In this treatise, we will examine the VIER LEGER – the Four Guards of German Longsword play as described by Sigmund Ringeck, whose text, KUNST DES FECHTENS, is dated to the first half of the 15th century. We know very little about the man except that he was once employed as the fencing instructor to Albrecht, Duke of Bavaria. It is thought that he was a member of the lower knightly class, but barring empirical evidence, this is unsupported supposition.
Ringeck’s treatise draws on an earlier work by Hanko Doebringer whose 1389 text contains our earliest known reference to the great master Liechtenauer.
First, let’s define what we mean by the term “guard.” In this context, it is a specific position for the sword from which you launch and end attacks. It only “guards” a portion of the body by virtue of the fact that it would be illogical to attack an area where the sword is already present.
Some of the guards, such as Ochs (the Ox) and Pflug “the plough) are obviously conducive to thrusting, whereas the other two, Von Tag (from the Roof) and Alber (the Fool) are more conducive to delivering a strike, especially the former.
As I stated, a blow should begin from one of these positions and end in another, in other words, from one position of strength to another. When practicing, you should see which thrusts and strikes are most conducive, or most powerful from each specific guard position, and how changing one strike to another – say the Zwechau (transverse or cross-strike followed immediately by a Zornhau (the Wrath strike) produces a position that most naturally lends itself to assuming one of the Four Guards.
I would state two things here. First, you must not consider any Guard a static position, whether it’s a beginning position or coming at the end of an offensive move or moves. The sword should always be in motion, one attack following another, with appropriate defensive moves as the flow of the fight necessitates. You are admonished to press your advantage, to maintain the VOR (the Before) and if forced onto the defensive, the NACHT, (the After) to regain the VOR as soon as possible. Liechtenaeur also advised that a blow should not start from the left side, so this should inform your choice of positions.
So here, translated directly from the German as accurately as I may, are the Four Guards which Ringeck considered the core of his system, which he warns, in the forward to his work, “Vier leger allain davon halt und fluch die gemain – Ochs, Pflug, Alber, Vom Tag – sy dit nit unmer. Ist das du von kainem leger nicht halten solt den alain von den vieren die hie genant worden sind.”
“Four guards only hold and disdain the common; Ox, Plow, Fool and From Above should not be unknown to you. You will not assume any guard except the four above mentioned; how to do that is explained here.”
ALBER – THE FOOL
“The Fool. Stand with your right foot forward, the sword point toward the ground in front of you with straight arms.”
DER PFLUG – THE PLOW
“The Plough. Stand with your left foot forward and hold your sword with crossed hands below your right side, above your knee, with the point aimed at his face.”
“DER OCHS – THE OX
“The Ox. Stand with your left foot forward and hold your sword just below your right side of your head. Let the point be pointed toward your foe’s face.”
VOM TAG – FROM ABOVE
“From Above. Stand with your left foot forward and hold your sword on your right side next to your shoulder. Or hold it with arms stretched above your head.”
These are the positions as described by Ringeck in his text. It must be noted that other German masters had variations on these positions – Vom Tag, for instance, is pictured in other Fechbuchs as having the flat of the blade resting against the shoulder with the cross-hilt at upper chest level. The Plow is also pictured as being held with the quillons of the sword parallel to the ground and the thumb coming over the quillon from underneath and being placed against the lower flat of the blade just above the hilt.
Ringeck’s treatise also includes other secondary guard positions such as Nebenhut – the Low or Near Guard. But positions like it and Shrankenhut – the Fence Post, are considered specializes positions and not part of the Veir Leger.
Naturally, this short essay barely touches the subject, but I hope that it gives the basic necessary information and prompts you to your own research,