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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Jeffrey L. Forgeng, ed. and trans.

The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: A Facsimile & Translation of Europe’s Oldest Personal Combat Treatise, Royal Armouries MS. I.33

Union City CA: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2003. v+157pp. ISBN 1891448382. $54.95.

Although usually qualified by the adjectives “western” and “European,” Royal Armouries MS. I.33 (typically referred to as “one-thirty-three”) is the oldest extant work on personal combat. It is here presented as a combined facsimile, editio princeps and English translation. No small effort! The resulting book can be used by scholars equipped to engage the language and artistic conventions of the original manuscript and by historical martial artists who will put theoretical reconstructions to the test of a trained body.

Based on paleography and artistic style I.33 (a.k.a., the Tower Fechtbuch and, occasionally, the Walpurgis Fechtbuch) was produced in Germany c.1295. It is written in Latin with German words (Schiltslach, Halpschilt, Langort) used for some specific techniques. The manuscript consists of 32 leaves with illustrated upper and lower registers both recto and verso presenting a system of attack and counter based on seven guards (custodia). In marked contrast to later works which demonstrate a variety of weapons and may include mounted combat, I.33 shows only the one-handed sword and buckler, weapons not usually associated with the ordo militaris. This raises the questions of who produced the manuscript and who is the intended audience. The teaching role is taken by a tonsured priest (sacerdos, clerus) who instructs a student (scolaris, discipulus). In the last four illuminations, the role of the student is taken by a woman named Walpurgis.

A related question is the purpose of I.33. One interpretation is that I.33 is “ludic” rather than “earnest,” i.e., that the system here recorded is intended for sport rather than for combat since it lacks the graphic killing blows that are a feature of similar later works (p. 10). One illustration (p. 38) shows the student’s sword directly under the priest’s jaw in the upper register while the lower register shows the counter move that will prevent this outcome in the exchange. It doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to add blood or death to this and any number of similar illustrations. There are references in the text to actions that have lethal potential but are not illustrated: “…receives a thrust in the belly or is stabbed with the sword (p. 45).” This page is especially interesting since the author blames the artist for leaving out the rest of the sequence. I.33 may be considered similar to the oriental forms (kata) that deliberately do not show the effective moves of the sequence. Practitioners of the art can fill in the blanks while the ignorant remain ignorant. Clearly I.33 was never intended to be a beginners’ manual despite the contention that the seven guards are those assumed by anyone holding a sword, even someone ignorant of the art of combat (p. 1). The idea that fencing, or at least good fencing, is somehow natural--a definition that changes over time--obviously appeared very early in the western tradition. This single reference to the philosophy of combat cannot, however, put I.33 into the category of a martial arts treatise. The remaining category is aide-memoire, a prompt book for someone who already knows the show rather well.

There will inevitably be questions of translation. Is custodia best translated as “guard,” a term known to every modern fencer, or as “ward” a deliberate archaism that has the advantage of not conveying a modern concept? The frequently used verb ligo and its compounds (subligo, religo) present a problem, at least for those trained in classical or modern fencing. The usual translation, “bind,” is a modern technical term. The 13th-century ligacio is not a modern bind (as the translator is well aware), and practitioners will eventually decide whether to stick with “bind” while acknowledging that the action has changed along with the weapons or to choose an alternate term. Dance historians, for example, decided early on to stick with the original terminology even though the same terms are used in modern ballet to describe rather different movements. The translator has changed passive voice to active when this seemed better suited to the action described (p. 38). Given that the Latin text and the illustrations are right at hand this should not present much of a problem. New translations will inevitably appear as historical fencers work through this material.

The function of any edition is to make a text available to scholars. By that measure, a quick scan of the titles of papers given at the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress in the last few years shows that the edition is doing its job nicely. Papers have discussed such points as a correct reading of the illustrations (e.g., the buckler is occasionally shown edge-on with the boss changed into a prominent point, but the sword is always shown flat; it is extremely unlikely that the system recorded in I.33 never used an oblique cut), the function of the Walpurgis figure (not an allegorical figure, an Amazon, or St. Walpurgis) and the influence of I.33 on later Fechtbücher (considerable). I.33 presents so many challenges that one martial arts historian hypothesized that “the author was an indifferent and ineffectual swordsman.” [1] With a good edition of the manuscript now available to scholars this seems untenable, and alternative solutions are being put forward. The experience of military historians in interpreting medieval depictions of battle and combat scenes could well make a contribution here, and the study of Fechtbücher as a genre could help with the interpretation of those “earnest” illustrations.

The production quality of the edition may help persuade acquisitions librarians who might not be enthusiastic about medieval swordplay. The hardcover stitched binding means that the book will not come apart even if lifted by a single page or with a sweaty gauntlet. It is printed on glossy stock with full-color high-resolution reproductions. Mutilations, interpolations and bleed-through along with what remains of the original text and illustrations are there to compare to the editor’s work. Also included are the handwritten commentaries of earlier scholars that are bound with the manuscript On the other hand, the unpublished opinion of the Austrian scholar Alphons Lhotsky was not bound with the manuscript and is not reproduced or quoted here. Lhotsky worked extensively with the Episcopal registers of Würzburg and identified at least one of the three distinguishable scribal hands of I.33 as belonging to one of the bishop’s secretaries. The editor’s decision to use the page numbers penciled in by a modern hand rather than the folio recto and verso designations simplifies use of the book but has the potential for confusion between folios and page numbers. Since the penciled page numbers are not visible in the facsimile the question of cropping or photo editing arises.

The realities of production costs make it expensive to publish full-color facsimiles of longer works, but high-quality black-and-white reproduction can give a lot of detail. Cost-cutting expedients that result in editions in which some of the original text is unreadable make those books less useful to scholars. In at least one such publication the sequence of the folios was rearranged without making clear the changes that were made, a procedure that can potentially mislead both scholars and historical reconstructors. Any engagement with I.33 makes it abundantly clear that words and pictures are part of a cohesive whole--both are necessary; and neither is sufficient–and any interpretation of the combination needs to be cross-checked in practice. The availability of a reliable edition makes this possible and is an important step in the rediscovery of the western martial arts tradition. The $54.95 price tag is moderate by current standards.


[1] .Sydney Anglo, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2000) p. 128.

Valerie Eads

School of Visual Arts, NYC <>

Page Added: September 2009