The concepts of Vor, Nach, and Indes are integral to the art of fencing according to Liechtenauer. The words and concepts can be interpreted in many different ways, and I have gone through many iterations over the last several years of practice and study.
In these articles, I will offer my current thinking about the concepts of Vor, Nach, and Indes. It is quite a long article, but it is broken down into relatively bite-size sections by appropriate headings.
Taking the Vor meaningfully, and Vor tactics
Liechtenauer writes that taking the Vor and giving the Vorschlag is the best option, because then your opponent must defend himself. Although this sounds obvious, there is a slightly deeper meaning and understanding of the situation here:
You must not only act and perform an action, but you must Act with real threat and perform an Action that demands an Answer.
If you just throw a cut somewhere in front of you, then the opponent may not need to do anything about it. If they don’t care, then you didn’t make them care (or they are just dumb, which maybe requires a different approach to ensure your safety).
However, if you put your left foot forward (using this motion to enter distance) and send forth an Oberhaw that the opponent both sees and understands will hit him hard on the head if he doesn’t deal with it, then there is a very high chance that he will do something to deal with it.
In other words, you perform an Action that demands an Answer, and the Answer will be given. If you just act, without that demand, then the opponent may ignore you or may make some kind of cut back at you. This may result in your ineffective action giving the opponent a chance to Act in the Vor, or it may result in a Gleich sort of situation with a double hit.
Therefore, taking the Vor requires that you Act in a way that demands an Answer. Anything else is not taking the Vor, it is just waving the sword around.
What about setting a trap to invite an attack?
It could be suggested that setting a trap to make the opponent attack into your desired opening is a Vor tactic, because you make him play your game. However, I would disagree that setting a trap is an action in the Vor, because it doesn’t demand an answer.
According to the way I think about the issue, and the definitions I set out in part 1, whatever happens before the Action doesn’t count. You might set a trap, or you might be lazy, or you might just misjudge something; it doesn’t really matter. It is just the Action that counts when we consider the Vor.
In setting a trap, what matters is that at some point your opponent will Act by cutting at you in such a fashion that he demands an Answer from you, and you then have to provide that Answer.
If your Answer is clever, and demands an Answer of its own, then you responded in the Nach and worked Indes. He then has to respond to you and is therefore in the Nach, allowing you the freedom to Act in the Vor.
If your Answer is instinctive and is merely some sort of cover that doesn’t demand an Answer from the opponent, then you remain in the Nach and he has the opportunity to remain in the Vor by Acting again.
This kind of trap is your moment and opportunity to move from Nach to Vor, but it is not a Vor tactic by itself – it is quite a good example of a Nach tactic to be able to move into the Vor.
Can you set traps from the Vor?
You certainly can. If your opponent has a very good defence, and works intelligently in the Nach, then you might need to make your Vor a bit more sophisticated than just throwing simple strikes.
A good example is the Flugelhaw from the Kölner Fechtbuch: strike high to the opponent’s left ear, and when he goes to parry, make a rising strike to his right arm from below. If he manages to bring his sword back across and down to parry that, then return to striking the left ear. This is a simple set of sequences that creates a reason for the opponent to parry, by which response he opens himself to another attack somewhere else. By making attacks from one opening to the next, above and below, on both sides, you can create openings and opportunities for a hit.
You might also consider using feints and misdirection with the Fehler: take the Vor by Acting with a good enough strike to demand an Answer, but snatch it away when your opponent begins to respond, without letting blades connect, and strike around to the other side. Of course, this runs the risk that by planning the second hit, your first strike begins to look less believable, meaning that your opponent may feel less of a demand to answer your action. If your feint isn’t believable, then it’s not very useful.
Another option would be to consider something like the Aussern Myn. If your opponent is good at defending, and refuses to fall for a Fehler on your first strike, then make a good and honest Oberhaw to the head. Allow the blade contact when your opponent parries, that’s fine. Strike around to the other side with another Oberhaw, and again, allow your opponent to parry. You want both these Actions to demand an Answer, and you can allow the Answers to happen. Once the second strike is being parried, you are in a good position to perform the Aussern Myn and hit behind the parry.
You might also then consider something like the Duplieren, rather than a Fehler. If you know that your opponent is going to parry when you make a good strike, then make a good strike: Act with an Oberhaw that demands an Answer, and let the Answer happen. And as it plays out, turn your sword and cut your opponent in the face behind the sword, with the Duplieren – this is quite easy to do if your attack is believable, and if you know that your opponent will try to parry your attack.
There are ways to set traps in the Vor, but they all work best if your Action demands an Answer. If you act in such a way that your opponent doesn’t care enough to answer you, then you haven’t performed well enough to have a good chance of success.
Liechtenauer does write that being in the Nach is not so bad, as long as you fence well and don’t do anything stupid. Of course, being in the Vor is better, because then you can be Acting and your opponent will be busy Answering you (hopefully with reactions instead of responses) instead of Acting himself. But if he has Acted first, and you are Answering him, then this is not the end of the world.
