"Anonymous Fechtbuch:
Manuscript  I.33"
13th century German
Sword & Buckler Manual

"It is to be noted that in general all fencers
or men having a sword in the hands
even if they are ignorant of the art of fencing,
use these seven wards..."

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Royal Armories, Leeds, UK

Produced by an unknown author and illustrator, "Fechtbuch I.33" is an anonymous German manuscript from approximately 1300. It is highly significant as the earliest surviving manual of swordsmanship. Known as Manuscript I.33 (and pronounced "One thirty-three" rather than "Eye-thirty-three") it deals entirely with the use of the Medieval sword and buckler. This "Sword & Buckler" manuscript now in the collection of the Royal Armouries in Leeds, England, has been traditionally referred to as the "Tower Fechtbuch", or number I.33 (Tower of London manuscript I.33, Royal library Museum, British Museum No. 14 E iii, No. 20, D. vi.).

The original manuscript was done as ink-and-watercolor on parchment and the material was first referenced as early as 1579.   Provided courtesy of Ian Johnson, ARMA presents scans from a black & white photocopy of this rare, short manuscript from c. 1295 (so dated by Alfonse Lhotsksy, Chair of Medieval History at Vienna University --other scholars believe it may be from the early 1300’s.). Lhotsky has shown the originator was a secretary to the Bishop of Wurzburg.

As a general text on fighting exercises, I.33 is exceptionally clear despite its stylized artwork. The illustrations depict pairs of unarmored fighters practicing a variety of stances and techniques that include cuts, thrusts, parries, and disarming moves.  Blows are delivered at the head, body, hands, shins, and even the feet and ankles. While many of the technical terms are in German, below each illustration is an explanatory text in Latin.

The author was likely a German cleric, as the text makes reference to a Sacerdos (priest) who instructs the Scholaris (student) in the art. One of the illustrations also shows a fighter with the shaved head (tonsure) common to Medieval clergy at the time, and the manuscript itself was discovered in a Franconian monastery. Recently translated by Dr. Jeffery Singman, curator at the Higgins Armor Museum, I.33 reveals a number of interesting things about early Medieval fighting arts. Dr. Singman described his analysis of the text in the Royal Armories Yearbook 2, 1997. As Dr. Singman points out, the text is part instructional verse and part direction.

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Note both the trapping of the arms
and the kicking realease counter-technique.

Consisting of a codex of 32 leaves, the Fechtbuch is essentially just a series of sheets displaying simple techniques. But it is nonetheless an essential manuscript as it documents aspects of an actual Medieval combat style. It is the earliest depiction of a systematic study of European swordplay yet known, detailing what has been considered a more-or-less "civilian" system of self-defence (as it could be argued these monks and students were not of the warrior classes after all). The monk and student (or Scholar as he is called) practice counter attacks and parries clearly with stepping actions and passing footwork. These are presented as a series of simple exercises or drills made up of an attack, a counter, and an another attack or void. Although the slightly stylized perspective of the artist (the "upturned palms" or "reversed wrists" for instance) occasionally make the actions appear somewhat contorted, they are nonetheless clean and simple movements.  Several times though there are apparent distortions in the art (they could not just "erase" mistakes back then) where wrist are reversed in twisted or physically impossible positions. 

All 7 of the I.33 wards or custodiae (such as Under-Arm and its "opposition" Halpschilt) can be duplicated in a technically and tactically sound manner. The same applies to interpretation of the various postures and positions for striking depicted in the sequences. The Royal Armories Fight Interpreters at Leeds, who had been studying the manuscript have expressed views that it contains fairly obvious basic techniques of the weapons as opposed to any complete methodology of fighting. For these reasons, I.33 serves today as a realistic and valid source for practitioners studying both Medieval sword & buckler as well as sword & shield.

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The manual is good source (and among the very few) for how dynamic the Medieval sword & buckler style was, and how it both relates to and contrasts from the later Renaissance form. The Medieval sword & buckler is used in a similar but not identical manner to those often more slender blades of the later Renaissance (which employs wrist cuts, slices, and a wider rang of footwork). The Medieval sword & buckler was a popular means of settling disputes in civilian situations.

Sword & buckler was simultaneously both a training tool for the knightly class and increasingly a common side arm of common folk and man-at-arms. Used by footsoldiers, archers, and knights, the small hand-shield buckler was common implement for centuries. Its method was also a popular pastime among common folk in both Northern Italy and England well into the 1600’s.  The swords are of classic "Medieval" style, but with fairly tapering blades traditionally considered uncommon for the time (especially for men of these classes).  The bucklers shown are of assorted variety, some with pointed umbos.

