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The Long Sword and the German School of Fencing


A long sword is a type of combat sword that was prevalent during medieval times and into the renaissance. The long sword is characterized by a long hilt in the shape of a Christian cross and a grip large enough for a two handed grasp. The blade of the sword consists of a straight two-sided blade and is often the length of a yardstick, give or take a few inches. You may find long sword spelled differently depending on the source; these spelling variations are all acceptable. Long sword can be spelled without a space or with a dash between the two words.


The long sword is most identified with the old German school of fencing (not to be confused with academic fencing or other modern German schools of fencing.). The old German school of fencing, referred to as Deutsche Schule in the German language, is an entire combat style and system of thinking that was taught from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth century, the same period in which long swords became prevalent as combat weapons. Several combat manuals, referred to as Fechtbucher, were written during this time period and are still in existence today, acting as historical documentation of the German school of fencing and the fighting techniques used therein.


The Master of the German Long Sword System

The German long sword school of thought is first documented in a document written around the year 1300, entitled The Royal Armouries. This document displays several fencing techniques and is the lone surviving fencing documentation of the early 1300s. Any other historical documentation of the German school of fencing vanished for about a century. Historians have found that the next recorded instance of the German school of fencing appeared when a certain Johannes Liechtenauer was mentioned in the fourteenth century.


The details of this great master’s life remain a little fuzzy since historical evidence remains sparse during this time period, but many historical scholars believe that Johannes Liechtenauer was one of the chief reasons the long sword German school of fencing lived on for the next ten generations of long sword masters, a total of 250 years at least. One of the oldest texts mentioning Johannes Liechtenauer, the Nurnberger Handschrift, states that “[he] learnt and mastered [the] Art in a thorough and rightful way, but he did not invent and put together this Art, as it is stated before. Instead, he traveled and searched many countries with the will of learning and mastering this rightful and true Art.”


The Master’s Disciplines

The entire fencing system taught by the master of the German school of fencing, Johannes Liechtenauer, revolved around the central use of one weapon: the long sword. With this one weapon, Johannes Liechtenauer believed he could thoroughly teach a great many concepts and principles about the martial arts. Other traditional disciplines were taught by Master Johannes, including grappling, fighting with a staff, and using a dagger. However, the long sword remained as Master Johannes most beloved weapon of combat, demonstrated by his development of the long sword fencing method and his long-lived legacy.


Master Johannes had his teachings recorded in a set of poetic verses, which were supposedly intended to prevent anyone who had not been initiated into the German school of fencing from deciphering their meaning. The verses begin with an introduction that places an emphasis on chivalry, which perfectly fits the time period that placed such emphasis on the way noble knights treated the world around them:

“Young knight, learn to love God and honour noble women,

so grows your honour; practice chivalry and learn

art which adorns you and will glorify you in battle.”


These verses and other sources indicate that Master Johannes emphasized five different aspects of long sword combat in his German school of thought:

      The concept of engaging in the quickest attack in the most direct and unimpaired fashion possible. It would seem that Master Johannes had a general distaste for “fancy” flourishes or any other gaudy techniques that were primarily used to impress.

      The concept that explaining long sword techniques with words alone is impossible; practice, hands-on instruction, and a deep delving into fierce training were valued by Master Johannes when teaching students the way of the long sword. To Master Johannes, exercise was superior to art.

      The concept of a correct stance and thoughtful footwork. Master Johannes stressed the importance of maintaining the perfect distance from an opponent and operating at an ideal speed without excessive flourishes. He knew the importance of footwork when wielding a long sword—there is more to brandishing a long sword than knowing how to slice at an opponent. It would seem that the Master believed in creating a firm foundation by teaching the core values of solid footwork and even the importance of correct posture.

      The concept of a direct and pre-determined method of attack. An emphasis was placed on using the long sword to take an offensive stance whenever possible instead of remaining on the defensive.

      The concept of shielding true intentions so that the opponent cannot decipher the next intended act. When using a long sword, Master Johannes highlighted the importance of masking which move was to be enacted next; in modern day terms, he may have told his students to maintain a poker face.


The Canons of Successful Swordsmanship

Master Johannes also created canons of successful swordsmanship for those interested in wielding a long sword in the most effective way possible. The canons resemble a way of life more than a strict list of sword techniques, drawing clear parallels between the old German school of  fencing and present day martial arts. According to Master Johannes, the canons of successful swordsmanship are:

      The aid of God. Interestingly, this is the first canon listed. Johannes’ reverence for God and the way his spiritual beliefs intertwined with his love of the art of the long sword is clearly indicated in the way he relied on God for help as the very first key to being a successful swordsman.

      A healthy physique. Keeping the body healthy was of prime importance to every person interested in becoming an expert at using the long sword in combat. Without a healthy body, a healthy mindset could not be achieved. Since the mind is a key part of successfully maneuvering with a long sword, a fit body was absolutely imperative. Not to mention the sheer weight of a long sword—it takes a great deal of muscle to simply lift one of the hefty double-bladed swords.

      A well-made weapon. In order to achieve the greatest level of skill, a knight had to own a weapon that best suited his personal combat strategy. It was also important that a weapon be quality, well balanced, resilient, and sharpened. In a sense, a knight was only as good as his long sword.

      Speed. The speed at which a knight could handle his weapon and maneuver around the enemy was a matter of life and death during combat. The ability to wield a heavy weapon quickly took a great deal of practice but was well worth it in the long run.

      Courage and confidence. Obviously, it would take a great deal of courage to face a very large man with a very large, very sharp sword. In fact, some forms of the German school of fencing involved a form of combat during which neither opponent wore armor.

      Agility. A knight had to be quick on his feet, which is quite a tall order considering the heavy weaponry and armor involved.

      Wariness. Upon reading the next point, you will understand why a knight had to be wary at all times.

      Deceit. As mentioned earlier, the ability to disguise one’s true intentions was a key strategy when using a long sword during combat. All manner of deceit took place during combat because the battle was not only a battle of skill, but also a battle of the wits. The canon of cleverness is also grouped with the canon of deceit as both share similar properties.

      Reason and instinct. During a form of combat that involved such advanced levels of intelligence, a knight was forced to use both his gut instinct and a healthy dose of logic. One without the other could have resulted in a fatal mistake.


The old German school of fencing was centered on a way of life that many still admire today. People of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy the nostalgia behind this chivalrous way of life; in fact, modern day film and literature continue to depict knights who resemble those in the medieval era.


Most importantly, many of the long sword techniques taught and practiced during medieval times are still used by martial arts enthusiasts, and the profound words of Johannes Liechtenauer still echo in modern times. The German school of fencing is so deeply ingrained in the history of long sword combat techniques that modern day martial artists probably use traditional old school thought, whether they realize it or not.