The tactics of Pflug (in 15thC longsword)

Liechtenauer lineage and related sources (eg. Sigmund Ringeck, Peter von Danzig, Paulus Kal, Hans Talhoffer), interpretation and practice. Open to public view.

The tactics of Pflug (in 15thC longsword)

Postby KeithFarrell » 27 Mar 2014 14:58

Before we start talking, for the purpose of this thread, I'm not interested in anything from 16th century treatises. Meyer, Mair, the Kölner fechtbuch and other sources have a wealth of information, but I want to focus on the 15th century sources for this particular discussion. The only exception I'm making is to include the Ringeck longsword treatise, because I believe it is essentially 15th century in nature, even if the earliest surviving copy dates from the early 16th century.

Translations in this post will be taken from the Wiktenauer - thanks to everyone who has contributed translations and transcriptions to this resource! Furthermore, I'm going to use the acronyms LFF and RFF for left and right foot forward respectively.

I have been thinking quite a lot about the use of Pflug in sparring, and I think must of us sacrifice a lot of options by preferring the right leg forward version. I would like to propose that the left foot forward, crossed wrist Pflug is a much better tactical option that allows us to display more of the art.

Looking at Ringeck's description of the Vier Leger:

Ringeck wrote:The first guard. The Ox.
Hold it like this: stand with the left foot forwards, and hold your sword beside and slightly in front of the right side of your head, and let the point hang towards his face.

The second guard. The Plough.
Hold it like this: stand with the left foot forward, and hold your sword with crossed hands beside and slightly above your right knee, in such a way that the point is towards his face.

The third guard. The Fool.
Hold it like this: stand with your right foot forwards, and hold your sword with outstretched arms in front of you with the point towards the ground.

The fourth guard. From the Roof.
Hold it like this: stand with the left foot forwards, and hold your sword at your right shoulder. Or hold it with outstretched arms above your head. And how you shall fence from these guards, you will find described in this book.


And looking at the Pseudo-Danzig gloss:

Pseudo-Danzig wrote:The first guard is called the Ox, position yourself thus with it: stand with the left foot before and hold your sword near your right side with the hilt before the head so that your thumb is under the sword, and hang in the point against his face.

Mark, on the left side position yourself thus in the Ox: stand with the right foot before and hold your sword near your left side with the hilt before your head so that your thumb is below, and hang the point in against his face. That is the Ox on both sides.

This is the second guard:
Mark the other guard is called the Plow, there position yourself thus with it: stand with the left foot before and hold your sword with crossed hands with the pommel below you near your right side on the hip, so that the short edge is above and the point stands in against his face.

Mark, on the left side position yourself thus in the Plow: stand with the right foot before and hold your sword near your left side with the pommel below you on the hip, so that the long edge is above and the point stands in against the face. That is the Plow on both sides.

This is the third guard:
Mark, position yourself thus in the guard called Fool: stand with the right foot before and hold your sword with stretched arms before you with the point on the earth so that the short edge is turned above.

This is the fourth guard:
Mark, the guard is called From the Roof, therein position yourself thus: stand with the left foot before and hold your sword on your right shoulder or with up-stretched arms high over the head, and stand thus in the guard.


Ringeck describes the positions as follows:

- Vom Tag: left leg forward
- Ochs: left leg forward
- Pflug: left leg forward
- Alber: right leg forward (note: the only position with the right leg forward)

The ps-Danzig gloss describes the positions as follows:

- Vom Tag: left leg forward (no right side forward variant)
- Ochs: left or right leg forward (but described left foot forward first, with a right foot variant)
- Pflug: left or right leg forward (but described left foot forward first, with a right foot variant)
- Alber: right leg forward (no left side forward variant)

I think it is clear that the Ochs and the Pflug can be done with either leg forward, but Vom Tag and Alber seem to be specifically one side forward, and I think there may be some good reasons for that. However, those might warrant a separate thread!