While the material in I.33 does not directly or entirely relate to the later Renaissance sword & buckler methods it is no way an inferior method. The Medieval form is versatile and effective under many circumstances against many opposing arms and armors (which no doubt explains its popularity during the age). Many of the wards and actions displayed in I.33 as well as the distance between combatants makes the most sense when the concepts of timed-attack or counter-attacking while stepping into or out of range is comprehended. To modern practitioners having used sharp blades to test cut, or sparring weapons with flat sides and defined edges, the angle of many of the cuts and counter actions can be very clear to understand. This applies also to the manner of grip, the posture, and the position of the buckler which can be all easily noted. It is also significant what is seemingly "missing" in I.33, namely parrying in general (including the cliché of edge-on-edge parrying and hilt blocking). Although the artwork is stylized, several important things can be determined. The heavy use of straight thrusts (something supposedly not associated with sword combat until the Renaissance), timed-attacks, passing footwork, lunging-steps, deflecting counter-strikes, are all very significant. The method suggests a complex coordination of weapon and shield in simultaneous action combined with footwork. The sword wards, control is transferred to the buckler which binds and displaces, and an immediate counterattack is made. The illustrations also seem to show rather clearly the use of the flat of the blade in several deflecting and smacking parries.  Modern interpretation with historically accurate reproduction confirms this.

I.33 is currently believed to represent documentation for German monastic "martial sports" as well as practical exercises for self-defence skills—similar in many respects to more familiar activities of some Asian Buddhist monks. Yet, these German Monks were likely retired warriors and knights who had later chosen monastic life. So, if the text was not intended specific for military instruction but for exercise, it was none the less surely produced by men with considerable martial experience.

The contention that I.33 may represent only a "martial sport" than earnest combat practice can be disputed on several grounds: 1. The use of thrusts and cuts to the face and hands. The thrust was traditionally banned in 13th and 14th century tournaments as being too dangerous and thus would surely seem out of place in casual exercise. As the fighters in I.33 are also unarmored, this threat would be even more dangerous. 2. The techniques, when practiced at speed and force suggest a very efficient and effective means of counter-attack that can quickly end an encounter, with cut/broken hands or a sliced/punctured face. Furthermore, no defensive "resisting opposition blocks" are instructed but rather counter deflecting blows. 3. What is often interpreted in the illustrations as showing "hits" with the flat of the blade can just as easily represent counter strikes of vertical or rising blows with the edge, distorted by the lack of artistic perspective.


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The I.33 Fechtbuch shows a continuity to later German combat manuals, but unfortunately the next manuals that survives at present is not until Liechtenauer’s of 1389, leaving a large empty period between. The feel of the book suggest that the craft was enjoyable and pursued with a passion. The techniques suggest it was martial and earnest. It is important to realize the drawings are not static but showing techniques in motion. Assorted wards are named in relation to the action of both weapons, but no mention is made of footwork, though the fighters are clearly doing passes and stepping motions in conjunction with their strikes and counters. The text gives brief descriptions of the action and comments on good and bad actions in each situation. In typical German Fechtbuch style it depicts a very reasonable counter-striking style of fighting. The counter-ward adopted is called the obsession. A limited number of grappling and disarms are even included. Three principles are stressed, speed, maneuvering, and a dominant initiative.

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An example of Medieval
sword & buckler in

combat from the
Holkam Picture Bible,
early 1300's.

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Sword & buckler perfomers at
play from the late 1300's.


Dr. Singman also points out most interestingly that the final sequence suddenly has a single female character (named "Walpurgis"). He believes this may be evidence the manuals was intended as training for judicial duel or derived from experience in such.

An English edition of the entire I.33 work is apparently soon to be published by the Royal Armories, Leeds which owns I.33. This will be a long-awaited full edition of the work with Dr. Singman’s complete translation and analysis. For this reason we will not reprint the entire text here on the site.

Thanks to Dr. Jeffery Singman for additional information.


Interestingly, MS I.33 also contains the very use of the term "guards" to indicate formal fighting postures adopted by a swordsman. Prof. Sydney Anglo, leading authority on historical fencing texts, covers MS I.33 in chapter 4 of his incredible new book, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 17-19) .

