The Blow in I.33

About ten or so years ago, I became entranced by this medieval manuscript, Royal Armouries I.33. It’s the earliest surviving European fencing manuscript that is publicly known, probably originating in the late 13th to early 14th century. Its subject matter covers a unique form of sword and buckler fencing.

There’s been one question that’s evaded me this whole time, though. In the book there is a blow that is delivered with a shield strike: the true edge is up, false edge is down, the elbow is slightly bent and the hand is between the body and the buckler. It is shown over and over, almost to the point of being redundant. It is a core feature of the system, so figuring out this blow exactly is important to understanding the full meaning of the manuscript. At first I thought it was a blow from below, then I tried Roland Warzecha’s sturzhau interpretation, and I recently started treating it as a thrust (but this never felt good as thrusts are explicitly called out as such in the text).

The lower figure here shows the blow in question in its most common context.

I recently acquired a high quality facsimile of the manuscript published by the Royal Armouries. I was going through it with renewed interest, as it’s the first time I’ve had as much time as I wanted with a physical copy of the manuscript in front of me. I found it much easier to work with than digital copies, and I noticed some things I hadn’t before, and I believe I’ve come up with an interpretation of how the I.33 blow works that is consistent with the source material and good martial fundamentals.

Before I get to an explanation of that blow, please allow me to demonstrate how I came to the conclusions that I did. Below are a couple of pages from the I.33 manuscript, demonstrating an action involving the priest’s special longpoint. In it, the scholar opposes the priest who counter opposes with half shield. The scholar binds (i.e. initiates the bind) below and performs a shield strike with a blow. It is my assumption that this shield strike and blow are the same blow shown many other times in the manuscript.

In function, if not in exact position of the elbow, the priest’s special longpoint appears to be very similar to wechsel from Meyer’s rapier. In fact, I believe a play found in Meyer’s 1561 fecthbuk (MS Bibl. 2465) is nearly identical to the one above. Credit to u/Darvick for the translation.

If you stand in the Change (wechsel) on the left and he thrusts … you near your heart, then take-out his blade upward, from your right … with hanging blade, send the tip around your head, and cut to the inside of his leg (right).

There are obviously differences in I.33. There is a shield strike included there, and the target is the head. Less obvious is that the tip is brought around the head in both plays. However, the next figure on the next page gives another clue to that puzzle:

Note that the Priest here prevents the blow executed previously by the Student in this manner … when he was in the action of delivering the blow, bringing the sword back, the Priest gets a blow before the Student brings his sword to the proper destination …

The student is disrupted in the middle of their action. The sword is overhead, with the tip behind the head, exactly as Meyer describes.

With these clues, I feel that I am ready to discuss my current interpretation of the blow that is often shown in I.33. I’ll demonstrate it as if I’m using the common play of opposing in half-shield, bind and stepping, then shield striking with the blow in question.

Oppose with Half-Shield.

When your—here, imaginary—opponent binds, counter bind and step.

Pass the tip behind the head.

Complete the blow with the false edge, as shown in the manuscript.

Note that the sword does not rotate along its long axis during this motion. It is always moving toward the false edge from the moment you start to lift it toward your left shoulder until you drive it down into the blow.

The sequence in motion, if you so desire.

That’s basically all there is to it. This is my best current interpretation of the blow often depicted in I.33. I still need to test it, thoroughly, in action, but I feel pretty good about this, much better than any of my previous attempts at figuring out this problem.

My wife is insisting that these photos/video are not good enough quality for you, dear reader, so they may be replaced with ones she approves of more in the future. I also have noticed some things I’d like to change to better incorporate and illustrate my point, but am not motivated enough right now. Come back next week and see if they’ve changed!

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If you enjoyed this content, maybe you’d be interested in my rant about a fantasy sword, or maybe you’d like to see more about I.33.

2 thoughts on “The Blow in I.33

  1. Pingback: I.33: The Common Blow | Todd's Corner

  2. Interesting interpretation – I get hung up on how you get from the overbound position up to the false-edge cut to the head in the first set of images. The play from 30r-30v is as follows: The Scholar, in PSL, is besieged by the Priest in Halfshield, The Scholar falls under, then is overbound by the Priest, then it says the Scholar does a Shieldstrike, and strikes to the head. The Scholar can’t go around his head as you show because his shield arm would get in the way. He may be able to pull the sword free upwards, and then turn the point over into the false edge cut as it comes down?

    There are some people who interpret the hand positions as being seen from the viewpoint of the person, not as from the viewpoint of the reader, so the cut at the end could just be a simple true-edge cut from right to left.

    Good stuff, thanks for sharing!

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