got my fingers around her body, and extracted her, handing her off to my roommate who was waiting with a towel with which to receive her.

Lessons to take away

Big loud men with big bright lights are a poor solution to most problems. To come in with all your bluster without knowing how to yield and withdraw to gain advantage. is to fail to be a good fencer. To remain passive and purely defensive is to do the same. It is imperative that we understand softness and work it into our training. It’s important to analyze our current training and identify Schwach actions for what they are and to undestand them better.

Martial arts reflect life just as life reflects martial arts. As above, so below. To understand the when and why of Schwach as well as Sterck is to live a more pruposeful life: one driven by sound virtues.

“Be water, my friends.”

Immediately post-extraction. We’ve named her Aspen.
In celtic folklore, one need a crown made from aspen leaves
to travel to and return safely from the underworld.

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

Das ist dy vor red – This is the Prologue.

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.

  1. |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.

  1. |So wechst dein ere |Vbe ritterschafft |vnd lere

So waxes your honor

Practice knighthood, and learn…

  1. |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.

  1. |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”),[1] 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”).[2]

For “lance,” we have to following:

Borrowed from Old French lance, from Latin lancea.

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.

  1. |Mandleich bederben |vnd In anderñ henden verderben 

handle manfully, 

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.

  1. |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.

  1. |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.

  1. |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.


I do not possess the powers of Common Sense. Movement is hard. Intuition is a strange thing that, if I’m to be perfectly honest, I can’t quite wrap my head around. It’s possible that somewhere in my head, there were stock parts that didn’t quite make it off the assembly line. So I made my own. They’re a bit odd and they don’t quite work in the same ways as the factory model, but I like them. 

So I’ll make this brief. Since i have this handy little platform, I’m going to write down some thoughts here. Those thoughts will be on the subject of Kunst des Fechtens. Namely, working my way through the Zettel, reading what the glossators have to say, and hopefully gleaning something from this that I can put into words that make sense to me. I’m not declaring anything as gospel here, however much a statement might appear as a declaration. The process of learning and internalizing the principles that make up my Art is a deeply personal one. And I would be delighted if those who would have me would come along for the ride. 

-Dan Halliday