Anglo describes how the text contains: "seven custodiae or guards which he numbers from ‘first’ to ‘sixth’, while to the seventh he gives the German name Langort (long point). First guard is with the right arm crossed under the buckler hand, with the buckler pointing outwards and the sword pointing behind and downwards; second is with the buckler held straight out in front of the upper body, and with the sword pointing backwards over the right shoulder; third has the right arm crossed over the buckler and the sword pointing backwards over the left shoulder; fourth is similar to second, with the sword held backwards over the right shoulder, but with the left arm sharply bent at the elbow and with the buckler facing outward. Fifth is a wide open stance (the only one of the series) with the buckler held out straight in front of the body but turned outwards, and the sword held low and far behind the right foot which, again uniquely, is well behind the left foot. The last two custodiae differ from the first five by having the sword pointing forward: the sixth with the buckler fully extended but with the right elbow (and therefore the sword) drawn well back; and finally the Langort with the buckler extended forward, downward and outward, and the sword held forward and down at an angle of about forty-five degrees.

"Swordsmanship, the author remarks, is the ‘ordering of diverse blows’, but the ‘kernel’ of the art resides in the last guard (Langort) in which all actions of the sword find their conclusion; 16 and certainly this posture occurs, either as an initial guard or in answer to some other guard, far more frequently than any other position. The whole treatise is built around these seven main custodiae. The illustration of each posture, precisely as it is shown at the beginning of the treatise, is repeated as a pictograph for each of its occurrences thereafter, sometimes with the swordsman advancing from the right-hand side of the page towards the left, and with his buckler either in profile or with its outer surface presented towards the reader; and sometimes with the guards – and especially the first – shown the other way round (that is the swordsman facing from left to right and with the inside of the buckler, and the hand grasping it, on view). But, whichever way round, the representation of each custodia is unvarying and immediately recognizable. All the fighting is broken down into short sequences of varying length; with each key moment of each sequence clarified by drawings of the protagonists (the priest and his pupil) together with a brief running commentary; and with the opening of each new sequence marked by a cross. The author works systematically through all the guards: eight sequences initiated by a swordsman adopting the first guard; three initiated by the second; four with third; two with fourth; one with sixth; thirteen with seventh, that is Langort; four with fifth; and another two with fourth. This series is interrupted by a single reversion to a sequence begin-ning with first guard, and by an intrusion, into the long Langort group, of two movements initiated by the Vidilpoge (literally the fiddle-stick) in which the fencer holds his sword more or less at right angles across his outstretched left arm."

Prof. Anglo, further explains, "In the course of the various actions, other movements are introduced and indicated by pictographs which are then added to the repertoire and inserted wherever relevant. These include the Halbschilt (half shield) which is a defensive position with both arms extended close together and the sword pointing upwards at approximately forty-five degrees; the Schiltslac (shield blow) which is the use of the buckler to strike an opponent’s sword and/or buckler to one side, while instantaneously delivering an attack of one’s own; the Krucke (crutch) in which the sword is held almost vertically, point downward with the buckler turned outward and very close to the sword hand; the fixura which is a thrust (not always distinguishable from the Stich, another attack with the point), either crossed over or under the buckler or occasionally without crossing the buckler at all; and a special kind of Langort in which the buckler is drawn back to the left hip, and the right elbow is advanced but sharply bent so that the sword (held in supination) points down and backwards."

Anglo goes on to state: "There are also two less well-defined terms: Schutze (protection), a parry which is inconsistently illustrated; and Durchtreten (stepping through) which cannot be distinguished at all because the author never describes leg and foot movements, and his artist shows them throughout in a stylized, unrealistic and undifferentiated manner. Cuts are never defined, though they occur as frequently as the thrust. Again, they are represented by a pictographic stereotype showing the blow delivered forehand to the head or neck: with the sword hand in supination (that is with finger nails on top and thumb to the right) and generally accompanied by the Schiltslac to knock aside the opponent’s buckler and leave him open to the attack (plates IV–IX). Striking, too, are the manuscript’s frequent allusions to religando and mutare gladium (‘binding’ and ‘exchanging the sword’), terms which survive to the present day, with their meaning virtually unchanged, to indicate sword contact (that is ‘engagement’ of the opposing blades), or ‘change of engagement’ where, by passing over or under the opponent’s blade, it is engaged in the line opposite to the original position."  While Dr. Anglo's persoanl view of the martial efficacy of MS. I.33 is arguable, he nonetheless considers it among the most important European fighting texts yet known.

Special thanks to Prof. Sydney Anglo and Yale University Press for granting permission to use of these excerpts.

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