Under the Sword and Shield:
An Examination of the First Play of MS I.33
ARMA Dallas-Fort Worth, TX
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
9v (see Forgeng 2003:54). A similar longsword technique, the Doplieren
[Doubling], was described by Joachim Meyer in 1570 (see 1.19r in Forgeng
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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. ↩
New Rosetta Stone: Advancing Reconstruction of Forgotten European Fighting
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.
The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570.
Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Guards of I.33 and Their Footwork and Cuts.