On the After-Blow

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“I realize that the After-Blow has become such a commonplace in HEMA that folks don’t understand its origins. Here is the full text of an article on the After-Blow concept, documenting its origins in Belgian fencing guild rules and fencing hall practice across Europe.” (Matt Galas, June 6, 2017)

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On the After-Blow
Copyright Matt Galas 2010

“Grieve not greatly if thou be touched a little;
for an after-stroke is better if thou dare him smite.”
— The Play with the 2 Hand Sword in Verse, Harleian MS 3542, late 15th century

Over the past five years, HEMA researchers have uncovered a series of historical rules for playing prizes with various weapons. The richest sources of information come from Belgium and France, where the statutes of fencing masters and the internal rules of the civic fencing guilds provide a great amount of detail on how prizes were played. These rules, which deal with the use of the longsword, rapier, and rapier & dagger, were in effect from the early 1500s until 1791, when the French Revolution put an end to the fencing guilds. It is likely that these rules were in effect for much longer, but were undocumented.

One of the common elements that has emerged from these documents is a special rule on the so-called “after blow.” This term is a translation of the Flemish term “naerslag” (after-blow) or “naersteek” (after-thrust) found in Belgian fencing guild rules. In the after-blow rule, a blow struck by an attacker is not considered to be a valid hit unless he escapes unscathed. Thus, a successful attack is negated by the after-blow, which is a blow struck by the defender immediately after he is hit. The defender has a limited number of steps he can take with his after-blow. One step appears to be the norm, but some guild rules allow as many as three steps to be taken when delivering the after-blow. Double hits (i.e., simultaneous hits by both fencers) are not the same as an after-blow, but also negate a successful attack.

To make the effect of this rule clear, here is an example of its application: My opponent deceives me with a feint, then hits me with a blow on my shoulder. As he retreats, I pursue him with a passing step, striking at him. If I hit him with this after-blow, his earlier hit is nullified. If he evades or parries my blow, then his blow is counted as a clean hit, and is valid.

The after-blow rule is not unique to France and Belgium. It can also be documented in Italy, where it is discussed in Manciolino’s manual of fence, the Opera Nova of 1531, as well as in a work known as the Anonimo Bolognese, a manuscript written in the 16th century. The concept appears to have been used in England, too, where the term “after stroke” can be documented in the late 15th century, and the term “after veny” in the early 17th century. (The word “veny”, which had many variations in English, is taken from the French work “venue”, and meant a blow given while fencing.) Thus, this rule appears to have been a broad phenomenon in fencing circles in Europe during the 16th century. It remained current in Belgium until the French Revolutionaries disbanded the guild system in 1791.

The after-blow was a feature of European fencing in quite a few countries for several hundred years, during a time when the sword was a relevant weapon. Considering that these competitions were run by fencing masters, presumably it had martial value. The following paragraphs discuss the martial significance of the after-blow. Annex I contains primary source material on the after-blow. Annex II contains a selection of medieval proverbs reflecting how ingrained the concept was in the medieval mind.

Making Sense of the After-Blow Rule

“This was a pass, ’twas fencer’s play, and for the after veny, let me use my skill.”
— The Two Maids of More-clacke, 1609

From the source material cited in Annex I below, it appears that the after-blow was a phenomenon that was wide-spread across Europe. What are we to make of this rule? To make sense of the after-blow, it needs to be examined from two perspectives: That of the attacker, and that of the defender.

From an attacker’s perspective, the after-blow rule is extremely demanding. It requires him to display consummate swordsmanship in attacking his opponent, since the slightest fault will negate his attack. He must not only close distance and strike the opponent without receiving a double-hit, but must also escape unscathed, without allowing the opponent to land a blow on him — a very high standard indeed.

