Gladiatoria112.jpg (70477 bytes)The Sword & Buckler
Tradition - Part 3

Buckler Fencing in Martial Arts Literature 

Material on sword and buckler fencing is presented in several Medieval German sources. The oldest known European fencing text is that of the “Walpurgis” manual in the Royal Armouries, Leeds – also called Fechtbuch MS I.33 (British Museum No. 14 E iii, No. 20, D. vi), and previously known as the “Tower Fechtbuch” since it was originally long held at the Tower of London. The "Gladiatoria" Fechtbüch (Manuscript 5878 Biblioteka Jagiellonska, Krakow) also depicts a clear illustration of spiked bucklers used with longswords.

I33.jpg (29129 bytes)This anonymous 13th century manuscript is a rare guide to the use of the sword and buckler.  Rather than a theoretical or sporting work, the material presents actual combat techniques.  It reveals many sophisticated actions including a significant number of thrusts (particularly to the face), cuts to the shins and feet, and an array of simultaneous parries and strikes.  Almost all the elements later associated with supposedly more sophisticated fencing systems –set wards, principles of attack and defense, stop-thrusting, counter-timing, awareness of different ranges, etc., can all be found in the I.33. 



The later sword and buckler teachings of Ander Liegnitzer (or Andres Liegnitzer) from the 1430s appear in several German texts of the 15th century and give us some of the most detailed material on the method.  Two youthful athletic figures are shown fencing outdoors with spiked bucklers and bastard swords in the anonymous German fencing manuscript of the mid-1400s, known popularly as the “Gladiatoria” (Manuscript 5878 Biblioteka Jagiellonska, Krakow).   The Fechtbuch of Paulus Kal from c.1462/c.1482 contains several plates of longsword and buckler, using unique “face-shaped” bucklers whose features ostensibly could be used to trap or bind attacking blades.

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The fencing text of Hans Talhoffer from the early 1400s contains signifcant material on the use of sword and buckler. The 1459 color Thott edition of Hans Talhoffer’s Fechtbuch, Alte Alamtur und Ringkunst (Royal Library in Denmark), contains more than 14 plates illustrating sword and buckler combat using both arming swords and Messers. Talhoffer also included a unique flared octagonal buckler. At one point against two attackers it even shows the use of sword with buckler and dagger in the same hand.  The 1467 color Talhoffer treatise also shows a figure armed with a sword and a small, deep, fist-sized buckler equipped with a long sharp spike in its center. 

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An edition of Jörg Wilhalm’s Fechtbuch from c.1540 includes a dozen pairs of sword and buckler figures showing actions very similar to those of the MS I.33 almost 250 years earlier.  Even bastard swords with bucklers appear in 10 pairs of figures from an anonymous German manuscript of c. 1500 (Lib. Pic. A. 83, Staadsbibliothek, Berlin) which displays techniques such as punching, kicking, tripping, blade grabbing, and disarming.   

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From an edition of Jorg Wilhalm's Fechtbuch c.1523
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Talhclrspikethumb.jpg (26430 bytes)Interestingly, while many German fencing manuals of the 1400s include some material on sword and buckler the two major Italian works known from the period do not.  The Master Fiore dei Liberi in his systematic work, the Flos Duellatorum, of 1410, for instance, included longsword, dagger, spear, polaxe, and wrestling but nothing on fighting with or against the sword and buckler, or any shields.  As well, while the sword and buckler tradition later appears in Italian, Spanish, and English fencing manuals from the 1500s, it oddly disappears from major German fencing works by the mid 1500s.  For example, it is entirely absent from Paulus Hector Mair’s immense tome of c.1540 that includes a wide range of weapons from dagger to sickle to long staff.  It is also absent from the various works of Joachim Meyer from 1560 and 1570 and does not appear in later German fencing manuscripts of the decades following.

Images from one anonymous late 15th century German fighting
text depict the basic guards along with a range of actions. including fighting
against a spear, kicking, and dropping to one knee on a thrust.

