Left Vom Tag: does it exist? How do we do it? Is it a position worth training?
This is a discussion that comes up every so often, with fairly predictable responses to say both yes and no. It usually devolves into arguments that these sources have it (or something like it) and these sources suggest otherwise. There is rarely any unanimous agreement about how to proceed from there.
My own perspective used to be that when studying 15th century Germanic systems, the position didn’t exist and so wasn’t really worth training, but that it is shown by 16th century Germanic sources and so it was worth training and including in the practise of those systems.
Over the last few years, as I have been developing my understanding of the Liechtenauer method and of gemeinfechten (common fencing), I have come to think about the matter differently, and I would like to share these more recent thoughts in this article.
What is Vom Tag?
The leger (position) of Vom Tag is a position with the sword held high, above the shoulder or above the head, usually in preparation to strike. It really doesn’t have to be much more detailed than that, because the purpose of the position is to be chambered and ready to threaten and perform a powerful strike from above.
Quick literature review
What do the sources say about the position? Do any of them illustrate or describe a Vom Tag over the left shoulder? I am only considering Germanic sources for this, and not other systems or treatises. Sure, other systems (such as Fiore, for example) may show a similar position on the left shoulder, but the sword may be there for different reasons and the choices or progressions from that position may be quite different. Therefore, we will concentrate on the Germanic sources.
Sources: do any sources show it on the left?
One of Paulus Kal’s manuscripts shows a left-handed swordsman in a position with the sword over the head or over the right (non-dominant) shoulder, with the right leg forward. This might be one of the few examples of a 15th century source showing the sword over the non-dominant shoulder.
The third part of the Codex Wallerstein offers illustrations only, without any text or captions to support them, and one image seems to show a Vom Tag over the non-dominant shoulder, although there is no information about what it actually is or what it might be for.
The Kölner Fechtbuch describes the “vier leger” as two upper positions and two lower positions; the two upper positions are on the shoulders, left and right. There are no illustrations to support this description, so we could interpret the positions as being anywhere between a more typical Vom Tag to a Zornhut to a Mittelhut, but I don’t think the details mattered very much to the author.
Jörg Wilhalm Hutter shows and describes the Zornhaw on the right and also the Zornhaw on the left. The Zornhaw from the right has the sword in a Vom Tag position over the right shoulder, while the Zornhaw from the left begins in a more turned Zornhut position. However, when his gloss addresses the leger Vom Tag, rather than the strike of the Zornhaw, he shows a right-handed fencer with the left foot forward and with the sword pointed upward and in front of the body, like a high Lang Ort.
Paulus Mair shows and describes Vom Tag with the sword above the head and with the right foot forward. Other illustrations show it over the head with the left foot forward; we see other positions that look like they could potentially be classed as a Vom Tag on the non-dominant shoulder, or perhaps they show a Mittelhut without being named as such, but any no such position seems to be described as Vom Tag.
Sources: do any sources NOT show it on the left?
Most of the 15th century sources do not show Vom Tag on the left.
The anonymous gloss in the Nuremberg Hausbuch contains no illustrations. The description of Vom Tag is that it is Lang Ort, above the head, with extended arms. It does not suggest that the shoulders might be involved in this position.
Jud Lew contains no illustrations, and describes the leger as putting the left foot forward and holding the sword above the head.
The anonymous gloss in the Codex Danzig shows Vom Tag on the right shoulder, and the text describes it as either above the head or by the right shoulder. The copy of this same gloss in the Goliath manuscript provides neither illustration nor description for Vom Tag.
Talhoffer shows a position with the sword over the head with the left foot forwards. He also shows one leger with the point up and the right foot forwards, although this may be more of a Lang Ort than Vom Tag. When the right foot is forwards, it might be reasonable to see that as a “preparing to strike down from the left” sort of position, which might feasibly result in having the left foot forward at the end of the cut.
