Fall Under the Sword and Shield:
An Examination of the First Play of MS I.33

By Randall Pleasant
ARMA Dallas-Fort Worth, TX

Introduction

The first play of Royal Armouries MS I.33 is often referred to as "Fall Under the Sword and Shield," taking the name from the primary instruction of the play. To fully understand the fighting art of I.33, it is extremely important to understand this play. The play not only teaches how the First Guard (Under Arm) can counter the Half-Shield (Halpschilt) obsesseo, the play also teaches some of the core principles of fighting with sword and buckler. Although the play is very simple, it is one of the most misunderstood plays of any historical master, and when you get the first play wrong it is hard to get the following plays of I.33 right. This article will attempt to clear up the misunderstandings about this play by describing the primary path through the play. While the primary path through the play is short and simple, there are a number of alternative paths, some of which are presented out of sequence to their place in the play, that makes the play appear longer and more complex. This article will address some of the alternative paths in their proper occurrence within the play. However, the focus will be on the primary path, as that is the part of the play that is so misunderstood.

The two actors of the play are the Priest and his Student. The Priest is the agent who performs the play and the Student is his adversary who performs counters. The text of the play does not always make clear to which of the actors the text is speaking; this has been a major stumbling block for scholars. However, if the text is viewed holistically as a simple conversation between the author of I.33 and the Priest and Student, then the text becomes clearer as to whether it is the Priest or the Student who is being addressed.

It is extremely important to understand that Fall Under the Sword and Shield is a play and not just a single technique. Moreover, the play is not even a single sequence within I.33. The beginning of each sequence in I.33 is marked by a cross in the margin (Forgeng 2003:3). The first sequence starts at the top of Folio 2r and ends on the bottom of Folio 2v. The second sequence starts at the top of Folio 3r and ends on the top of Folio 4r. But the play spans both the first and second sequence, from the top of Folio 2r and to the top of Folio 4r.

The Fall Under the Sword and Shield play is highly dependent upon a correct understanding of the First (Under Arm) Guard and the Half-Shield obsesseo. If the guards are not correct then it is impossible to get the play correct. A proper description of both guards can be found in the article The Guards of I.33 and Their Footwork and Cuts. To recap from the article, in the First Guard the hilt must be held directly under and in front of the left arm pit. While the blade may slope downward the hilt must never be lowered from the left arm pit to the left hip, as that represents a transition out of the First Guard. The primary strike from First Guard is a left descending true edge diagonal cut (left Zornhau). When the hilt is lowered to the left hip then the primary strike becomes a left rising true edge diagonal cut, which absolutely will not work with the play. The play involves a falling cut, not a rising cut. Likewise, the hilt must never be pulled in front of the body, as that too is a transition out of the First Guard and restricts the fighter from making a descending true edge diagonal cut.

Half-Shield is the equivalent of the longsword guard Kron. In Half-Shield the hilt is held just under the line of sight with the arms extended and the blade leaning slightly forward and the buckler on the left side of the hilt. If the blade is lowered into a Pflug-like position, it represents a transition out of Half-Shield. Cuts and thrusts can be made from Half-Shield, but the primary role of this guard is to establish a bind from which a Shield-Strike can be performed.

The Play

The play begins at the start of the first sequence on Folio 2r where the Priest is in First (Under-Arm) guard and the Student has just transitioned into Half-Shield obesseo. I.33 makes clear that when the Priest is in the First Guard and is opposed by the Student in the Half-Shield, the Priest has only a single option for countering the Student and that is to Fall Under the Sword and Shield. On Folio 2r the Priest is told when he is confronted by Half-Shield that he must act quickly because the Student can enter and attack him with a right false edge cut, which is shown later in I.33 on Folio 11v. The Priest is also told that he should not attack high to the Student's head or low to the Student's legs, as both attacks can be easily countered by the Student.

The first instructions of the play are given to the Priest and Student in the following verse on Folio 2r.

When Half-Shield is adopted, fall under the sword and shield.
If he is ordinary he will go for your head; you should use a Thrust-Strike;
If he counterbinds and steps, your counter should be a Shield-Strike.

