I.33: The Common Blow

After writing my previous post about the blow in I.33, I started looking into the first play again with what I discussed in mind. There’s a lot packed into a small space with regards to the first play (literally, the author was writing sideways in the margins), and part of what’s in there is a snippet about what a common fencer would do. As there is very little about common fencing available in this manuscript or anywhere else, I decided to investigate further.

In the first play, as you probably know if you’re reading this, the Priest instructs the Scholar on how to approach first ward. The first suggested way to do this is using half-shield. I assume this is because this was an extremely common tactic, and not just for sword and buckler fighters from the time of I.33. You can see basically the same position being used in Meyer’s Irongate and saber’s middle guard. The Priest wants to show the pitfalls and solutions in this situation. It also serves to introduce through example his more general tactics that are expanded upon in the rest of the work.

The play is dedicated mostly to how to respond to the person opposing in half-shield, including a reference to an outside and otherwise unknown source. This reference is made in order to strengthen the opinion of the Priest that the one in first ward should attempt no blow, but should instead bind against the opposer’s sword, i.e. to “fall under sword and shield.” This maneuver may deserve its own dedicated post, but for now just notice how when performing this action, the one performing it is out of distance and should not be able to reach the opposer’s head (as the Priest explicitly says not to do that).

Next, let’s consider the really big hint about the common blow, which is in the text after the described situation is set up (I added the em dash):

Note that he who lies above sends a blow toward the head without a Shield-Strike­—if he is an ordinary opponent. But if you wish to learn the Priest’s advice, then counterbind and step.

Forgeng, J. L. (Ed.). (2018). Royal Armouries Ms I.33. Royal Armouries Museum.

The problem with this blow is that it is immediately foiled. Because of the distance that is created by falling under, the person who fell under is able to easily counter thrust against the blow. If the combatants were closer, this would not be possible, as the point of the sword wouldn’t be in front of the person attempting the blow. It is my assumption that a common fencer would not necessarily know to fall under, and would attempt to reach the head. This allows the counter blow to be effective. If it were never effective, it would not be common, and we wouldn’t need to know that it is better to fall under and counter thrust against this blow.

This common action closely resembles actions in other systems. In military sabre, the middle guard is very similar to half-shield, and a tierce parry would easily prevent a blow to the right side of the head. The common blow, then, is very similar to what you see in military saber: guard in the middle, parry the blow, and riposte. You can find plays like this in Meyer’s system as well, where he beats against attacks on the right and counter attacks. It is interesting to me the differences that develop between the Priest’s system, Meyer, and 19th century saber to deal with similar situations. The Priest’s solution is to encourage bind work, the saberist solution is to recover and parry. I digress.

The last question to answer is what exactly is the nature of this common blow? In general, I believe that the blow in this situation is generally struck to the left. The first reason is because I believe the counter thrust described by the Priest to stop the common blow is most effective when the blow is struck on the left.

Another reason is that, in a later play, the author states that common fencers tend to blow on the left, where the Priest blows on the right. Now, it is ambiguous as to whether that statement applies to all blows, or just the ones in the play it is describing. It cannot be denied, however, that the Priest strikes blows almost exclusively on the right throughout the whole manuscript. The statement can be read as being general with regard to the Priest’s blows, and so it may be interpreted that it is speaking generally of the common blow being on the left as well.

The last reason I believe that this common blow is on the left is that, when the opponent’s blade is rising from below on the right, there is no way to easily pass around it to strike on the right. You cannot safely run it off to your left, or step around it. You may try to bully through it with the mass of your body, but that feels quite unsafe. It would be much easier to strike from the left, moving your hands to the right, which would allow you to push the opponent’s weapons out that way with the forte of the blade and buckler.

Whether this blow is more of a zwerchau motion or a zornhau is probably immaterial, either would work, but I personally tend toward the zwerchau, as it lends itself well to the concept of bringing the sword behind the head as mentioned in my previous post, and can also be easily reversed into a blow on the right which is shown all over the place in the manuscript.

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Basically, I think the common blow in the first play of I.33 (and potentially elsewhere in the text) is a blow struck on the left immediately after the bind. It is an action similar to what you see in saber, i.e. set off and counter attack. It can work if the opponent tries to reach the head, but is easily countered if they are aware of the danger. Thanks for reading, and I hope to come back soon with some more musings inspired by my favorite fencing manuscript, MS I.33.

P.S. I haven’t update the photos on my previous post yet, but I would like to, as my thoughts have changed slightly and they’re now outdated even with myself. For me, this evolution is the fun part! I’ll also try to get a couple photos up for this post at some point.

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