Our sources describe various tactics whereby you let the other person attack first. Sometimes your opponent may attack first because he is bigger and taller and is physically more able to launch the first strike than you. But sometimes, you can engineer a situation to make this happen on your terms.
Examples of deliberate Nach opportunities
For example, you can allow the opponent to attack with a an Oberhaw to your head so that you may enter the bind via Streychen, achieve your advantage in the bind, and then work usefully from there.
Alternatively, you can allow the opponent to attack, so that you can catch the strike and stab them in the face with Absetzen. This can be a good way to interrupt your opponent’s attacking sequence.
Or you can allow the opponent to attack, so that you can parry and riposte immediately, catching them before they can withdraw or attack again. This may go wrong if you attempt to strike back while your opponent is still busy Acting, because then you are working Gleich instead of doing something intelligent. Instead, it often works better if you allow your opponent to make a sequence of strikes, responding to each Action with a well-formed Gerade Versatzung or similar defence, and bide your time – when your opponent runs out of steam and stops Acting with as much vigour, you have an opportunity to start Acting yourself.
If you work out your tactic, and keep your distance so that you have sufficient time to deal with an incoming attack, then you can respond quite intelligently to your opponent’s Action, and hopefully in such a fashion that your response will itself demand an Answer.
This sort of strategy requires that you plan on responding to an Action, and therefore that you accept that the other person will be Acting. You must keep yourself safe (otherwise it is both Gleich and dumb) and you must be in control of your response – without that control, you will just be reacting, and that allows your opponent to keep the advantage.
So, is working in the Nach all about being passive and letting the attack happen?
No, far from it. You can be very active in the Nach, and you can be pulling all the strings like a puppet-master. You can work to create the situation where your opponent decides to attack, so that you can respond from there. In fact, I would say that this is often the best way to work in the Nach.
You should always work to gain and then retain the advantage in every fencing situation.
Advantage and initiative
“Initiative” is a word that is often used to describe the Vor, and to some extent this can be helpful. However, with this definition of Vor and Nach, “initiative” doesn’t really help very much. The person with the “initiative”, who has Acted, may be the person who has the advantage in the fight, or may actually be playing into the defender’s hands, leaving the defender with the advantage.
I think “advantage” has a very simple definition, which would be the usual non-fencing definition of being better able to do something, or having a head-start or something else that makes it easier for you to achieve equal or better results. If you have the advantage in a bout then it will be easier for you to win without getting hit.
For example, if I know what I am doing and intend to work with Streychen or Absetzen or Schilhaw, then I want my opponent to attack first. Then, because I have planned it, I can respond to his Action quite intelligently, it all goes to plan, and I have the advantage in this situation even though my opponent notionally took the initiative with his Action.
If I do not have a plan, of course, and my opponent attacks first, then I may just parry. Then he attacks again, and I have to parry again, and so on. In this situation, he attacked first, so he can be described as having the “initiative”, but he also definitely has the advantage because I am simply reacting rather than responding intelligently. It is highly unlikely that I can react Indes without any preparation or conscious thought, and give an immediate and perfect reaction that demands an Answer. Maybe I can, and this would be fantastic! But in all likelihood, it is not going to happen, and so my opponent has the advantage and I’m stuck trying to get out of the situation of simply reacting to each of his Actions.
Clearly, either fighter can have the advantage in any given exchange, and therefore it is more valuable to strive for the advantage than for the initiative. Taking the Vor with a competent Action is a very easy way to gain the advantage, this is certain, but a sensible Nach tactic with appropriate preparation can allow responses that take the advantage.
This second part of the article builds on the definitions provided in part 1. I have tried to illustrate a number of tactics and options from our source material to allow for effective fencing in both the Vor and the Nach, and to show that our source material contains examples of both.
In the core Liechtenauer glosses, there are not many examples of long sequences of attacks where you have the Vor and maintain it with strikes from one opening to the next. The concept is mentioned in the gemeine lehre, in the section about attacking to the four openings, in some other places as well. It’s clearly there, but doesn’t have (or need) the same amount of explanation as other things. Just go from opening to opening, making sure you Act in such a way that you demand an Answer each time. And thus you can work safely because your opponent cannot come to blows against you (because he is busy Answering all of your Actions).
In the various texts that are a bit more like common fencing, there tend to be more examples of sequences of attacks that read a bit more like strings of techniques, without much context about why to do these things in this order. It can be useful to consider such sequences from the point of view of performing each technique as an Action that demands an Answer. You can then build on this, and consider what the Answer would be for the previous action, and that might give you an insight into why the next technique should follow.
I think a good fencer should be able to operate confidently and comfortable in both the Vor and the Nach. Sometimes, you can work one way, and sometimes you have to work differently. Being able to adapt your strategy and tactics on the fly during a bout can be valuable, and it can be precisely what you need to salvage a bout that is going badly.
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.