It is no secret that I enjoy the I.33 manuscript. However, given the barrier in interpreting the art and text and the fact that medieval sword and buckler is not as popular in HEMA, I.33 is a relatively unknown system outside of the primary practitioners of the source. This has led to several HEMA practitioners having misconceptions about I.33.
Today, we will dive into the two most common misconceptions about I.33 The first is that the techniques are not martially valid, and the second is that I.33 is an incomplete system. By tackling both misconceptions, I hope to clear some barriers for those interested in studying I.33.
Are I.33 Techniques Martially Valid?
For many people interested in swordsmanship, the idea that the system they are learning is ineffective can be a significant detractor to keep someone from learning a specific system. Unfortunately, the techniques in I.33 have been seen as techniques that cannot be used for self-defense. This generally seems to be due to I.33’s system looking different than other sword and buckler systems. In Dr. Sydney Anglo’s The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, he states in regards to I.33 that “the constrained sword and buckler fighting taught by the priest to his disciple does not look remotely as efficient as the free-flowing, better balanced techniques later expounded by Talhoffer and Marozzo.”
When reading I.33, one must look at the manuscript as a collection of techniques the fencer gains when they pair their sword with the buckler. Very few of the I.33 techniques work without the assistance of the buckler. When the buckler is paired with the sword, the fencer can perform longer binding actions and deliver more attacks from the wrist and elbow than with equivalent singlehanded sword systems like Lechuchner’s messer.
Talhoffer’s manuscript differs from I.33 by showing how to perform messer attacks and grapples when the buckler is present. Talhoffer first shows techniques that highlight this with just the messer, followed by a section showing the same techniques but with a buckler instead of a bare hand for the displacements. In a way, Talhoffer’s system is more like a sword with buckler than sword and buckler since the off-hand is optional for the techniques.
In the context of the Bolognese system, I.33 is a hyper-focus on the concept of the narrow play or “gioco stretto,” where two fencers’ bind their swords, but neither has the advantage. The narrow fight is a minor part of the overall Bolognese sword and buckler system. However, Marozzo (a significant source for the Bolognese sword and buckler system), in chapter 162 of his Opera Nova, states that the fencer who knows both the narrow binding-like plays and the more flowing cuts and thrusts from what I.33 would consider wards, will control the fight. Furthermore, Marozzo taught the narrow plays separately from the wide plays and charged seven pounds for each class. So, even Marozzo sees the validity in the more bind-centric plays that I.33 offers.
Is I.33 an Incomplete System?
Periodically, commentators on I.33 will state that it is an incomplete system. New sword and buckler fencers looking for a source to study are generally directed towards Bolognese sources because of the inclusion of footwork, sword grips, and other fundamental aspects of swordsmanship. Others have stated that to get the most out of I.33, fencers must draw from other sources to learn swordsmanship fully.
However, I.33 does contain enough techniques and a mindset to approach a sword and buckler fight that can make a sword and buckler fencer competent should they have to defend themselves with the weapon. While I agree that the Bolognese sources are more accessible for beginners to learn from, I think the appearance of I.33 being incomplete comes more from comparing it to other systems and noting the differences than it does from the number of techniques in the manuscript.
Talhoffer and Bolognese sword and buckler utilize cuts and thrusts without the assistance of the bind. This is notably excluded in I.33. However, from the perspective of I.33, I believe the techniques illustrated and defined are specifically designed to counter the more free-flowing Bolognese and Talhoffer styles. I.33 chooses to siege, a specific position to provoke the opponent out of their starting position. The opponent will either enter the bind, retreat or do nothing. Throughout I.33, those three outcomes of sieging the opponent are discussed.
So, while it is accurate to say that I.33 does not include cuts and thrusts from the basic wards like Talhoffer and the Bolognese sources do, it is not accurate to say that the exclusion makes I.33 incomplete. Instead that I.33 chooses to deep-dive into one area of the fight because it values the other style of fighting less.
However, it is worth noting that I.33 does have some missing pages, particularly on the use and counters of two wards, fifth and sixth. Fortunately, later sections in the manuscript show how to combat thrusting positions like fifth and sixth, so while the complete set of techniques is incomplete, there still exist enough techniques to counter thrusting wards.
Though I believe I.33 is a complete system and can stand on its own, cross-training with other weapons does help HEMA practitioners. My class covers Lechuchner’s messer, I.33, Talhoffer, Paulus Kal, and Lignitzer. All of the fencing masters bring their unique style to the medieval swordfight that benefits a well-rounded sword and buckler practitioner. For more data on cross-training in HEMA, I highly recommend the article on the topic at SwordSTEM.
I.33 is a unique manuscript that focuses on a series of techniques a fencer can do with the assistance of the buckler. The system focuses on the fight's mindset and choosing to bind and secure the opponent’s weapon before moving in to attack.
