Quotes from the Von Danzig commentaries are from In Saint George’s Name: An Anthology of Medieval German Fighting Arts, by Christian Tobler, published by Freelance Academy Press.
Quotes from Fior di Battaglia are from Fior di Battaglia, 2nd English Edition, by Tom Leoni, published by Freelance Academy Press.
Quote from Filippo Vadi from Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, by Luca Porzio and Gregory Mele. Currently out of print.
Proponents of either German or Italian Medieval Martial arts often express the view that the other system is in some way fundamentally different to their chosen art. One aspect often expressed is the view that “Germans attack and Italians wait to be attacked.” In my view this doesn’t do justice to either medieval system of fencing.
Liechtenauer’s Art expresses the phases of the fight using the terms Vor (before), Indes (instantly or in between) and Nach (After). This is a practical method for categorizing what the Italians, starting with Filippo Vadi, would characterize as “tempo,” and divide into initial tempo, mezzo tempo (half time) and contra-tempo (countertime.)
Vor: Controlling the Tempo
The Vor or “Before” in the German tradition is equivalent to the initial tempo in the Italian tradition. In the Italian tradition, the initial tempo is either an invitation, provocation, or an attack that I create.
“Invitation” is often narrowly – and incorrectly – understood to mean “I stand there and wait in a static position.” It’s not: it’s a dynamic moment of transition offered to the adversary, where at the border of his striking measure you make a transition from one position to another, with the intention of drawing his attack.
“Provocation” is the invasion of the adversary’s space with probing actions: point in line, pressures on the blade, false attacks, etc. While actions on the blade are more prevalent in rapier and later fencing, they are present also in the medieval systems (they are called out in the guards which have point in line with the adversary).
The attack is the initial offensive action, designed to be a credible threat that can reach the target while still maintaining tactical ability to defeat the adversary’s likely defensive or counteroffensive response. As with invitations and provocations, attacks are done with recognition of the tactical probabilities inherent in the adversaries’ guard positions combined with your assessment of their physical capabilities.
Similarly, in the German tradition, if a fighter makes a strike or a guard transition simply to get a specific response, and gets that response, then he has actually been in the Vor the entire time:
Here Note What is Called the Before: This means that you should always get there before he does, whether with a stroke or thrust. And you come first with the stroke or other technique, so that he must parry you, then instantly work nimbly at the parrying before you with your sword or else with other techniques. Thus he can come to no work.
Fiore characterizes this in a different way, beginning with his explanation of the tactical flow of combat as exemplified in his systems of masters, student, and counter-masters:
This Second (or Remedy) Master has some students under him. These show the plays the Master or Remedy may perform after he executes the defense or grapple shown by the Remedy. […]
The Fiore manuscripts then present a series of captioned illustrations showing the tactical paradigm in action: a series of Remedy Masters being attacked being attacked by a figure called variously the companion or player. A simplistic view would be that the figure merely stood in guard waiting to receive an attack, but a reading of the nature of the guards makes it clear that they don’t necessarily do so. One example is the guard of Posta Longa , both unarmed and at the sword:
Fiore’s Abrazare Posta Longa:
I am the Posta Longa (Long Position) and this is how I wait for you. As you attempt a grapple, I’ll put my right arm (now placed high) under your left, enter the first play of abrazare and use this grapple to throw you to the ground. If I fail at this grapple, I will use the ones that follow.
Fiore’s Posta Longa At the Sword:
This is the Posta Longa, full of deception. It can probe the opponent’s guards to see if it can deceive them. It can strike with a thrust, knows how to avoid cuts, then deliver them when it is possible. More than other guards,it can employ deception.
As can be seen, at the sword, Posta Longa actively probes the opponent, looking for a reaction she can exploit. Similarly, Posta di Donna is described as being able to break the opponent’s guards with her strikes. So while some tactical demonstrations shown in the manuscripts appear to be waiting, others clearly are not. The advice given in the Von Danzig commentaries echoes Fiore:
Execute the Speaking Window; stand freely and look at his action.
… Now you should also know the Speaking Window, which is a guard you can stand very safely in. And this guard is the Langenort, and this is the noblest and best. Whoever can truly fight from it at the sword can coerce his foe so that he must be hit whether he likes or not, and cannot manage to strike or thrust before your point.
