Stepping Back

Today I will look at another illustration from John Clements’ book on Medieval Swordsmanship.
This sequence shows how a downward strike is accompanied by a step forward with the right or rear foot, and the text describes how to resume the initial position(left). What I like about this is that if you view it right-to-left it equally illustrates a downward strike that follows stepping back with the left or lead leg. For example, an enemy targets your lead leg, so you step back to avoid the strike and simultaneously strike at his head. Striking low may have exposed the upper part of his body.
Medieval Sword and Shield describes a similar sequence, although this time the defender is in “half-shield” guard (above, left). Again, if the enemy strikes low, the targeted leg is brought back and the sword is brought down on the attacker.
Clements’ book makes a lot about the prevalence of leg wounds among the remains of the Battle of Visby. The above sequences suggest that attacking the legs was foolhardy, at least with shorter weapons such as swords. Some context helps us understand the discrepancy. The victorious Danish forces were mainly composed of professional soldiers and mercenaries. The Gutnish forces were primarily farmers, and only partially equipped with armour. It seems likely that professional fighters would readily exploit the defender’s lack of experience and equipment and target the legs. Whether such tactics were common in other battles against experienced fighters is open to debate.
The “step back while striking” drill has obvious applications to modern combat. If we do not hold a sword it can be adapted to other weapons or empty handed techniques. In a previous post I have mentioned that the leg raising actions so typical of Scottish Highland dancing may have been training to take the leg out of the way of low strikes.
Many years ago I wrote about a very silly sequence that appears in some knife-fighting manuals. It should be apparent to readers that when an attacker threatens your leg, a more practical response will be to withdraw the leg and simultaneously strike at any target available, such as arm.