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.
Hard and Soft, and Fuhlen
The sword blade can be divided into the “strong” (störck) and the “weak” (schwech), but the bind can be divided into “hard” (herte) and “soft” (waich). My preferred definition is as follows:
You are “hard” (herte) in the bind if you have some advantage and can stab your opponent without needing to do anything except push your hands forward, or if you are pressing into the bind with the goal of achieving this state.
You are “soft” (waich) in the bind if your opponent has some advantage and can stab you easily, while you are unable to land a hit by thrusting straight without doing something to change.
The “strong” (störck) of the sword is the near half of the blade, from the hilt to roughly the middle. You are stronger and able to resist more force closer to your hilt.
The “weak” (schwech) of the sword is the further half of the blade, from roughly the middle to the point. You are considerably weaker and less able to resist force at a point further away from the hilt, although this where momentum and acceleration will act in your favour and can increase the force with which you can strike.
You may both be attempting to be “hard” in the bind, so that you are both competing for control in the bind. It is unlikely that you will both be “soft” in the bind, because inevitably someone is going to push a little and gain the advantage, becoming “hard” by these definitions.
Being hard or soft in the bind certainly has some connection with the strong and weak of the sword, because it is easier to be hard if you have your strong on your opponent’s weak, but there are more factors that have a bearing on whether or not you are hard or soft. It is quite possibly to have your strong on your opponent’s weak in such a fashion that you cannot actually take advantage in the bind and make a straight cut or thrust from that position.
Example: an Oberhaw countered by a Zornhaw
If we imagine a relatively simple scenario where the first fencer strikes in with an Oberhaw and the second fencer responds by counter-cutting with a Zornhaw onto the attacker’s blade, this allows for a variety of situations to develop.
In this example, the attack was good, but the counter-cut was good enough to take the advantage in the bind:
- Fencer A: performs an Oberhaw
- Fencer B: counters-cuts with a Zornhaw that takes full control of the bind
- Result: fencer B can now thrust at will, because A has been subjected and disadvantaged by a good counter-cut
- Technical description: A is soft, B is hard
We see this situation in the first stuck of the Zornhaw:
When he cuts at you, down from his right side, then strike a Zornhaw with the long edge, in with strength from your right shoulder. If he is then weak at the sword, shoot in with the point long to the face. Thus, threaten to stab him.(Ringeck, MS Dresd.C.487, f.19r, translation mine 2020. Emphasis added for clarity.)
Alternatively, if the attack is good but the counter-cut wasn’t sufficiently good to take any advantage:
- Fencer A: performs an Oberhaw with good mechanics
- Fencer B: attempts a Zornhaw with bad mechanics
- Result: fencer A will be in control of the bind and can thrust at will, while B probably fails to gain much control over anything
- Technical description: A is hard, B is soft
Liechtenauer doesn’t discuss what fencer B should do in this situation, because the advice has already been given in the gemeine lehre that you should always cut properly and that you should learn to do this before almost everything else. The first few lessons in the glosses are about learning to do things properly and not developing the breadth of your repertoire, so I think it is safe to infer that the original advice would be to become good enough at doing the basics that this sort of situation is unlikely to occur.
Of course, both fencers might have good mechanics, in which case it might end up in a situation where no-one has control or advantage:
- Fencer A: Oberhaw with good mechanics
- Fencer B: Zornhaw with good mechanics
- Result: both fencers are vying for control; neither can thrust directly, but neither can risk leaving the bind and giving up control
- Technical description: A is hard and B is also hard
We see this situation in the third stuck of the Zornhaw, after the discussion of the Oben Abnehmen (which is really just a continuation of the first stuck):
When you cut in with the Zornhaw and he Versetzes and remains with strength against your sword, become stronger at the sword, and go out with the strong of your sword against the weak of his sword, and turn your sword with your hilt in front of your head, and thus thrust in from above to his face.(Ringeck, MS Dresd.C.487, f.19r, translation mine 2020. Emphasis added for clarity.)
What is quite interesting about this advice is that your opponent must be strong enough that you aren’t able to thrust straight forward, as per the previous quote – I choose to understand that this means that your opponent has enough of an advantage in the bind to prevent this, or at least, you don’t have enough of an advantage to make it happen.