Paul Kal does not write anything about the position, but shows it above the head or above the dominant shoulder. It is shown right-handed with the left foot forward, and left-handed with the right foot forward. In both of these illustrations, the body is set up to deliver a stroke from the dominant side.
Peter Falkner does not depict Vom Tag at all in his manuscript, although all the illustrations of the end points of cuts seem to have right-handed swordsmen standing with their right foot forward, suggesting that all the cuts illustrated came from the dominant shoulder.
Sigmund ain Ringeck only shows a right-handed swordsman with the left foot forward and with the sword above the dominant shoulder. His textual description states quite clearly to place the sword at the right shoulder.
Andre Paurenfeindt shows a Vom Tag position with the sword above the right shoulder, with the left foot forward. There is no text to describe the position, unfortunately.
Hans Medel describes that the position should be held with the sword upward to the right, but with the right foot forward; nonetheless, this is to launch an Oberhaw from the right towards the left.
Joachim Meyer describes the position of Tag as being above the head, with the left foot forwards. However, as well as his right Zornhut he also describes a left Zornhut, which one may consider to be quite similar to a left Vom Tag, although it may be suggested that the use of the Zornhut has more in common with Ochs than Tag.
Using the position of Vom Tag
There are two ways of using any of the Vier Leger, according to Liechtenauer: as positions in which to stand, and as positions you can observe your opponent holding. The latter is probably more important to Liechtenauer than the former.
1) The position in which you stand
The position of Vom Tag (or Zornhut) is good for threatening and launching powerful cuts from above. It is also quite useful for throwing other cuts from other angles, but the simplest, easiest, and most obvious thing to do from Vom Tag is to throw a strong long-edge Oberhaw.
It is clearly not a “guard” position in the same sense as the inside or outside guards in Napoleonic British sabre, or as sixte and quarte in modern foil fencing, where the purpose is to cover a line and close you off from any possible attack from that line. Holding the sword above your head leaves you more exposed than covered, after all.
Therefore, since you cannot rely on the sword to protect you, you must use your footwork and distance to keep yourself safe. The fight will typically start out of distance, and a major part of the Zufechten is how to close into distance in a useful and constructive fashion.
Meyer describes the act of slashing up into a position such as Lang Ort as you come within a fathom of your opponent, to see what he does and potentially to provoke any twitchy reactions from him, before continuing with your attack. Similarly, you can pull or slash up into the position of Tag during your approach.
We also read the same advice to “heave up” ready to strike (aufhebet zuschlagen), before a sequence develops, in the anonymous book Das Ander Theil Des Newen Kůnstreichen Fechtbůches from 1591.
So, we should probably consider your own Vom Tag to be a brief and transitory position, into which you move during your approach, and out of which you move swiftly with an appropriate technique.
2) The position in which your opponent stands
This is quite an interesting element of Liechtenauer’s system. When you observe how your opponent stands, you can classify it as one of the Vier Leger. It doesn’t matter if one of the later masters might call a given position Einhorn or Hengenort, Liechtenauer would just treat it all as Ochs, because they all share more or less the same characteristics.
Similarly, it doesn’t really matter if your opponent stands in Vom Tag at the shoulder, or over the head, or in a Zornhut or Mittelhut, or in a high Lang Ort, or in something like the “Walpurgis guard” shown in the MS I.33. The details really don’t matter, because all these positions threaten similar attacks from similar angles, and therefore you can approach them in more or less the same way.
Of course, the canonical way to attack any position your opponent holds is with the correct choice of the Vier Versetzen; each cut breaks one of the Vier Leger. Therefore, you don’t need to overthink your approach. You make a quick assessment of your opponent’s position, categorise it according to one of the Vier Leger, use your Zufechten (and possibly the heaving up) to initiate your approach, and launch the correct one of the Vier Versetzen. Although that sounds like several steps, there is really only a single quick decision to be made (which of the four positions is he in?) and a choice of one of just four techniques to approach it.
