This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 18th September 2015. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
A common action in modern Olympic fencing is that of feinting: making it look like you intend to do one thing, when in fact this is a trick, because you actually want to do something else. If the opponent falls for your trick, then he creates an opening that you can exploit. A very common example of feinting is to perform an attack toward one opening, then when the opponent makes to parry your attack, to take your sword away and go to a different opening instead.
However, is feinting a big part of Liechtenauer’s system of unarmoured fencing with the longsword? It is common to see people utilising feints in sparring, but are these actually part of the system?
This article will examine the advice presented by Ringeck. Other sources within the tradition may well offer different advice, and I would encourage practitioners to examine the issue from these other points of view too. For the purpose of this article, and to stimulate discussion, I will argue the stance that feints should not be used as frequently as most people (myself included) tend to use them in the sparring.
Making a strong approach
In one of the very first lessons, Ringeck makes the following statement:
Always fight with the strength of the whole body! Cut close into him, to the head and to the body, so he cannot change-through in front of your point.
This exhorts the fencer to perform actions with the full support of the body, rather than the gentle probes that characterise many feints. The fencer should cut close into his foe so that the opponent must defend himself rather than trying to make some kind of counter attack.
The statement does come from one of the first few lessons in the treatise, so it is quite reasonable to assume that the intention was to offer some good general rules, with the intention of complicating matters later in the book.
Shortly afterwards, in the section describing the Five Cuts, Ringeck suggests:
And try if you can to hit an opponent with the first strike [ersten schlag] using one of these five cuts.
Clearly the intention here is that the first strike should be an attempt to hit, preferably using one of the Five Strikes. Therefore, the first strike should not be a feint to create an opening, but rather a full and proper attempt to land a hit.
There are no feinting techniques named in the list of Hauptstücke (the “chief techniques”). These are the important strikes, the guard positions, and the important concepts within the system. There are various concepts missing from the list, along with many techniques, so the list includes only the most important items in the system, just the techniques and concepts that Liechtenauer thought most central to his method. The absence of feinting from this list demonstrates that this concept was not one of the core ideas in the system.
The following piece of advice appears in the section about the four openings:
Always pay attention to the openings in Zufechten. His openings you shall skillfully seek without danger: with thrusts with the outstretched point [langen orts], with travelling after and with all other techniques. And do not pay heed to what he tries to do with his techniques against you, but fence with belief and throw strikes that are excellent and that do not allow him to come at you with his own techniques.
Again, this passage advises to make attacks directly to the openings, with “attacks that are excellent”. If the attacks are excellent enough, then they provide cover on the way in, while creating such threat that the opponent has no real option but to defend himself, and thus the fencer does not need to “pay heed to what he [the opponent] tries to do”, because the fencer is in control of the situation.
Although it could be argued that a good feint will keep a fencer safe on the advance, a skilled fencer deploying a feint should still be interested in the opponent’s response, since a certain response does need to occur before the feint can achieve its goal successfully.
Another interesting piece of advice is about how to “break up the four openings” in a skilful fashion. Ringeck does not suggest that the fencer should feint to one opening, to draw a response, in order to strike into a different opening. Rather, he says that:
When you would like to skillfully break up the four openings for him, use the doubling [dupliern] against the upper openings and the mutating [mutiern] against the other openings. Certainly I say to you that he cannot defend himself against this, and can succeed with neither cut nor thrust.
This section of the treatise then explains the techniques of Duplieren and Mutieren, as winding actions in the bind. To perform Duplieren, the fencer makes his initial strike, which is parried, and so he remains in the bind and cuts the opponent to the other side of the head from behind the parry. To perform Mutieren, the fencer makes a different winding action, going around the other side of the opponent’s sword and thrusting into his lower opening.
In both cases, the attacker may “break up the four openings” by striking directly to the opponent, and then by making a winding action in the bind to land a hit to a different opening if the initial strike is parried. The openings are broken not by feinting to create a new opportunity to strike, but instead by going straight to a target and then working within the bind to reach a new target if the initial opportunity is closed.
What feints are described?
However, sometimes Ringeck does advocate an element of pretence:
Another technique from the Krumphaw.
Do not go Crookedly, cut short,
then show changing-through.
When he wants to cut in from his right shoulder, pretend that you want to bind against his sword with a Krumphaw. Cut short; and go through with the point under his sword and wind your hilt to your right side over your head, and stab him in the face.
