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Quickness, Strength and Skill: Principles of Medieval Wrestling in the Techniques of Master Ott

by Jessica Finley
Free Scholar, Selohaar Fechtschule

In recent months there has been a surge of interest in medieval wrestling; and for good reason.  For those interested in the recreation of the art of fighting with a medieval longsword, we have it on good authority that wrestling is important to swordsmanship.  Johannes Liechtenauer says in his prologue, “Wrestle well.” The author of Hs. 3227a, commonly known as the “Nuremberg Hausbuch” says, “know that all fencing comes from wrestling”  Furthermore, wrestling is arguably the one piece of the art that most easily transfers to modern self-defense, making it of interest to anyone who studies martial arts today.

While there are many wrestling techniques contained within medieval manuscripts, arguably no single person had a greater influence on medieval wrestling than the “wrestling master to the princes of Austria”, Ott the Baptized Jew.  His techniques are found in no less than ten separate medieval and Renaissance manuscripts spanning nearly two hundred years.  Unfortunately, we know little about Ott himself, beyond the fact that he was very likely deceased by the time his treatise was included in the “Von Danzig” manuscript (Cod. 44 A 8) in 1452, wherein he is given the blessing “God have mercy on him.”

Despite our limited knowledge of Ott as a man, he left us a detailed treatise on wrestling, the most striking piece of which is his prologue.  In it, he gives specific advice on how to approach an encounter based on characteristics of your opponent in comparison to yourself.  He also lists specific ways to fight in the three divisions of time the Medieval German masters so frequently reference:  Vor, Nach and Indes.

Here begins the wrestling composed by Master Ott, God have mercy on him, who was wrestler to the noble Princes of Austria.

In all wrestling should there be three things. The first is skill. The second is quickness. The third is the proper application of strength. Concerning this, you should know that the best is quickness, because it prevents him from countering you. Thereafter you should remember that you should wrestle a weaker man in the Before [Vor], an equal opponent simultaneously [Indes], and a stronger man in the After [Nach]. In all wrestling in the Before, attend to quickness; in all simultaneous wrestling, attend to the balance [Waage]; and in all wrestling in the After, attend to the crook of the knee.

-“Von Danzig” Fechtbuch (f. 100v)

Ott tells us that when wrestling in the Vor we utilize our quickness.  In other words, if we are the one who is choosing to initiate a wrestling encounter, we should do so with agility to prevent our technique from being countered.  In wrestling in the Vor footwork is of crucial interest.  Wrestlers need to use fast footwork, which allows them to place their bodies in correct relation to their opponent’s body to maximize their wrestling options.  We should initiate techniques in the Vor when we are stronger than our opponent.

When wrestling in the Nach, Ott tells us to use Strength.  He notes, however, as the proper application of strength, meaning that just as in fencing, we aren’t to rely upon strength alone when we fight, but rather we should apply our strength quite specifically.  We should add our strength to the impetus of our opponent and apply pressure in the same direction he is pressing, and with this we can overcome him.  Similar advice was given in a speech delivered at the University of California by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, in 1932:

 “Suppose we assume that we may estimate the strength of man in units of one.  Let us say that the strength of a man standing in front of me is represented by ten units, whereas my strength, less than his, is represented by seven units.  Then if he pushes me with all his force I shall certainly be pushed back or thrown down, even if I use all my strength against him, opposing strength with strength.  But if, instead of opposing him, I were to give way to strength by withdrawing my body just as much as he had pushed, remembering to keep my balance, then he would naturally lean forward and thus lose his balance.  In this new position, he may have become so weak (not in actual physical strength but because of his awkward position) as to have his strength represented for the moment by, say, only three units instead of his normal ten units.  But meanwhile, I, by keeping my balance, retain my full strength, as originally represented by seven units.  Here then, I am momentarily in an advantageous position and I can defeat my opponent using only half of my strength, that is half of my seven units, or three and one-half of my strength against his three.  This leaves one-half of my strength available for any purpose.  (vii, Kobayashi & Sharp, 1956)