This streamlines your thought processing quite significantly, and means you don’t have to worry about too many details or variables. It also allows you to comply with the “good general lessons” at the start of the Liechtenauer glosses, that you should take the fight to your opponent and not stand waiting to be attacked.
Why not stand in the left Vom Tag?
If we think of Vom Tag as a launching platform for strikes, then it would be fair to suggest that the overhead position is good for striking either left or right, depending on which foot is forward. It clearly leaves you with options.
Standing with the sword above the dominant shoulder allows you to make most of the attacks that you might want to make from the dominant side, which is exactly what Liechtenauer and his glossators advise that you should do when you attack. This lets you make the strongest strikes, supported by the strongest body structure, which lets you project a better attack, project a better defence, and have a better chance of taking control of a bind.
Since these are the features and advantages of making a dominant-side strike from a dominant-side Vom Tag, it follows that these are not necessarily features of a non-dominant-side strike from the other shoulder. Therefore, from the point of view of Vom Tag as a position in which you would stand, there are fewer good reasons to stand in a left Vom Tag than in a dominant-side or overhead Vom Tag. You stack the odds in your favour and give yourself more advantages if you use the dominant-shoulder or overhead placement of Vom Tag. You reduce your options and give yourself a small handicap by standing in the non-dominant-side version of the position – that is not to say that you cannot achieve success here, but why not make your life easier if you possibly can?
If the purpose of choosing your own leger is to support and facilitate your approach into the fight according to the tactic you have chosen for that approach, then there may be scope for choosing the non-dominant-side position (which is probably we do see it in some of the sources), but the majority of your approaches should probably involve the stronger, more functional positions above the head or at the dominant shoulder.
What about an opponent who stands in a left Vom Tag?
Of course, just because you should prefer to hold your sword overhead or at your dominant shoulder, there’s nothing to stop your opponent from putting their sword at their left shoulder. Since your opponent’s choice of position influences your choice of approach, it means you need to be able to handle an opponent who stands like this. If you never this kind of approach, then how do you expect to be able to use it in sparring?
Typically, people like to mirror each other. We see it regularly in body language during conversations. We also see it in sparring, where one fencer often begins to mirror the other fencer’s positions, techniques, and intensity. So, it is not uncommon to see one fencer take a left Vom Tag, and for the other fencer to do something similar and then strike from the weaker side, leading to a rather messy exchange.
Instead, you should be able to remain in control of yourself as you make your approach. If your opponent stands in a left Vom Tag, then you should still be able to make your strike from the dominant side if at all possible, following the “good general lessons”, or otherwise choose an approach that is sufficiently well structured that you can land a decent strike and will not struggle to control any bind that develops.
What are the most likely techniques to come from the left Vom Tag? What are the characteristics of those techniques? What kind of approach minimises your risk when approaching that position and these potential techniques?
The source material does illustrate and describe some positions that could be described as a left Vom Tag. However, the vast majority of our source material does not. There is probably a very good reason for this.
There are two ways of assessing and using positions: using them as part of your own approach into the fight, and assessing which position your opponent stands in so that you can make your approach sensibly.
When you make your own approach, you want to give yourself all the advantages you can, so the left Vom Tag is probably not going to be very helpful unless you have a specific plan that involves it.
When you approach someone who stands in a left Vom Tag, you need to have a good strategy to do so, and you need to have practised this so that you can rely on it in sparring.
Therefore, it is worth playing with this position in sparring, so that both you and your training partners can learn more about how to use it and how to approach it. It then becomes just one more thing in your repertoire, that you may be able to call upon at useful moments. However, it is probably worth placing more emphasis on more canonical approaches and techniques, because these puts more odds in your favour and give you the best chances of success.