This passage shows that the fencer might make it look like he will perform a certain action, but then could throw another technique that has a different effect. Admittedly, this passage describes a defensive action, and the feints used in most modern sparring are offensive actions, but this does prove that the concept of pretence existed somewhere in the system, even in a marginal capacity.
Pretence is not the only way to confuse and disorient an opponent. In the same section of the treatise, Ringeck offers the following advice to a fencer whose initial attack has been beaten down by a Krumphaw:
When you cut in against him from above from your right side and he also cuts crookedly from his right side with crossed arms onto your sword and thus presses it down towards the ground, wind towards your right side; go with your arms up over your head. And thrust with your point from above against his breast.
If he defends himself against this, stand with your hilt in front of your head, and work deftly with the point from one opening to the other, this is called “the Noble War.” [edel krig] With this you will confuse him so totally that truthfully he will not know where he will find himself.
Rather than using a feint or pretence to confuse the opponent, working with thrusts in the bind is a more typical situation. The “Noble War” is apparently a skilful enough thing to do that it will “confuse him so totally” and he will not know how to deal with the situation. Working in the bind is a better way to confuse an opponent than pretending one action before performing another.
There is a technique called the Feler, which can be translated as “feint” or “failer”, and is in fact a typical feinting action. It can be applied in various different ways in a fight:
A further technique from the Zwer, and it is called the feint [Feler].
He who does a good feint,
strikes from below how he wishes.
With the feint all fencers who quickly leap to the defence are misled and defeated.
When you come against him in Zufechten, pretend that you want to cut him with perhaps an Oberhaw to his left side. In this manner you can strike him underneath however you want and defeat him.
This is probably the first kind of feint that would come to mind for most fencers: feint an Oberhaw, then cut into a different opening when the opponent makes to parry the first attack. However, it can also work in multiple steps, adding more and more actions to confuse the opponent until something eventually gets through his defence and lands.
Another technique from the feint.
Feint twice to
hit him. Then do the slice.
This is called the double feint, because in the Zufechten you shall be misleading two times.
Do the first like this: when you come against him in Zufechten, take a spring with the foot against him and pretend that you will cut with a Zwerhaw against the left side of his head. And change the direction of the cut, to the right side of his head.
Another technique from the feint.
Continue doubly with this,
step to the left and do not be slow.
That is to say, when you have struck to the right side of his head with the first misleading – about which has just been written – so strike immediately round to the other side of the head, and go with the short edge with outstretched crossed arms over his sword: and “Imlincke”, that is to say on the left side, and cut in with the long edge over the face.
The Schilhaw can involve an element of pretence, and can be confusing for an opponent:
Another technique from the Schilhaw.
Search to the point
and take his neck without fear.
Mark well; to strike the Schilhaw breaks the long point; and then do this: when he stands against you and holds the point with outstretched arms towards the face or chest, so stand with the left foot forward and search with the gaze against the point, and pretend as if you want to strike against the point; and strike powerfully with the short edge above his sword, and thrust with the point along with the blade against the neck with a step towards him with the right foot.
Another technique from the Schilhaw.
Squint to the head above
and the hands you will hurt.
When he wants to cut in against you from above, so search with the gaze as if you want to hit him above the head. And strike with the short edge against his cut, and strike along his blade with the point onto the hands.
Both of these examples of implementing the Schilhaw begin by telling the fencer to “search with the gaze” towards on place, to draw the opponent’s attention to that place, before the strike lands on a different target. This is very difficult to do in sparring today, as fencing masks will obscure the faces of both combatants. If the opponent cannot see the fencer’s face, then these types of pretence will not work, and this type of feint cannot actually be applied in a typical sparring match.
However, there is a type of feinting that appears in the treatise, that also appears with a growing frequency in sparring as practitioners develop better point control and generally improve their skills with thrusting in a stressful situation:
About changing-through [durchwechslen].
Learn to change-through
from both sides, hurt him with thrusts.
He who binds with you
the changing-through finds him quickly.
You shall learn carefully to change-through. When you strike or thrust in against him in Zufechten and he tries to bind against the sword with a cut or a parry, let the point sweep through under his sword, and hurt him with a thrust to the other side, quickly find one of his openings.
This is a typical kind of action that can be seen in most fencing systems from Liechtenauer all the way through to modern Olympic fencing. Set up a threat, make the opponent react to the threat, and then redirect the sword to a different opening. It is a fast and effective action.