This high standard makes eminent good sense from the perspective of training a swordsman for earnest combat. Recent research makes clear that there is no such thing as a guaranteed sudden kill. Books such as David Grossman’s On Combat (PPCT Research Publications, 2004) and articles such as Frank Lurz’s “The Dubious Quick Kill” (http://www.classicalfencing.com/articles/bloody.php) provide extensive evidence showing that human beings are capable of functioning after taking tremendous amounts of damage. Numerous accounts survive of swordsmen fighting on after sustaining terrible wounds that one would ordinarily expect to be debilitating. History is replete with examples of swordsmen striking back effectively even after receiving a mortal blow. One illustrative example, from the Peninsular War, follows:

“Just then, a French officer delivered a thrust at poor Harry Wilson’s body, and delivered it effectually. I firmly believe that Wilson died on the instant; yet, though he felt the sword in its progress, he, with characteristic self command, kept his eye still on the enemy in his front, and raising himself in his stirrups, let fall upon the Frenchman’s helmet such a blow that brass and skull parted before it; and the man’s head was cloven asunder to the chin. It was the most tremendous blow I ever beheld struck; and both he who gave, and his opponent who received it, dropped dead together.” (Source: Reminiscences of a Light Dragoon, in The United Service Journal, 1840. Cited in Sword Fighters of the British Empire, D.A. Kinsley, 2009.)

With this in mind, requiring a fencer to show that he is capable of parrying or evading an opponent’s retaliatory strike before awarding him a point makes excellent martial sense. As a fellow instructor put it, we should always assume that our opponent’s blow will stop us, but that our own blow will not stop the opponent. This is eminent good sense, and I believe is the underlying reason for the custom of the after-blow. Compare this to the rule in modern sport fencing, where a thrust by an epee-fencer is counted as valid, even though it arrives a mere split-second before the opponent’s counter-thrust, which also lands.

From the defender’s perspective, the after-blow rule also makes good martial sense. In a real fight, if your opponent has struck you, what is the proper response? Is it to shut down and remain passive? Or is it to retaliate, striking the opponent in turn, while he is still within range? Clearly, the answer is the latter.

Phrased another way, the after-blow is what you do after your defenses have failed, and you have been hit. What else are you supposed to do at that point? Striking back at the opponent makes good sense in that situation, since at least it prevents the opponent from getting away unscathed. There is something very martial about this, considering the context of a real fight. This attitude says, “I’ll fight the best I can; but if he gets through my defenses, I’ll have my revenge on him.”

The following example, from a knightly epic known as Willehalm (ca. 1265), shows that this notion was appreciated in the warrior classes in medieval times:

“He struck through Halzibier’s helmet
So that he was nearly dismounted by the blow.
Halzibier was no slouch either;
he did not forget to deliver a blow in return.”
(Source: Ulrich von dem Türlîn’s Willehalm, stanza 44, verses 28-31, ed. S. Singer, Bibliothek der mhd. Litteratur in Böhmen, Vol. 4 (Prague, 1893))

More recent examples of this can be found as well. In “Swordsmen of the Raj” (D.A. Kinsley, 2009), there is an account of a sword fight written by an English officer who fought in the Sepoy Mutiny. In this mounted encounter with cavalry sabres, the Englishman began to deliver a cut at his Sikh opponent. The Sikh struck at him at the same time, so he aborted his cut, converting it into a parry at the last moment. The incoming blow collapsed his parry, and he was cut through the face. He said, “However, my guard having been hurriedly made, and my opponent a stronger man than myself, my sword was beaten down and my cheek laid open. After the blow, I had my turn, and gave my ‘friend’ one over the head.” The officer later collapsed from blood loss from the cut to his face, which was a severe one.

Accounts such as these make clear that the after-blow happened in real life, fighting with sharps. In my view, this attitude is something we should seek to cultivate, rather than the opposite. (“Oh dear, I’ve been hit. Time to stop.”)

Training martial artists to strike an after-blow in retribution after they are hit amounts to training and honing a natural response. Doing the opposite — forbidding a fencer to strike after he has been hit — is potentially a very dangerous thing to do from a training standpoint. Training habits (good or bad) have a way of showing up in real combat. If a martial artist is trained to stop upon receiving a first hit, there is a very real danger that such behavior will manifest itself as a training artifact that surfaces when it is most harmful — in real combat.

Viewed from this perspective, conditioning a fighter to stop immediately after a hit is maladaptive in the extreme. Remember the story of the cop who practices his disarms multiple times, always giving the weapon back to his training partner — and then automatically does that in a real life situation. Not using the after-blow leads the successful fencer to drop his guard while still within striking distance; likewise, it conditions the unsuccessful fencer to stop fighting as soon as he is hit. Neither of these are behaviors which we should encourage in martial artists.