Therefore, you have to gain that advantage, and that is what is meant by “become stronger at the sword”. It’s not a matter of straining your muscles to output yet more muscular power, the advice is instead to gain a stronger (better) position against the other sword so that you have the advantage to make the hit that you want through or from the bind.
Understanding how Fuhlen applies to these situations
The concept of Fuhlen is therefore nothing to do with gauging just how much strength your opponent is putting into the bind, but is instead a much simpler sense of feeling: who is in control of the bind? Can you win this situation easily?
It should be obvious instantaneously (hmm, that sounds like Indes…) who is in control and most able to thrust unimpeded, and it should also be obvious immediately if both fencers are hard in the bind.
Therefore, the fencer who has the best skill at Fuhlen will be the person able to understand and read the situation most swiftly and correctly, who can then make the most appropriate Action first, understanding whether to thrust, cut, or slice, or to leave the bind and cut around; or indeed, if it would be best to parry or flee to safety elsewhere.
Your perception of the sense of touch with regard to pressure in the bind and positioning in the bind is an incredibly important skill and one worth developing through drills and exercises.
What Fuhlen is not
Fuhlen is not a game of touching swords and playing follow-the-leader, performing a variety of actions in the bind without ever leaving the bind when it would be sensible to do so. Liechtenauer never once says “stay in the bind at all costs, even if you really should leave the bind because you are about to lose.”
Fuhlen is not a case of measuring who is applying more muscular strength in absolute terms. If your opponent is using 83 strength-units and you are only using 81 strength-units, do you need to dial it up to 85 strength-units to win? This is rather silly, because you can’t really measure this in the middle of a fight, and many attacks will come in with whatever strength your opponent is able to bring to the technique. You need to be able to handle this, ideally every single time, and that probably demands applying whatever strength you can bring to the technique yourself. Liechtenauer recommends fighting with the strength of your whole body, and he never once recommends “if your opponent cuts weakly at you, then cut weakly back at him with just one or two strength-units more than him.”
Fuhlen is also not just a European version of ki or chi, and you don’t need to survey your inner energy to make a good decision. There is nothing mystical about it. Liechtenauer never once recommends that “you should spend time meditating in a cave on the mountain, coming to terms with your inner strength and connection with the universe.”
These examples might seem a bit over the top, and I am making a little fun of them, but I have heard variations of each of these over the years. People seem to delight in overcomplicating things, Fuhlen especially, and I believe that they make life far more difficult for themselves as a result.
In fact, we might sometimes do better to translate Fuhlen as “understanding” or “perception” rather than “feeling”, because the essence of the concept is to understand what is happening so that you can do the appropriate thing. If you were to consider the term as “understanding” or “perception” instead of “feeling”, would this change your interpretations at all? Would it simplify and demystify things for you?
Strong and Weak of the sword, and Winden
“Winden” just means “turning”, like you might turn a key in a lock, or turn to face a new speaker in a group. There is nothing mystical about it and I believe firmly that we do ourselves a great disservice by making it out to be something mystical and awesome.
By turning your sword so that your strong comes against the opponent’s weak (or at least, a stronger bit of your sword comes against a weaker bit of your opponent’s sword), you gain a better structure and therefore the mechanical advantage. If you are both hard in the bind, and you apply your strong to your opponent’s weak, this changes the situation so that you have the advantage: you are now hard and he is now soft, and you can thrust directly into his face.
Clearly, the Fuhlen and perception must come first. You must realise that you are both hard in the bind, and therefore that the Winden is required. If you just do Winden instinctively, then that is a habitual reaction and not a considered response (see part 1 for these definitions), which will lead to trouble. For Winden to be a considered response, the Fuhlen must occur first, so that you understand how best to respond to the given situation.
Furthermore, if you are hard and your opponent is soft, then there is no need for Winden – just thrust straight, land the hit, and the job is done. No need to make it more complicated than that.