Professor Kano brings up an important distinction in his speech.  Strength and weakness, when discussing wrestling techniques, are mutable words which have numerous meanings.  First, one can read strength on the base level as a person’s physical power and weight.  It’s fairly easy to read this type of strength and to assess an opponent’s relative strength to your own before the encounter begins.  Next, one can read strength as referring to how strongly one is gripping you.  This type of strength is frequently referenced in the setup of Ott’s techniques were he might say, for instance, “When you each have each other by the arms and he holds you loosely” or “If he grasps your arms above with strength and holds you fast,” meaning you cannot easily break free from his hold on you.  Finally, one can read strength as referring to the pressure of the grip forcing your body in one direction or another.  Ott would say “If he grasps your arms above with strength and holds you fast and wants to press you”.   Ott’s prologue is not clear which reading of strength he intends, and it may well be this ambiguity is intentional, but it is this last reading of strength which is most useful in the moment of a wrestling encounter, feeling if he is moving you or you are moving him.  One must bring all their senses to an encounter to feel if he is pressing or withdrawing, strong or weak.

A final note on fighting a man whose strength is greater than yours: Ott says to attend to the crook of the knee.  Quite often, Ott’s counters end up being throws wherein one hand or the other will grab a leg at the crook of the knee to power a throw when the opponent has released his weight from it, and it is this lifting of a leg that will allow a weaker opponent to throw a stronger one.

In wrestling Indes, that is, at the same time as our opponent acts, Ott tells us that we should use skill and attend to the balance.  This means that in order to prevail in the moment between Vor and Nach we will need not only to know what all of our wrestling options are, but how to apply them.  We will need, in the moment, to apply a throw forwards or backwards, dependent upon movement of our opponent.

As a sidebar, I would like to expand momentarily upon the term used for balance in Ott’s prologue:  Wagge.  This word means balance, as is commonly understood.  However, it also refers to Libra, “the scales” of the horoscope.  Medieval understanding of the body ascribed the different signs to different parts of the body, and Libra is positioned in dominance over the pelvic girdle.  While we’ll never be entirely confident of this explanation, it is possible that there is some word play happening here and that Ott is telling us to simultaneously attend to the balance within our internal body and the balance created by the grip between two men.

Figure 1: European medieval Zodiac Man from John de Foxton’s Liber Cosmographiae, published in 1408.

 While this information may at first glance seem quite esoteric and lacking in practical application in the moment of a fight, the reality is quite the contrary.  For instance, if you see that you are paired against a man who is larger than yourself, you can mentally toss out those techniques which do not apply to the leg.  Doing this will allow you to more safely approach your opponent.  You will know before the encounter which techniques you should concern yourself with based on your read of your opponent’s relative strength and skill.

This quite simple reading of Ott’s prologue yields very useful advice, but that is not all that he offers.  Applying Ott’s prologue to the pressure of the grip (weak or strong), we get a much more in-depth understanding of the theory behind his wrestling and how to apply it on the fly.

It is important to remember the very first sentence of Ott’s prologue, that “In all wrestling should there be three things.”  While you may need to focus on one or another of the three qualities that every technique is composed of, you should remember the other two and how they will affect your success in an encounter.  You must bring strength enough to perform the wrestling techniques of your choice, you have the skill to apply them properly and finally and attack quickly enough to prevent your opponent from countering you.

 

Fencing Time Opponent Focus
Vor Weak Quickness
Nach Strong Crook of the Knee
Indes Equal Balance (Waage)

A reading of Ott’s introduction results in a chart which is quite useful
for analysis of any wrestling situation, as well as assisting us in categorizing each
wrestling technique to determine how and when it should be used.

Distances in Ott’s Wrestling Treatise

Ott’s treatise describes two specific distances at which we can wrestle with an opponent, though he implies a third distance.  First, there is the “wrestling at the arms”, where each person holds his opponent at or near the elbows.  Second, he describes the “wrestling at the body” wherein each person holds his opponent around the body, clasping their hands behind and/or grasping the doublet at the center-back.  Finally, the implied distance, that is the distance before a grip has occurred, could be considered analogous to the Zufechten in Longsword fighting, where each person has not yet gripped their opponent and is not capable of striking the opponent without footwork.

To best illustrate Ott’s principles of fighting in the Vor, Nach and Indes within the confines of this article, I will make use of only three techniques done at the arms, though these are the same techniques, with minor modifications, that Ott describes for use when wrestling at the body as well.

