Reconsidering the buffalo

Folio 7r from the MS KK5012 by Peter Falkner, showing the Schilhaw defeating the buffalo. Image from the Wiktenauer.

The Liechtenauer glosses speak of the buffalo, and not in a very complimentary fashion. However, we should not make the naïve assumption that the buffalo is a fencer who is strong but dumb, nor should we assume that the buffalo is a bad fencer.

First, let’s example what the glosses say about the buffalo. This is an easy task, because the term only appears in one place in the Zettel (in the verse about the Schilhaw), and it is mentioned only once in explanation in the gloss that accompanies this verse.

According to Ringeck:

The Schiller counters
that which a buffalo cuts or thrusts.
That which threatens with changing
is robbed by the Squinter.

Gloss: the Schiller is a strike which counters cuts and thrusts from the buffalos – those who take their mastery through violent strength.[1]

The anonymous gloss in the Goliath is very similar, except it says nothing about what a buffalo actually is:

The Schilhaw counters
that which a buffalo cuts or thrusts.
That which threatens with changing
is robbed by the Schiller.

Gloss: the Schiller breaks the position that is called Pflug, and is an unusual, good and simple strike which breaks with force what one strikes or thrusts, and it goes with the inverted sword. There are many masters of the sword who know nothing to say about this strike.[2]

The anonymous gloss in the Codex 44.A.8 (aka the Codex Danzig) is the same as that in the Goliath.[3] However, the anonymous gloss in the Nuremberg Hausbuch (aka the Codex Döbringer) is different:

The Schiller counters
that which a buffalo cuts or thrusts.
That which threatens with changing
is robbed by the Squinter.

Gloss: here learn and know that the Schilhaw is an Oberhaw from the right side with the back edge of the sword. Like a person with a squint, it goes to the left side while stepping to the other side, with inverted sword and hand. And this strike breaks all that the buffalo (that is, a peasant) makes, that come down from above, as most will do against you.[4]

It is interesting that the Nuremberg Hausbuch suggests that a buffalo is just a peasant, and therefore we can look to see what else it says about peasants. When discussing the “five words” (Vor, Nach, Swach, Stark, Indes), it concludes:

If these five words, which this teaching and all other fencing is based upon, are not adhered, then this is the reason why a brave peasant often defeats a master by winning the Vorschlag.[5]

This sentiment is then expressed again towards the end of the treatise, when discussing the importance of the Vorschlag:

Because with this art or advantage it often happens that a peasant or anyone untrained defeats a skilled master by gaining the Vorschlag and rushing in quickly. Because it is easily missed that Indes hits him and also defeats and humiliates him. Because one that observes the strikes and waits for the defense is in greater danger than the one who strikes him and thus wins the Vorschlag. So always be that you are the first in all instances of fencing that you get to ones right side, there you are safer than your adversary.[6]

The Goliath also mentions peasants, when discussing the Zornhaw:

When he makes the Oberhaw,
Do Zornhaw, threaten with the point.

Gloss: the Zornhaw breaks every Oberhaw with the point. Yet it is nothing more than a simple peasant’s strike.[7]

Therefore, the concept of a buffalo or a peasant must be put into its proper context, according to the sources: it is a person who makes simple actions, relying on strength and speed and probably any natural advantages such as height and reach, and yet can achieve victory in a fight. The Nuremberg Hausbuch mentions twice that a peasant can defeat a master just by taking the initiative and putting the master under pressure. The Goliath suggests that the Zornhaw, one of the all-important Hauptstücke in Liechtenauer’s system, is nothing more than a simple strike that an angry peasant may use.

So a buffalo is the kind of person who will be fast, strong, potentially athletic, who takes the intiative and forces you to defend yourself, and who may win the fight you lingered for too long, played too defensive a game, or otherwise did not do the most intelligent thing (the Schilhaw). This is far from the common charicature of the buffalo as a clumsy fencer, slow, with only raw strength in his favour, who makes a lumbering step with a single direct attack (often telegraphed and without any control). Instead, it would be best to assume that the buffalo is actually quite a skilful fencer, albeit not skilled at using the more complicated techniques out of Liechtenauer’s system… Although the Zornhaw could be a good example of a typical technique used by a buffalo, according to the Goliath.

