Since it is quite a fun activity to compare and contrast different HEMA systems, I would like to propose one possible framework for doing so. A good framework should take into account more than just the techniques and positions of the system.
Every system of martial arts will share some similarities with other systems. It can be interesting to look at what is similar between different systems, but probably more important is when there is a difference, especially when the difference is a little more hidden and is not as obvious as a technique.
Strategy, Tactics, Operations (Techniques)
This is a common framework used in business to describe the day to day operations that keep the business running, the short to medium term tactics that dictate where the business is trying to go right now, and the medium to long term strategy that dictates where the business wants to end up.
When a business is able to explain its operations, tactics, and strategy, there is a higher chance that the business will make the right choices, hire the right people, and make the correct investments to secure its success over time.
We can take this idea and apply it to martial arts. When we fight, there are techniques that we use to operate upon the opponent, and this can be our technical or operational layer. However, when we fight, we don’t just do techniques at each other, there is some kind of rationale to it and some reason why we put the techniques together into sequences the way that we do – these are the tactics. There is probably also a guiding idea for what we are trying to achieve overall in the fight, and this would be our strategy.
For example, the Liechtenauer strategy for unarmoured fencing with the longsword is to take the Vor (the initiative) if at all possible, because having the initiative is ideal. Failing that, accept your role in the Nach (reacting to the person who is acting), and perform these tactics and techniques well. If you are in the Nach, try and find some way to get into the Vor, so that you have the initiative and are calling the shots.
The technical layer would include the various techniques such as Zornhaw, Zwerhaw, thrusting, the guards, all that sort of thing. These are the building blocks of the system.
When we put together these building blocks into different approaches, different defensive games, different tricks, we are showcasing different tactics. The tactical layer is the way that we use and combine techniques from the operational layer to achieve the goals and guiding principles set out in the strategic layer.
Comparing Liechtenauer and Fiore
If we were to try to compare the unarmoured longsword fencing of Liechtenauer and Fiore (a common pastime in the pub after a day of fencing!), we might easily observe that there are many similarities between the two systems. This might lead us to the mistaken conclusion that the systems are very similar and maybe even that they are more or less the same and therefore that they are quite interchangeable. However, a better comparison by using this framework would highlight a number of key differences.
Both systems have downward cuts (Oberhaw and Fendente), rising cuts (Underhaw and Sottano), and cuts across the body (Mittelhaw and Mezzano). Both systems use thrusts.
Both systems have guards with the point forward (Pflug and Posta Breve, Langort and Posta Longa), with the point toward the ground (Alber and Porta di Ferro), with the point forward and hands high (Ochs and Fenestra), and with the sword pulled back beside the shoulder or head (Vom Tag and Posta di Donna).
Both systems involve cuts to the head, to the arms, and to the body. Both systems involve thrusts to the face and body. Both systems seem to involve feints and tricks as well as direct actions. Both systems involve grappling at the sword.
This comparison clearly shows that there are many similarities between the systems, but it is not the whole story.
When we compare the strategies of the two systems, we see some differences.
As stated before, Liechtenauer’s system has the strategy of gaining the Vor if at all possible, so that you are acting and thereby forcing the other person to react to your actions. If your opponent secures the Vor, then you should place yourself into the Nach and use appropriate responses to his actions to keep yourself safe until you have a chance to turn the tables and take the fight back to him.
Comparatively, Fiore does not seem to put as much emphasis on acting or reacting. Some of his advice seems to be that acting in certain ways is useful and will let you attack your opponent intelligently, whereas there are also good options for defending. There is less emphasis one way or another.
If you are studying Liechtenauer and your opponent takes the Vor against you, forcing you to react to him, then there are many ways to work from the bind to make fast and effective counter actions with your blade. As a result, working from the bind to keep yourself safe while finding the right moment to offend your opponent is a large part of Liechtenauer’s system.
Comparatively, Fiore places less emphasis on using the blade at all times, and is more than happy to move in close and use the hands and body for grapples, disarms, and throws. As a result, there is more of a strategy of moving in and closing the distance in order to grapple, whereas Liechtenauer would prefer to stand off and work with the blade from the bind in more situations.
Clearly, by comparing the two systems at the strategic level, we can see that there are differences. The guiding principles are not quite the same, and the goals that you are trying to achieve with the two different systems may be a little different.
Since tactics are how we combine and use our techniques to achieve the chosen strategy, we would expect systems with different strategies to utilise different tactics, even if they have very similar techniques. And indeed, this is what we see.
Liechtenauer prefers to use a small set of very effective techniques (the Funff Hewen) to great effect, both in attack and in defence, so that you have similar options whether you are in the Vor and the Nach. When used in the Vor, these techniques allow you to keep the initiative and keeping putting the threat and pressure onto the opponent. When used in the Nach, these techniques can allow you to turn the tables quite quickly.
