(Note, in this piece I’ll be examining a piece of terminology commonly used in the Liechtenauer fencing tradition. This discussion, however, includes generally good advice that can be translated to other traditions and martial arts.)
“And this strike breaks all strikes of a Buffalo – which means peasant – that come downwards from above, as most peasants usually do.” - Nuremberg Hausbuch (MS 3227a)
Through the various glosses of the Liechtenauer fencing tradition we are told of the “buffalo”- a type of fighter who lacks important technique and may try to compensate with strength.
It happened several times as I read the manuals and looked at my own fencing that I’ve asked myself: “Could I be the buffalo master Liechtenauer mentioned?” - “It can’t be” - I thought, after all “I’m learning proper technique and fighting as taught in the glosses and therefore I can’t be a buffalo.”
Or can I?
I propose the two are not mutually exclusive: one can study the glosses to learn technique and even execute it in sparring situations, yet still be the buffalo the masters warned us about.
To know if one acts as the buffalo we must first know what it means. In truth, we never get a clear description. However we can gather glimpses of information from the different manuscripts to compose our own definition.
The first reference we get is from Liechtenauer:
“The Schiler [“Squinter” - a descending cut with the hand turned to use the short edge] breaks into whatever a buffalo strikes or thrusts.”
This inconveniently gives no hint of what exactly distinguishes the buffalo’s strikes or thrusts, and so we need to go deeper.
Looking at the Sigmund ain Ringeck's translation we see the following:
“Note here that the squinter is a hew which breaks-in the hews and thrusts of the buffalo ([one] who acquires victory with power), and deploy the hew thusly:”
This suggests that the buffalo is one who fights with strength and not necessarily with technique.
This is reinforced by Hans Medel: “the squint-hew, which is such an exquisite hew, that breaks in buffaloes or thugs, which take victory by force in hews and in thrusts”
Nuremberg Hausbuch (MS 3227a) tells us the following:
“And this strike breaks all strikes of a Buffalo – which means peasant – that come downwards from above, as most peasants usually do.”
This suggests that the buffalo might not be very well trained and will use simple actions such as cutting down from above. This is also interesting because Pseudo-Peter von Danzig gives us the following description for the Wrath Strike [Zornhau]:
“Mark, the Wrath-hew breaks all Over-hews with the point, and yet is nothing other than a simple peasant strike"
Let’s continue our exploration with Pseudo-Peter von Danzig:
“Mark, the Feeling and the word “Meanwhile” are the greatest and the best art with the sword, and who is a Master of the Sword (or wants to be), if he cannot understand the Feeling and the word “Meanwhile”, then is he not a Master, but he is a Buffalo of the Sword. Therefore you shall, before all things, learn well these two things so that you understand them rightly.”
This suggests a different definition of a buffalo. We’ve seen that the buffalo may use strong downwards cuts, here we have a negative definition. The Buffalo is lacking mastery of some important concepts regarding sensitivity and reaction. This is extrapolated by taking the following “and who is a Master of the Sword (or wants to be)”, suggesting that the buffalo may have a wider knowledge of techniques than just cutting like a peasant, trying to become a “Master of the Sword” (just as we are today!) yet lacks the specifics of feeling [fuhlen] and indes [meanwhile].
A similar description with possibly different wording or translation is found in Nicolaüs Augsburger’s transcript:
“Gloss. Note that the sensing in the sword and the word “Instantly” is the greatest art and when one is a master or wishes to be and cannot sense the Sensing and thereby cannot understand the word “Instantly”, then he is not a master. Rather, he is a Buffalo of the sword, therefore you shall learn to embody these two things well in all engagements.”
This translation gives Indes not as “meanwhile” but “instantly”, and likewise Fuhlen/“feeling” is now “sensing”. While this may be superfluous to the Pseudo-Peter-von Danzig gloss, I think these alternative translations can help us in creating a definition for the buffalo.
Now that we have gathered references to the buffalo, we can declare the following: The buffalo is a fencer who…
We can easily apply the definition of a buffalo to all people with little sword experience who naively attempt to hack at their opponents using their sword, this is common with beginners who simply know no better.
If we go through the harsher definition, we may apply it to anyone who is unable to implement on fuhlen and indes and might attempt to compensate with by applying force.
Now that we have a definition of what it means to be a buffalo we can finally recognize one by examining how a person fights against our definition. The person we wish to diagnose may be a friend, a student, a sparring partner or ourselves.
Let us exercise this on ourselves. The next time you fight, try to be mindful and answer the following questions:
This is by no means perfect, however it can help us identify undesirable behaviour. There are common reasons that cause us to fight like described above, the most common:
Now that we have a diagnosis, let us look into ways to improve.
This section explores ways we can use to improve our fencing and ease possible buffalo symptoms which may be present.
