Thoughts about the Schaitelhaw and fencing from Alber

Folio 7v from the Glasgow Fechtbuch, showing an action from the advice on the Schaitelhaw. Image from the Wiktenauer.

The Schaitelhaw is one of the most difficult strikes in the Liechtenauer tradition of fencing, and most people struggle to find a good interpretation of the technique that they can rely upon during sparring and tournaments. I will be the first to raise my hand and say that I’m not 100% convinced by my own interpretation and skills at applying it in uncooperative fencing.

This article will explain some of my thoughts on the matter, and will discuss how one may fence intelligently from the position of Alber, according to the 15th century Liechtenauer material.

The Vier Leger

Liechtenauer tells us that there are, in effect, only four positions (the Vier Leger) in which you may hold the sword.[1] His glossators note that there may be other positions that people may “know”, but you don’t need to care about them, because at the end of the day, the sword is always in one of these four broad positions.[2]

The Vier Leger are as follows:

1) Vom Tag: any high, ready-to-strike position;

2) Ochs: any point-forward, hands-high position;

3) Pflug: any point-forward, hands-low position;

4) Alber: any point-to-the-ground position.

All possible positions fall into one of these four categories.[3][4] It does not matter what position you hold, it only matters what you DO from those positions in order to take the fight to your opponent.[5]

Therefore, all of the low guards can be described as Alber, even though they may each have slight differences, advantages, or disadvantages.

The Vier Versetzen

Liechtenauer also tells us that for each of the Vier Leger, there is a technique that can “break” the position.[6] This “breaking” should not necessarily be understood as powering through the guard with excissive strength (although using good mechanics to overpower a weakly held position is not a bad thing at all), nor should it necessarily be understood as any other single, explicit interpretation. The meaning is again quite broad, and it just means “defeating” the opponent’s position in some fashion.

These four “breakers” are called the Vier Versetzen, and they are as follows:

1) Zwerhaw: defeats Vom Tag (any high, ready-to-strike position);

2) Krumphaw: defeats Ochs (any point-forward, hands-high position);

3) Schilhaw: defeats Pflug (any point-forward, hands-low position);

4) Schaitelhaw: defeats Alber (any point-to-the-ground position).

It is my interpretation that each of these strikes is particularly useful for some mechanical/structural reason, and when combined with an appropriate tactical reason, they become particularly well-suited to breaking one of the Vier Leger in any its various forms.

The Schaitelhaw

The Schaitelhaw should be able to work against Alber. However, this is where many intepretations (my own included) fall down. In my case, it all works perfectly well in theory, and my interpretation couldn’t possibly go wrong … but of course, in the heat of an uncooperative fencing bout, it never quite goes to plan, and so the whole thing goes wrong.

Part of this is probably down to my hesitation to apply the technique at the right time, as I am not always brave enough to go forward into potential danger to try to make it work. This behaviour is of course in direct contradiction to Liechtenauer’s advice,[7] and therefore my timidity leads to failure about 100% of the time.

Another part of the problem is that when I am brave enough to go forward, my opponent may not respond sensibly to my stimulus. He may do something stupid and create a double hit, or he may try any of a range of responses that are not found in the sources, that usually make the situation more dangerous for both of us. It is rare that anyone responds with the actions described in the glosses.

Stimulus and Response

For every response, there must be an appropriate stimulus. The stimulus occurs first, and then the appropriate response occurs. A sensible response cannot be expected from a sub-optimal or incorrect stimulus. Therefore, to be able to make the Schaitelhaw work, there must first be an appropriate stimulus from the guy in Alber.

For the purpose of this example, we have Alan who is standing in Alber, and we have Steve who is performing the Schaitelhaw.

The initial stimulus for Steve could be Alan standing in Alber, or going down into Alber, or flicking his sword up and down or waving it around in Alber. Whatever the stimulus, the response from Steve is to perform the Schaitelhaw.

Then, for Alan, the Schaitelhaw is now the stimulus, requiring a sensible response.

Every good response should be an attempt to win the fight without getting hit in the process. We could suggest that the “hand snipe” or the straight thrust could be an attempt here, but I think they are dumb responses: they are very risky responses that may work from time to time, but they cannot be relied upon to keep you safe while winning the fight.

Therefore, with the stimulus of the Schaitelhaw, we need to examine what the sensible responses are from Alber. What can you do from Alber that will win the fight?

Fencing from Alber

Here I think we reach the nub of the problem. Most people have no idea how to win from Alber without doing something risky like a hand snipe or a straight thrust. If you understand how to win from Alber without risking yourself too much, then you will more probably do one of these sensible, winning responses when attacked by the Schaitelhaw.

This response from Alber, in turn, becomes the stimulus for the next action of the attacker. However, if we always focus on this, so that whoever does the Schaitelhaw always wins in training, then there is no reason for the person in Alber to do any of the responses that could lead to this outcome, because he knows from all his practice sessions that he is going to lose. Therefore, what is the harm in trying something like a hand snipe, if there is at least the possibility that it may win? A choice that has the chance either to win or to make a double hit is still a better choice than one which leads to certain loss.

With that in mind, how do we encourage people to perform the responses to the Schaitelhaw that we see in the sources? Quite simply: make sure the responses can win. Do the sources tell us how this could be achieved? Actually, yes they do!

