According to I.33, “…in general all combatants, or all men holding a sword in hand, even if they are ignorant of the art of combat, use these seven guards…” (I.33 translation by Jeffrey L. Forgeng). This would imply that while the author of I.33 may have a preferred interpretation of the seven basic wards, it by no means covers what all combatants, trained or not, would use as their wards.
I.33 summarizes the first ward as the ward where the sword is under the buckler arm. Today, we will be doing an in-depth look at potential first wards shown in art and other fencing systems.
To start, let’s analyze I.33’s first ward to better understand its deviations.
I.33’s First Ward
The Saxon Mirror’s First Ward
This image is shown to illustrate the proper conduct of a judicial duel as described in the law book. While the image does not come from a fencing manual, it still may be rooted in a common fencing style in the Holy Roman Empire.
From a I.33 perspective, The siege half-shield appears to apply to this position just as it would against I.33’s ward. The concern with the Saxon Mirror’s first ward is that the hands are extended forward but the blade is not in an engaged position. These leaves the arms exposed which could allow for quick cuts at the arms from a siege such as half-shield. If the fencer shown in the Saxon Mirror tried to strike, their sword would be low which would appear to fall into the warning from the author of I.33 that states “The opposition is half-shield… he who stands in Under-Arm should not deliver any blow… for he cannot reach his opponent’s upper part; if he attacks the lower part, it will be dangerous to his head.” (I.33 translation by Jeffrey L. Forgeng).
Psalter of Queen Isabella of England’s First Ward
kept close to the hips was more comfortable than up towards the armpit. However, after further exploration of I.33, what became clear was that there was an advantage to keeping the buckler back.
I.33 advises that when under siege from first ward, the fencer should fall under the sword immediately and bind against the opponent’s blade. When trying to bind into the opponent’s sword from first ward, if the buckler is not back, then there is too much space in-between the sword and buckler hands. This leaves the first ward fencer exposed to strikes towards the body and head. Keeping the sword and buckler back appears to give the safest posture to effectively bind against your opponent.
The advantage of keeping the sword high instead of low near the waist will be discussed later in this post.
Talhoffer’s First Ward
An observation I have made regarding sword and buckler combat is that when the sword is low as shown by Talhoffer, it is tempting to cut at the legs of the opponent. I.33 advises against low leg cuts because the head is at risk of being struck during the exchange. However, Andre Lignitzer, another binding centric sword and buckler master, utilizes leg cuts quite regularly in his six plays regarding sword and buckler combat.
I believe that both I.33 and Lignitzer are advising two mutually exclusive techniques. I.33’s author is advising to not enter an engagement with a low cut because of the risk to the head. Lignitzer uses high cuts that come low to target the legs as a finishing action after the bind has been established. So both I.33 and Lignitzer’s techniques can be implemented without contradicting each other.
Talhoffer’s sword and buckler system has proven to be an effective system. It can be used to build on a messer foundation to create a solid sword with buckler system that does not necessarily rely on the buckler to be present for fighting. Because of the messer background of Talhoffer, this first ward has plenty of martial merit, even if it may not be the preferred first ward of the author of I.33.
Interestingly, Talhoffer’s sword and buckler placement for first ward looks similar to the sword and buckler fencer in the Lancelot Du Lac manuscript from around 1300 to 1325 AD. This would suggest that Talhoffer’s first ward has a martial lineage going back to at least I.33’s time. Once difference between these two first wards is that the posture of Talhoffer’s first ward is more upright while the first ward in Lancelot Du Lac is leaning from the waist similarly to I.33.
Queen Mary Psalter First Ward
This type of swordsmanship position is also shown in the Eyb Kriegsbuch from around 1500 AD which would suggest that there is some level of martial validity to this type of sword and buckler stance.
This position of the sword hand appears to force the fencer to extend the buckler forward. I have observed that it is difficult to deliver any sort of cut or enter into a bind when the buckler is not extended from this type of sword hand position.
Another potential issue is that the high true edge cut from I.33’s first ward does not appear to be a primary attack from this hand position. Instead, the two cuts that can be delivered are a low cut up with the strong edge of the sword, and a high cut with the false edge. I.33 shows a fair number of false edge cuts but none from wards. It is possible that because the high cut is a false edge cut, it is not as strong and therefore, not preferable over the I.33 first ward high cut.
The author of I.33 describes the wards as seven basic positions all fencers, skilled or not, will fight from. When learning any system and its techniques, it is important to be able to execute those techniques in the appropriate situations. I.33 presents a number of techniques to counter someone utilizing a first ward which should be applicable even against the first ward deviations shown above.
For a fencer who is training and competing using I.33, they must be able to analyze their opponent’s posture and recognize it as one of the seven basic wards. If the I.33 fencer can do this, they will be more successful when trying to utilize the techniques they know when engaging against sword and buckler fencers not using I.33.