It is debatable whether or not the Pflug must be pulled right back to the waist. Ps-Danzig describes it with the pommel at the hip, but Ringeck describes it "above the right knee". That could refer to the blade, with the hilt back at the hip, or it could refer to the hilt with the blade protruding further forward. Certainly I think most of us tend to work with the sword further forward in sparring, rather than always pulling it tightly back to the hip. For the purpose of this discussion, let's assume it doesn't really matter precisely where the hilt is located (and the descriptions are down to the masters' preferences) as long as the position fulfils the functions of Pflug.

We see most people using a RFF Pflug position, with the sword extended in front. This gives the feeling of security, it gives the feeling that attacks can be launched swiftly, and it is comfortable. However, I believe this is a somewhat limiting position, and I believe the LFF position is better - and therefore, why the 15thC masters preferred, prioritised or emphasised the LFF version.

Footwork

From a RFF position, lunges are easy. Shuffles and gathering steps are simple enough. However, we rarely see people making passing steps by bringing the rear (left) foot up and forwards with a full step, making a cut from the left. Such a motion also goes against the general advice to make the first attack from high right, since that is where we are strongest. So mostly we see people shuffling into distance and then playing a game with lunging and slipping, a little like sabre, or perhaps even staying stationary and working from a fixed distance. Obviously this is not good if we want to be mobile and in control of space.

From a LFF position, we can still make lunges if we need a cut or slice from the left (such as we see in Talhoffer), we can still shuffle or use gathering steps to move in and out of distance - but we can now make passing steps with the right foot and make strong cuts from high right. This allows us to cover more distance with a stronger and more competent threat. It also allows for a sloping, diagonal or off-line passing step going further out to the right, vital for techniques such as the Krumphaw or Zwerhaw, and useful for techniques like the Zornhaw. The RFF position makes going out to the side a little more difficult, because it is optimised for a linear method of fighting.

So in terms of footwork, a LFF position allows for more footwork options, and it allows for greater (and easier) control of distance and space and angles.

Strength of Attacks

In a RFF position, most attacks tend to be made with a lunge. This allows us to bring some amount of strength to bear, but not as much as if we take a full passing step. There is also not much need to rotate the blade or make a moulinet-like action while cutting - most people will simply push the hands out from this position and hope to score a hit. I think a lot of the games of "tag" that we see from beginners stem from their over-reliance on this kind of position where they don't *need* to use good mechanics to score a touch.

From the LFF position, any cuts with a passing step bring more of the body into play. They also require a slight rotation of the sword or a small moulinet-like action with the tip in order to strike comfortably. These have the benefit of encouraging better striking mechanics, and they also have the benefit of forcing you to bring your sword from your right side over to your left side, at the very least contesting the centre line and quite possibly giving you the opportunity to dominate it and close your upper left opening against a counter. So not only does the LFF position give better opportunities for stronger attacks, it requires better mechanics from the practitioner, and it gives more opportunity to make a well-covered attack.

Opportunities for Defence

In the RFF position, parries are simple and well structured. This is a significant advantage. However, if you are in this position and are covering your upper left opening, then your opponent may not make the same kind of cut from his right shoulder that you want him to make in order to pull off the techniques from the sources - he may instead try to do something to get around your well-covered position, and then you have to do something different in order to make the parry. In effect, this position might keep you so safe that it retards your ability to pull off techniques, because your opponent might not bother attacking a well-closed line.

In the LFF position, your upper left opening is completely open, and so it invites the Oberhaw from your opponent's right shoulder. This then sets you up with the opportunity to make a passing step and some kind of defence where your sword moves from the right side of your body over to the left side - in other words, it gives you lots of opportunities to pull off techniques!