The verse does not clearly indicate to whom it is directed. Given that it is the Priest who is performing the Fall Under the Sword and Shield play, it can be assumed without doubt that the first line is addressed to the Priest. The first line is part of the primary path of the play, but the following lines are alternative actions. The second and third lines make sense only if they are addressed to the Student. The second line is telling the Student, “If the Priest is ordinary he will cut to your head; counter such a cut with a Thrust-Strike”. The third line is telling the Student, “If the Priest attempts to counter-bind against your blade while you are in the Half-Shield guard so as to perform a Shield-Strike against you, then you should instantly step in and perform your own Shield-Strike followed by an attack.” This line makes an important point: in most situations a Shield-Strike follows an over-bind, but in a simple bind where the blades are just crossed it does not matter which fighter established the bind. Moreover, this line appears to invalidate any interpretation of the Fall Under the Sword and Shield play that starts with a bind against Half-Shield.

The first line of the verse makes clear that the execution of the play starts when the Student transitions into the Half-Shield obsesseo. When the Student assumes Half-Shield, the Priest immediately takes a forward passing step with his left leg offline to his left and makes a left true edge descending diagonal cut (a left Zornhau) to the Student's right arm, as can be seen in the bottom image of Folio 2r and the bottom image of Folio 3r. The same cut can be seen in the following photograph. The left descending diagonal cut by the Priest is the “falling” action of the play.

Priest making a falling cut to the Student's right arm

The “falling” cut to the Student's right arm is a threat that forces the Student to respond by counter binding. A verse on Folio 2v describes how the Student should respond to the falling cut.

Here the Student counterbinds and steps; he should execute a Shield-Strike,
Or with his left hand let him envelop the arms of the cleric.

The first line of the verse describes the action seen in the top image of Folio 2v. This action is part of the primary path of the play. According to the first line of the verse from the position shown in the image, the Student would step in to perform a Shield-Strike against the Priest's weapons, followed by an attack to the Priest's head as shown in the bottom image of Folio 2v. The action described in the second line of the verse is an alternative action.

In executing the over-bind, the Student will transition from Half-Shield into the Seventh Guard by moving his blade over to his right to impact the descending blade of the Priest, forming a cross along the middle of each blade, then pressing the Priest's blade down to establish an over-bind. An over-bind is a situation in which a fighter has moved into the Seventh (Longpoint) guard with his blade crossed over the blade of his adversary, leaving the adversary in an under-bind. While there are situations in I.33 where an under-bind is sought, I.33 states that an over-bind is always more useful than an under-bind (Forgeng 2003:43). Basically a blade in an over-bind is free for an immediate attack, whereas a blade in an under-bind is less free for an immediate attack. As will be discussed later, over-binding plays such an important role throughout I.33 that the entire art of combat is said to lie in the Seventh guard, and that it should be studied more than the other guards (Forgeng 2003:23).

Student has displaced the Priest's falling cut and established an overbind

On Folio 2r the fighters are warned that from a bind they should not attack without first performing a Shield-Strike, as that is “ordinary” [common] fencing. Therefore, after the bind the Student performed a Shield-Strike (Schiltslac), which allowed him to safely attack the Priest's head with the false edge cut seen in the bottom images of Folio 2v. In the bottom image it can clearly be seen that the Shield-Strike by the Student is not a trapping of the Priest's sword and buckler against his body; instead the Shield-Strike was a very hard punch into the Priest's weapons. The Shield-Strike by the Student displaces the Priest's weapons, creating an opening to the Priest's head. In addition, the Shield-Strike is a physical shock to the Priest which prevents him from reacting quickly. Moreover, a forceful Shield-Strike can break a fighter's hands.