An interesting action is the Zucken, which can be used very effectively as a continuation of a real attack, but can also be used as a feint:
About the pulling [zucken].
Step close in the bind,
the pull lets you find good hits.
Pull! Meet him, then pull again.
Find your work: then give pain.
Pull in all exchanges
against the masters, if you want to trick them.
When you come against him in Zufechten, strike powerfully from above from your right shoulder in against his head.
If he binds against the sword with a parry or suchlike, step in closer to him in the bind and pull your sword up and away from his and cut back down against him on the other side of the head.
If he defends himself this second him, strike back to the first side from above and work deftly against the upper openings that open to you, with doubling [dupliernn] and other techniques.
Although the gloss describes how the fencer can use Zucken as a continuation of a real attack, the third couplet from the Zettel (“pull in all fights against the masters, if you want to trick them”) suggests that it can also be a trick or a feint. This is a technique that can work very well against beginners who will react to any incoming movement. It is more difficult to make a more experienced fencer react to this kind of feint, because they will be more discerning, and may not react to a strike that is launched from too far away, or that lacks the speed or force to be a proper threat. Beginners are often not very good at feinting a strike that looks real enough for an experienced fencer to fall for it; presumably this is why the first part of the gloss to this piece of Zettel is to “strike powerfully from above … in against his head.” Then, since the attack is real, it will elicit the reaction that the fencer is looking for, and allows the fencer to perform Zucken and cut round to another opening.
In conclusion, there are several examples of feinting actions described in Ringeck’s treatise. However, feints are not described very often when compared to the number of admonitions to strike directly to the opponent; going directly to the opening without trying to trick the opponent is definitely a stylistic element of the system.
It is interesting to note that although feinting is not a core concept, three of the very important Five Strikes can be used to feint; four if we count a Zornhaw entry leading into a Zucken situation. The only one of the Five Strikes that is not easy to turn into a feint (according to what Ringeck has written, nothing more) is the Schaitelhaw. Nonetheless, all of the Five Strikes are performed best when they are performed directly towards an opening, and when the initial strike is bold and definitive.
This is perhaps the key way to view the system as described by Ringeck. Strikes should be bold and definitive; the fencer should be courageous and should go forward with strikes that are excellent, without worrying about what the opponent might do in return. The strike with which the fencer closes distance should be one that is appropriate for the situation, shuts down the opponent’s chances of doing something unexpected, and should convey such threat that the opponent will wants to defend himself. Staying at a distance and making gentle probes to try and trick the opponent into exposing himself is stylistically not a big part of fencing according to Ringeck.
If fencers have good striking mechanics, supported by a keen awareness of distance and timing, and choose to make bold and definitive attacks to close the distance in the Zufechten, then perhaps there would not be as much need for feinting and trying to confuse or trick the opponent.
This article and its conclusion have been prepared solely with reference to Ringeck’s gloss. I am well aware that other longsword sources involve many feinting actions, such as the Kölner Fechtbuch or the books by Mair and Meyer. The point of view put forward here, that feinting is a marginal concept, is deliberately controversial, since most people (myself included) utilise quite a lot of feints even if the systems we study do not advocate using it quite so often.
If you would like to write a rebuttal to this article, supporting your statements with quotes from other sources, that would be wonderful – the more written material with evidence showing different perspectives on the matter, the better for the community as a whole.
 Ringeck. MS Dresd.C487, c.1514. Folios 13r-14r. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2011.
 MS Dresd.C487. Folios 16v-17v. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2011.
 MS Dresd.C487. Folios 17v-19r. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2011.
 MS Dresd.C487. Folios 22v-23v. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2011.
 MS Dresd.C487. Folios 23v-24v. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2011.
 MS Dresd.C487. Folios 24v-27r. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2013.
 MS Dresd.C487. Folios 24v-27r. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2011.
 MS Dresd.C487. Folios 29v-31r. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2011.
 MS Dresd.C487. Folios 29v-31r. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2013.
 MS Dresd.C487. Folios 31r-32v. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2013.
 MS Dresd.C487. Folios 40v-41r. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2013.
 MS Dresd.C487. Folios 41r-41v. Translated by Keith Farrell, 2013.
 Every system has stylistic elements that can differentiate otherwise similar methods of fighting. https://www.keithfarrell.net/hema/videos/2013-style-hema/
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.