Joachim Meyer’s 1570 masterpiece “A Thorough Description of the Free Knightly and Noble Art of Combat with All Customary Weapons” contains a wealth of information for practitioners of the German fighting arts. However, many practitioners don’t make full use of the information contained in there, preferring to dabble around the edges rather than deal with the more complex ideas contained in the text. In particular, many people I speak to find the “stücke” or “devices” difficult to deal with, as these examples of free play often involve multiple actions from both participants, at a variety of distances and timings. Therefore, I’m going to try explain here how I approach a device and how I teach it.
The “Fourth Device”
Meyer’s chapter 11 contains more than 50 separate devices, from a variety of starting postures. However, only the first four devices from Vom Tag (a high guard where the sword is raised above the head) are numbered. Of these, the first three are defences, and the fourth is an attack. The “Fourth Device” (Hence forth, 4D) is a massive device, containing six actions in the first part, and three actions in the second part. Considering that the opponent must respond to each of these actions, it is obviously daunting to firstly just do the actions, and secondly, to perform them against an opponent (willing or unwilling). However, Meyer comments that he has “described this device so particularly because quite a few techniques can be learned and executed from it”, and says that it should not only be learned but considered carefully. How then do you go about deconstructing and studying such a device?
Firstly, you must appreciate that though Meyer writes this device as a linear narrative, there are in fact several possible terminations for the device. Secondly, the opponent must be considered skilled in all the actions Meyer has previously described, or at least the first three devices described prior to the fourth device. Thus, building the device for you and your class takes time- I normally teach it over 4- 6 lessons. However, with the right approach, you can teach this device even to absolute longsword novices, which I have done and am currently doing.
Class 1: Setting the scene
Figure 1: Wishful thinking on the part of the attacker
I normallyget my students to repeat this chain of movement several times, so they get a feeling for distance and timing. Then I introduce the second complication- the opponent doesn’t have to sit and merely receive the attack, he can take the opportunity as you step in to attack, as shown in figure 2:
Figure 2: The tactical thinking as you step into distance
I should note that there are two possible timings for the opponent’s attack:
- As your left foot lands in Vom Tag
- As your right foot leaves the floor to step and attack
Therefore I normally have my students play the role of the “opponent” and experiment with the different timings and lines of attack possible against somebody stepping into distance. I then teach the students the basic version of the first three devices, to complete this tactical set:
- If you are attacked from the left with a cut from above, step to the right and cut down with your flat onto his head (I’ll discuss this enigmatic device in a later article)
- If you are attacked from the left with a cut from below, step to the right, and cut down with your long edge onto his sword. Follow up with a short edge cut from above to his head
- If you are attacked from the right, step out to the left with your front (left) foot, and cut down with your long edge onto his sword. Follow up with a short edge cut from above to his head
This class may take one or two sessions to complete, depending on whether you and your students already have the first three devices learnt as second nature. However, the action of stepping away from the incoming cut and cutting down is very simple, and I find the students rapidly make this action second nature.
Class 2: Starting the attack
Once the students are familiar with what to do if they are attacked, it’s time to deal directly with the 4D. This is where the game gets interesting, and why I often start teaching longsword with the 4D. Basically, if you step forward and attack, the opponent gets to respond with exactly the same three responses you would respond with if you were attacked, as shown in Figure 3:
This is obviously a problem- if you simply attack, you open yourself up to a counter-attack. Indeed, if the opponent is skilled, he may indeed be waiting for you to attack, so he can counter. This, then, is the starting point of the 4D- you need to attack without exposing yourself to a counter-attack. The sequence of actions Meyer lists is the following:
- When you step forward into Vom Tag and realise your opponent will not attack you, cross your right hand over your left, and threaten a thrust to your opponent’s right side (from your left)
- When he moves to parry this, uncross your arms and strike a Zwerchhau horizontally at his left ear (from your right)
- If he gets hit, withdraw
- If he parries this, immediately pull away and feint a cut to his lower right opening (from your left below)
- Follow up your feint with two short edge strikes from above, first to his left ear, then to his right ear, in a circular motion.