In response to the Student's counter-bind, the Priest has three options. The Priest can perform a Change of the Sword, which is part of the primary path of the play, or he can step in to grapple the Student's weapons, or he can Step Through (Durchtritt). From the structure of the text it is easy to mistakenly conclude that the Priest would execute the Stepping Through technique after the Student has over-bound his blade. However, the technique is actually executed during the initial stage of the bind. When the blades first make solid contact, forming a cross with each other, the Priest instantly rotates his hilt outward to his left, rolling his right hand under his buckler and leaving his right palm facing up; this puts his blade behind the Student's blade. From that position the Priest steps forward, pushing his blade against the Student's face or neck to make a slicing cut. The Stepping Through technique is not shown in the images of the Fall Under the Sword and Shield play, but the technique is shown being performed on the right side later in I.33 on Folio 9v (see Forgeng 2003:54). A similar longsword technique, the Doplieren [Doubling], was described by Joachim Meyer in 1570 (see 1.19r in Forgeng 2006:64).

After the Student has over-bound the Priest's blade, both the Priest and the Student can step in to grapple their adversary's weapons by wrapping up their arms. The Priest can step in and use his right hand to wrap up the Student's arms. Likewise, the Student can step in and use his left hand and wrap up the Priest's arms. Grappling by either the Priest or the Student is an alternative action.

At this point the play has reached the end of the first sequence. The first sequence has shown the action that starts the execution of the play, which is the Student transitioning into Half-Shield, the initial response by the Priest in which he makes the “falling” cut, and the counter by the Student in which he displaces the cut and attempts to over-bind in order to get a Shield-Strike.

The play resumes at the start of the second sequence on Folio 3r. The Priest is in the First (Under-Arm) guard and the Student starts the play by transitioning into Half-Shield. As in the first sequence, upon the Student assuming Half-Shield, the Priest immediately makes a left descending (“falling”) diagonal cut to the Student's right arm. As is seen in the images of Folio 3v, the Student displaces the cut and attempts to establish an over-bind against the Priest's blade. However, the Priest prevents the over-bind by performing a Change of the Sword by keeping his sword in motion and moving his blade in a counter-clockwise circular path under, around, and up over his left arm with his hilt remaining close to his left arm behind his buckler. The path of the Priest's blade during the Change of the Sword is perpendicular to the line between the Priest and the Student. The Change of the Sword represents the “under the sword and shield” action of the play. It is important to understand that the top image on Folio 3v does not represent a static bind, rather the Priest's blade is still in motion. By way of the falling cut and the Change of the Sword, the Priest moves his blade from under his left arm all the way to over-binding the adversary's blade in one quick motion, leaving him in the Seventh (Longpoint) Guard, seen in the bottom image of Folio 3v. In spite of the displacement by the Student, the fall under the sword and shield action by the Priest should be one smooth motion.

Priest performing a Change of the Sword; as his falling cut was being displaced he started moving his blade under the sword and shield of the student and will move the blade back around to establish an overbind

Priest establishes an overbind with the Change of the Sword

As the Priest is establishing an over-bind with the Change of the Sword, the Student can take an alternative action. As his blade is being over-bound, the Student can escape by stepping towards his left and moving his blade down and left, leading into a thrust to the Priest. Although I.33 does not show this action during the Fall Under the Sword and Shield play, a similar action is illustrated later on the bottom of Folio 9v and the top of Folio 10r (pages 54 through 57 in Forgeng 2003). Note that in an over-bind, the top blade only impedes the upward movement of the lower blade, but it absolutely does not trap the lower blade, thus the lower blade is completely free to escape downward. This is why in most cases an over-bind is immediately followed by a Shield-Strike, as seen in the initial over-bind by the Student.

Because the Priest's blade stays in motion, the Student cannot establish an over-bind against the Priest's blade. Since the Student is never in an over-bind, he is not in a position from which he can perform a solid Shield-Strike, thus the Student is left to make a “common” attack to the Priest's head. However, the Change of the Sword by the Priest will intercept and displace such an attack by the Student. The continuous movement of the Priest's blade from the “falling” cut through the Change of Sword to the over-bind is extremely important because any delay would result in the Priest's blade failing to intercept the Student's “common” cut to the Priest's head. The Priest absolutely must not attempt to attack the Student during the Change of the Sword as this will most likely lead to a double kill.

After the Priest establishes an over-bind, Folio 3v states,

Finally, he sends his sword separately toward his opponent's head, which is called 'nodding' [nucken],
from which arises a separation of the Student's sword and shield.