On the contrary, training the after-blow is a method of developing what old English pugilists used to call “bottom” — the ability to take a hard blow and continue fighting nonetheless. The idea is to foster the same attitude and fighting spirit captured in this inscription on a German sword from the early 16th century: Haust du mich, so stich Ich dich. (If you cut me, I will stab you in return.) The fact that the after-blow was used in fencing practice for centuries, under the watchful eye of fencing masters, would suggest that they found martial value in the rule as well.

The concept of the after-blow is inherent in human nature. If we are struck, our natural reaction is to lash back. In medieval German law, this was recognized to such an extent that it is reflected in a legal proverb: “One cannot forbid the after-blow.” In medieval German, the term widerslac was not used in a strict fencing sense, but rather was used to describe a blow struck in retaliation by the victim of an attack. This notion was reflected across Europe in proverbs; Appendix II (see below) presents examples which give an idea of how prevalent this concept was across medieval and Renaissance Europe.

For the reasons stated above, the after-blow rule has been incorporated into many HEMA tournament rule-sets in recent years. Experience at major HEMA tournaments, such as the 2010 tournament at Apelern, Germany, indicates that the better fighters are able to effectively deal with the after-blow. For the rest, this is mainly a matter of training. One easy way to do this is by using drills in which the training partner gives an opening; the swordsman strikes the open target; and the partner delivers a half-speed after-blow, which the swordsman parries as he moves back out of distance. Many variations of this kind of drill can easily be created with a little imagination. Simply remember Joachim Meyer’s adage, in his section on the Zornhut: “Thus, in all techniques you should go from the sword to the body, and from the body to the sword.”

Matt Galas / HEMAC, Belgium

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Appendix I: Primary Source Material on the After-Blow

The following paragraphs provide a sampling of primary source material documenting the after-blow in Italy, France, Belgium, and England. It spans the time period from the late 15th century to the mid-18th century. (Thanks for Italian translation assistance goes to Ilkka Hartikainen, Caroline Stewart, and Mario Quarta; thanks for Flemish translation assistance goes to Eli Steenput.)

Italian: Excerpt from Antonio Manciolino, Opera Nova (Venice, 1531), 6 recto:

“After being hit, it is only allowed to strike back once with one step, as it is in this way that the honor is recovered.”

Italian: Excerpt from the Anonymous Bolognese (manuscript, 16th century, para. 62):

“The art of fencing with blunt weapons is called giucare (playing), and it is not permitted for a fencer, after he has received a blow, to pass more than one step forward to strike at his enemy. The reason is this: If he were free to take as many steps as he wanted, that would no longer be fencing, but would instead be as if he were fighting for real. Because quite often it occurs that a fencer steps forward as many times as he likes after receiving a blow, throwing himself upon his enemy because he is overcome by anger. And he runs towards his enemy, trying to strike at him anywhere he can on his body, in order to hit him again. Because of this, those who are watching [i.e., the judges] cannot tell what happened, due to him running at his enemy in such a bestial manner, taking more than one step.

But why do I say that when one has received a blow, he must not take more than one step, while another might say that he should take as many steps as he likes? To him I would respond that such an action happens in the art of combat when one has received a blow, and one can decide to step forward and retreat as much as he likes. However, it often happens that one receives a blow, he is motivated by a desire to throw himself upon his enemy to take revenge, but the blow was of such a nature that he is unable to move and in fact falls to the ground. For that reason, in the art of sport-fencing one cannot step forward more than one step after receiving a blow. Because if you want to take more steps, I will tell you the reason given above: that if the sword was sharp, the blow could have been of such a nature that you would be unable to run forward, but might instead fall to the ground.”

French: Excerpt from the longsword rules of the fencing guild of Lille (manuscript, late 16th century):

“Item: In order to maintain order in the game, and to prevent those who are accustomed to run after their opponents, despite having been previously hit, it has been resolved that one will have but a single step after having received a blow; and if one does not deliver the said blow on the first step (such as if one takes two steps), that blow will not be counted for good nor valid.”

Flemish: Excerpt from the longsword rules of the fencing guild of Mechelen (manuscript, 17th century):

“Whoever fights the defending King at the Knightly Sword must strike him with a valid hit, on the head, shoulders, back or chest, above the elbows and above the belt, as shown by the [chalk] marks, remembering that the King has his after-blow, which must be delivered at once, without following the challenger or opponent more than three steps to give this after-blow, on pain of losing it.”