In 1631, John Stow stated that around the year 1560 the “ancient English fight of sword and buckler was only had in use”, implying in a sense that the sword and buckler was seemingly indigenous to the British Isles, which in fact it was not.  Stow’s real meaning was that the “foyning” fence of the new rapier had yet to be introduced by 1560.   While the sword and buckler was by no means exclusive to England in the 1500s, the master George Silver is perhaps the best-known advocate of the sword and buckler.  In his now famous 1599, Paradoxes of Defense, Silver actually complained that no thrusts were then being used in buckler play and that bucklers at the time were themselves not even being used in the fencing schools.  This is somewhat odd, since students of English fencing guilds at the time are recorded as having played for their Prizes with sword and buckler.  In 1615 the anonymous author of Third University of England (possibly Sir George Buc) also described how:  “In the city there be manie professors of the science of defence, and very skillful men in teaching the best and most offensive and defensive use of verie many weapons as…[including] the sword and buckler…and others.” (McDermott, p 100). Yet, in support of Silver’s comment, Sir Thomas Middelton’s play of 1600, The Blind Beggar, did include the interesting comment “the common fight of these same serving men is sword and dagger, therefore I’ll choose the sword and buckler, they are unskill’d in’t.” (Craig, p. 10, note 28). Of the sword and buckler, George Silver admitted, “I confess, in old times, when blows were only used with short Swords & Bucklers, & back Swords, these kinds of fights were good & most manly, now a days the fight is altered.” (Paradoxes, Chapter 10).  By this he meant that the newer foyning fence of the rapier was the cause of the change.   

Silver believed the weapon combination was one of the most effective.  In the opening to Chapter 21 he declared, “The sword and buckler has the advantage against the sword and target, the sword and dagger, or the rapier and poniard.” Yet, he also felt the sword and buckler less effective for warfare than the sword and shield. Describing the dynamic of battlefield arms in his day, Silver noted: “Yet understand, that in battles, and where variety of weapons are, among multitudes of men and horses, the sword and target, the two handed sword, battle axe, the black bill, and halberd, are better weapons, and more dangerous in their offence and forces, than is the sword and buckler, short staff, long staff, or forest bill.  The sword and target leads upon shot, and in troops defends thrusts and blows given by battle axe, halberds, black bill, or two handed swords, far better than can the sword and buckler.” (Paradoxes, Chapter 21).   In Chapter 24 however, he stated, “the buckler, by reason of his circumference and weight, being well carried, defends safely in all times and places, whether it be at the point, half sword, the head body, and face, from all manner of blows and thrusts whatsoever.”   And in Chapter 25, added, “The sword & buckler man out of his variable, open & guardant fight can come bravely off & on, false & double, strike & thrust home, & make a true cross upon ever occasion at his pleasure.”   As well, in his unpublished work of c.1605, Brief Instructions, he noted, “Of the sword & buckler fight” (Chapter 9) that “Sword & Buckler fight, & sword & dagger fight are all one” and it “is the surest fight of all short weapons.”   

A generation after George Silver, his fellow Englishman, Joseph Swetnam, in his 1617, Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence, took a very different view, declaring, “this I can say and by good experience I speake it, that he which hath a rapier and a close hilted dagger, and skill withall to use him hath great ods against the sword and dagger, or sword and buckler.”  On fighting rapier against sword and buckler, Swetnam described the advantage of its deceptive speed and reach in such an encounter:

“By false play a Rapier and Dagger may encounter against a Sword and Buckler, so that Rapier man be provident and carefull of making of his assault, that hee thrust not his Rapier into the others Buckler: but the false play to deceive the Buckler, is by offering a fained thrust at the face of him that hath the Buckler, and then presently put it home to his knee or thigh, as you see occasion; for he will put up his Buckler to save his face, but can not put him downe againe before you have hit him, as aforesaid. Likewise you may proffer or faine a thrust to the knee of the Buckler man, and put it home to his buckler shoulder, or face, for if hee let fall his Buckler to save below, hee can not put him up time enough to defend the upper parts of his body with his Buckler.”  (Swetnam, p. 83, 90, 95, 99 & 102).

Naturally, not all Renaissance fencing teachers were concerned with the sword and buckler method.  Some may have felt they were not relevant to a gentleman’s needs in urban self-defense and private affairs of honor where the innovative rapier quickly gained predominance.  It is no wonder then that the opening to the anonymous 1639 English manual on sword and rapier, Pallas Armata – The Gentleman’s Armorie, stated “that the Dagger, Gauntlet, and Buckler are not in use” (p. A2). 



The preceding material was excerpted a forthcoming book on Historical Fencing due in 2003.  © Copyright 2002 by John Clements.


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