When considering what the Fünff Hewen (the “five strikes”) are supposed to do, and against whom they should be deployed, it would be best to consider that your opponent might actually be a fast, strong, controlled, and skilful fencer, who is merely more interested in hitting with one of many strikes in a flurry, and who has not yet progressed to incorporating more complicated techniques into his fighting. Or the opponent may actually be a very technical and skilful fencer, just placed under so much stress (in the finals of a tournament, for example) that he chooses to make simpler actions because they are easier under pressure.

Buffalos in tournaments

With this in mind, it is quite evident that while there are many buffalos in current longsword competitions, that is not to say that such people are bad fencers, it just means that they are still relying on natural attributes and general athleticism to win, or that they cannot yet perform to their normally higher technical ability due to the stress and pressure under which they find themselves.

At the end of the day, whoever wins the fight was the more effective fencer under the rules and parameters of that match. If you lose to a buffalo, it means that your opponent was faster, or stronger, or set you up with a simple sequence that still caught you unawares; the solution, therefore, is not to blame the buffalos and “bad fencers”, but to improve your structure and mechanics, to become more physically capable yourself, and to fence more intelligently to avoid traps and feints.

Therefore, it is important to come across buffalos in your training, to help develop your skills and your ability to prevent a stronger person from blowing through your defences. If you lack the mechanics to defend against a basic attack, then it is not “overpowered” by your opponent, but a distinct failure in your own training and performance. From this point of view, encounters with buffalos are to be valued, and perhaps even sought out from time to time, even if they are not so much fun at the time. If you are honest about why you lose fights, you can learn to plug the gaps in your skill set and you will then stop losing to people who only have a limited bag of tricks.

If you look at any of the longsword fencers who are consistently winning gold medals in Europe and North America these days, they can handle buffalos and aggressive fencers without a second thought. They can handle timid or defensive fencers without a second thought. They can still perform at a high level of skill, and display a wide and varied repertoire of techniques, even in the final round of a competition. They would be unable to perform at this level if they blamed the other guy, the buffalo, for their own loss; instead, they assessed their failures honestly, plugged the gaps in their defences, and now the buffalos bounce off them.

Conclusions

Making an honest assessment of your fencing skills is important. Be aware of what you are good at doing, and where you have problems. If you find it difficult to deal with someone who is bigger, stronger, faster … well, so do I, and thus I take every opportunity to improve myself and learn how to deal with such opponents.

Buffalos are not necessarily “bad fencers”, and our sources material does not say that they are. In fact, our source material acknowledges that often a buffalo or a peasant can win a fight, just by being more assertive and by taking the initiative, exactly as Liechtenauer teaches in the Zettel.

If you begin to reconsider the buffalo in this fashion, how does that change your interpretations?

Further reading

Coincidentally, Shanee Nishry wrote an excellent article very recently on the subject of the buffalo, with some very useful advice about assessing yourself and your performance, and giving some advice for how to escape what she calls “the buffalo trap”. It is well worth reading: https://shanee.io/blog/2017/06/05/the-buffalo-trap/

After I posted my article, Jen Peter Kleinau put together an article in response, suggesting another way to consider the buffalo and what was meant in the various sources. This is also well worth reading, to round out the points of view: https://talhoffer.wordpress.com/2017/06/19/of-buffaloes-and-peasants-not-knowing-to-feel-the-sword/

Footnotes

[1] Sigmund Ringeck. MS Dresden C487. C.1504-19. Folio 31r. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2014.

[2] Anonymous. MS Germ.Quart. 2020. C.1510-20. Folio 32v. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2017.

[3] Anonymous. Codex 44.A.8. 1452. Folios 23r-23v. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2017.

[4] Anonymous. Codex Hs.3227a. C. 1389-1425. Folio 28v. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2017.

[5] Anonymous. Codex Hs.3227a. C. 1389-1425. Folio 20v. Translated by Thomas Stoeppler.

[6] Anonymous. Codex Hs.3227a. C. 1389-1425. Folio 38v. Translated by Thomas Stoeppler.

[7] Anonymous. MS Germ.Quart. 2020. C.1510-20. Folio 11r. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2017.

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