Flemish: Excerpt from the longsword rules of the fencing guild of Brussels (manuscript, dated 1617):

“Whoever is fighting against the defending King with the Noble Sword, and strikes him a valid hit (to wit, above the belt, or from the bend of the elbow upwards; because anything below that shall not be counted, either for the Defender or for the Challenger) and then departs from the King free and untouched, then the same one that struck the valid hit shall stand in place of the King. All the others from the Guild shall then play against him, who haven’t yet played; and they shall fight him to see whether they can hit him with a higher valid hit. Because whoever strikes the highest valid hit shall remain King, bearing in mind that the King still has a step with an after-blow.”

Flemish: Excerpt from the rapier rules of the fencing guild of Brussels (manuscript, dated 1716):

“If the challenger can give the champion a thrust without being thrust by the champion above the belt or elbow, then he is rewarded by taking the champion’s place (his thrust being registered); he must then try to defend against the other challengers. […] The champion has the advantage that he can give an after-thrust, which the challenger is not allowed. And for him [i.e., the challenger], an after-thrust will not be counted as valid.”

English: Excerpt from Harleian Manuscript 3542, folios 82-85, The Play of the 2 Hand Sword in Verse (late 15th century):

“Greve not gretly thou yu be tochyd a lyte
ffor an aftr stroke ys betr yf thou dar hym smyte”

Note: In the following two excerpts from England, a “veneye” or “veny” is defined in Bullokar’s English Expositor (1616) as follows: “Venie. A touch in the body at playing with weapons.”

English: Excerpt from Sloane Manuscript 2530, with the rules of the London Maisters of Defence (manuscript, late 16th – early 17th century):

“And at anny prize Whether it be maisters prize Provosts prize or fre schollers prize who soever dothe play agaynste ye prizor, and doth strike his blowe and close withall, so that the prizor cannot strike his blowe after agayne, shall wynn no game for anny Veneye so geven althoughe it shold breake the Prizor’s head.”

English: Excerpt from The Two Maids of More-clacke, 1609:

“Can ye warde your selfe? This was a pass, ’twas fencer’s play, and for the after veny, let me use my skill.”

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Appendix II: The Proverbial After-Blow

The concept of the after-blow is inherent in human nature. If we are struck, our natural reaction is to lash back. This notion was reflected across Europe in proverbs; the following examples give an idea of how prevalent this concept was.

Daniel von dem blühenden Tal (ca. 1220), verses 7696-7703, by Der Stricker, ed. Michael Resler (Tübingen, 1983)

The after-blow has never been forbidden
to a wrathful man;
for if he is to survive,
he must defend himself.
If he is to preserve his body,
then he gladly strikes back
before he lays down and dies;
we did the same, and rightly so.

A variety of other examples follow, primarily from this source: Thesaurus proverbiorum medii aevi, by Samuel Singer, (New York, de Gruyter, 2000) p. 118-19

German proverbs:

Swer sleht, der sol umbe sehen, Waz im da wider muege geschehen (He who strikes should beware what might happen to him in return.) Freidank, Bescheidenheit (ca. 1220), 127, 14.

Als her Fridank gesprochen hat: Ich geloub, den widerslac Niemen wol verbieten mac. (As Sir Freidank said, ‘I believe that no-one can forbid the after-blow.’) Heinrich der Teichner, Karajan, 32.

Latin equivalents:

Non interdictum fit verber post prius ictum. (It is not forbidden to strike, having been struck before.) Laele 676.

Lex que plagavit nullo plagare vetavit. (It is the law that he who has been struck cannot be forbidden from striking.) (Freidank Lat. (Graz) 90.

French equivalents:

Colée demande son per. (One blow calls for another.) Chast. 26, 118.

Qui cop reçoit, colée renge. (He who receives a blow, gives a blow in return) Roman de Thebes, App. 3, 10943 (II, 194), (13th century)

Se tu fiers mi, jou ferrai ti. (If you hit me, I will hit you.) Jehan, Les Mervelles de Rigomer, verse 3714 (13th century)

English equivalents:

For he that smytys, he shal be smyten. (He who strikes, he shall be struck.) (Towneley Plays 20, 699) (Also remember the common turn of phrase, “To give as good as you get.”)

Spanish equivalent, using fencing terminology:

A tal tajo, tal reves. (For such right blow, a reverse blow in return.) (Nunez I, 137)

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