The Zornhau Ort—it’s simpler than you think

I’ve been looking over Liechtenauer’s longsword system again and I realised a few things I missed the last time I studied it in depth. This is one reason I like studying multiple systems, you end up seeing the same techniques from new perspectives. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing some of my observations on German techniques and principles, starting with the Zornhau Ort.

I hear so many interpretations of this technique online and by and large people seem to be overcomplicating it. You hear people telling you about exactly where on the blade you need to make contact or it won’t work, despite the fact that they disagree on where exactly (or when exactly) to strike.  It’s obvious when we go back to the original text (in this case I’m referring to Dobringer), that no such detail is actually given. My translation simply has, “Whoever strikes at you from above, the point of the Zornhau endangers him.” If it’s not so detailed in the actual text, then are we right to be having to read all these extra things into it to make it work, or does it work just fine anyway?

Let’s get to the crux of the German words to really get to the bottom of this. Now I don’t happen to be fluent in medieval German but Der dir oberhawet has got to be referring to the concept of an oberhau. What is that? It simply means a cut from above. Ober-hau, “over-hew”—English is still a Germanic language, remember, and though the modern meanings may have diverged slightly, you can still see the similarity. So all it says your opponent is doing is oberhau-ing (cutting from above). As for you, czornhaw ort deme drewet – two of the words are [c]zornhaw[/au] and ort so there’s not much room to be discussing where on the sword you strike. The next line says “if he sees it…” i.e. he moves on from the initial technique to deal with counters so it doesn’t go into any more depth there. You’re literally left with deme drewet which, given the accuracy of the translation so far, I’ll take to mean “endangers him.” No footwork, timing or bladework mentioned. Just a Zornhau and its Ort. So what are they? Zornhau means wrath-cut and Ort means point. Fine. What is a wrath-cut? It is a diagonal cut from your shoulder. And this, my friends, is the key.

Every time you see this technique performed online, the opponent is also doing a Zornhau (diagonal cut). While the technique still works, by only showing it in that context you’re in danger of missing the point (as it were). We have to remember what Liechtenauer’s system was: a “secret” system designed to beat everyone else out there fighting with longswords at the time. When he says people are cutting from above, he’s not saying they’re all cutting diagonally, he’s just saying their cutting from above. It might be diagonally or vertically down or anywhere in between, but that doesn’t matter, because the Zornhau Ort still works. It’s still his solution. He’s not simply saying “Zornhau against another Zornhau and you’ll win,” he’s saying “regardless of how they cut from above, counter it with a Zornhau (diagonal cut).” It’s not a simple technique but a principle about the angle of blades more generally. It’s about the superiority of the diagonal to any other form of cut.

Why is that? Let’s think of the options. If they strike at you vertically down and you strike diagonally, you will cover your line and displace their sword. Because they struck vertically, even being a bit displaced means their sword is of little threat because they’re now facing you with the flat and their point is offline. You are perfectly set up now, still at the bind, to thrust into them, regardless of which particular part of the blade you made contact with. If they do some form of diagonal cut then that’s fine, your Zornhau will meet theirs in what Silver would call a “true cross.” You’ve at least stopped their blow but your point will still be on-line so unless they displace it, you can stab them.  Same again. If they happen to strike diagonally from the other side, i.e. the one opposite but not mirrored to you, then since a diagonal cut will still cover your line, you can still displace their cut with the same Zornhau. This time, however, you are effectively rebatting it by coming in from behind the blow as it’s striking. You end up pushing it further along without hitting you and still setting your point up for a thrust. In all cases you’re still using the diagonal cut to cover your line and displace their attack then threaten with the point. It’s a bigger principle, not a simple technique, which is why there’s so little detail in the text.

So why does everyone keep overcomplicating it? It’s because they’re all using Liechtenauer’s system already. At the end of the day, it’s preferable to be giving diagonal cuts and that’s what Liechtenauer teaches so that’s what people studying him learn. I would expect, however, that not everyone who learns to Zornhau appreciates the mechanical superiority of diagonal cuts, they simply learn that that that’s what you do. That’s not bad to start off with, but to truly appreciate a master’s system you need to understand how it’s different and why. Further, if people don’t fully appreciate the system then this is when, I would argue, they’re in danger of misinterpreting it. If you read the Zornhau Ort section as a principle of the benefit of diagonal cuts, you don’t lose sleep over things that don’t need to be added to make the principle apply. I guess it goes to show, going back to the texts themselves and understanding them in their historical context is the best way to understand them when they get tricky.

(Photo sourced from Wiktenauer)

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