by Bill Grandy
Vor and Nach. These two terms are constantly referred to in the various Liechtenauer teachings. On the surface the definition seems simple: The person who has seized the Vor (the “Before Timing”) is usually described as the fighter who has made an attack, whereas the person in the Nach (the “After Timing”) is the person who is forced to defend. Time and time again the treatises tell us to seize the Vor, and to not be the person who stays in the Nach. By this logic, it would seem safe to assume that to win, one should attack first and keep attacking at all costs, right?
That is a very superficial way of understanding Vor and Nach. At best, it ignores the vast majority of the techniques within the treatises. Worse, it is a suicidal way to fight. To win, a fighter needs to be able to feel when it makes sense to attack, but also when it makes sense not to. If both fighters stay in the mind set of “attack at all costs”, then both fighters are more than likely going to sacrifice their own lives to kill one another, which is clearly not the intent of the historical masters when they said to seize the Vor.
Seizing the Initiative vs. Merely Attacking
It is important to understand that seizing the Vor does not merely mean to attack, but rather it means to seize the initiative by use of an attack. This is an important but often ignored distinction. To seize the initiative means to be in control of the fight. Here is an example of a person who attacks but does not seize the Vor:
-Fighter A makes a cut to the head
-Fighter B performs a hanging parry/bogen and ripostes with a cut
-Fighter A ignores the riposte to strike again to another opening in that instant
Unless Fighter A is incredibly lucky, Fighter B’s riposte will almost always hit, even if Fighter A’s second attack lands. What this means is that Fighter A, in a blind attempt to keep attacking, caused a mindless double hit. Or, another way to look at this: Fighter A was an idiot. Fighter A is now dead, regardless of whether or not Fighter B is also dead. Despite attacking and hitting, Fighter A did not seize the Vor because he did not take the control away from the opponent. A fighter cannot refuse to be in the Nach if it means a double hit; A fighter must accept that moment in the Nach in order to regain the Vor. This is the heart of the term “Indes“, which the German masters tell us is the moment (literally “instant”) that one feels which action to use.
A smarter scenario:
-Fighter A makes a cut to the head
-Fighter B does the parry-riposte as before
-Fighter A, realizing that he is in danger, parries the riposte
-Now that he has defended himself, Fighter A makes his second attack to win (perhaps with a mutieren)
In this scenario, Fighter A made the first attack, but Fighter B took the initiative away with his parry-riposte. Fighter A could not expect to win by stubbornly saying, “No fair! I have the Vor and I won’t give it to you!” In this instance, that would lead to a double hit. Instead, Fighter A must accept that he is now in the Nach for the moment and use a defensive action first in order to then attack and regain the Vor from Fighter B.
What’s Old is New is Old Again: Training to Punish Double Hits
Many modern practitioners will groan when reading the following comparison, but this concept of who has control of the fight, and who needs to regain control, is something that was repeated elsewhere in history. In the 19th century, fencing masters developed a training tool that was developed to help fighters develop smart habits: Right-of-Way.
Right-of-Way is often maligned in the modern world of HEMA because many misunderstand its original purpose. Right-of-Way was a training rule used during practice to punish the fencer who ignored his/her own safety in order to force a double-hit. This was to train students not to be suicidal when leaving the safety of the school and facing real combat. In the original classical rules (which are similar to modern fencing, though not exactly the same), it would work as follows:
-A fencer who is hit receives a penalty point against him/her. The Fencer with the most penalty points loses.
-In the event of a double hit, the referee gives the priority (Right-of-Way) to the fighter who showed he was attacking first. The opponent receives a penalty point. In other words, if Fencer A attacks, and Fencer B throws his body onto the sword in order to score at the same time, he is penalized for making a suicidal action.
-The Right-of-Way can be taken away by a parry-riposte. If Fencer A attacks and ignores the fact that Fencer B does a parry-riposte, Fencer B regains the Right-of-Way, and Fencer A, who should have defended himself, receives the penalty point instead.
But that’s “apples and oranges”, isn’t it?
It would be silly to assume that a practitioner of 15th century swordsmanship should be required to practice with 19th century swordsmanship rules at all times. Nonetheless, this concept of assigning fault for a double-hit is quite valuable so that students can understand what they have done wrong and attempt to fix it. After all, the concept of who is taking the initiative and control away from the opponent is exactly what Vor and Nach is all about. When training with safety gear, it is easy to fall into the habit of ignoring an attack in the attempt to hit first at all costs, which is contrary to the very nature of “The Art of Defense”.
To help train a fighter not to make double hits, that fighter needs to learn to feel whether he/she is in the Vor or Nach at any given moment. A fighter also needs to train to accept falling into the Nach sometimes in order to regain the Vor. Many drills can be used for this. Here is a simple one:
-Fighter A attacks Fighter B
-Fighter B gives one of two options: 1) Do nothing and receive the hit, or 2) Use a bogen/hanging parry-riposte to counter
-Fighter A must be ready to defend against the riposte with his own bogen/hanging parry when option 2 is presented
As time goes on, Fighter B can add purely defensive parries into the mix, which Fighter A must then identify as separate from a parry that has a threat. In this case, Fighter A should take off to strike the other side rather than parrying, since Fighter B is not attempting to regain the Vor.
In addition to various parry-riposte drills, free-play matches can also be regulated during training to include some kind of “at-fault” rule for double hits. This can be a mirror-image of classical fencing Right-of-Way, but it can also be less specific, merely identifying the person who ignored the defense and was therefore “at fault”. This is a more useful method of training than merely saying, “Both of you failed to defend,” because it allows the students to identify the problem of why the double hit happened. Occasionally both fighters are equally at fault, but quite often one fighter caused the double-hit rather than accept falling into the Nach for a moment.
If the fighters wish to keep track of points, penalties can certainly be assigned. There can also be physical penalties (such as 5 pushups to any fighter that is hit, and when both fighters are hit, an additional 5 pushups go to the person who is deemed “at fault”).
In the end, it doesn’t matter what terminology you use: Right-of-Way, Vor/Nach, or whatever else. The bottom line is that a fighter’s primary goal should be to avoid being hit, and secondary goal should be to hit the opponent. The secondary goal is necessary to accomplish the primary goal, but it can never be exchanged for the primary. Training to keep attacking every time the opponent defends will only train students to cause double hits and not understand how to fix the problem.
About the author: Bill Grandy is the Director of Historical Swordsmanship at the Virginia Academy of Fencing, where he has taught professionally since 2001. His HEMA studies began in 1998 (back before anyone called it “HEMA”), though he practiced modern sport fencing since the late 1980’s, and spent most of the 1990’s practicing Aikido before eventually giving up both when he found his true passion with the historical western fighting styles. His specialties are the German Liechtenauer tradition of swordsmanship as well as the Renaissance Italian rapier, though he tries to find time to work with numerous other weapon arts whenever he can. Bill has traveled extensively to study both period fencing treatises as well as antique arms and armor, and he is also invited regularly to teach at major HEMA events.