Progress of a Student, Part 1

HEMA lacked high level practitioners of most of its arts for anywhere from one century to more than three centuries, depending on the specific art and style, that is until relatively recently.  People hotly debate whether we have people who approach the skill levels of the elite warriors of the Medieval and Renaissance eras.  Most people anciently did not have the time to develop high levels of martial skill after all.  In fact I believe that your average HEMA fighter with a couple years worth of practice under their belt would probably be able to hold their own against an average person from the Medieval and Renaissance eras, maybe even be comparable to members of militia and other part time fighters from the day.  I personally don’t think that we will have people with understanding and skill in these arts equal to the greatest ancient fighters for quite some time until we have been able to iterate and experiment with our techniques and the methods of teaching them.  I bring this up because one of the fundamental parts of teaching something is understanding what a student should be like when they have finished each stage in their training.  Learning to understand how a student progresses, how ancient teachers wanted them to progress and how we can guide our students on their journey of discovery should become a major part of the preparation a modern instructor goes through.

My statements that follow will be based on my work in Ringeck’s book and the Liechtenauer tradition and the curriculum I have built for my school.  Here I will outline the development of a student of this style as I understand it.  Other schools and traditions will differ in important ways.  They will also share substantial elements, but comparison of fighting and teaching styles falls beyond the scope of this article.  I am offering this progress map as an example of the progress a student should make as they proceed through my own curriculum.  I will assume that our student begins with no understanding of swordsmanship, or other martial arts.

In the beginning students learn things so simple that many outside people fail to understand how important they are, such as how to step, how to stand, how to measure distance, how to attack aggressively, how to think about the opponent, how to deal with danger, how to avoid the most serious mistakes, and how to execute basic attacks.  At this stage their learning feels fragmented, because like a new puzzle they are only just acquiring the pieces and have not yet framed the edges or any major elements.  In this stage the basis of the fighting style needs to be prioritized over how to execute techniques.  Concepts of strategy, feeling, initiative, and responding to the opponent should take precedence over learning techniques.  This is why Ringeck and Liechtenauer include a substantial general section dedicated to these concepts before delving deeply into the techniques.

Now in order to learn many of these things the students must have an attack to do which will serve both as an offensive tool and a defensive tool.  This allows them to focus on the principles and rely on a straightforward set of techniques.  After the General Teaching Ringeck introduces the Zornhau, which I interpret as filling this role.  Learning the Zornhau gives the student a powerful, versatile, instinctive strike which provides both consistency and versatility without the students needing to learn a particularly wide variety of complicated actions, guards, or sequences, and thus it forms the foundation if the style.  Ringeck then teaches a number of techniques which perfectly demonstrate the application of the general teaching.  This allows the student to focus on building their foundational skills, stance, measure, judgement, offense and defense, through a single set of techniques which are broadly applicable.

The sections on the Zornhau and the General Teaching together create a complete, if simplistic, fighting style, a microcosm of the larger art that Ringeck sought to teach.  This is why these sections include methods for dealing with opponents who grapple, how to prevent opponents from using durchwechseln and other techniques which punish mistakes, and permutations to expand understanding of the openings an opponent has and how to exploit them.  It re-iterates and expands on the General Teaching’s content on Vor, Nach, and Indes, Weak and Strong, which lie at the heart of the fighting style’s strategy and introduces a section on creative fighting “in the moment.”  I find it very significant that Duplieren and Mutieren are placed just after this, because these techniques allow options that gently expand the Zornhau and its permutations and indeed those of other strikes and their permutations, but drastically expand the ways that you can defeat an opponent.  They also teach very different ways to think about how to win a fight.

Now at this point a student should have a strong grasp of the section on the General teaching, so they know the fighting style, its strategy, its key concepts of Vor, Nach, Indes, a key strike to use for attack and defense, training in tough opposition and creative fighting, and a few unique permutations to fight with.  Only when the student has this foundation under their belt does Ringeck introduce the other four strikes, guards, and techniques of the system.  The student now has a complete fighting style in that they can use to deal with an opponent who tries to cut from extreme range, good range, or close range, if they try to thrust and thrust a lot, or if they try to close and grapple with them.  It lacks depth in many of those areas, but they have training they can use in any of those situations.

To proceed to the other parts of the series click: Part 2