Of course, there may be situations where you can skip the Fuhlen because you know what is going to happen. If your opponent always takes control of the bind because of strength / mechanics / blade presence (or for any other reason), then you don’t need to wait for the bind to occur to realise that you are soft – if you know in advance that you will be soft despite your best efforts, then you can skip directly to performing the response, because this is a carefully thought-out and considered Answer to the Action.
You never want to go into the bind with the intention of being soft (because then your opponent should just stab you straight through your softness), so there has to be an attempt to be hard (because not only is that an attempt at control, it is an attempt at not dying). Using good mechanics and body structure to be hard in the bind is a sensible strategy, and gaining control of the bind (so that your opponent is soft) is the ideal situation. However, if this doesn’t quite manage to play out the way you would like, then Fuhlen should give you an instantaneous understanding of what the situation actually is so that you can make a response featuring Winden, Ablauffen, Durchlauffen, Abschneiden, or whatever seems appropriate.
The five words, and the entire art of fencing
The “five words” of Liechtenauer are, in order: Vor, Nach, herte, waich, Indes (before, after, hard, soft, immediately). According to the Nuremberg Hausbuch, the entire art of fencing rests on these five words, as do the foundations and core of fencing on foot or on horse, with or without armour. Clearly, it is important to understand these concepts and to be able to implement them effectively in your fencing.
If you come to your opponent, then (actively) set your left foot forwards just into distance and cut at him with an Action that demands an Answer – thus you can win the first on the first word. You have taken the Vor, and if he fails to Answer adequately, you hit him. Done! But even if he parries (and Answers your Action), you can continue to Act in a way that demands an Answer, and eventually you will hit him through his defences. Done!
If the opponent takes the Vor, and comes to you with an Action that demands an Answer, you can still win the fight on the second word. Embrace your position in the Nach, and understand what you need to do: 1) don’t die, and 2) gain the advantage. So, try to give a sensible and considered response rather than an instinctive and haphazard reaction. Ideally, make a response that demands an Answer, so that he has to start Answering you, and thus you may begin to Act. By being clever in this fashion, you can take the advantage and move from the Nach into the Vor.
If there is not a simple way for you to win on the second word, then you have to use words three and four in order to win with word five. If the opponent presses his Actions, and keeps you under threat, then you must use your sense of Fuhlen to understand when it would be sensible for you to do something to threaten him. When your Fuhlen tells you that you are hard in the bind (that you have or are contesting control of the situation), make the appropriate Winden or straight attacking action to capitalise upon this, so that your response demands an Answer from the opponent – and this is Indes. You win on word five, by understanding words three and four and knowing how to apply them in your fencing.
Working in the bind is quite a characteristic and important part of Liechtenauer’s art. It is also just one part of his art. There are many ways to win the fight either in the Vor or the Nach without needing to perform any Winden actions. It is not “bad fencing” to do things that don’t involve the bind; but it is ignoring an important part of the art if you don’t make time to understand how to fence like this.
I used to think that it was hyperbole to say that the entire art of fencing rests on the five words. How could five words express an entire system? Madness! And where were the techniques? You need to perform techniques to be able to do anything!
But more recently I understand that these words express a state of mind, an understanding of how to read a fight and choose what to do next, and a way to diagnose faults during training and performance. They shouldn’t be something you need to think about consciously during your fencing – you must internalise your understanding of these concepts, so that you understand each and every situation during your fencing bouts without needing to think it through.
It is probably fair to say that whenever we watch people fencing, it is the people who seem to know immediately and unerringly what to do who tend to perform best. The people who go in with a rigid plan and who are unable to adapt to changing circumstances tend to be beaten easily, and people who seem quite oblivious and who just do random things also tend to lose.
I hope these three parts of this article about Vor, Nach, and Indes will help give an insight into how I understand these concepts. I think there are some nuances that are incredibly important, and at the same time, I think it is equally important to simplify these concepts as much as possible so that we do not make them any more complicated than they need to be. They should be nuanced but not complicated. They should be simple and applicable, not awesome or mystic in nature.
If you would like to discuss any of these concepts or ideas with me, or talk about ways to train them in your club, please feel welcome to contact me to arrange some online coaching. We can schedule some time to talk over Zoom and I would be delighted to help you find ways to train and improve these skills at your club.
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.