In response to the nucken cut, the Student will instinctively raise his buckler in an attempt to ward the cut.1 Since the Student's blade is under the blade of the Priest, the Student will most likely raise his buckler without his sword, resulting in a separation of the Student's sword and shield. The separation of the Student's sword and shield creates an opening in between the Student's arms for the nucken cut to the right side of the his head.

At the bottom of Folio 3v is the following verse:

The Clerics thus nod; many ordinary combatants cover [schutzen]

This verse makes clear that separating your sword and buckler in close combat (Krieg) is considered “ordinary” or “common” fencing. The term “schutzen” is used later in I.33 to describe a warding action using both the sword and the shield, but in the above verse the term refers to warding with the buckler only.

Although the Priest is told to make the nucken cut between the Student's arms to the Student's head, I.33 neither shows nor describes how the cut is actually made. All that we are told is that the nucken cut passes between the Student's separated sword and buckler. Given the position of both men when the nucken cut is performed, there can be little doubt that the nucken cut is a rising false edge cut to the Student's right jaw or head. The opening between the Student's arms is formed when the Student defensively raises his buckler, separating it from his sword. If the Student does not raise his buckler then the nucken cut simply travels over the Student's buckler.

Priest performing a rising false edge cut, the nucken cut, between the Student's separated sword and shield to the Student's right jaw

As shown in Folio 4r, if the Priest hesitates after over-binding with the Change of the Sword, the Student can step in and place his left arm over the Priest's blade and trap the blade between his arms, from which he can attempt to wrestle away the Priest's sword.

Conclusions

As we have seen in the above discussion, the primary path of the play consists of nothing more than the Priest making a descending cut to the Student's right arm, the Student attempting to over-bind the descending cut, the Priest responding by performing a Change of the Sword that mutates his descending cut into an over-bind of the Student's blade, followed by the Priest making a nucken cut between the Student's arms to the Student's jaw or head. The play truly is nothing more than falling under the sword and shield.

Although the primary path of the play is both short and simple, there are numerous alternative paths that not only add significant length to the play, but also introduce significant complexity. A major reason for the complexity is that some of the alternative paths are presented out of sequence during the play. For example, Folio 2v states that the Priest can perform a Change of the Sword or attack by Stepping Through or stepping in to grapple. Due to the structure of the text, it is easy to interpret all of these actions as being possible only after the Student has established an over-bind. However, the Priest can only perform the Stepping Through technique as the Student is displacing his descending cut. It is impossible for the Priest to perform the Stepping Through after the Student has established an over-bind. Likewise, the blade grappling shown on Folio 4r takes place only if the Priest hesitates before making the nucken cut which is discussed earlier on Folio 3v. It must be remembered that the text of I.33 expresses an informal discussion about fighting with sword and buckler that is best read holistically.

Another major source of confusion is the distance within the text between the description of the “falling” action, the descending cut, and the description of the “under the sword and buckler” action, the Change of the Sword. As mentioned earlier, I.33 is divided into sequences which are marked by a cross in the margins of the pages. The “falling” action occurs in the first sequence and the “under the sword and buckler” action occurs in the second sequence. Given the distance between the two actions within the text, there can be no doubt that Fall Under the Sword and Shield is a play and not a single technique. Later in I.33 on Folio 8v the Priest is again instructed, “When Half-Shield is adopted, fall under the sword and shield.” Although only the “falling” cut by the Priest is shown on Folio 8v, there is no reason to doubt that the Priest is actually being instructed to perform the complete play. Failure to understand the length and structure of the play is the primary reason for so many misinterpretations of this play.

So why does I.33 divide the play into two sequences? Because the first sequence defines actions that must be understood by the Student and correctly executed in the second sequence in order for the complete play to be executed. The first sequence describes the initial action by the Student that starts the execution of the play, the response of the Priest that is the “falling” action of the play, and the Student countering with an over-bind and Shield-Strike. In the second sequence the Priest negates the Student's counter, but the play absolutely depends upon the Student forcefully attempting to execute his counter to the falling cut.

