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The Elderly Master: Unarmed Techniques from Fabian von Auerswald

by Tim Hall, David Rowe and Bill Grandy – Instructors at the Virginia Academy of Fencing, Historical Swordsmanship Division

An image from Fabian von Auerswald’s “Ringer Kunst”.

Fabian von Auerswald was a German Renaissance master of Ringen (wrestling). In 1537, at the age of 75, he completed a beautifully illustrated treatise on wrestling called Ringer kunst: funf und Achtzig Stücke (The Art of Wrestling: Eighty Five Techniques). It was published posthumously in 1539. This work was dedicated to the Lord John Frederick, elector of Saxony, and even states that he trained the lord’s sons as well as many of the men of his court. Considering the age of von Auerswald when it was first created, and considering the illustrations show an aged von Auerswald tossing around younger wrestlers, we should all be inspired by the vitality and skill the man must have possessed well into the latest years of his life. It is also notable that the woodcuts were created in the workshop of the famous artist Lucas Cranach. This was an expensive work to produce, and Lord Frederick, as von Auerswald’s patron, clearly felt the elderly master’s expertise was worth the expense.

While treatises on wrestling existed prior to this work, they typically were smaller works contained within larger compendia of treatises from various authors that dealt with a variety of weapons and combat forms. Von Auerswald’s treatise is one of the earliest known works dealing solely with unarmed combat to have been published or produced as a stand alone work, and also one of the earliest to have such detailed illustrations and descriptions of techniques and tactics. Fabian von Auerswald’s experience as both a fighter and an instructor is evident in the text, as it explains details such as how to approach the opponent, how to provoke and respond to actions, and how to think and feel one’s way through the fight. It is a remarkable work that is more than a mere catalog of techniques, and we as modern practitioners should be very thankful he was able to complete it right before his death.

Near the end of this work he even gave the outline for an interesting sport called “Ringen im Grublein” (Wrestling in the Hole), which is loosely referenced in other German wrestling sources from the period (notably the anonymous 15th century Das Buch von Füßringen printed by Hans Wurm and also in the early 16th century MS German Quarto 2020, more commonly referred to as the Goliath Fechtbuch). Von Auerswald’s treatise seems to give the most detail of how to play the game, where one fighter stands with a foot in a circle (the hole) while the other hops with one foot in the air when they wrestle. Von Auerswald gives several techniques for fighting in this sport, and even states more than once that this game is both excellent for practicing the art and is also funny to watch.

It is very fortunate for us that Fabian von Auerswald’s treatise was published, as it gives an incredible view into both the techniques and the culture of wrestling from Renaissance Germany. Also, due to the clarity of the images and the fact that it deals with certain concepts not explained in earlier treatises, it provides valuable insight as a stepping stone to the earlier wrestling treatises of the German fighting arts. In keeping with the spirit of preserving his art, below are a selection of techniques from Ringer kunst: funf und Achtzig Stücke.

THE SINGLE ARM WIND AND LOCK WRESTLING

The very first technique von Auerswald explained was the Single Arm Wind. It is a simple action, and yet it will set up many of the following techniques. If your opponent grasps at your arm or sleeve, make a circular motion with your arm from the inside or outside. This is specifically to test your opponent’s grip, just as with the concept of fühlen in longsword where one feels the opponent’s pressure in the bind and makes a decision based off of that tactile information. If your opponent’s grip is not very strong, you can wind it off and continue with the fight unimpeded. If your opponent does not let go, you can feel feedback as to just how much strength or pressure he is giving you and make a logical follow up action.

If the opponent has a very strong grip, the first example von Auerswald gives to counter it is what he calls “The Second Lock Wrestling”. Here you grab your opponent’s sleeve or arm and pull his elbow inward and towards you. This will create a small gap at the inside of his elbow. With your other arm reach through over his arm through that gap to grasp the inside of his knee. Keep the spine upright and straighten your legs to lift and throw him.

