The Basic Guards of Medieval Longsword

One of the most important elements of historical fencing study is that of basic fighting stances and guard positions. Nothing is more fundamental than these two things. Stances or guards (leger/huten or guardia/posta) are in many ways the very foundation of Medieval swordsmanship. The offensive and defensive postures and ready positions from which to deliver all manner of blows lie at the heart of any fighting method.  Unquestionably, they represent the beginning of study.  All principles and techniques of fighting all are employed in relation to these postures.  But they are not "static" postures, but dynamic "ready positions" from which to strike or counter-strike.


The basic 4 from the Solothurner Fechtbuch

The primary postures or ready positions for long-swords, those which date back to master Liechtenauer in the 1380’s (and likely the 1360’s if not earlier) are: Ochs, Pflug, Alber, and Vom Tag. These are: the Ox, the Plow, the Fool, the Roof.  These of course correspond to in the middle (“Plow”), outside high/horizontal pointing ("Ox"), low (“Fool”), and high (“Roof”).  Other spellings of Vom Tag are  Vom Tach or Vom Dach. The 14th century German grand Fechtmeister, Johannes Liechtenauer as did many of his later heirs taught only the first four guards. To this we can add a fifth, the Nebenhut ("near ward") or “Tail” (a “back” guard), called Posta di Coda lunga distesa (“Long Lying Tail”) by Fiore Dei Liberi in 1410 (although not included as primary, it appeared frequently in subsequent German works).  Thus, five basic fundamental stances or guards are used with nearly all forms of Medieval long-swords.  Virtually all the masters taught these primary positions or variations of them.

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The basic 4 conventiently labled from Peter Von Danzig, 1449.

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Ochs, Pflug, Alber, and Vom Tach from Palus Kal's Fechtbuch c. 1480.
Note the slight variations in hand and hilt positions from others.

These five guards can each transition one to any other and such  should always be practiced as a fundamental training exercise. Begin these stances with a left leg leading, sword in right hand. Standard ARMA long-sword curriculum utilizes all of these in conjunction with other stances in our exercises and practice routines. The transition between these stances should be fluid and smooth, and may or may not involve passing forward the rear foor or passing back the front foot.  There is a substantial amount of information that can be conveyed about each stance, their variations, how to move into or out of each, and what actions they provides for. This short article does not cover that material, only introduce these proper five primary guards.   In addition to these 5 "primary" stances, there are others important (such as Iron Door, Vechsel, etc.) that could be called "secondary" stances. Of these, 6 are "symmetrical" and can be done as left or right side versions. 

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Tail guards from Fiore, Codex Wallerstien, and Hector Mair.
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From another edition of Mair (c. 1542), clear examples of the Ochs, the Pflug, the Alber, and Vom Tag.

 

The Major Longsword Guards of the German School

The first position, Ochs ("ox"), essentially assumed by drawing the weapon up and to the "outside". The point may aim somewhat downward or upward but typically aimed at the opponent's face or throat. This was called Finestra or "window" in Italian schools.
Note the blade alignment by observing the angle of the cross, the blade is neither vertical nor horzontal but slightly diagonal, in fact, the natural position acheived by cutting upward. In this position note the short (back) edge aims not upward or downward but toward the fighter, while the thumb is under the blade, not on top of it.
The hilt is held just in front of beside or the head at temple level, but may be also held just above it. Also, the Ochs is not a "hanging point" or hanging guard position. The Ochs position, although not as stable as others, protects well, allows a direct threat with its straight thrust, turn to cut diagonally downward, or pull back to cut from underneath.