Some examples of techniques that can work as a defence in this situation with the LFF:
- Absetzen / Ansetzen
- Verzetzen followed by a winding thrust and Abnehmen if required
- Zwerhaw / Krumphaw
- coming up into a crossed-wrist right "hanging guard" underneath the attack, allowing you to move into Ringen or some kind of disarm

Because you stand with LFF and have the options of staying still, lunging, stepping back with the left foot or stepping forward with the right foot, your opponent cannot predict your footwork. Because you have so many options for how to bring your sword from right to left to make the defence, your opponent cannot predict your parry, and you have options to make single time counters such as Ansetzen or the Zwerhaw. It gives you more opportunity to choose from a wider variety of techniques and counters.

If you stand with RFF, then the like defence is simply to put your sword in the way of an Oberhaw from the right shoulder, because it is already in that position if it is not already covering the line perfectly. So there is much less reason to utilise your technical repertoire, and perhaps less opportunity to do so.

Self Discipline and Good Behaviour

It is very tempting to go into that RFF position and to play a game of lunging and swift hits, but this denies us the opportunity to practice a lot of the art. If we discipline ourselves to use the LFF Pflug instead, then we are deliberately controlling the body and deliberately giving ourselves more opportunities to use more of the techniques in the system. It also teaches us awareness: you realise that you are standing in RFF Pflug because it feels comfortable, so you deliberately draw yourself back and out of the position into the LFF version. This leads to a greater awareness of distance from the opponent - are you in RFF (lunging) distance, or are you now in LFF (passing step) distance? Greater self discipline and greater awareness of self and distance can only be a good thing, so this is useful to practice.

Conclusions

I have been trying to use my LFF Pflug in sparring rather than the RFF position. Sure, once an engagement occurs, I end up in a lower left hanger - but that is a different thing from hanging out in RFF Pflug hoping to start an engagement. So far this is working well for me - I see many more opportunities to do things, even if I do not yet have the skill to do them successfully. I feel that I'm better able to use more of the art in a comfortable and fluent fashion, rather than trying to force certain techniques when they may not be entirely correct for the situation.

I would never say that RFF Pflug is a bad position; it is wonderfully structured, it closes the upper left line magnificently, and it is one of the places where I feel safest. However, for that very reason, it is good to take myself out of my comfort zone and practice other skills.

Does anyone have any thoughts, comments or suggestions about this issue? I'm intrigued to see what other people think about it, and if you disagree with me, I would love to know how and why!

Please remember that I'm only interested in discussing 15th century longsword, not Mair or Meyer or anything from the 16th century onwards. I'm also not interested in any continuation of discussions about what "in distance" means and whether or not points should hang in front of the face rather than cutting into people - the topic is the tactics for Pflug and why the LFF version might be the better version of the position.
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Re: The tactics of Pflug (in 15thC longsword)

Postby Herbert » 05 Apr 2014 15:11

KeithFarrell wrote:I have been thinking quite a lot about the use of Pflug in sparring, and I think must of us sacrifice a lot of options by preferring the right leg forward version.

I admit I haven't read your entire post but this struck me odd: WHO does prefer the right leg forward? Almost no right handed fencer I know prefers the left Pflug…how do you come to this conclusion?
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Re: The tactics of Pflug (in 15thC longsword)

Postby KeithFarrell » 07 Apr 2014 18:09

Herbert wrote:
KeithFarrell wrote:I have been thinking quite a lot about the use of Pflug in sparring, and I think must of us sacrifice a lot of options by preferring the right leg forward version.

I admit I haven't read your entire post but this struck me odd: WHO does prefer the right leg forward? Almost no right handed fencer I know prefers the left Pflug…how do you come to this conclusion?


Whenever I see people sparring in clubs or at events, invariably they take a right foot forward position. I rarely come across people who discipline themselves to use the left foot forward version!
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Re: The tactics of Pflug (in 15thC longsword)

Postby Herbert » 08 Apr 2014 08:04

KeithFarrell wrote:Whenever I see people sparring in clubs or at events, invariably they take a right foot forward position. I rarely come across people who discipline themselves to use the left foot forward version!