- Step back on with your left foot and cut up from below right at his left arm.
This sequence involves several elements of handwork, though Meyer does not explicitly name the components- obviously you are looking to deceive the opponent, you are using the Zwerchhau, you are pulling your attacks so they can’t be intercepted, you are letting the blade run off in the Circle (Zirckel) while swinging the Schielhau at his head from both sides. However, this sequence can be broken down into 2 subordinate sequences, in which you draw a response from your opponent (“Provoke” a response) and then strike into the opening. Figure 4 shows the breakdown:
I find that this part of the sequence can take students a while to learn, normally at least two classes. I start out as follows:
- Refresh the previous class
- Allow the attacker to start the device and practice part 1.
- Allow the defender to attempt to counter the device with Meyer’s first three devices (double hits may result as the students get to grips with timing and distance)
- Once the defender is comfortable working against Pt. 1, introduce Pt. 2 and allow the attacker to practice it against the defender
- Allow the defender to attempt to counter the device with Meyer’s first three devices.
When teaching this device, I always need to emphasise a couple of things:
- Firstly, the opponent should be looking to actively counter the attacks. If the opponent simply steps back and breaks the measure, the entire device effectively starts again. If your partner unconsciously steps back when you attack him, place him against a wall, so he cannot step back
- Each part of this sequence consists of a piece of deception, followed by an attack. In Pt. 1, the sequence consists of a feinted thrust and then a Zwerch, possibly followed by a withdrawal. In Pt. 2, the sequence consists of a feinted cut from below, followed by a paired set of strikes to the head with the short edge, followed by a withdrawal. To make this work effectively, the feint must be done in distance and be an actual threat to the defender. Easier said than done!
- Many students struggle to stay in distance for Pt. 2- the short edge strikes use less space than the long edge, so you can be right on top of the opponent. Practice makes perfect!
Part 3: Countering the counter
The final part of the device involves defending against an attack after you have attempted to withdraw. There can be several reasons why such would be necessary:
- You failed to hit the opponent in the previous parts of the device
- You failed to incapacitate your opponent and he can continue to attack you
- You are fighting under a set of rules which allows the struck person one or more “afterblows” after he is struck
Anyhow, the attacker is now forced to defend, as follows:
- The attacker is now standing right foot forward, arms extended and the blade hanging down to the right.
- The obvious opening is to his left- Meyer describes an attack coming in towards the attacker’s lower left, but I find the same action works for an attack coming in at the upper left as well.
- As the attack comes in, the “attacker” steps forward with his left foot and beats the sword away to his left with the short edge, such that his hands cross (as shown in the small figures on the upper right in Figure 5).
Figure 5: Meyer’s Plate 6- our fencers of interest are in the upper right
- The opponent pulls his sword away from the beat, and looks to pull around his head and attack from his left (to the “attacker’s” right)
- The “attacker” pulls his crossed hands out to the left, and then beats the incoming attack strongly away with his flat, hard enough that the blade swings round his head.
- As the blade swings round his head, he uncrosses his hands and delivers a short edge Zwerch from the left at the opponent’s right ear (requires a big step to the left)
- The “attacker” then cuts down with the long edge while stepping back.
This last part can be practiced as part of the main sequence, but I normally practice it separately at first:
- Set one partner (1) in a right foot stance with the sword on the right side
- Let the other partner attack to Partner 1’s left side
- Partner 1 then steps and does the last part of the device
Once this sequence is ingrained, then the entire 4D sequence can be run. An achievement indeed!
The Fourth Device is much more than simply long sequence of cuts. It showcases the longsword system and the grace of the weapon, and teaches timing, distance and tactical decision making. It’s very unlikely that all elements of the device will ever be used in free-sparring (especially between two opponents who both know the device), but it is a very valuable tool to teach. As I’ve stated, I’m happy to teach this from the very first longsword class, as I find it allows the students to get a feeling for the ebb and flow of the fight, as well as the sword mechanics. Let me know what you think about this device in the various Facebook threads I link it to.
I managed to take the video camera out and video the device. It isn’t perfect, but hopefully it helps explain what my actions are: