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Core Principles of Movement

This is the first lesson of the core curriculum that Tristan Leslie and myself are developing:

NZWMA 2008

Over the weekend, the New Zealand Western Martial Arts 2008 conference was held in Upper Hutt, Wellington. Bob Charron of St Martin's Academy of Medieval Arms in Wisconsin, USA presented a comprehensive four-day introductory course to Fiore dei Liberi's wrestling, dagger, sword, and longsword system. His wife Kristi also lectured on medieval horsemanship, while additional classes were run by other instructors on Le Jeu de la Hache d'arms pollax, German messer, Vigny cane, I.33, bareknuckle boxing, and rapier. The full conference timetable is available at the New Zealand Schools of European Martial Arts website.

Although the four days were very tiring, and it was difficult to mimic and retain even quite basic techniques by the end of the conference due to information overload, it was unquestionably worthwhile. I particularly gained a great deal from the dagger and wrestling classes, which helped to explain and cement a number of biomechanical principles which had been floating around in my head without any procedural knowledge to anchor on. This process was greatly assisted by Bob's outstanding teaching skills—his knowledge of Fiore is phenomenal, such that he makes it all look very easy and simple; and this is translated into his teaching style, which breaks things down into a highly structured class which helps students to grasp techniques as the sum of their parts. I learned as much from his method of teaching as I did from the content of the courses themselves, and I hope that what I have absorbed will greatly increase my own abilities as an instructor.

All told, I cannot recommend these conferences highly enough to those in the New Zealand HEMA community. I know it takes a leap of faith to invest the significant time and money required to attend, but I can vouch that it is more than worth it. Particular thanks must go to Colin McKinstry for organizing the event and for providing accommodation for myself and others. Thanks also to Tristan Leslie for doing so much chauffeuring; especially after his car's clutch started to smoke and he had to hire a car.

Looking toward NZWMA 2009, there are currently no plans for a guest speaker this time, but we will probably be focusing on core principles: biomechanics, measure, timing, safety, and the like. Options are being discussed for expanding the types of courses and activities provided, and for involving students more in the classes so as to encourage the scholastic approach that the Schools of European Martial Arts are all about. Members of the schools are invited to participate in this discussion on the forums, in the thread Towards NZWMA 2009.

Why we step on the circle

Circular motion is a fundamental geometric principle in medieval fighting, and the Liechtenauer tradition is no exception. As the author of Codex HS 3227a puts it:

He (Liechtenauer) also means that you should not step straight in with the blows, but from the side at an angle so that you come in from the side where you can reach him easier than from the front. When you strike or thrust at him, he will not be able to defend with other techniques and neither lead it away by changing through as long as the strikes or thrusts are to the man, to the openings to the head and the body with steps and leaps in from the side (Cod.HS.3227a or Hanko Dobringer fechtuch from 1389, translation by David Lindholm and friends, 19V).

The reason that circular motion is so important is simple: it takes advantage of the fact that you can reach further in one direction than in another.


If you stand in position and swing your sword through the range of leger available, you will form a lopsided half-ellipse when viewed from above, with you at the center. It stretches in front of you to Langenort at its longest point, and to the side to Schrankhut at its narrowest point. This is your zone of offense. The same ellipse can be imagined for your opponent.

If you made a piece of string the length of the long axis of this ellipse, and tied it to your opponent, you could scribe a circle around him which would show you all the places from which you can strike him. If you drew this circle on the ground around him, you could know precisely where to step with your lead foot in order to hit him; like so—

Facing off

Notice that both fighters are out of range to hit the other. If Fighter Red were to step directly forward to attack, he would come into the zone of offense of Fighter Green, and possibly be hit. However, because his zone of offense is an ellipse, there are places on Fighter Green's circle where Red's zone of offense intersects Green's, but Green's does not intersect Red's. Therefore, if, when Red came to attack, he stepped onto the circle at the closest convenient location outside Green's zone of offense, he could strike without being struck in return; like so—


Notice that Red's strike will land, while Green's would not. Furthermore, even if he were in range, Green could not land a strike without first getting through Red's well defended centerline.

It is because of these elliptical zones of offense that linear movements forward or back are to be avoided in most circumstances. Passing directly forward will move you into your opponent's zone of offense. Passing on the circle, however (often called a "slope" step), will keep you outside his zone of offense. This doesn't mean you should step as far onto the circle as possible, though. On the contrary, you should step to the nearest possible location, in order to give your man as little time as possible to respond. Smaller steps are better, provided they get you to the circle. Too small, however, and you will remain inside your man's zone of offense when you strike.


In order to achieve the shortest step, you need to align your body in such a way as to maximize your reach. If you align yourself inefficiently, and cause your reach to be shorter, you will have to make up for it by stepping further, thus wasting time. You will also generate less power, because much of it will be expended in the wrong direction. Because of this, the circle around your opponent is not the only one with which you must concern yourself.

To make an effective strike, you must pivot your body around your stationary foot—thus moving in a circular rotation. When your lead foot lands, your toe should be pointing to where you are striking. If your target moves, the orientation of your toe should follow. (This is impossible if you are not stepping on the ball of your foot, or if you are planting your heel after stepping.) If you do not orientate your toe correctly, the rest of your body will be misaligned as well, and your power generation, reach, and balance will all be poor.

Once your lead foot has landed, your rear foot turns to correct your stance. This rotates your shoulders, pulling your rear shoulder out of your opponent's zone of offense, and further extending your range by moving your lead shoulder forward. At this stage, you are in range to hit him, while he is out of range to hit you. And, even if he could hit you, your centerline is perfectly closed by your own weapon, while his is opened.

