I was reading today Sigmund Ringeck’s Fechtbuch on the longsword (both the Lindholm and the Tobler translations) and found that his definitions of vor (the before) and nach (the after) are quite different to what I’ve been taught. These terms refer to much more than just plain owning the initiative of the fight. They’re about breaking the opponent’s guard and single-time defences.
“Before means pre-empting your opponent with a strike or thrust to an opening. Then he must defend or parry. Be flexible in your defence and aim your sword against one opening after another so that he cannot get through with any of his own techniques. [...] When you do not succeed in the before, then wait for the after. These are the defences against all techniques he uses against you. So, when you must displace him, make it simultaneous and strike immediately from the bind at his opening.” (David Lindholm)1
In the Vor
While the text sounds on the surface like it’s talking about nothing more than attacking first so that the opponent must re-act to your actions, it actually says something slightly different. It suggests that the initial strike is solely to draw out a response from the oppoent and, as a consequence, creates an opening for you to target in a second-intention attack. Tobler’s translation is perhaps clearer on this point.
This is almost a verbatim definition of the theory behind breaking an opponent’s guard. Feint to provoke a known (or likely) response then make a prepared attack against the open quarter.
In the Nach
The description of the nach includes defnding at attacking simulataneously. Parry the opponent’s strike and strike him or her at the same time or at least in the same tempo. This is much more than a simple recognition that the opponent is dictating the fight and that you need to recover the initiative. This is outlining a single-time response: a parry/riposte in one action.
It also serves as a great introduction to the five master strikes, the next section of the text, which used both both attack and defence. “You should learn to defend only with these strikes” (Christian Tobler).
In conclusion, rather than simply outlining the shifting play of initiative in the fight, the terms vor and nach encode much more. They define the core philosophy of the German longsword style: second-intention attacks (after forcing an opening through a feint) and single-time defences.
1 Here’s the same passage translated by Tobler for comparison. “Vor means pre-empting him with a blow or a thrust against an opening before he can hit you, so that he must versetzen (parry/displace). So, be flexible in your defence and aim your sword at one opening after the other so that he cannot get through with his own techniques. [...] If you do not succeed with the vor wait for the nach. These are the defences against all techniques he uses against you. So, if you have to displace him, make the displacement simultaneously and from the bind strike immediately at his nearest opening.” (Christian Tobler)