Now, let’s ignore the Schaitelhaw. It is just one of many potential stimuli that Alan could receive in Alber, and it just so happens to be the stimulus that Steve gives him. Let us focus on what Alan can do to win.

How the Kron breaks the Schaytler

That which comes from him,
the Crown takes away.

Mark, when you cut into him from above with the Schaittler, if he defends himself with the hilt above his head: this defence is called the Kron. And so, he can run in close to you.[8]

This part of the gloss is usually understood solely in terms of what Alan does against Steve’s Schaitelhaw: Alan lifts to Kron. Job done, next part of the technique, where Steve can win.

Instead, we should linger on this passage, and see what can be done to win with this response. This is the response that is described as “breaking the Schaytler”, so the action should be able to break it and win. The passage concludes by saying: “And so, he can run in close to you.”

This leads us to the material on “Durchlauffen” (running through) or “Einlauffen” (running in), where a fencer rushes in close to the opponent and initiates a grappling or disarm. How many techniques are there for Durchlauffen? Well, Ringeck describes the concept across 6 folios, suggesting 9 different techniques, just in that one section under the heading of Durchlauffen,[9] let alone any other examples that can be found across other parts of the gloss.

So, it would be entirely possible to spend an entire training session learning how to perform Durchlauffen from the Kron position, after reaching that situation by using the Kron from Alber to respond to a Schaitelhaw given against Alber. It could be quite possible to spend several training sessions working on this material alone!

Remember, Alber is just a “point-to-the-ground position”. What other examples of this position are there, and what can be done from these?

Ringeck talks about the Streychen from the Nebenhut position (right foot forward, point to the ground out to the left side), sweeping up to form a bind in front of you.[10] This can then be exploited by winding, wrestling, or doing a variety of other actions; really, anything you could do from any normal bind,[11] including any of the Sprechfenster responses.[12]

Ringeck also discusses the use of the Krumphaw from the Schrankhut (a point-to-the-ground position, and therefore an example of Alber).[13] In his section on “Krump Absetzen”, there are several more techniques against “techniques that do not come directly from above” (but that could involve thrusts from a position entered into at the end of a Schaitelhaw performed from out of range), that include working with the Krumphaw, “working from Alber”, “using the Streychen”, and a variety of other techniques.[14]

So now we have a list of 9 Durchlauffen techniques from Kron, 9 techniques from the Streychen (plus anything else in the rest of the Zettel, we are told), 4 techniques from the Sprechfenster (plus anything else in the rest of the Zettel, we are told again), 3 more Krumphaw techniques from the Schrankhut, and around 6 techniques from the “Krump Absetzen” section, any of which can be used to win from Alber.

With all of these options just from Ringeck’s gloss, let alone any other source, there is clearly enough material to spend weeks learning to fence from Alber with techniques and solutions that will let you win the fight safely.

Conclusions

Once people understand better how to fence intelligently from the different flavours of Alber, then fencing from Alber will become more common and will lead to success. Once this becomes a viable strategy for more people, I believe we will see more successful interpretations of the Schaitelhaw against these intelligent responses. Then, once people learn how to apply the Schaitelhaw effectively, and have experience of making it work in a reliable fashion, that will open the door to learning to apply it sensibly against less intelligent responses from Alber.

So, in your club, rather than worrying about making yet another interpretation of the Schaitelhaw, instead spend some time learning to fence intelligently from Alber according to the sources. Once more people in your club can do this, you may find that previous interpretations of the Schaitelhaw begin to work, because the right situations now present themselves.

So let’s turn the discussion on its head. Rather than worrying about how to make the Schaitelhaw work, let’s focus on fencing sensibly from Alber, and we can see where that takes us.

Footnotes

[1] Anonymous. Codex 44.A.8, 1452. Folios 25v-26r.

[2] Sigmund Ringeck. Ms Dresden C.487, c1510-1518. Folio 34r.

[3] Jake Norwood gave an excellent presentation, and describes this same concept in slightly different words, with more examples. A video is available of the presentation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7prpa_e9bQA

[4] Although Meyer suggests that the Zornhut is not an example of Vom Tag but is in fact Ochs, and also suggests that Schrankhut is not an example of Alber, but is also an Ochs position. Meyer’s work is much later, in the 16th century, and cannot necessarily be compared directly to the “core” Liechtenauer sources of the 15th century.

[5] Anonymous. Codex Hs.3227a, c.1389-1425. Folio 32r.

[6] Anonymous. Codex 44.A.8, 1452. Folio 26r.

[7] Sigmund Ringeck. Ms Dresden C.487, c1510-1518. Folio 16v.

[8] Sigmund Ringeck. Ms Dresden C.487, c1510-1518. Folios 33r-33v.

[9] Sigmund Ringeck. Ms Dresden C.487, c1510-1518. Folios 42r-44v.

[10] Sigmund Ringeck. Ms Dresden C.487, c1510-1518. Folios 49r-51r.

[11] Sigmund Ringeck. Ms Dresden C.487, c1510-1518. Folio 49r.

[12] Sigmund Ringeck. Ms Dresden C.487, c1510-1518. Folios 47r-47v.

[13] Sigmund Ringeck. Ms Dresden C.487, c1510-1518. Folios 51v-52r.

[14] Sigmund Ringeck. Ms Dresden C.487, c1510-1518. Folios 58r-59v.

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