Fiore seems to advocate the use of a wide variety of techniques in different situations, to trick your opponent and strike to an unexpected opening. Positions such as the Posta Longa are described as being very sneaky and good for tricks, whereas there are relatively few such descriptions in the Liechtenauer material.
Liechtenauer may well advise to perform a strong, threatening strike, with the expectation that you will end up in the bind, from which place you should be well-placed to turn your cut into a thrust or to double the cut by performing a second striking action to the same upper openings.
Comparatively, Fiore might advise to enter into the bind with the swords crossing near the points so that you can make a follow-up cut to the arms, or with the swords crossing near the middles so that you can enter into grappling to gain control of the other person’s arms and sword.
Liechtenauer tends to advise closing in to wrestle with the opponent (Durchluaffen) when the opponent is strong and goes up with his hands and brings his physical strength against you; in such a situation, going forward with wrestling against him is a good way to meet strength with the structure and power of your whole body, so that you can overcome him.
Fiore shows more options to grapple at different times in the fight, for a variety of different purposes, not just to oppose strength with the structure and power of the whole body.
Summary of Comparison
We see from this comparison that although there are many similarities at the technical level, the strategies and tactics are quite different. Therefore, students of these two systems should look quite different when they are fencing, because the techniques should be combined in different ways to achieve slightly different goals.
A good example of this difference in performance can be seen in this video of some sparring between me and Federico Malagutti. I am fencing in the style of Liechtenauer and Federico is fencing in the style of Fiore, and our approaches to the fight are clearly quite different.
Comparing Liechtenauer and Germanic common fencing
We might pose the question: why is Liechtenauer different to the Germanic common fencing of the era? Well, first we would need to have an idea of what common fencing might look like, and the book Swords, Science, and Society by Jamie Acutt (published by Fallen Rook Publishing and available for purchase through the publisher’s website) offers some ideas to help answer this question.
The techniques are very similar between Liechtenauer’s method and the common fencing methods of the time. There are similar guards, similar cuts, similar thrusts… There are few differences here.
The strategy is also pretty similar between Liechtenauer’s method and the Germanic common fencing methods. Take the Vor if possible, be the person acting, but if this is impossible then put yourself solidly into the Nach and make sure that you respond intelligently until you have a chance to start acting.
However, the tactics are very different! Much of Liechtenauer’s advice is to observe your opponent, work out what the best way would be to strike the opening, and then perform the best strike that has the best chance to hit that opening. The common fencing method would be more along the lines of deciding what opening you want to hit, regardless of your opponent’s current position, and then to perform a sequence of attacks that creates that opening so that you can hit it.
Liechtenauer’s system relies greatly on stimulus and response, so that whatever you observe your opponent doing, you should have a good response ready to go. Comparatively, the common fencing method is more about working with sequences and using these to create the situation you want to see.
The Liechtenauer method has many tactics that involve working from the bind, whereas the common fencing method involves more tactics for cutting around and leaving the bind in order to strike to different targets or to draw out certain parries to expose other openings.
Therefore, students of Liechtenauer and the Germanic common fencing methods should also look quite different when they fence, due to the different tactics, even though the techniques and strategies are very similar.
A nice example of this is to compare the previously mentioned video (where I am sparring with Federico using Liechtenauer’s method) with this other video where I am sparring with Federico using the common fencing methods of the Kolner Fechtbuch, Andre Paurendfeindt, and elements from Joachim Meyer.
My performance is clearly very different between both videos, even though I use the same strategies and the same techniques. Admittedly, there is also a difference in terms of intensity and the amount of equipment, but these are not the primary reasons for the difference; the main reason why my fencing looks different in the two videos is because I am fencing with radically different tactics, according to different systems.
Comparing and contrasting different martial arts is quite an interesting activity. Spotting the similarities between different systems can be quite interesting and also quite enlightening, because there may be good reasons for the similarities. However, I would suggest that finding the differences between the systems is more important, because by considering the differences, we can gain a better idea of why the systems are what they are.
I would encourage anyone comparing HEMA systems to consider the tactics and strategies as well as just looking at the techniques. Hopefully this article and the examples above show why the comparison of tactics and strategies is just as important (if not more so) than the comparison of techniques.
Have you thought about the strategies of your system? Have you considered why the original masters wrote about the tactics that appear in the sources? How and why do the techniques combine via these tactics to achieve the chosen strategies? Even if you do not compare your system with other systems, thinking about your own system in this way will probably be a helpful exercise.
If you would like to support my writing efforts, please consider donating a little something towards my coffee fund!
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.