Learning the position of Vom Tag

Folio 18v from the Codex I.6.2º.4 by Paulus Mair. Image from the Wiktenauer.

When I teach the position of Vom Tag to beginners, I do it very differently these days to what I used to teach even a year ago. My understanding of the Vier Leger (the Four Positions) has changed in general, for the better I think, and my cutting mechanics have improved. These developments in my understanding of longsword fencing have had a great impact on how I choose to present and teach the position of Vom Tag to my students.

The Vier Leger and their purpose

The Vier Leger are the Four Positions from which one may fence with the longsword, according to Liechtenauer.[1]

It is interesting to observe, and worth observing, that the Vier Leger are described only AFTER the good general lessons on how to stand and step and how to strike properly,[2] and after the lessons on the Fünff Hewe (the Five Strikes) and the derivative lessons on winding, Duplieren and Mutieren, and striking to the four openings.[3] There is a vast amount of information that comes before the Vier Leger are described in the glosses.

The Vier Leger are the following four positions:

  • Vom Tag (from the roof), a high “ready to strike” position
  • Ochs (ox), a point-forward hands-high position
  • Pflug (plough), a point-forward hands-low position
  • Alber (fool), a point-to-the-ground hands-low position

These are very rough and ready descriptions, and they each cover a variety of possible ways to hold the sword. This is perfectly acceptable, because the purpose of the Vier Leger is not to present a perfectly-formed guard toward the opponent, but rather to give you a very easy way to assess what the opponent is doing and how to defeat him, without spending a lot of time thinking about it.

It does not matter what position you are in yourself, because you should always be planning to move forward with an attack of some description, preferably the appropriate kind of attack for the opportunity that the opponent gives you by his choice of position.[4] Therefore, your position should be a launching platform for an effective strike, and that’s all that really matters.

The position of Vom Tag

Therefore, each of the Vier Leger presents certain advantages and disadvantages for launching different kinds of strikes. The position of Vom Tag is really not a defensive position; its sole purpose is to launch powerful strikes towards the opponent and to be threatening.

There is no value in making a strike that cannot actually cut through a target, unless you know exactly what you are doing with it. After all, if you cannot actually do any damage with a strike, then what is the point in performing any technique at all? You have to be able to transfer the correct force to the target in the correct fashion to achieve your goals, otherwise your goals will not be achieved and the attempted technique will be a failure.[5]

So the Vom Tag position must allow you to perform strong and effective techniques. The Oberhaw would be the primary technique from this position, although it should be possible to perform all of the Fünff Hewe without requiring a change of position.

Learn big motions

It is often easiest to learn a new skill or motion in a large, almost exaggerated fashion. Think about learning to draw or paint; first, as a child, you learn to colour-in within the lines, and when you become better at that big-motion skill, you learn to colour-in within tigheter and more complicated lines, until you can perform this skill with a very fine level of detail and control.

Similarly, when learning to throw a ball, you learn first just to get the ball into motion in vaguely the right direction. Thereafter, you can learn to be more accurate with it, and you can learn how to send it further, or you can make it look like you are going to throw it to one place and then actually redirect the throw so it goes somewhere else.

When learning to cut, you need to learn how to engage your whle body. Liechtenauer tells us that we must fight with the strength of our whole body,[6] and by this he means engaging the whole body and not just fighting with the strength of the arms. So we learn the big cutting motions from the overhead Vom Tag position, making sure the arms remain straight as the cut goes out and forward and through the Lang Ort position in front of the body, with proper extension and muscular engagement.

It is interesting to note that the Nuremberg Hausbuch defines the position of Vom Tag as the position of Lang Ort, above the head.[7] Therefore, nothing needs to change in the structure of the body as you cut from Vom Tag; the arms are already straight and in the correct structure, and this is maintained as the cut goes out and forward from above the head, and is still maintained as the sword reaches Lang Ort in front of the body. This is a good cutting mechanic, and it is simple to learn.

Learn smaller motions

Once you have learned to perform a cut correctly with a large motion, you can learn to maintain the same muscular engagement in the body and to achieve similar results, but by utilising a smaller, tighter set of motions from a smaller and tighter starting position.

This is what I believe the “by the shoulder” version of Vom Tag is supposed to be: a smaller, tighter version of the overhead position, that maintains all of the same muscular engagement and that should be able to achieve exactly the same results while cutting.

There are a variety of ways to achieve this smaller, tighter position while maintaining all of the muscular engagement, and this accounts fo the variety of depictions of the “by the shoulder” version of the position that we see illustrated in several different manuscripts.[8] It is worth noting that some sources do not show a “by the shoulder” version of the position, showing only the overhead Vom Tag position.[9] Every source within the 15th and 16th century Liechtenauer canon describes or illustrates the overhead version of the guard, yet only some of them illustrate or describe a “by the shoulder” variant.

Conclusions

Following this line of thinking, it seems like a sensible approach to teach a well-structured overhead Vom Tag position first, as that allows students to learn to make well-structured and effective strikes. Once students have learned to perform the big motions correctly, the starting position can become smaller and tighter, and the student can practise performing the same strikes with the same muscular engagement to achieve the same effective results from this “by the shoulder” position.

It is more difficult to learn to make an effective cut from the “by the shoulder” position than it is from above the head, and therefore I do not even mention the shoulder version of the position in the first few weeks of teaching beginners. The most important thing for beginners is to learn to make the cuts correctly, with proper structure and muscular engagement, and this is best learned from the overhead position.

Then, a few weeks later, once these lessons have been learned, I may introduce the shoulder version of the position and explain the context as I have set it out in this article. The end result must be just as effective as when peforming the cuts from the overhead position, which requires muscular engagement and good structure. The shoulder position must not be a “lazy” Vom Tag, and it should probably not be resting on the shoulder (unless you can maintain the muscular engagement by turning the body and pointing the elbow accordingly).

In this fashion, my students learn both versions of the Vom Tag position, but they learn from the functional perspective, and learn to produce meaningful and effective cuts first and foremost, and only then learn to modify the starting position.

I hope this article encourages you to think about what you are trying to achieve with your guard positions, and whether they help or hinder your attempts to perform useful techniques successfully. For instructors who read this, I hope it encourages you to revisit your curriculum for teaching the basic strikes and the guard positions, how you approach this in your club and the order in which you introduce these concepts to new students.

Footnotes

[1] Sigmund Ringeck. MS Dreden C.487. C. 1504-1519. Folios 33v-34v.

[2] Sigmund Ringeck. MS Dreden C.487. C. 1504-1519. Folios 11v-14v.

[3] Sigmund Ringeck. MS Dreden C.487. C. 1504-1519. Folios 19r-33v.

[4] Anonymous. Codex Hs.3227a. C.1387-1425. Folio 32r.

[5] http://www.encasedinsteel.co.uk/?s=cutting

[6] Sigmund Ringeck. MS Dreden C.487. C. 1504-1519. Folio 13v.

[7] Anonymous. Codex Hs.3227a. C.1387-1425. Folio 32r.

[8] Keith Farrell and Alex Bourdas. AHA German Longsword Study Guide. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, 2013. Page 34.

[9] Sources such as Talhoffer and Meyer, for example.

KeithFarrell

KeithFarrell

Keith Farrell is one of the senior instructors for the Academy of Historical Arts. He teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events, and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. He has authored "Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick" and the "AHA German Longsword Study Guide", and is one of the regular contributors to the Encased in Steel online blog. He has been a member of HEMAC since 2011, and was awarded a HEMA Scholar Award for Best Instructor for research published in 2013.
KeithFarrell