Lowering the weapon to the middle acheives the second position or Pflug ("plow"). Either passing or making a single small step of the foot in transition is useful here. The point should aim at the opponent's chest or throat and the hilt should be held more off to the side in front of the hip joint rather than dead center between the legs. Note that depending on which leg leads in the Pflug, the hip the pommel is in front changes. 
There are a few variations of this position such as puling the hilt further back near or even past the hip. Some masters are specific that on the right side, the stance is held with the long edge down but that on the left side it is held long edge up (in effect, merely a lowered a left Ochs). This "long Pflug" (for lack of a term) permits a quick cut under from behind as well as allowing better donward thrusts.
Each of these left plow positions, long edge up and long edge down, appear in the source texts. To acheive either the left hand should simply keep a looser grip to allow it turn while the right maintains normal grip pressure. The long edge down position permits quick slices and upward thrusts. Overall the plow protects and covers very well while permitting all attacks.
The third position is Alber ("fool"), acheived by lowering the point with the hands (and making a pass of the foot, forward or back, in transition). Either leg may lead. The weapon is held point down, ussualy between the legs rather than outside of or next to them. This guard is also the "middle iron door" of the Italians. The position is deceptively open and allows for quick counter strikes.
The fourth is "from the roof", Vom Dach/Vom Tag (an Oberhut), by raising the weapon up with the shoulders (held at roughly 45-degrees, not horizontal). Passing the foot is useful in transitioning here. The position is both threatening and warding. It easily lowers to any other stance or turns to the ox.
The "roof" guard may also be placed over the (generally right side) shoulder rather than over the head. The hilt can be above or in front of the collar, but not down in front of the chest. Note the blade is neither angled behind the head, nor held horizontal, nor resting on the shoulder. Some armors prevent holding the weapon above the head, hence the side version. More stable than held above the head, the position still permits a variety of threats and counters. This position easily turns around into ox or drops down to plow.
When held over the shoulder strikes are quicker and more deceptive but have somewhat less range and strength. Note that depending upon the angle and prior action, the stance can appear as if the weapon is held behind the head or neck, when in fact, this is just an illusion created by a turn of the waist.

In addition the four above, a fifth position is the Nebenhut ("near ward"), assumed by rotating the weapon down and to the side from above. Passing the foot again is useful in transitioning here. In Italian this is called Posta Coda Longa ("tail" or "long tail"). Note on the right side here the point slants downward and behind, not off to the side, with the long edge aiming forward at the opponent, not at the ground. This permits a strong rising cut with the long edge, ending in an ox position. Otherwise, if held with the short edge forward (such as in a left side posture), a full upward cut with the back of the blade end in the roof position. While somewhat inviting, the Neben stance is also meanacing and deceptive.

As with all the stances, except plow, the sword is held essentially on a 45-degree angle. The tail easily lifts to the roof or rises up into an ox on the opposite side.

Excellent detailed descriptions of longsword stances come to us from the Fechtbuch of Jud Lew (c.1450-1455) which clarifies several points. In the right side Plow for example, we are told to hold the sword "with the hands crossed below" and "the pommel close to the right hip" short edge up. This makes perfect sense given the turned and pulled back posture the stance inspires. For the left side Plow, we are told only to hold the sword "close to the left side below the left hip" long edge up. In the Fool we are told to hold the sword "with arms stretched in front…the point on the ground." The arms are thus not kept bent and against the body, but whether this means literally resting the blade upon the ground is questionable. For the Roof, we are told to stand holding the "sword with uncrossed hands high over the head" so that the "point hangs a little backwards." This implies the weapon is held upward in the middle and not angling to the left or right, but is unclear whether the point should actually come down below the head (as in a Zornhut) or merely directed back behind the swordsman more naturally.

Note: To assist students in learning this weapon, I have found it very effective to rely on a modern generic names (high, middle, low, outside, etc.) for the most fundamental postures and positions universal to most all the Medieval and early Renaissance long-sword source texts.  But in moving beyond such a useful holistic approach, toward a more precise understanding of the fighting styles of each historical text, we start to note the differences between Masters. Some of these terms and positions we study correct or supercede ones listed in my 1998, Medieval Swordsmanship, book (itself researched in '96). The tentative nature of historical research means that some terms and names as well as postures have been amended and corrected from those in the book. However, this clarification does not invalidate the generalized fighting postures presented in the book’s overview of stances, or the tactical understanding provided therein. 
- John C., ARMA Director, May 2001.

Updated Nov. 2003 / Oct 2004.

 
 

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