Then we definitely move in different circles! :wink:
Where you see this right foot forward often is in tournaments because almost all of them are a battle of speed. The use of Feder; not enough distance between the fencers; every hit counts, regardless of it being a solid one or not - all this leads to fencers who want to maximize their striking speed.
In this scenario it may make sense to put your right foot forward because you can strike a bit faster. You don't have to cover distance, you don't have to follow through, you don't have to put striking force in your hit…

If, however, someone trains for "serious" fencing, you won't be seeing this.

For me, this is another marker where one can observe the distinction between tournament fighter and the "others".

All this, of course, is written without judgment.
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Re: The tactics of Pflug (in 15thC longsword)

Postby KeithFarrell » 08 Apr 2014 10:34

I agree with you completely, Herbert. People who work with the right foot forward invariably fall prey to the trap of making fast but light touches that often lack the ability to cut if they were using a sharp. There are a few very skilful people who can still display the art when they take this position, but they tend to be few and far between!
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Re: The tactics of Pflug (in 15thC longsword)

Postby Herbert » 08 Apr 2014 17:28

I am glad I don't stand alone with my observation.

In the long run, the proper use of the techniques will lead to better fencers.
Well, depends how you define a "better fencer".
But that is surely a different discussion.
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Re: The tactics of Pflug (in 15thC longsword)

Postby Davinel » 20 Dec 2014 03:43

I already answered this in your thread on the HEMA Alliance board, but since I reread your post here just now and having thought about it since then, I'd like to add another thought on the role of Absetzen in this matter.

For alot of people I know, their best attack and go to approach is an Oberhau from the right.
So if you stand in left Pflug/right foot forward you are in the perfect position to use your Absetzen against his right Oberhau, which is precisely what Ringeck does.

Now if you have a strong Absetzen your opponent will either not attack with a right Oberhau, so you just took one of his strongest options from him, or will attack with it anyway and get a (really hard, no light touch here) thrust to the face.
In addition (and I'm generalising here), breaking the guards with a Meisterhau is something alot of people seem to not be very good at, with interpretations not as solid as for other techniques and with Schielhau breaking Pflug seeming to be one of the even lesser trained/harder Versetzen, especially against left Pflug.

Also I don't see any conflict with the sources here. If you have one specifying that you should not approach your opponent in left Pflug to thrust please quote, because the only place a specific side is usually mentioned is in the Absetzen chapter and there we have both versions in Danzig (right Pflug vs right Oberhaut) and Ringeck (left Pflug vs right Oberhau).
For other techniques like winding, the manuscripts do not seem to favor a specific side and I would argue that winding is easier to pull of against his weak side.
You most likely think about the "Vicht nicht oben linck so du recht pist" verse, but e.g. the gloss in Danzig specifically talks about cuts, with no mention of doing thrusts only from your strong side. Instead in the Ansetzen chapter, it's especially noted that you should use it from both sides.

So with left Pflug and Absetzen you have one of the best options against a right Oberhau readily at hand, thus taking his best attack from him or beating him anyway, standing in a guard that alot of people find harder to break, in full accordance with the sources. ;)

I would rather ask, in accordance with the sources, why you would expect more right Pflug?
Since why should I give my opponent the opening he's best trained to attack? I won't destroy his "game" by giving him what he wants and then hoping to be better/faster than him. :)
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Re: The tactics of Pflug (in 15thC longsword)

Postby KeithFarrell » 20 Dec 2014 11:47

Some good challenges to my post, thank you Davinel! I am going to take the easy route out for the moment and give you a very simple answer, but I will endeavour to look at the sources again and come back with something a bit more technical and meaningful.

My simple response is that if someone knows how to fight well and correctly, has a large repertoire of techniques from the sources, and can justify their use of any given position, then I think it is quite reasonable for such a person to use that position. However, I believe that the majority of people with whom I have sparred over the last few years do NOT have a large repertoire of techniques from the sources and do not really understand the tactics behind their choice of positioning.