Unlike what has been suggested in other interpretations, the Fall Under the Sword and Shield play absolutely does not involve a rising cut or a thrust that leads to a bind against Half-Shield with the weak of the sword. When the primary instruction of a play is “fall under” (“cade sub”), it is difficult to understand the logic for starting the play with either a rising cut or a thrust.2 In addition, given that Half-Shield is the equivalent of the Kron guard, it would be almost suicidal for the Priest to purposely bind the weak of his blade against the strong of the Student's blade. Moreover, I.33 actually tells the Student on Folio 2r how to counter in the event that the Priest does bind against Half-Shield.

The Fall Under the Sword and Shield play highlights six major principles of sword and buckler fighting that are seen in other plays of I.33. These principles help a sword and buckler fighter to be more effective and, just as important, these principles reduce risk, allowing a man to fight safer. The principles are:

  • Audaciously seek the Bind
  • Seek an Over-binding rather than Under-binding
  • The buckler is used to protect the man and as a weapon but is rarely used to parry blows
  • Shield-Strike before attacking from an over-bind
  • Protect the sword hand with the buckler
  • Exploit openings between the adversary's weapons

The first principle is that binding is central to sword and buckler fighting. Binds don't just happen, rather a skillful fighter audaciously seeks the bind. John Clements (2009) recently noted the importance of binding within the Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (MARE), writing that a fighter must audaciously seek the bind regardless of the weapon being used and even when engaged in unarmed combat. This study of the Fall Under the Sword and Shield play has shown beyond doubt that this is also true in the sword and buckler fighting art of I.33. In fact, the advantage of the obsesseo guards over the common guards lies not just in their ability to close openings, but also in their ability to establish binds.

As the play has demonstrated, the act of binding is performed with the sword, not the buckler, and almost always results in a transition into the Seventh Guard (Longpoint), as can be seen in the top image of Folio 2v and the two images of Folio 3v (see Forgeng 2003:26 & 30). The importance and centrality of binding in sword and buckler fighting is reflected in the following comments on Folio 1v on the importance of the Seventh guard:

Note that the entire heart of the art of combat lies in this final guard, which is called Longpoint;
and all actions of the guards or of the sword finish or have their conclusions in this one, and not
in others. Therefore study it more than the aforementioned First Guard (Forgeng, 2003:23).

An argument could be made that the above comments refer to cuts ending in the Seventh guard. But why would the end of cuts be considered the heart of the art? After all, only descending true edge cuts that fail to hit their target end in the Seventh guard. Failure simply cannot be the heart of the art! Moreover, in I.33 almost all descending true edge cuts are on the weak left side, whereas on the stronger right side most descending cuts are made with the false edge, which don't end in the Seventh Guard. Given that common fencers also make descending true edge cuts that end in the Seventh Guard, are we to say that common fencers practice the heart of the art? It is much more plausible that the above comments are referring to the importance of binding.

The second principle is that whenever possible, attacks are to be made from an over-bind. In an over-bind the blade is free to attack, yet impedes the movement of the adversary's blade. Therefore, when an adversary establishes an over-bind against a fighter's sword or when the fighter establishes an under-bind against the adversary's blade, the fighter must immediately escape the over-bind and transition to a more advantageous position. As the play has shown, one of the best ways for a fighter to escape an over-bind is to execute a Change of the Sword, allowing him to over-bind the adversary's blade while displacing any cut the adversary made from his over-bind. Another method for escaping an over-bind is for a fighter to move his blade down and to the opposite side for a follow up thrust.

The third principle is that the buckler has two primary roles: It is used to protect the man, especially the sword hand when performing cuts, and it is used as a weapon to attack the adversary, especially his hands with a Shield-Strike. The buckler can be used by itself to parry blows, but that is a secondary role. For a skill fighter, passive parrying of blows with only the buckler should be rare.

The fourth principle is that whenever possible a cut from an over-bind should be preceded by a Shield-Strike (Schiltslac). It is stated throughout I.33 that attacking without first performing a Shield-Strike is “common” (less skilled) fencing. A Shield-Strike is not a transfer of a bind from the sword to the buckler, nor is it a trapping of the adversary's sword and buckler against his body. A Shield-Strike is an extremely hard punch into the adversary's hands and weapons which clears his weapons to the side and delays his reactions so that an attack can be safely executed against him. Attacking after a Shield-Strike is safer than attacking without a Shield-Strike. However, as we see with the nucken cut described on on Folio 3v, there are situations where this principle does not apply.

