Lady Catriona McDonald, FSOS - April, 2008
During one of my first longsword classes, I was having quite a bit of trouble picking up the correct body mechanics for the guard Pflug. After about 15 minutes of frustration, my teacher looked at me, paused and said, "Pflug is Water."
I was in love with Liechtenauer.
The Liechtenauer longsword system has philosophical layers beyond the sheer mechanics of the techniques. Tantalizing bits of medieval worldview and mysticism reveal themselves at the oddest moments, giving a richness to the style that might not at first be obvious from reading the manuscripts. Some of the most useful insights I've gained during my short study reside in the relationships between the traditional Western four-element system and Liechtenauer's four guards.
The basic correlations are as follows:
Alber (The Fool) = Earth (dry, cold)
Pflug (The Plough) = Water (cold, wet)
Ochs (The Ox) = Air (wet, hot)
Vom Tag (From the Roof) = Fire (hot, dry)
The Western classical elemental system is in fact very similar to modern scientific understanding of states of matter. Earth is solid, water is liquid, air is gaseous, and fire is plasma. The faster the vibration of the molecules in a substance, the more fluid or energetic its state, with Earth/solid being the lowest on the scale and Fire/plasma being the highest. It's pretty amazing what those Greeks came up with over 2000 years ago!
In addition there are also two ways of thinking about the Western progression of the elements: the linear model presented above, or the cyclical model. Both lead to a variety of different perspectives as to the nature of the relationships between the elements and, by extension, to Liechtenauer's guards.
Another detail worth discussing is the qualities of each element: hot, cold, wet, and dry. The wet vs. dry quality is perhaps the most useful when looking at the mechanical relationships of the guards. Both of the "wet" guards, Pflug and Ochs, are much more fluid or mutable than Alber and vom Tag, the "dry" guards. The wet guards are also those which can be moved into changing tempo and giving the opponent an extra beat to attack. On the other hand, the dry guards are what I like to think of as the "powerhouse" guards-while they may not be as quick to get moving as the wet guards, they can generate a lot of force.
The hot vs. cold qualities are not as useful from a mechanical perspective, but they provide correlation to the classical associations of active and passive elements. Generally, earth and water (cold) were considered "lower" or "passive" to air and fire (hot), which were "higher" or "active." Again, this relates well to the modern states of matter, solids and liquids being denser than gases and plasmas. As regards the techniques themselves, Alber and Pflug are both low on the body (cold) while Ochs and vom Tag are higher up (hot). This view lines up very nicely with the linear approach presented above, using the human body as a measure for the degree of energy or emanation of a particular guard, toes being the coldest and head being the hottest.
Now, as the four elements relate to the sword guards, the correlations are established by examining the potential energy and function of each guard. The elemental association of a guard it is not dictated by the placement of the hands in relationship to the body, but by the position of the point of the sword. For example. at first glance, the positioning of Ochs and vom Tag might seem to be reversed. However, even though Ochs feels like a more energetic state-the hands are held high near the head-because the point of the sword in Ochs is dropped down towards the opponent, it is actually vom Tag which has the highest "emanation" or energy state, as its point remains above the fencer's head. Thus Ochs equates to Air and vom Tag equates to Fire.
Each guard, if meditated on through the lens of its respective element takes on a very specific character. Alber, with its point on the ground, obviously takes the most effort to come into play and is thusly connected with Earth. It is the most rooted guard, and also the most deceptive. Alber allows for a feeling of calmness and patience-the luxury of time. Even though at first it appears to be a position that only a fool would take (and hence its name), it snaps into action amazingly quickly and with great advantage to the fencer.
Pflug/Water is next on the order of emanation, being held at the hip with the tip trained on the opponent. Plug flows smoothly as it changes from left to right and back again. A guard used mostly for winding, its character is mostly defensive, although by no means should it be underestimated as a striking position. The slightly twisted position of the body allows for a coiling of explosive energy-a thrust can burst forth from Pflug like water rushing out from behind a dam.
Ochs, associated with the other wet element, Air, is also used mainly for winding. It too exhibits a smooth and easy transition when changing sides. As its higher emanation reveals, even more quickly than Pflug, Ochs can turn from defense to offense. While it can thrust from the bind with ease, the time Ochs feels most like its element is when executing a whirlwind-like Zwerchhau against an opponent who is hard at the sword. There is a wildness to that stroke rivaled only by the raw power inherent in vom Tag.
Lastly, vom Tag-the most aggressive guard-is equated with Fire, the highest energy element. Like Alber, the other dry guard, it can appear deceptive at first, resting quietly on the shoulder. But vom Tag gives rise to the first of the Master Strokes in Liechtenauer's system, the Zornhau or "Stroke of Wrath." As the von Danzig commentaries note, "the Stroke of Wrath breaks with the point all strokes from above and yet is nothing but what a poor peasant strikes." Vom Tag is in fact the origin of all five Master Strokes, and with the quickness of a flame can change its intention from one opening to another-even from one technique to another-all while never revealing its shifting plays to the opponent. The mutability inherent in vom Tag is what makes it the most volatile of the four guards, earning its association with the most volatile of the elements, Fire.
Much of this essay stems from my own experience with the guards, and as such should be taken with a small bag of salt as regards historical veracity. However, there are hints within the surviving manuscripts of the Liechtenauer tradition that some of these basic elemental associations might indeed have historical underpinnings. The illustrations in the von Danzig Fechtbuch of the four guards echoes in their coloring the active and passive qualities of the elements. Four was a very important number in the medieval mind, encompassing the physical world. What reflects this more than a set of martial stances? Whatever the historical possibilities, the modern elemental associations of the guards provide the student with a means to glean a deeper understanding of the potential uses and characters of the guards, as well as a window into the medieval mind.
*I would very much like to thank C. Tobler for his comments and critiques on this piece. They have not only been invaluable, but a heckuva lot of fun!