From time to time I come across people speculating that the purpose of first ward is to have a ward that can draw from the scabbard to attack. This argument seems to stem from first ward being similar to a sword position used in Japanese sword systems. This hypothesis would indicate that first ward could support techniques like the Iaijutsu, a quick-draw attack intended to strike an opponent when the sword starts in a scabbard or sheath.
However, there are a number of features lacking in the first ward that makes the attempt to quick-draw like the Iaijutsu difficult, if not impossible. This blog post will explore my rationale on why I do not believe first ward is intended for fighting when the sword starts in the scabbard. Rather, first ward is its own guard and practical within the I.33 system and intended for use when the sword is already drawn.
Before we begin with this analysis, I would like to give a huge shout out to Charles Turner of East Texas Historical Fencing who discussed this topic with me at Gesellen Fechten 2022. He highlighted a number of points about drawing a sword from a scabbard that supported my argument presented today. His comments, specifically on Fiore and the assistance of the off-hand to draw a sword, are presented in this blog post.
Understanding the Iaijutsu
To begin, we must first aim to understand the Iaijutsu. The Iaijutsu is a quick-draw attack designed to strike with the sword when the sword begins in a sheath or scabbard. Examples of this technique can be found in the following video:
While performing the Iaijutsu, the sword is drawn forward. Upon analysis of this technique, the practicality of it becomes evident. The ability to attack when the sword begins stored would be an effective defensive (or offensive) action when in a sword fight. If I.33 could include a technique like this, it would be a useful technique indeed.
Unfortunately, there are a number of features that prevent first ward from being the desired ward for this quick attack. There is further evidence to support that first ward is intended to be like any other ward in I.33 where the sword is free and ready to attack.
Analyzing First Ward in I.33
The first problem first ward encounters when trying to be used for drawing the sword in combat is the positioning of the hands. First ward is holding the sword hilt close to the armpit which is much higher than a scabbard would be worn for a medieval sword. However, assuming the sword were in a scabbard in this position, the buckler hand presents the next biggest challenge.
The buckler is shown in two different positions in I.33; one where the buckler covers the right side and the other where the buckler covers the left side. While the buckler hand may be holding a scabbard when facing the left side, it would become a hindrance to the draw when facing the right side because the buckler arm crosses over the sword arm. Both of these positions of I.33 are used to show the same technique, falling under the sword, where the sword is extended forward to bind against the opponent’s blade. It seems more likely that the sword is already free from a scabbard and the fencer has taken the position of first ward to bind safely against the opponent’s blade.
Furthermore, the fencer in I.33 is advised to place their blade against the opponent when falling under the sword. The motion required for this bind would not support the forward drawing motion of the Iaijutsu.
Drawing a Sword from a Scabbard in Fiore
Just like with the Iaijutsu, the Fiore manuscript shows the use of the off-hand supporting a sword draw from a scabbard. In this manuscript, a play exists that shows how to use a sword in a scabbard to defend against an aggressor with a dagger. At the start of this play, Fiore is resting his longsword on his shoulder with the scabbard covering the blade.
While the opponent is holding the dagger high, Fiore grabs his scabbard and extends it forward to block the opponent’s arm from being able to deliver the plunging thrust with the dagger. Again, similar to the Iaijutsu, the scabbard is held while the blade is removed.
Drawing a sword from a scabbard when under threat
In 2021, a quick thought experiment was conducted at VBHF involving drawing a sword from a scabbard while under threat of an opponent. The scabbard was belted to me while my buckler was hung onto the hilt of my sword with a simple rope loop. The exchanges for this experiment can be found in the following video:
In some cases, I was able to draw my sword without the assistance of my off-hand. However, to achieve this, the sword had to be drawn high and up towards my right shoulder to clear the scabbard. I was able to delay the exchange by defending with the buckler while I drew the sword from the scabbard.
In other cases, the scabbard was either held with the buckler hand or pinned against my body using my buckler arm. These actions appeared to be the fastest ways to draw the sword and engage the opponent.
Interestingly, instead of engaged the sword quickly, I preferred to defend with the buckler. Further experimentation would need to be conducted on whether defending with the buckler was the safer action, or if holding the scabbard and drawing the sword similarly to the Iaijutsu attack would have been a better option. For the Iaijutsu attack to have been feasible, the buckler would need to be secured some other way to the person as opposed to hanging off the sword hilt.
There is no question to me regarding the value of being able to attack with a sword while drawing from the scabbard. Unfortunately, based on the evidence presented, it does not appear that first ward is designed to support this action. While first ward is an effective ward in I.33, it would be dramatically limited if the sword were still in its scabbard. Instead, first ward and the techniques presented in I.33 appear to assume that the sword is already drawn and ready to engage the opponent.
When studying historical martial arts, there is always the question of how gear influences interpretation. Is my longsword too long for the system? Is my gear restricting my movements in a way that makes some techniques difficult? Today, we will explore what is the right size buckler for I.33; both from a historical context and a functional context.
In this analysis, NASA-STD-3000 regarding average sizes of human anatomy will be used to try and calculate the diameter of the bucklers shown in the images. This is done partially because it is a scientific standard for rough approximations and also to check the checkbox of “over-analysis” for a medieval manuscript.
To compare the calculations made to some historical examples, The Book of the Buckler by Herbert Schmidt was used. According to Herbert Schmidt, the buckler “has a maximum diameter / dimension of approx. 45cm [17.7in]. The calculations made using NASA-STD-3000 had to be realistic when compared to historical examples.
The Size of the Buckler in the Image
Small, medium, and large buckler are all shown in I.33. While some variations may be caused by the illustrations being drawn by hand, others seem more deliberate.
The images of Walpurgis show possibly the smallest buckler in I.33. When using the female 50th percentile estimates in NASA-STD-3000 to calculate the size of a female head, the buckler’s diameter appears to be around 29.9cm (11.8in).
