An Overview of Medieval German Swordfighting Holding the Sword

The sword is held with the right hand close to the cross guard. The left hand rests below the right, and controls the levering actions of the sword. The left hand may also cup the fig-shaped pommel for more manoeuvrability and reach, and to increase the power of thrusts. The sword is held for the most part with the edges up and down, perpendicular to the ground.


The swordsman faces his opponent squarely, with his hips and torso parallel to him, and his legs slightly bent. He may stand with either leg slightly forward.


The footwork is as simple and direct as walking. The fighter steps naturally forward and back, from side to side and diagonally, and pivots on one leg or another to circle his opponent. Footwork is used to maintain distance, avoid blows, and close in for attacks. All cuts are accompanied by a step, either forward or back.


Cuts are divided into cuts from above and cuts from below (oberhau and utiderhau), as in plate 1. Cuts are made most often with the 'true' edge, the lower edge aligned with the knuckles, but may also be made with the 'false' edge, the upper edge aligned with the thumbs. There are three kinds of cuts: powerful cuts from the shoulders and body, medium cuts from the elbows, and harassing cuts made from the wrists and hands. Footwork is directly tied to cutting, which Talhoffer addresses in plate 9 with the caption, 'This is the strong way to fight going left to right.' This is a reference to the fact that the combatant must step into each cut, so that the weight of the body and torque of the hips may help deliver it successfully. With a cut from the left to the right, the swordsman must step forward with the left foot as the cut lands.9


It is surprising how many thrusts Talhoffer shows, as the medieval sword is thought of as primarily a cutting weapon. However, it is evident from this manuscript that the German art of fighting placed a heavy emphasis on actions along the opposing blade resulting in thrusts. As with the cuts, thrusts come from above and below. Thrusts are most often aimed at the two lower 'openings' or targets in the soft parts below the ribcage, on the right and left side of the body (plates 6 and 14). They may also be aimed at the two upper openings, on the right and left of the body above the line of the ribcage. Other targets include the wrists, the feet, the thighs and the face.


Talhoffer illustrates a number of guards, wards or stances, each with a characteristically colourful mnemonic name. Thus, we have the 'iron gate' (plate 16), the 'squinting' guard (plate 36), and the 'fire-poker' (plate 39). The guards are not static positions of defence. Rather, they are moments of transition from which cuts and thrusts begin or end. The guards arc fluid, flowing from one to another, and should be thought of as positions from which to initiate attacks.

The four basic guards in the German art of fighting are the low or 'iron gate' guard; the middle guard or the 'plough', with the sword hilt held in front of the body at waist height with the point directed toward the enemy; the right and left hanging guards or 'oxen', with the sword hilt held at the side of the head and the blade lowered diagonally across the body and directed toward the enemy (plate 13); and the high guard, with the sword held directly above the head, pointing back at a 45-degree angle and from which cuts may be made von tach, or 'from the roof'.

Attack and Counter-Attack

As mentioned above, the primary tactical principle of the German art of fighting is that for every attack there is a counter-attack (stuck und bruch). Attacks are met with counter-cuts and thrusts that set aside the enemy's weapon to force a way through the enemy's guard. Counter-attacks may be combined with avoidance, grappling, wrestling and disarms to render the opponent defenceless.


The first means of defence open to the swordsman is to avoid the attack: to be where the sword is not. This may be accomplished by stepping back out of distance. However, a cutting sword moves with the most force at the point of percussion, a few inches below the point, and with the least force near the hands. Therefore, a more effective technique for avoidance is to close the distance by stepping toward the opponent, moving straight in or diagonally to either side, and counter-attacking, grappling, or making a disarm.

Setting Aside

Attacks may be countered by setting them aside with the blade, or versetzen. Similar to the modern fencing 'parry', setting aside is an action that deflects the oncoming steel by either cutting directly into it to strike the opponent, or by redirecting its force with the blade to gain an advantage over him. Talhoffer never shows anything resembling static, blade on blade blocks. His setting aside techniques are fluid and dynamic, and lead naturally into counter-attacks.


Nearly a third of Talhoffer's long sword plates include some form of grappling. When the distance between the combatants is closed suddenly, the sword becomes ineffective. Grappling is used to regain proper fighting distance, to throw the opponent off balance, and to disarm him.

Binds and Weak vs Strong

Talhoffer illustrates many techniques that come from a bind or crossing of the swords with opposition (plates 29-32, among others). Once the swords are bound or crossed, a deadly game of leverage begins. The sword is naturally 'weak' near the point and 'strong' near the hands, so a swordsman may lever his opponent's blade by applying the strong part of his sword to the weak part of his enemy's sword. There are also weak and strong forces of opposition. In a bind, the swordsman may apply a weak force to his opponent's strong force and allow the enemy steel to pass through the bind, freeing his own blade for attack. In addition, strong pressure may be applied in order to break through the opponent's guard or to use the enemy's sword as a guide to direct thrusts at the opponent's body.


The half-sword techniques were originally devised for fighting armoured opponents (plate 26). The sword is gripped on the blade with the left hand and used like a short spear or bayonet to slice or stab into the armpits, groin, face, throat and joints. The superior leverage of the half-sword may also be used to perform actions on the opponent's blade, setting it aside or trapping it.

In emergencies, the sword may be reversed to thrust the pommel at the opponent's face (plate 38), or held by the blade with both hands to use the cross hilt to hook, trip or disarm. The reversed sword may also be wielded like a large hammer, resulting in terrifying blows called the 'murder stroke' or mortschlag, and 'thunderclap stroke' or donnerschlag (plates 33 and 37).

The techniques described above for the long sword may be applied to any hand-held weapon. You will note half-sword actions used with the pole-axe, setting aside techniques with the duelling shields, grappling with the messer. Every weapon in Talhoffer's arsenal is wielded in the four basic guards and used to make cuts and thrusts from below and above.

The German art of fighting is simple, direct and effective. It has only one object: the swift demise of the enemy by any means.

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