I know that a lot of people just "hang out" in the right foot forward position because they don't have any better ideas. I know this because I'm constantly coaching people throughout Scotland, and at events across Europe, to improve their sparring by understanding what they are trying to achieve. The feedback I receive constantly is that people don't know why they take the position, other than it seems like a good idea or it seems safe.

So, if someone has a good reason for being there, then great :) but if not, then I believe they would be better served by learning other options from the left foot forward version, until they know enough to re-integrate the right foot forward version back into their fencing sensibly.
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Re: The tactics of Pflug (in 15thC longsword)

Postby Davinel » 20 Dec 2014 13:43

KeithFarrell wrote:I know that a lot of people just "hang out" in the right foot forward position because they don't have any better ideas. I know this because I'm constantly coaching people throughout Scotland, and at events across Europe, to improve their sparring by understanding what they are trying to achieve. The feedback I receive constantly is that people don't know why they take the position, other than it seems like a good idea or it seems safe.

I share this observation, especially in the "kendo like" Pflug with the hand in front of the body. It falsely feels safer, while exposing the hands and reducing your options.

So, if someone has a good reason for being there, then great :) but if not, then I believe they would be better served by learning other options from the left foot forward version, until they know enough to re-integrate the right foot forward version back into their fencing sensibly.

So in your opinion, what techniques can be (better) used from a right Pflug then from a left Pflug?
From the list in your first post I would say you can use Absetzen, Ansetzen, right hanging and the zwerchhau just as well. You can't do an easy versetzen with point offline, but with alot of better options why should you? ;)
That would leave us with the Krumphau and winding against his right Oberhau, which are not/hardly doable from left Pflug. But then again, you might be able to pull of an Aufstreichen instead of a Krumphau, which serves a similar role.
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Re: The tactics of Pflug (in 15thC longsword)

Postby KeithFarrell » 20 Dec 2014 18:47

Davinel wrote:So in your opinion, what techniques can be (better) used from a right Pflug then from a left Pflug?
From the list in your first post I would say you can use Absetzen, Ansetzen, right hanging and the zwerchhau just as well. You can't do an easy versetzen with point offline, but with alot of better options why should you? ;)
That would leave us with the Krumphau and winding against his right Oberhau, which are not/hardly doable from left Pflug. But then again, you might be able to pull of an Aufstreichen instead of a Krumphau, which serves a similar role.


The big difference in my opinion is that with the right foot forward, most people resort to lunging. Most people also lack the necessary mechanics and flexibility to do this without turning their lead foot inwards, collapsing the knee, and causing themselves problems in their knee joint. Whereas, with the left foot forward, people learn to use better footwork in order to control distance and space, rather than relying on a default, linear lunge.

With the left foot forward, people can make a passing step forward with the right foot, or can go off to the side (as advocated in so many descriptions of techniques in the sources), or can shuffle backward, or can even make a lunge with the left foot if so desired. There are more options for footwork and positioning, more ways to play with distance. If people want to use techniques such as Ansetzen, they can still do so - but now they have to learn to turn the hips correctly, how to move the entire sword correctly and accurately while protecting their hands, how to give opposition by crossing the centreline, rather than just lifting their hands into a rough Ochs position on the same side as usual and shoving forward.

I would say that once someone has a lot of skill, the choice of which foot forward is largely irrelevant. Sometimes one technique may work better or more efficiently with one foot forward, sometimes with the other.

However, very few people have that level of skill, and so teaching them to work with the left foot forward gives them a much better opportunity to learn these various skills. By mandating a more suitable learning environment where people cannot just "hang out" in their kendo-like position, people will acquire the various skills faster and more comprehensively. It is therefore an excellent pedagogical tool to make people use left foot forward Pflug rather than their favourite "hang out" guard.

It all boils down to this: people with skill and knowledge can do sensible and useful things from any position; people who are still working to attain that level of skill and knowledge would do better by concentrating on their fundamentals and developing ALL of the necessary skills, not just cherry picking the stuff that looks easy or feels safe.
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