In his 1570 book, Joachim Meyer included a brief paragraph and a small diagram to describe an exercise for learning how to strike to the four openings (the Vier Blossen) on an opponent. Both the diagram and the exercise have become popular in the current longsword community, with an increasing number of people asking what it is and how to use it in training. This article will explain how to use the exercise in a constructive fashion, as well as highlighting some common errors and problems.
At a first glance, perhaps the diagram is a little complicated. However, it is very simple once you understand what information it is trying to convey. The outermost numbers on each diagonal line provide the order of striking towards these different openings; in other words, the first strike goes to the high right (1), the second strike goes to the low left (2), the third strike goes to the low right (3), and the fourth and final strike goes to the high left (4).
Therefore, each “ring” of numbers describes a different pattern of striking to all four openings. The diagram has four such rings, although many more would be possible if you wanted to extend the diagram and add your own patterns.
How to strike to the openings
Meyer writes that students should be able to strike to each of the openings with the long edge, with the short edge (with wrists crossed and also uncrossed), or with either flat of the blade. While striking with the flat may seem to be a strange idea, it has a wide variety of tactical purposes and applications, and it is a perfectly valid and useful part of 16th century longsword fencing systems, with the caveat that it is only useful if you know what you are doing and then do it deliberately. If you try to make a strike with the edge, but end up hitting with the flat because you have not paid enough care or attention to what you are doing, then this is most certainly a bad strike and needs to be improved. However, choosing to hit with the flat of the blade to achieve some specific purpose is a very reasonable and acceptable thing to do.
You do not need to strike along diagonal lines, towards the centre of the cross, even if the diagonal lines of numbers seem to lead to that place. While following the diagonal lines with your Oberhaw and your Underhaw is a very useful thing to practise, you can also work on striking horizontally into each opening with a technique such as the Zwerhaw, or you could perhaps think of striking an Underhaw to the upper openings (such as the head or arms) and sending an Oberhaw to the lower openings (such as the legs).
You can choose to make a “half strike” by cutting just to the centre of the target and stopping the blade there, or to make a “full strike” by cutting all the way through the target and out the other side. Since we use both kinds of strikes in sparring, we should practise both in this exercise.
A simple example sequence
A fairly typical sequence for the outer ring would be to strike:
- a long edge Oberhaw from the right, to the upper right opening, as a half strike that stops in the centre;
- a long edge Underhaw from the left, to the lower left opening, as a full strike that passes through the target;
- a long edge Underhaw from the right, to the lower right opening, as a full strike that passes through the target;
- and a long edge Oberhaw from the left, to the upper left opening, as a half strike that stops in the centre.
Clearly, this sequence involves only long edge cuts, and it mixes both full and half strikes, although it could be performed just as easily with all four actions as full or half strikes.
An example with sparring context
Ideally, the sequences we practise in exercises like this should be useful and applicable in sparring. Therefore, another example might be as follows:
- a long edge Oberhaw from the right, to the head (the upper right opening), as a half strike that stops in the centre of the target – this is a Vorschlag by which you enter the fight and close distance, without exposing yourself in the process, and with the necessary control over the weapon to be able to pull it back and make the next action;
- a long edge Underhaw from the right, to the elbow as the opponent moves to parry your first strike (the lower left opening), as a half strike that stops in the centre of the target – this uses the Vorschlag to draw a parry and to expose the arm, so that the second attack may be performed there. This sequence is now very reminiscent of the Flugelhaw.
- a short edge Zwerhaw from the right, to the other arm (the lower right opening), as a half strike that stops in the centre of the target – it is common in sparring to follow a long edge action from the left with a short edge action from the right, with the thumb under the flat of the blade, so it is worth practising this action. The tactic here is to draw out a first parry with the Vorschlag, then to strike from below from the other side into the arm that is now exposed by that parry, then to strike around from the first side again, once more attacking the arms behind a parry.
- A long edge Zwerhaw from the left, to the head (the upper left opening), as a full strike that goes through the target completely – once you perform one Zwerhaw in sparring, it is very easy to keep sending the Zwerhaw from side to side, to both high and low openings (zum Ochs und zum Pflug).
The tactic in this sequence is clearly to overwhelm the opponent with a series of strikes at different targets, making him try to defend himself against your flurry. Since defence is always a risky tactic, it is better for you if you can take the initiative (the Vor) and force your opponent to respond to you with attempts at defences (in the Nach). To be able to do this well, you need to be fast and fluid, to be able to move from one attack to the next with speed and with ease. And excellent way to gain this skill is with an exercise such as following Meyer’s diagram.
By choosing to direct different techniques to the various openings during the exercise, you can practise a huge variety of skills and motions. You could perform the exercise entirely with the long edge, entirely with the short edge, entirely with the flat, or with some mixture of the two. If you practise only the same sequence again and again, then you are missing a huge opportunity to learn other skills. Once you are familiar and comfortable with the pattern of each ring in the diagram, play with all the sequences you can!
Footwork in the exercise
This is where things become very interesting. The bladework of fencing is almost never as important as the footwork and body mechanics of fencing, because the footwork and body mechanics support and facilitate the actions with the sword. Therefore, simply waving a sword around with little thought for what the feet and body are doing is somewhat short sighted.
With each action in the sequence, you need to decide what to do with your body. You might decide to take a full passing step with each cut, or perhaps use this exercise to improve your side steps. You might decide to stand with your feet together and focus on turning the hips correctly in isolation, to support whatever the sword is doing. You could take a stance with the right foot forward and make sure that you can attack all the targets with correct body mechanics from that position; and you should of course do the same with the left foot forward, so that you can learn how to use both sides of your body equally well.
If you find that in sparring, you tend to use one type of footwork too much (such as, for example, shuffling forward with your right leg in front, and then standing still and fighting from that position), then this exercise gives you a valuable opportunity to expand your repertoire and to learn how to become a better and more versatile fencer.
Putting it all together
Once you become familiar with the diagram and the patterns of its rings, play with all the combinations you can think of that follow these patterns. With even just a little imagination, you could easily devise enough solo practice material to keep yourself occupied for months.
Think of what other useful fencing skills you can practise with this exercise. For example, retreat under cover (Abzug) from the target after you finish each sequence, to cover against a potential afterblow. Make a parry of some description in between each of the cuts. Make some of the cuts as feints. Double the attacks against one opening or another (or all of them). Think about the footwork that you use to come to initial attacking distance from the target, because many people tend to start further away from each other in sparring than they do when drilling, and the necessary skill of closing distance can be addressed easily with this exercise.
Once you have exhausted all possible variations for working with the four rings in this diagram, and have learned all the skills that you could possibly learn from this exercise, make up some new patterns or devise a similar exercise with patterns of five or six cuts instead of just four. Every longsword fencer will benefit from spending time working consciously and intelligently with this exercise, as long as you are paying attention to what you are doing and focusing on correct body mechanics as you do it.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.