Obviously this is assuming that your man does not respond to your strike. If you have stepped correctly, the only possible response available to him is to rotate himself around his lead foot with a smaller motion than yours (because he has less time, being that he is reacting), so as to mimic your own orientation. By doing so he will close his line, and seek to open yours. You are now both in each other's zone of offense, and the krieg can begin.

Positioning your body around your brain

In I.33, we have started off teaching a posture with the following features (whenever I describe any technique, I assume a right-handed fighter):

  • Right foot shoulder width in front of, and to the right of, the left foot.
  • Both feet facing forward.
  • Rear heel raised off the ground, with the weight of the body well forward—such that if a line were drawn from the shoulders it would pass through the forward knee into the ball of the right foot.

In practicing this posture, I found that having the rear foot facing directly forward (what I shall refer to as "straight", for ease of reference) was distinctly uncomfortable. Now, I am not one to dismiss a posture as bad simply because it does not feel natural, but such a stance is not one I've ever seen before in HEMA, and it seems unsound for several reasons. Following some discussion with Colin and Dean McKinstry, I believe this posture is simply wrong. Here is why:

Firstly, although it makes for a powerful forward-and-back position, it leaves you vulnerable to imbalance when attacked from a sideways vector. Related to this, it is also entirely less suited to movement on the circle, because springing with the rear foot will impel the body directly forward—rather than forward and to the side, as is nearly always advocated (for numerous reasons which bear their own discussion at some length).

Secondly, however, is a biomechanical consideration. I'd like to use the specific example of the I.33 posture to expand on a core principle in biomechanics, as well as provide some commentary on our coursework. This principle is, basically, that the brain is the most selfish organ in the body.

How the brain coordinates the body in response to threats

Not all biomechanics is about how the parts of the body move. In fact, studying how they move is secondary in some critical ways to the matter of when they move, and why.

In combat, the brain always acts to protect itself. The head is the target which is always defended automatically, at the expense of any other part of the body. It will sacrifice anything to protect itself. The corollary of this is that attacks made to other parts of the body (particularly to the extremities) are treated with a lower priority. The brain simply won't act to protect a limb in the same way it will act to protect the head. Priority 1 is the head; priority 2 is the torso; and the limbs come in at priority 3, which is to say that they are expendable.

In the case of our I.33 posture, the brain is aware that attacks can be warded off using the right side of the body. It is aware that the right side is exposed and must be protected. That is where the threat is, and attacks need to get through the right arm before they can reach the head or torso. Since the right arm is holding a sword, this is okay. It can be used to keep the head (and body) safe, and no one can attack the arm directly because the sword is in the way. This is good. In fact, this instinct can be refined into good warding and striking technique.

But, in such a situation, the brain has a tendency to assume that the left side of the body is "out of action". Since you are in a right foot forward posture, the right arm is the primary defense. The left arm is ignored. The brain is expecting attacks to the right side, because that's what is exposed. It will automatically defend against the most obvious and immediate threats, which means attacks from the front: either to the right arm, to the right side of the torso, or to the head itself. Thus, the left side of the body is given a very low priority. This is made even lower because the brain thinks this side is protected by merit of having a buckler. Therefore, any attack coming to the left side will effectively be ignored, because the brain is preoccupied with defending itself and the torso from the right side.

Now, if an attack does come to the left side, and is threatening the head or torso first, then this becomes a top-priority issue. The brain will bring in whatever part of the body it can to keep itself safe—namely the buckler in the left hand. However, if the attack is not threatening the head or torso (in that order, of course), the brain will act very slowly to defend, leaving the left side vulnerable.

Consider this in relation to our I.33 posture. With your left foot straight, your entire posture rotates slightly, becoming more forward-facing. This brings your left shoulder and elbow into a position where they are effectively covering your torso. Because the torso is then not immediately exposed, any attack which does not threaten the head directly will illicit no defensive response: the brain sees the torso as protected by the left arm. It doesn't care about sacrificing the shoulder or elbow (depending on the height of the strike); it just sees that the torso is okay because the expendable part will be hit instead, and so it fails to defend properly.

If we modify the posture to a more conventional one by rotating the left foot outward (usually at around 30-45 degrees), your upper body rotates backward with it, bringing both the left shoulder and elbow slightly behind your torso. This leaves the torso exposed, and so any attack to the left side will cause your brain to automatically bring your left arm into action in defense.

To summarize: by straightening your left foot and bringing your left side forward to be more available to defend, you ironically make it less useful because your brain perceives it as being already "good enough". If you leave your torso a little more exposed, the brain will always try to correct this by bringing the left arm in for defense automatically when it is threatened. Therefore, in this case, a posture with the rear foot angled outward is better not only for balance and for directional stepping, but also for protecting the left arm from being sniped. Hopefully this example illustrates why a knowledge of biomechanics is so critical to informing one's interpretation of HEMA techniques.


This is the blog of Dominic Bnonn Tennant, instructor in Kunst des Langenschwert at Hamilton School of European Martial Arts. Its purpose is to provide an accessible location for class and study material for students of the school. This material will most specifically relate to the Liechtenauer stream; but, more generally, much of it should be useful to all HSEMA students, as the principles applied in any one stream are broadly compatible with the others.

Discussion of this material is encouraged; either in the comments fields, or on the SEMA Forums.