The image of Sixth ward on the first pages of I.33 shows one of the largest bucklers in I.33. The buckler appears to be roughly the same size as the fencer’s torso from neck to waist. Again, using NASA-STD-3000, this would put the large buckler’s diameter roughly at 40.9cm (16.1in).
These estimates for the size of the bucklers illustrated in I.33 are rough at best. There is a number of variability introduced by the artist in the images, both with the buckler size as well as with the size of the fencers. To give a wide range of buckler size to account for potential errors, the bucklers used in the illustrations of I.33 appear to be anywhere from 25.4cm (10in) to 43.2cm (17in) in size.
Functional use of the Buckler in I.33
I.33 primarily uses the buckler to protect the hands while they are extended in front of the fencer. In most images, I.33 shows the buckler extended forward as opposed to close to the body. So the right size buckler must be able to be extended in front of the fencer for the majority of the engagement.
On the surface, the largest buckler someone can find would seem to be the best option. However, the buckler needs to be light enough for the fencer to extend the buckler forward. One way to reduce the weight of the buckler is to reduce the size of the buckler. Another way would be changing the material of the buckler to a lighter material.
Based on the art in I.33, there is a wide range of sizes of bucklers a fencer can use while still being historically accurate. As long as the buckler is round and no larger than 43.2cm (17 in), it will match the art of I.33.
The real determining factor for the size of the buckler comes down to the fencer using it. If the buckler is too large and heavy, the fencer will fatigue and become less effective in the fight. If the buckler is too small for the fencer, they may struggle to defend their hands while they are engaged in the bind.
When studying I.33, the best buckler will be the one you are most comfortable with. Training strength to handle larger bucklers is advantageous. However, smaller bucklers will almost always be quicker which can have its own advantageous in the engagement. The most important thing to remember is that the buckler’s job is to reduce the chance of you getting hit.
So remember, when studying I.33…
Today we will continue the series comparing the sword and buckler systems of I.33 and Andre Lignitzer. Today’s post will be discussing the second play from Lignitzer and comparing it to the twenty-second cross of I.33.
As a reminder, I.33 starts each of its 40 plays with a cross in the top left of the image. To compare Lignitzer’s system with I.33, a cross that is most similar to Lignitzer’s play will be selected. If the sixth play in I.33 is referenced, then it will be identified as cross 6.
Why Cross 22 Was Selected For Comparison
Cross 22 from I.33 was selected for this comparison because of the sequence of follow-on actions from the bind towards the end of the play.
In truth, Lignitzer’s second play showcases many of the fundamental differences between the two sword and buckler systems. While Cross 4 of I.33 arguably has a bind position similar to the second play of Lignitzer, the follow-on actions were too different to draw many comparisons.
Cross 22 is one of the plays in I.33 that shows the actions of longpoint verses longpoint. According to I.33, all actions with the sword end in longpoint so these crosses can be helpful when discussing sword and buckler systems that attack into the engagement as opposed to I.33 that generally places the sword into the engagement.
Comparing Lignitzer Play 2 to I.33 Cross 22
While not explicitly stated in the second play, it can be assumed that the underhaw strike delivered to initiate this sequence would be delivered with the sword and buckler together as advised in the first play. This is similar to the sieges I.33 delivers.
Another similarity is that both systems encourage attacking the opponent’s head from the bind.
There are a number of differences showcased in this Lignitzer play that run contrary to the teachings of I.33.
The first and most glaring difference is that Lignitzer advises the fencer to separate the sword and buckler while in the bind. I.33 chooses to only separate the sword and buckler when it is safe to do so. In Lignitzer’s case, the separation appears to be done in order to maximize the area defended by allowing the sword and the buckler to independently engage in the bind.
Another difference is the use of ochs in the bind where the hilt of the sword is brought closer to the ear while the tip of the blade remains forward towards the opponent. In general, I.33 avoids this position because of the gap it creates between the sword and the buckler.
Analysis of the Defense against the Cut Towards the Head from the Bind
Finally, and arguably most interestingly, the second play of Lignitzer concludes with the opponent defending with just buckler while cross 22 ends with an action to maintain the bind with the swords.
According to Lignitzer, “If he defends against this and lifts his shield up, take the left leg”. However, Lignitzer does not advise what to do if the opponent defends with the sword. Presumably, binding actions would occur and the first play of Lignitzer would be repeated.
The second play of Lignitzer may add context to the “why of I.33 techniques”. I.33 never advises to defend with just the buckler. Presumably this is because defending with just the buckler would be common knowledge and not the primary focus of the techniques shown in I.33.
However, the use of the upper schutzen to defend the head as opposed to just the buckler is an explicit technique in I.33. When looking at both of the systems, it is possible that the reason I.33 prefers to maintain the bind and use the sword to defend high is because if only the buckler were used, the opponent could attack the leg as shown by Lignitzer.
The differences between systems does not inherently mean one is superior to the other. Just because I.33 chooses to keep the sword and buckler together when binding against the opponent does not mean that Lignitzer is wrong when separating the sword and buckler hands while in the bind. Both systems have their merits and their own rationale that support their techniques.
From a HEMA perspective, learning from both systems can increase the total amount of techniques a fencer has at their disposal. I.33 does not include leg strikes; Lignitzer does. Lignitzer attacks into the engagement to force the bind; I.33 places the sword into sieges. Both systems bring their own style that when used properly, can increase the potency of one’s own sword and buckler style.
It is important to recognize the similarities and the differences between each system, especially systems like I.33 and Lignitzer which use similar weapon sets. By analyzing both, we can begin to see a potential pattern of what skilled sword and buckler fencers of the high medieval period felt were universal truths with this weapon combination.