THE WEAKENING OF THE ARMS AND THE REAR THROW FOLLOWING THE WEAKENING

Another action to use against an opponent who grips you strongly is the Weakening of the Arms. If he has grasped your right arm with his left arm, wind your right arm over the outside of it and grab your own arm with your left hand. Pull it into you and drive your weight downward so that your top arm weakens his grip and causes him to bend forward, pulling him off balance.

There are many techniques that could come from this, but the example von Auerswald gives is called The Rear Throw. As your opponent bends downward from you weakening his arm, grab his arm with your left hand and pull him towards you. Thrust your right arm across his neck or chest to his opposite shoulder to push him backwards, and simultaneously spring your right leg behind him while grabbing his inner thigh with your left hand to pull his lower half forward and up. Your arms will be moving as if turning a wheel clockwise, throwing him over your leg.

THE HALF HIP

To perform the Half Hip, grasp your opponent around the body and place your leg between his. Lower your hips below his as you pivot to face away from him, and lift him with your forward hip as you pull on his sleeve.

IF HE RESISTS THE HALF HIP

Should the opponent struggle or pull away from the Half Hip, maintain dominance. Step out with the right leg in front of him and pull with your left hand on his right shoulder to aid the throw.

THE TWO HIPS

This is a much deeper throw than the Half Hip, where one must step behind your opponent to use both hips (i.e. “two hips”) to lift him off of the ground.

COUNTER TO THE TWO HIPS

When your opponent attempts to use the Two Hips against you, quickly move back to prevent the throw. As you are in the middle of stepping back, turn to face away from him and throw him over your leg.

THE HIPS AND ELBOWS

If your opponent grabs onto your jacket, use your elbow to strike down inside his grip while simultaneously dropping your weight. As soon as he releases you, step in and throw him over your hip.

THE HOOK

Hooking one’s foot around your opponent’s leg is a technique seen throughout German medieval and Renaissance grappling (for example, see folio 100v of Hans Talhoffer’s 1467 manuscript), but von Auerswald appears to have been one of the first to give such detailed explanations for what to do with the technique. Further, it appears to be a key element of much of his art. There are many reasons to do this, such as holding the opponent’s leg in place to give you the opportunity to set up a throw, or stopping the opponent from moving and performing an action against you. You might hook from the inside or outside of your leg, and there are numerous techniques that can happen from there (such as The Fork, seen below).

THE FORK

The Fork comes out of the The Hook. Begin by pulling your opponent close to use an outside hook on his leg so that you can keep him from immediately stepping away. From here, move your right leg in between his. Lift your leg up so that the back of your thigh raises him, and simultaneously pull forward and down with the upper body. Be careful: The Fork is a surprisingly harsh throw for your training partner!

THE SHORT HIP

Von Auerswald demonstrated the Short Hip as a follow up to a failed leg hook (though it could be used in a number of other scenarios). If you attempt to hook your opponent’s leg, but he resists by straightening his knee, quickly leave the hook to extend your leg out in front of him and throw him over your thigh. When performing the throw, be sure to turn your body to face the direction of the throw. This one is not a full hip throw (which is why it is “short”), so you should not drop your hips beneath his as you would with the other hip throws such as the Half Hip and Two Hips.

COUNTER TO THE SHORT HIP

If the opponent attempts to hook your leg, straighten it to prevent it from succeeding. Should he attempt the Short Hip from there, drive your knee hard into the inside of his knee so that he falls forward with you on top of him.

THE HIGH HIP

When attempting the leg hook, the opponent might take a wide stance to hinder it. Spring in front of him, dropping your weight low so as to lift him entirely up on your hips before throwing him.

COUNTER TO THE HIGH HIP

If your opponent steps in to perform the High Hip, quickly grab onto the rear of his left shoulder with your left hand while simultaneously grabbing underneath his right thigh with the other hand. From here you will have a secure grip to pull him backward into the air.

THE REJECTED HIP

There are two parts to this technique. The first is the Rejected Hip itself. Pull your opponent in to hook the leg so that you can control him, with the intent to step in front of him next so that you can perform a throw over the hip. Your opponent may not allow this throw to happen by taking a wide stance with his hips withdrawn. From the hook, spring in front of him with both feet, but turn your hips out past him (turning them away, or “rejecting” them from him). Grab his left leg with your left hand and put your right arm around his head, and quickly start turning him to your left. Von Auerswald says to turn as long as you wish, implying that you could spin your opponent until you are done with him. For this video, the action is stopped without continuing the turn for clarity.