Footnotes B Krustev, 2013. https://secondgenhema.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/is-there-a-left-vom-tag-hell-yeah/ Roger Norling, 2011. https://hroarr.com/article/is-there-really-a-left-vom-tag/ Hugh Knight, 2008. https://talhoffer.blogspot.com/2008/05/left-vom-tag.html Paulus Kal, MS 1825, c.1460-80, folio 18v. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:MS_1825_18v.jpg Anonymous, Cod.I.6.4º.2, c.1470, folio 79r. http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Cod.I.6.4%C2%BA.2_079r.jpg Anonymous, MS Best.7020 (W*)150, c.1500s, folio 3r. Jörg Wilhalm Hutter, Cod.I.6.2º.2, 1523, folio 6r. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Cod.I.6.2%C2%BA.2_06r.jpg Jörg Wilhalm Hutter, Cod.I.6.2º.2, 1523, folio 6v. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Cod.I.6.2%C2%BA.2_06v.jpg Jörg Wilhalm Hutter, Cod.I.6.2º.2, 1523, folio 12r. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Cod.I.6.2%C2%BA.2_14r.jpg Paulus Mair, MS Dresd.C.93, c.1542, folio 25v. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Mair_longsword_008.jpg Paulus Mair, MS Dresd.C.93, c.1542, folio 24r. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Mair_longsword_005.jpg Anonymous, Hs.3227a, c.1425, folio 32r. Jud Lew, Cod.I.6.4º.3, c.1450s, folio 29r. Anonymous, Codex 44.A.8, 1452, folio 2r. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Cod.44.A.8_002r.jpg Anonymous, Codex 44.A.8, 1452, folio 26r. Anonymous, MS Germ.Quart.2020, c.1510-1520. Hans Talhoffer, Codex icon.394a, 1467, folio 2r. http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Cod.icon._394a_2r.jpg Hans Talhoffer, Codex icon.394a, 1467, folio 14r. http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Cod.icon._394a_14r.jpg Hans Talhoffer, Codex icon.394a, 1467, folio 10v. http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Cod.icon._394a_10v.jpg Paulus Kal, Cod.S.554, c.1506-1514, folio 28r. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Solothurner_Fechtbuch_(Cod.S.554)#/media/File:Cod.S.554_076.jpg Paulus Kal, CGM 1507, c.1470, folio 58v. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Paulus_Kal_Fechtbuch_(Cgm_1507)#/media/File:Cgm_1507_58v.jpg Peter Falkner, MS KK2015, c.1495. Sigmund ain Ringeck, MS E.1939.65.341, 1508, folio 10r. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:MS_E.1939.65.341_010r.jpg Sigmund ain Ringeck, MS Dresd.C.487, c.1504-1519, folio 34v. Andre Paurenfeindt, Ergrundung Ritterlicher Kunst der Fechterey, 1516, image 1. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Paur%C3%B1feyndt_1.jpg Andre Paurenfeindt, Ergrundung Ritterlicher Kunst der Fechterey, 1516, image 2. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Paur%C3%B1feyndt_2.jpg Hans Medel, Cod.I.6.2º.5, 1539, folio 32r. Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens, 1570, page 1.6v. https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:Meyer_1570_Longsword_C.jpg Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens, 1570, page 1.35v. Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens, 1570, page 1.7v. Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens, 1570, page 1.27v. Translation by Jeffrey Forgeng, The Art of Combat, 2015, page 72. Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der Kunst des Fechtens, 1570, page 1.31v. Translation by Jeffrey Forgeng, The Art of Combat, 2015, page 76. Anonymous, Das Ander Theil Des Newen Kůnstreichen Fechtbůches, 1591. Sigmund ain Ringeck, MS E.1939.65.341, 1508, folios 33v-34v. Anonymous, MS I.33, c.1320s, folio 32r. http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/File:MS_I.33_32r.jpg Sigmund ain Ringeck, MS E.1939.65.341, 1508, folios 34v-35r. Sigmund ain Ringeck, MS E.1939.65.341, 1508, folios 13r-13v. Sigmund ain Ringeck, MS E.1939.65.341, 1508, folios 14r-14v.
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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.