Back in 2017, I was invited to teach at an event in Switzerland – a whole event dedicated to gemeinfechten, or common fencing. Although I was teaching my ideas about the Kölner Fechtbuch, one of the sources presented and discussed over the weekend event was the “Anonymous Unicum” (folio 101r) in the Durer Fechtbuch – a fascinating little treatise, seemingly unique, and pretty much overlooked until this event.
I have been working on it on and off since then, and have recently returned to it with quite a lot more focus.
My initial thoughts
Dieter Bachmann had prepared a transcription of the text, and Daniel Jaquet introduced it to the attendees. One of the nice features of the event was that the transcription was freely available throughout the event, with a printed copy sitting on one of the tables next to the event’s library, and everyone was invited to take a look at it and suggest possible interpretations.
Jake Norwood and I spent much of the weekend discussing our ideas about gemeinfechten in general and the Kölner Fechtbuch in particular, and then we spent some time working on this anonymous unicum to see what we made of it. One of the other attendees was kind enough to film our efforts, resulting in the video clip above.
After the event concluded, Jake kept working on this source, and released a possible translation of it. I have to admit, I didn’t do much further with either the source or Jake’s translation for a while, although things kept ticking over in my head.
My recent translation
A while ago, I was teaching a series of lessons for my club Liverpool HEMA, looking at the various flourishes in the Germanic sources. Needless to say, we started with the flourish from the Nuremberg Hausbuch; we also looked at the flourish from the Kölner Fechtbuch, and we looked at part of the Anonymous Unicum, and it seems that my ideas had changed quite significantly from when I worked through it with Jake in Switzerland.
I prepared my own translation of the Anonymous Unicum, to give myself another option and point of view for understanding it. I like to make my own translations where possible, especially if the source is blissfully short! At the very least, it is good practice for me to do this sort of thing, so that I become better at translating these sources.
When preparing my translation, I made a few different base assumptions from Jake, while led to what I think might be a simpler framework. By simplifying the framework of techniques used, I now think the source might be describing a method of practice for the zweihander, as opposed to the use of the feder or “normal” longsword.
Looking at the source, we see certain technical terms being used repeatedly. When preparing my translation, I decided to leave anything that might be a technical term in the original language, whereas Jake offered translations of everything; while some people prefer to read translations where everything, including technical terms, are rendered into the new language, I found that my approach led to a greater visibility of the technical terms and the similarities and differences between them.
Auffstreychen and Schwing
One of the most common techniques is the auffstreychen, where the instruction is usually to streych (strike, sweep) outward, or to schwing (swing) upward. We know from Ringeck, for example, that one way to describe rising short-edge sweeps is with the word streychen (or any of its variations in spelling), and Meyer also uses similar techniques in his work. We might even draw similarities with the additional material in the Nuremberg Hausbuch, where it talks about facing four or six opponents, and sweeping up and down from side to side.
We also see very similar actions in the Iberian montante material, and perhaps even in some of the Italian sources for the longsword in the 16th century and for the two-handed sword. This seems to be a very natural way to use a larger, heavier sword!
Another term which is used often is bruch (break), which we see quite regularly in gemeinfechten sources such as the Kölner Fechtbuch and in Paurenfeindt, as counters to techniques previously described. We even see this term (with a variety of spellings) in some of the core Liechtenauer glosses, and in Talhoffer. It always appears to suggest a counter of some description; perhaps a parry, perhaps a displacement, or some other form of defence.
Comparing the Auffstreychen and the Bruch
We can perhaps consider the auffstreychen as a sweeping-out-and-through kind of motion, with the sword going outward and then sweeping across the body from side to side, definitely intending to go through the target (offensively) or to beat aside any incoming strike (defensively).
We might then consider the bruch to be a shorter, tighter, from-the-inside-pushing-out kind of motion that would result in something like a static parry rather than a dynamic redirection of an incoming blade.
Since these are broadly the two ways to defend against an incoming strike (to redirect it or simply to get in its way), and they are also broadly the two ways of applying the edge of a large sword to an opponent (by sweeping the cut in violently, or by placing the edge and pushing/dragging through to make something like Liechtenauer’s abschneiden), it gives a very simple framework for practising the majority of the offensive and defensive actions with a big sword.
Another term that is used often is that techniques can be vorworffen, or inverted or turned upside down. There is one mention of the vorworffen streych, and one mention of the vorworffen bruch, which suggests that techniques could be either “normal” or “inverted”, i.e. done the normal way (such as low to high for the auffstreychen) or turned upside down (such as making an auffstreychen motion that goes high to low).
Oberhaw and Underhaw
There are relatively few other techniques: just the flugelhaw, the underhaw, the stich, and the concept of the frei haw.