However, not all sword and buckler systems approach the fight similarly. The Bolognese sword and buckler system prefers to keep the sword fluid and to move to find openings. Talhoffer similarly will move the sword to close on the opponent while utilizing messer-style attacks. This is the same as other fencing systems like Fiore and Lichtenauer differing.
Being different and excluding some techniques other systems include does not make a system incomplete or ineffective. The authors of these sources had to choose what to include and what not to include. So for those that pick up I.33 and think the art style and the Latin text are cool, dive in and start learning about this effective and complete sword and buckler system. You will not regret it.
Last weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to conduct a lecture workshop at Uhuburg Castle. The lecture focused on judicial dueling in the 13th and 14th century of the Holy Roman Empire and introduced the visitors of the castle to the Saxon Mirror, Codex Manesse, and MS I.33. This post contains one of the lectures we gave and a series of pictures from the workshops throughout the two-day event.
This event was an absolute blast and hopefully inspired other HEMA practitioners to help make history fun and tangible for everyone!
About Uhuburg Castle
Uhuburg Castle is located in Helen, Georgia and is a beautiful work of art. It just opened up this year and is already selling out tickets with visitors. Rooms will be available for an opportunity to stay and see the night sky at this wonderful location. We had the opportunity to stay in the gatehouse as they renovate some of the other rooms and enjoyed our stay at the castle.
The staff was wonderful and knowledgeable about the castle. We talked quite a bit about the process they used when building the castle. Unfortunately, I was unable to take the guided tour but based on what we learned about the castle from questions we had, I am sure it was informational for al the attendants.
About 10 minutes from the castle is Helen, Georgia which is a small German village that features vacation activities like tubing down a river. It was great after a long day of working the event to go see the sites and experience the local cuisine.
We conducted the lecture every hour at the castle and began with a handout to the audience as a primer and visual aid for the attendants. We then introduced ourselves and what HEMA is all about. Then, we focused on the legal sources that structured judicial dueling in the Holy Roman Empire. This was used as a springboard to introduce the crowd to sword and buckler. Then we explored some biographical sources like the Codex Manesse to show that these duels and the use of sword and buckler were also documented. We then introduced I.33 as a manuscript that taught the use of sword and buckler.
Danial and I then did light sparring in period clothing. We did not want these fights to be staged so we had a gorget, gloves, and a helmet on to keep us safe. We also have been training together for years and know each other well which goes a long way in staying smart with our sparring. After each exchange, we would talk to the crowd about what we saw, and what we were thinking during the exchange. Our goal was to highlight how tactical sword fighting was while also highlighting how fast it can be.
After a short demonstration of light sparring with a sword and buckler to expose the crowd to the techniques of the manuscript, we would highlight that this was one weapon system, in one region, at one point in time. This allowed us to end the lecture by informing the crowd that different systems exist and martial combat changes with different weapons and different levels of protection.
After telling the crowd about the broader world of Western martial arts, it was time to show them. We had examples of mail armor, brigandines, and gambeson that people could touch and feel to see how protective these armor pieces could be. We also had a table of swords that people could pick up and feel for themselves. For anyone interested, we conducted mini-workshops with them using a sword type of their choice to show them one way the sword can be used.
For sword and buckler workshops, we focused on the seven wards from I.33 and the attacks from them. for the longsword, we highlighted how nimble of a weapon it can be and how strong is countered with weak and vice versa. For rapier, we would place our swords in one position and have the student think about how they could place their sword so that if we both thrust at each other, they would be safe while striking us. Finally, we would teach the basic guards and how they are used for military sabre and then would go over the first play from John Taylor’s saber system.
These workshops were designed to be about 10 minutes so people could swing swords and get an idea of swordsmanship.
HEMA and Community Outreach
One of my favorite things about HEMA is teaching people about swords. It is just great to see peoples’ faces light up when they get to use a sword for the first time. It is also great to see people getting excited about history and their eagerness to learn.
We in HEMA have a unique knowledge of a piece of history that many people are interested in. Even if they are not interested in learning swordsmanship themselves, they are likely interested in the history around it and how it was done verses what is shown in the movies. I encourage everyone in HEMA to find ways to reach out to the community and help teach history to those interested.
One of my favorite interactions at the event was with a woman who studied art history. She was more interested in the castle tour for its architecture. However, she attended our lecture and was enamored with the sources we had on display. By having manuscript examples from the early 14th century to the late 16th century, we could showcase how the evolution of art improved the ability to communicate techniques. She also highlighted several other details in manuscripts like the Gladiatoria that we would not have seen in earlier manuscripts because of the evolution of art styles.
Those types of popcorn style conversations was exactly why we kept the lecture short and opened up the remainder of the hour until our next show for freeform questions and answers. Sometimes we were asked questions where we had to say we did not know but many times the questions were about the sources we had on display and the weapons people could try.
So, please, reach out to your community and help make history fun for all!
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.