Do Thus from the Speaking Window
When you come to him in the Zufechten, whether with an Unterhau or an Oberhau, always let your point shoot long from the stroke to his face or chest. In this way you will force him to either parry or bind against your sword. And when he has bound, then remain strongly on his sword with your long edge and stand calmly and see what he will execute against you.
Nach: A Tempo Behind
The Nach or “after” is the position of having lost initiative; for the Italian tradition, it’s being a tempo behind the adversary’s actions.
Here note what is called the After:
The After is the counter-technique against all the techniques and strokes that an opponent uses against you. And understand this thus: when he gets there before you with a stroke, so that you must parry it, then work instantly from the parrying nimbly with the sword to the next opening. Thus you break his Before with your After.
The instruction is clear and simple: when behind, work instantly to regain the initiative. In Fiore’s system this is demonstrated by the Remedy Master and his students, who all receive the attack of the player, and must defend and instantly work to the next opening. So the abrazare version of Posta Longa will “use this grapple to throw you to the ground. If I fail at this grapple, I will use the ones that follow.” And since Fiore sets up the plays of abrazare as his strategic and tactical paradigm for all the weapons that follow, it is a system-wide attribute:
Overall, these Masters and students support the whole art of arms—on horseback and on foot, armored and unarmored—through the principles they follow in abrazare.
Indes: Acting in Mezzo Tempo
The analogue to Indes, the in-between, in the Italian tradition is mezzo tempo, “middle time”. There’s a whole class of actions that can be executed “in mezzo tempo,” eg, inside the tempo of your opponent’s action. The roots of Italian tempo theory can be found in Fiore and are more detailed in his immediate lineal descendant, Fillipo Vadi. Italian theory from Fiore and Vadi forward is founded on this. Vadi states:
I can’t, in writing, show you
The principle of mezzo tempo and the way
Because it remains in the wrist
The shortness of the time and of it’s use.
The half time is only a turn
Of the wrist, quick and immediate to strike.
It can seldom fail
When it’s done within good measure
Of all the Art this is the jewel,
Because it at once strikes and parries.
The sense of this passage is strikingly similar to that of the Von Danzig commentaries:
Learn the feeling. The word Indes slices sharply.
Note: When you come to him in the Zufechten, and one of you binds on the other’s sword, then as soon as the swords clash together you should sense at once whether he has bound soft or hard at the sword. And as soon as you have felt that, then think upon the word “Indes”, which means that as soon as you have felt, you should nimbly work on the sword; thus he will be struck before he is aware of it.
Here Note a Lesson on the Feeling and the Word Instantly
…Here you should note that “Feeling” and “Instantly” are one single thing, and that one cannot be understood without the other. Understand it thus: when you bind on his sword, then you must in the hand (at once( feel with the sword “Instantly” whether he is soft or hard on the sword. And when you have felt that, you must instantly work according to the soft and hard at the sword.
In Fiore, this tactical position is occupied by the Counter Master and his students:
They execute all the plays of the Remedy until another Master appears who performs the counter to the Remedy and all of his students. […] This King bears the name of Third Master or Counter, because he counters the other Masters and their plays.
The Counter Master, of course, is the original attacker. He initiates the action, he is defended against and techniques are applied, but he negates them. He can’t negate any of the techniques after they are done – he has to act as they are being applied. He acts instantly, in Indes – in mezzo tempo.
Both systems stress the need to act instantly and decisively, a need which is summed up by Fiore when he says:
In some places, the art admits a Fourth Master or King who counters the Third King or Counter to the Remedy. I call this the Fourth Master or Contra-counter. Few plays, however, can go beyond the Third Master, after which lies danger. But enough about this.
Although mezzo tempo and Indes both sound like a specific point in time between the initial tempo and the following tempo, the Vor and the Nach, it’s not a moment you can “wait for.” When acting in the initial tempo (Vor) you are already aware of the tactical implications of your adversary’s position, the likely response, and your likely counter-response. If you try to anticipate that reaction before it happens, you’re lost. You’ll carry out your plan with no regard for his actual actions and likely fail. If you wait until he has reacted, you’re lost. He’s now a tempo ahead of you and you’re trying to catch up. You have to enter the situation and respond to him in the moment, as he is acting, because that’s the only time that you have the information you need and the time in which to act. And so does he. That’s the moment where the fight actually is.