The plow, the ox, the roof and the fool are real sword stances from medieval treatises and historical manuals (check out the famous Solothurner Fechtbuch) and are still used by HEMA students today. These four sword positions are also similar to the basic stances used by samurai in different periods. There are many, and some would say an unlimited number of stances a swordsman can hold, but these four guards below are the universal ones, and I believe understanding them can empower any novice sword owner. Now I will briefly explain their uses and applications.
The plow is the most common guard because it is the most defensive. With this stance, it is much easier to parry or rebut an attack compared to the other three guards. The one disadvantage of this guard is that the thrust is your only set form of attack, and so a trained swordsman may be able to predict your next move. This stance also serves well for binding and winding, allowing the ease of counterattacks or ripostes.
This is the ox! Can you see why? Now you can probably also see why it would be slightly harder to parry or block an attack from this stance. And once again a trained swordsman could easily see your attack options. A good use of this guard would be to accompany it with good footwork (that goes for any guard) in order to outmaneuver and deliver that one deadly thrust. Also, this can be a very intimidating stance for some, and so a peasant with a messer may just runaway from you.
Some fencers would say my elbows are out of place and the angle of my sword is all wrong, but the main purpose of this pose is to enable the most deadly chop or downcut your muscles can supply. The disadvantages of the roof are clear. To parry something like a rapier with this guard would be near to impossible. The roof should be used sparingly. It would be a good guard for civilian control or tight formations (so long as no one is right behind you), especially if you’re wearing steel armour because most attacks would just glance off your breastplate or vambraces anyways. But either way, you wouldn’t want to hold this guard for too long, even in front of a lummox.
It’s easy to see why they’d name this the fool, but you’d be surprised to know this guard is actually the one with the most options. Not only is it ready for parrying, my opponent has no idea what I’m about to do next. If your quick, one feint could spook an opponent and give you just enough time to deliver that final blow. Many novices hold their swords like this as if it’s an instinct or something. I think this pose is great because depending on your facial expression, it could either be nonchalant, a prideful insult to a foe’s skills, or just a plain old “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!”
Thanks for reading. I hope you learned something, if not I hope it was entertaining.