All techniques shown in this article begin in the specific grip that Ott indicates at the arms, wherein the opponent in the Vor will have a grip with his left hand on the opponent’s right bicep and his right hand gripping the opponent’s left wrist.

Wrestling at the Arms

Grip at the Arms

Jess (red) has the grip at the arms. Aron (blue) is stretched out, and as you can see, has a suboptimal grip in return.

In all wrestling at the arms Ott tells us to get a very specific grip on our opponent.

When you want to wrestle with an opponent by the arms, then be mindful always to grasp him with your left hand by his right bicep, and with your right hand grasp him outside his left arm. And with your left hand that you have on his bicep, press sharply backwards, and with the right hand grasp his left hand in front and pull it hard to you. And when you have seized him thus, then use whichever of the following described wrestling techniques you think best.  

-“Von Danzig” Fechtbuch, (f. 100v)

TECHNIQUE

  • Place yourself with your left leg leading and your hands before your thighs.
  • As you come to gripping distance, shift your weight slightly forwards and bring your hands up between his arms.
  • Grasp his right bicep in the center of his upper arm with your left hand.
  • Grasp his left hand at the wrist with your right hand.
  • Push away with your left hand and pull with your right hand, which will open his body and rotate the trunk of his body clockwise so that his shoulders and hips are now perpendicular to each other and his balance more easily exploitable.

Jess (red) is in the low guard while Aron (blue) enters from a high guard. Jess blocks him out by coming up from below inside his arms. Jess finishes the technique by grabbing Aron’s bicep with her left arm and his wrist with her right.

KEY POINTS

  • This will be the natural setup for anyone right-handed as it sets up throws utilizing the strength of the right side.
  • The push-pull is key to setting up following wrestling techniques.
  • Execute this push-pull briskly.
  • If he has gained this grip on you, it’s best to also get a hold of his arms in whatever manner you can to regain some control of the grip.

Wrestling a Weaker Man 

Aron (blue) throws Jess with the “Elbow to the Balance”

 

Fencing Time: Vor – Focus: Quickness

Ott admonishes us in the prologue that when we fight a weaker man, we’re to fight in the Vor and to focus on performing our technique with Quickness to prevent him from countering the technique.  A commonly used throw used against a weaker man in Ott’s treatise is a throw called “Elbow to the Balance”.

Elbow to the Balance

When you want to wrestle with an opponent and he holds you loosely at the arms, then grasp with your left hand above over his right, and grasp his left hand by the fingers or otherwise, and lift towards your left. And with your right hand take him off-balance by his elbow. 

-“Von Danzig” Fechtbuch (f. 102r)

This throw appears numerous times and from a variety of entries.

TECHNIQUE

  • When he has you by the arms loosely, drive your left hand over his right to his left hand.
  • Grasp the outside of his left hand with your left hand.  This works best if you can grab his pinky and ring finger along with the meat of his hand.
  • Pull his hand away from your arm and lift it upwards and to your left side.  This should create a wrist lock and point his elbow upwards.
  • With your right hand, drive his elbow to your left and push it down so that it points to the ground.

Aron (blue) breaks from Jess’s grip and grabs her left hand. Aron pulls Jess’s arm in an arc towards his left hip, placing his right hand on her left elbow. He completes the throw by driving her elbow to the ground.

KEY POINTS

  • When pulling his hand upwards and to your left, keep the movement close to your body so as to keep the pressure on the joints.

Another view from the opposite side.

This throw is commonly referred to in various treatises as “Elbow to the Balance” which is quite descriptive of what you are doing when executing this throw.  You will push his elbow to his front balance point, thereby taking him off-balance in that direction.  But, what if you are being attacked with this throw?

Wrestling a Stronger Man

A view of the “Elbow Strike Rear Throw”

Fencing Time:  Nach – Focus: Crook of the Knee

When we wrestle a stronger man or one who is in the Vor and using Quickness, Ott indicates that we should use the Proper Application of Strength and to focus on the Crook of his Knee.  Remember, the proper application of strength is against his weak point.  Therefore, to counter the “Elbow to the Balance”, a good option would be this Elbow-Strike Rear Throw.

Elbow-Strike Rear Throw

When he has grasped your left hand with his left hand and wants to unbalance you with his right hand, then sink down, and go to him with your left elbow to his *side; and spring with your left foot behind his right foot, and grasp his right leg with your right hand at the crook of his knee, and pull toward you; and with the left push him away from you above; thus he will fall.