Curiously, there is no oberhaw! This omission would make very little sense with a feder, where such a technique is the bread and butter of most such systems, but it might make a little more sense with a significantly larger and heavier sword. If we consider the sources that describe the use of the Iberian montante, we see many rising and horizontal blows, and some descending blows as well, but relatively few steeply-angled blows from above that might follow the sort of line described by Fiore (through the cheekbone, down through the teeth, all the way down to the knees). We might suggest that such blows are easy to stop with a feder or a “normal” longsword, but are perhaps more difficult to arrest with a significantly larger and heavier sword.
The flugelhaw does not seem to follow the description of the technique from the Kölner Fechtbuch or from Paurenfeindt. Instead, it seems a little more akin to the flugelhaw described by Paulus Mair, in that it seems to be a single rising cut with the long edge, that can come from either side – although in this source, the flugelhaw from the right seems to be preferred. Interestingly, there is one place in the text that calls out explicitly that you should hold the pommel while performing a flugelhaw, which is unusual, and is also explicitly against the advice in the Nuremberg Hausbuch for striking effectively. Nonetheless, such an action might be quite reminiscent of the illustration of the underhaw in Talhoffer’s 1467 manuscript, with a rising long edge strike from the right, with the left hand quite clearly cupping the pommel.
The frei haw could potentially be interpreted in a variety of ways. Again, we can draw a link with Talhoffer, who uses the terms frei haw and frei ort relatively often in his 1467 manuscript.
I observe that every time Talhoffer describes something as frei, the performance is depicted with what we might consider the “wrong” foot forward.
Paurenfeindt provides twelve rules for a beginner, and one of these rules is that you should step correctly when cutting, so that a cut from the right is supported by a step with the right foot, and a cut from the left is supported by a step with the left foot. This is the same advice in the gemeine lehre, the good general lessons at the start of the Liechtenauer glosses. We could consider that the frei haw is a cut made in a fashion that is “free” of the normal rule for stepping.
Thus, we have two footwork options for understanding the techniques described in the Anonymous Unicum: those where you chain the cut and step according to the usual rules, and those where you break the usual rules to make the step with the other foot.
Understanding the sequences
The sequences in the “Anonymous Unicum” seem to make more sense when we consider them as flourishes or assalti rather than trying to think of them as techniques or stucke in the conventional sense. Why are sequences and flourishes worth practising?
Solo forms like flourishes, assalti, or kata are worth practising because they give you a variety of benefits. They may not seem immediately applicable to “real fighting”, but we are not always trying to recreate that. In fact, many of us lack the sheer physicality that would be needed for a “real fight” and we need remedial exercises to help us improve our physicality as well as our sword-handling skills. Solo forms give us hundreds or thousands of repetitions of techniques while also putting them into more of a reasonable context than simply standing in place and doing a hundred or a thousand repetitions of a technique in isolation.
Performing the solo forms with footwork will help you practise relevant footwork for the discipline. Rather than lining up and doing “basic footwork drills”, which almost never work, I think footwork is best practised by playing games or by doing relevant fencing activities. This is definitely a relevant fencing activity, and therefore these solo forms will give you significantly better footwork practice than most “basic footwork drills” that people unfortunately seem to fall back on so often.
Another benefit is that by practising each sequence and memorising them all separately, you improve your mind and your ability to remember large numbers of physical actions and all the details associated with them. Back when I was practising karate, some of our shorter katas had 20 or so movements, each requiring plenty of details to be correct; some of our longer katas had 70 or so movements, all of which had to be performed in the correct order with the correct stance and footwork and other details. This is a great workout for the mind as well as for the body. So, once you are familiar enough with each of the sequences separately, you could even try to link them together and display them as a single long flourish!
Finally, doing solo forms like this can help you see how people from the time did their practice, and how they linked techniques together for solo training. It is an interesting piece of historical record not only of the fencing method but also of the self-training and perhaps the pedagogical methods as well.
Jamie Acutt has an interesting chapter about common fencing and the use of solo forms and flourishes across Europe in his book Swords, Science, and Society, which would be worth adding to your bookcase if you are interested in learning a bit more about the historical practice of flourishes.
This is quite an interesting source, and one worth studying. I think it is best to approach the source with the assumption that it is a training method for using larger swords, although you might well experiment with other approaches and sizes or shapes of sword.
The practice will undoubtedly help you with your general physicality and this will stand you in good stead for your other fencing activities. It is relatively low impact and has very little chance of causing injuries to anyone, and it requires no protective equipment at all. This makes it a very lightweight practice, good for hot weather, and good for people who are not particularly interested in high-intensity sparring or otherwise getting hit hard.
I would like to see more people begin to practise these flourishes from the Anonymous Unicum. Many people know about the flourish from the Nuremberg Hausbuch, and more people are beginning to work with the Kölner Fechtbuch, so these flourishes from the Anonymous Unicum add a significant amount of material to the corpus of Germanic flourishes. It would be interesting to see how other people take these exercises and incorporate them into general training, and to see what discussions or developments occur as a result.
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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.