The second part of this technique is an amusing follow on described in the following plate of the treatise. Drive your right hand and forearm across his face to turn him away so that you can quickly turn around, let go of his leg with your left hand and grab his left shoulder, while you sweep up that same leg with your right hand. It is vital to turn his face first because if your opponent is not turning away you will be unable to secure the leg in a dominant position with the knee pointed down. Von Auerswald makes a humorous comment here: “Thus I make him into a sackpfeife.” A sackpfeife is a bagpipe. Not only will you be holding your opponent in such an awkward position that his legs and arms look like the pipes of said instrument, but there is the added amusement that if you squeeze his leg towards his body he will involuntarily make noise from the pain as if you were playing him!

A "sackpfeife" (sack pipe), a form of bagpipe.

A “sackpfeife”, known to English speakers as a bagpipe.

The opponent made into a "sackpfeife" (note the arm and leg positions)

The opponent made into a “sackpfeife”.

COUNTER TO THE REJECTED HIP

When your opponent attempts the leg hook, widen your stance and bring your hips back a little. He might spring out in front of you to perform the Rejected Hip. Take your left arm over his shoulder to his neck to bring him close for control, and drop your weight so that you can seize his right leg with your right arm. Once you have him, straighten your body to bring him straight up into the air. Von Auerswald leaves it up to the reader for what to do with your opponent after that. This video demonstrates the technique by dropping the opponent straight down after the lift.


RINGEN IM GRUBLEIN – “WRESTLING IN THE HOLE”

As mentioned previously, Ringen im Grublein is a game where one fighter stands with one foot planted in “the hole” (possibly just a mark on the ground, though perhaps a very shallow area dug out in the dirt), with very little mobility, and the other stands with one foot in the air, hopping around. The two wrestle from these positions. (In the video below, “the hole” was simply two strips of white tape shaped as an “X”.) The game is a remarkably fun way to practice certain aspects of unarmed combat, particularly the leg hooks and counters. And, to quote Fabian von Auerswald himself, “It goes quickly, and is very funny.”

Ringen demonstrations: Tim Hall, David Rowe, Bill Grandy

Special thanks to Doug Bahnick, Jonathan Gordon, Robert Gonia and Greg Thomson for joining in to play Ringen im Grublein with us!

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7 comments on “The Elderly Master: Unarmed Techniques from Fabian von Auerswald

  1. Bill, very nicely done article. Thanks!

  2. Great article and videos, thanks guys!

    I am studying the ringen section of the codex wallerstein and I find it useful to look at other manuals and other people’s interpretations. The similarity of the techniques and sequence of counters is interesting.

    I like how the author seems to have a strong command of his art and how he mentions some set-ups and the differences between the various hip throws when other manuscripts are somewhat elusive on the matter.

    You are probably already aware of it but the rejected hip technique from a hook and the sequence of counters that follows are also described in the codex wallerstein (49r to 50v).

    • Hi Alexander,
      Thank you! Yes, we were aware of the Codex Wallerstein parallels. In fact, Auerswald really made us go back and re-analyze what we’d seen in earlier treatises, as so many of the techniques are in multiple sources, but von Auerswald tends to explain certain details that earlier treatises often times did not.

  3. […] Le premier de Bill Grandy (Virginia Academy of Fencing) sur la lutte de Fabian von Auerswald: The Elderly Master: Unarmed Techniques from Fabian von Auerswald […]

  4. Very well executed and professional in the presentation. Thank you for such a valuable and needed resource for WMA practitioners. I’m looking forward to more from you.

  5. […] show the game Ringen im Grublein which Auerswald admits is funny to watch (please see the end of this article for more information). Ringen masters did not specifically single out which techniques were for […]

  6. […] Le premier de Bill Grandy (Virginia Academy of Fencing) sur la lutte de Fabian von Auerswald: The Elderly Master: Unarmed Techniques from Fabian von Auerswald […]

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