-“Von Danzig” Fechtbuch (f. 102v)

This technique counters many situations when you cannot withdraw your arm.  Here, it counters against the “Elbow to the Balance”.

TECHNIQUE

  • When he grabs your left hand with his left and intends to unbalance you with his right hand on your elbow and if he has removed your hand from his bicep and begun to bring it across his body.
  • Strike his right side with your left elbow, sinking down low and springing in with the left foot to power the strike and to get your foot behind his right foot.
  • Grab his right knee with your right hand, and lift it up to your chest
  • At the same time, drive your left hand across his chest and throw him before you.

As Aron (blue) grasps Jess’s left hand, making it impossible for her to withdraw. She drives in with her left elbow to Aron’s ribs. Afterwards, she continues her motion, driving her left arm across his chest and lifting his right leg. The throw finishes with a rotation and hard drop to the ground.

KEY POINTS

  • When you drive in with the same-side elbow as the grabbed hand, this releases the power of his pull to your right and frees you somewhat.  If he has begun to get his hand in place on your left elbow, you can free it by sinking low and striking against him.
  • This is a powerful strike to the ribs and can knock his breath out of him especially when you sink down with it.  This gives you a moment to exploit.
  • The jolt caused by the strike should get his momentum moving backwards, making this throw easier to execute.

Here you can see how the proper application of strength can negate his advantage.  In the “Elbow to the Balance”, he has secured your left hand with his left, and is beginning to apply forwards momentum to your elbow.  An improper application of strength, in this situation, would be to try to pull your left hand away from his grip.  That would be fighting his strength directly, rather than adding to his strength in a way that is detrimental to him.

Rather, you yield to pressure in order to release your elbow, but then drive back in with the elbow, against his exposed side.  This completely negates his power on that side.  Then you attend to the leg, as we do in the Nach.

Wrestling an Equal Man

A view of the “Forward Hip Throw”

Fencing Time:  Indes – Focus:  Balance

There is yet another counter for the “Elbow to the Balance”, and it is best applied when you are on equal footing with your opponent, meaning, in this case, that he has not yet secured his grip and pulled your hand from his bicep.  He is not truly strong, though he initiated the action and his motion is, at this point, lacking any aggressive initiative and is an empty movement.  If you, using your skill, have deduced that he is likely to attempt this throw, you can, using small movements, elongate the length of time he is exposed and attack indes, eliminating his advantage of initiating the attack.

Forward Hip Throw

When someone does this, and grasps with his left hand to your fingers and wants to unbalance you with the right, then send your right hand under his left arm around the body. And spring with your right foot before both of his feet, and throw him thus over your right hip.

-“Von Danzig” Fechtbuch (f. 102v)

TECHNIQUE

  • When he grabs your left hand with his left and intends to unbalance you with his right hand on your elbow.
  • Turn your body into him, stepping in with your right, with both of your feet before his feet, and grasp around behind him to his waist with your right hand.
  • At the same time as you turn into him, grip his right arm at the bicep with your left hand if you hadn’t already done so with the mutual grip.
  • Throw him before you over your right hip.

As Aron (blue) reaches across his body to grap Jess’s hand, she steps in with her right foot and grasps Aron behind his body. She steps in front of his feet and places her hips below Aron’s hips. As she clasps his back she pulls him on top of her hips and then straightens her legs briskly to load Aron onto her hips. Afterwards, a turn of the shoulders, pulling Aron’s upper body across and down, finishes the throw.

KEY POINTS

  • The opening is created for you to enter when he reaches with his left hand to grasp your left hand.  You will see both of his hands are on the right side of his body which allows you to place your body against his.
  • You can extend this moment he is exposed by giving him a small amount of pressure backwards on his bicep with your left hand and grasping his doublet to keep him from pulling your hand away.
  • DO NOT bend at the waist to throw him, rather bend your knees to get your center of balance below his, and use the straightening of your legs to propel him upwards and forwards, pulling strongly with your left hand on his right arm to throw him around your body.
  • Step in closely to his body.  The closer you are, the easier this throw is to accomplish.
  • When you put your hand around behind his waist, clasp him tightly to you which will pull him to his toes.