The fifth principle is that any time the sword is extended to your front, such as in a cut, a thrust, while warding a blow, or as part of a guard position, such as the obesseo guards, the sword and buckler should be together. This allows the buckler to protect the sword hand and closes the opening between the arms. Note that this does not mean that the buckler tracks with the sword hand as if using a two handed sword. The buckler protects the man and at any given time the buckler must be protecting the part of the man that is the most vulnerable. When the sword hilt is out in front the sword hand is what is most vulnerable. Thus the sword and buckler join during a cut right before the sword hand becomes vulnerable and separates when the sword hand is no longer vulnerable. As a general rule cuts made with the sword outside of or below the buckler are safer than cuts made inside or above the buckler since the sword hand and forearm are covered by the buckler.

The sixth principle is that when an adversary is using two weapons, it is extremely important to exploit openings between the adversary's weapons. Such openings occur not only when the adversary separates his weapons horizontally, but also when he separates them vertically, holding one weapon higher than the other. This principle plays an important role in the Fall Under the Sword and Shield play where the Priest makes the nucken cut between the Student's separated sword and buckler. The principle is seen later in I.33 on Folio 11r (Forgeng 2003:60) where the Student is in Half-Shield and the Priest throws a descending vertical cut between the Student's sword and shield in an attempt to separate his weapons, and on Folio 24r where the Student has separated the Priest's sword and buckler. This last principle highlights a major strength of some of the obesseo guards. The Half-Shield (Halpschilt), Crook (Krucke), Cover (Schutzen), and Fiddlebow obesseo guards all have the sword and buckler held together, thus closing off the middle opening.

A complete and thorough interpretation of the Fall Under the Sword and Shield play has been presented and the principles taught by the play have been discussed. At this point there is a very important question to address. What does the play really do for the Priest? The answer is obvious: the play breaks the Half-Shield obsesseo. As discussed earlier, when the Student is in Half-Shield the Priest cannot directly attack him. More importantly, the Priest is always seeking to bind the Student's blade and, with rare exception, Shield-Strike before attacking. However, the Priest cannot safely bind against Half-Shield. The falling cut of the play pulls the Student out of the Half-Shield Obsesseo, breaking the guard, giving the Priest opportunities to establish an over-bind. In breaking the Half-Shield obsesseo, the Fall Under the Sword and Shield play defines the basic theme of I.33, the breaking of the obsesseo guards from the common guards. The breaking of guards is a major similarity between the sword and buckler art of I.33 and the longsword art of Johannes Liechtenauer.3 These similarities also suggest a common origin of these arts.

 

Notes

1. In his translation of I.33, Forgeng (2003:31) adds a comment to the verse indicating that he thought the verse was describing a separation of the Priest's sword and buckler, but he was mistaken. Without a doubt the verse is describing a separation of the Student's sword and buckler.

2. The Latin phase “cade sub” can be translated as either "fall under" or "fall behind." Regardless of which translation is used, the interpretation of the play remains the same, with the Priest performing a falling (descending true edge) cut.

3. The breaking of the Cover obsesseo with a false edge cut (Schielhau/Schiller) on Folio 9r and the breaking of the Seventh guard, Longpoint, with a true edge vertical cut (Scheitelhau) on Folio 19r are identical to Liechtenauer's breaking of the Pflug and Alber guards.

 

References

Clements, John.
Our New Rosetta Stone: Advancing Reconstruction of Forgotten European Fighting Arts, 2009.

Forgeng, Jeffrey L.
The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: A Facsimile & Translation of Europe's Oldest Personal Combat Treatise Royal Armouries MS I.33.
The Chivalry Bookshelf, Union City, California, 2003.

Forgeng, Jeffrey.
The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570.
Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Pleasant, Randall
The Guards of I.33 and Their Footwork and Cuts.

Royal Armouries
Manuscript I.33

 
 

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