It goes without saying that we should keep our cool in sparring situations, however I doubt any of us can truly and honestly claim we’ve never lost it in trying to win or simply do our best. Staying calm is so important, not only for the safety of our partner, but also for our ability to properly perceive and react to the situation.
The moment we feel threatened and start to panic is when our brain reverts to the simplest most comfortable reactions it can perform, often shutting down our ability to process information as we tense mentally in trying to do the one thing, usually failing.
Remaining calm allows us to better perceive and act on a situation, not reverting to our primal instincts and allowing us to perform better. And even if there is no way we can win, we can at least sense and process more, allowing us to better learn from the situation, which is a win in itself.
Being calm also gives us the ability to experiment and try out new things without being overly harsh over failures, which are bound to happen when attempting new technique.
While the previous tip was about staying calm mentally, this one is about staying relaxed with our body. Don’t fight with your muscles tense, committing too hard to certain actions and/or positions. Fighting with tense muscles makes it more difficult to change from one action to another and removes our ability to move correctly, or even move at all.
This is very common when we attempt to strike with all our might, committing to this singular goal, tensing our body to unleash all the energy we can gather, and then when we get there we are way too tense to thrust forward or do another action, or worse: when the technique fails or is parried and we need to fly out, but we are too tense and remain in the position for too long.
This does not mean we can’t fight with strength, but one should question where the strength is coming from. Proper body mechanics are important and will deliver far more strength than simply tensing your muscles and forcing through. More important, less tension and better mechanics will allow for more control and the ability to change your action.
It is also common to tense when receiving a powerful strike, firmly parrying the blow may prevent us from redirecting the force to a strike of our own and will harmfully spread the force onto our joints instead. Try to maintain a lighter grip on your sword, taking the blow with good body and sword mechanics, thereby allowing you to remain safe and usefully redirect the force as you receive it, if can be done safely.
Sometimes techniques do not work and we try to push harder to get them to work, fighting strength with strength. Orr more accurately: fighting a mechanical disadvantage by adding additional strength.
Instead, fight with less effort and seek a mechanical advantage. If they deny your technique, don’t try to force it but move on to another one. Many people think that being strong is directly related to the amount of pressure you apply; instead I propose that it is strictly about mechanical advantage and physics: If you catch them closer to their weak, then you can control the bind (being strong) without having to apply a lot of force, while if you are caught on your weak it doesn’t matter how much force you apply. This is how leverage works, and in trying to fight against it by simply adding more force we choose poorly. Instead, work with it, as the manuals suggest.
This connects with the next point:
This is strongly related to all the previous points.
Don’t commit to a single outcome. Instead, try to fight lighter and more relaxed, allowing yourself to move more fluidly between positions, decisions and techniques. This does not mean never committing to your actions, but you should be able to fluidly change as the fight demands. This may be helped by being less physically tense and more mentally relaxed - accepting that things won’t always work.
Remember that a fight is not what you force it to be, it is what you are allowed to have. When striking, your opponent may well parry you, thereby denying your attack. However, denying a strike on the upper left opens the lower right.
“Take the same openings Before and hew then boldly to [them], and regard not whatever he fences against you. If he then parries, then work in the parrying quickly to the next opening. Thus wait out the body and not the sword, etc.”
“Therewith, you force the man so that he must parry you, and when he has parried, then search quickly in the parrying with the Winding on his sword yet to the next opening, and thus aim always at the openings of the man and fence not to the sword, as in the technique which says, “Set-on four ends; Learn to remain thereon if you will end.””
If they are forced to parry in such a way that you can safely take off, then welcome the new opening presented to you. This also refers to when we are told: “when they are soft, be hard - and when they are hard, become soft”; if the parried you correctly, then they are strong and you should become soft and and/or wind, executing a different technique.
A common mistake here is not recognizing when you can safely take off: sometimes people are really good at keeping a solid bind without actively pushing your blade aside. In this case, instantly work to gain some mechanical advantage and threaten on the same side your blade is at, forcing them to parry wider; now you can instantly take off to the opposite opening, thereby achieving your desired action by manipulating their behaviour.
Finally, don’t forget that being “strong” is not always wrong. If they fail to perform a successful parry (i.e. are soft), then pushing the attack through (i.e. being strong) is a perfectly correct and successful choice. The Buffalo’s error is in always using this tactic, whether appropriate or not.
This is true not only for simple strikes but for any technique: if they set your mutieren, duplieren or any other technique aside, you should be fluid enough to change your motion and strategy and seek another opening.
I hope I presented you with a new perspective to think of the buffalo and helpful ways to improve on such behaviour. These can help us not only to improve as HEMA practitioners but also to maintain a safe sparring environment for us and our partners.
Remember that being relaxed mentally and physically will help you better asses the situation before you, perceive more and dynamically change the flow of the fight. Also keep in mind that sometimes our ability to execute a technique is simply not there yet, but it doesn’t mean we should give up on trying or attempt to power it through, instead keeping it cool should allow us to better understand the situation and achieve faster results.