As we are now fighting indes and are not in a situation where one is clearly in the Vor, then we are fighting equally.  Ott tells us to “Attend to the Balance”, meaning that we are to move immediately with him to exploit his shifts in balance,  that we should use our skill to negate any advantage he might have by moving first and with greater economy to attack first.

While he is attempting to tie up your left hand, he has not done so yet, and he has left your right side free to attack.  If you are skilled, you should be able to exploit this moment by attacking his exposed left side.

Ott’s Treatise has 51 different techniques described, but many of them are descriptions of the same throws applied against different entries.  For instance, the “Elbow to the Balance” appears four times.  The Elbow-Strike Rear Throw and the Forward Hip Throw are specifically written out three separate times.  These are three of the most common, and most the versatile throws in the system.

The explanation provided in the prologue to Ott’s treatise is unique compared to contemporary wrestling treatises by other authors.  Ott describes for us, in clear language, a complete fight theory using the fencing terminology of Liechtenauer’s lineage.  With this, he gives us the keys to understanding a variety of disparate techniques as parts of a single system.  Rather than approaching each technique as a singular possibility, we can analyze it against the set of qualities and times laid out in the prologue and see each technique as a part of the greater whole.  Ott exemplifies for us how to wrestle as a medieval man, not just the physical motion, but the fight theory as well.

——————–

Bibliography:

Tobler, Christian H., In St. George’s Name, Freelance Academy Press, 2010  –  All translations are from this work.

Kiyoshi, Kobayashi & Sharp, Harold, The Sport of Judo, Tuttle Publishing, 1956

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About Jessica Finley, Ritterkunst Fechtschule, United States

Jessica Finley is the author of Medieval Wrestling, Modern Practice of a 15th Century Art published in 2014 by Freelance Academy Press and her paper on medieval wrestling can also be found in the collection In the Service of Mars, a selection of pieces on historical martial arts from the same publisher.  She was awarded "Best researcher or interpreter" for 2015 in the HEMA Scholar Awards for her published book.  Jessica has studied medieval swordsmanship and martial arts for more than a dozen years, founding a school near her home in North Georgia called "Ritterkunst Fechtschule" and continues to publish on her blog under that same name.  Jessica is a frequent instructor at international historical martial arts conferences. Her independent research in the area of textiles has included work on sixteenth century Irish menswear, but is currently focused on fifteenth century fabric armor. Jessica presented an early draft of her paper "The "Lübeck Wappenrock: Distinctive style in fifteenth century German fabric armor" at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in 2014, which has since been published in Medieval Clothing and Textiles.  She has conducted a number of experiments to determine effects of period paint upon fabric armor, and comparing medieval fabric armor to modern fabric armor puncture standards.

7 comments on “Quickness, Strength and Skill: Principles of Medieval Wrestling in the Techniques of Master Ott

  1. Awesome stuff!

    • Jessica: Thank you for your article. You must have done a lot of hard work to make it so instructive. I will endeavour to refer to it in my own work regarding Master Ott. Your valid interpretation of Knyepug differs from mine and deserves due consideration. It would be nice to work with you at a future workshop if possible. Good luck!

  2. […] Le second par Jessica Finley (Selohaar Fechtschule) sur les principes de lutte de Ott (présentés également en introduction du Codex Wallerstein, cf. mes notes de l’atelier de lutte lors du stage au Mans 2011): Quickness, Strength and Skill: Principles of Medieval Wrestling in the Techniques of Master Ott […]

  3. […] Quickness, Strength and Skill: Principles of Medieval … – Aug 30, 2012 · Quickness, Strength and Skill: Principles of Medieval Wrestling in the Techniques of Master Ott… […]

  4. […] Quickness, Strength and Skill: Principles of Medieval … – Aug 30, 2012 · Quickness, Strength and Skill: Principles of Medieval Wrestling in the Techniques of Master Ott… […]

  5. […] Le second par Jessica Finley (Selohaar Fechtschule) sur les principes de lutte de Ott (présentés également en introduction du Codex Wallerstein, cf. mes notes de l’atelier de lutte lors du stage au Mans 2011): Quickness, Strength and Skill: Principles of Medieval Wrestling in the Techniques of Master Ott […]

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