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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand

Medieval Sword & Shield: The Combat System of Royal Armouries MS I.33

Union City, CA.: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2003. 267pp. $29.95. ISBN 1891448382.

There are objective limits to any review of an instruction manual for the martial arts. It is only possible to fairly evaluate the diligence of the author's scholarship, the clarity of the prose, and the readability of instructions and diagrams. Beyond that, the value of the martial interpretation is highly subjective, dependant on the particular tastes and experience of the practitioner, current controversies over style, and individual schools of re-creation. That being said, one must nevertheless attempt an evaluation and accept that some conclusions must be left to the discretion of the reader and his or her own individual judgements. In this particular case, Wagner and Hand's Medieval Sword and Shield is a text that is readable and academically strong, and also gives the reader confidence in their interpretation.

Most books in the genre of the how-to manuals of medieval martial arts are written for the practitioner, as opposed to the general reader or the scholar of martial history. Wagner and Hand have gone further to satisfy academic demands than one might expect. The book was intended as a companion to Jeffrey Forgeng's facsimile and translation of the Royal Armouries MS I.33 [[1]] and knowing that the two works were likely to share the same readers, Wagner and Hand have tried to maintain a suitable level of academic rigour. Wagner and Hand naturally focus entirely on their own system of combat instruction, but they also include notes and bibliography for the interested reader. For this reason, the book has a broader appeal to the general reader than other didactic texts.

The book begins with a short historical description of their source material, the early fourteenth-century illustrated Fechtbuch (Royal Armouries, Leeds MS I.33). This is the earliest surviving illustrated manual on personal arms and focuses exclusively on techniques for the sword and buckler (a small centre-grip shield). German-speaking scribes produced the manuscript in a monastic setting, sometime around 1320 [[2]]. The authors are dependant on Forgeng's translation from the Latin for their interpretation. Like most medieval fight-texts, MS I.33 lacks basic instructions on footwork, defensive and offensive principles, time and measure, and the other basics of personal combat. For this reason, the authors provide two short introductory chapters that cover some of the basics for footwork and simple movement, which they have based on later medieval German and Italian manuals. Because the authors are writing for the broadest audience, they are careful not to assume that these martial principles are common knowledge. Their descriptions of steps and basic principles are clear and easy to follow without abandoning period terminology or concepts. Advanced practitioners may quibble with some of the details, but for the general reader these instructions suffice.

Once the basics are established, the book builds up an interpretation of MS I.33 through nine chapters, each focusing on one of the principal guards or wards. These guards are ordered by their significance and frequency within the source text, and each ward is shown in opposition or in defence against various counter-wards. Because the original manuscript avoids a strictly linear structure, it also avoids duplication and repetition. Wagner and Hand are therefore entitled to take their own pace through the instruction, arranging the wards and counter-wards in their own way. The system that appears through these instructions is a dynamic combination of grapples, shield strikes, dynamic movements of the feet, sword, and shield. The authors do their best to show as much variety as they can while maintaining a coherent sequence of instructions and plays that are within the ability of the non-specialist readers.

Illustrations consist of black-and-white photos of the authors in practice. Images are arranged in sequence, and lettered for the reader to keep actions in order, or to allow re-ordering with some of the text. This is not an ideal system of instruction. Some of the images are dimly lit, and period garments or camera angles conceal some of the subtlety of footwork or body position, but the basic principles are easily followed. Any book such as this struggles to keep a balance between detail and pace of instruction: too much detail and you run out of space to cover an entire system; too little and you risk confusing the reader or leaving gaps for criticism of the conclusions. For the general reader interested in the rudiments of the system or a taste of medieval martial arts re-creation, Wagner and Hand have reached an acceptable balance.

Medieval Sword and Shield first appeared in 2003 and now shares a place in an increasingly crowded market of medieval martial arts instruction. There are now several other interpretations of MS I.33 available, although most of them are in DVD or online formats [[3]]. Forgeng's own edition of the manuscript has been joined by Frank Cinato and Andre Surprenant's 2007 edition [[4]]. What is interesting, and certainly a credit to the authors, are Hand's amendments to the book, which he wrote in 2005 [[5]]. Most of Hand's changes are subtle, although his interpretation of "half shield" and "the rare and special cover" are significantly different from the 2003 version. These changes demonstrate both how subjective this exercise is and Wagner and Hand's acknowledgement of that subjectivity. Any interpretation is dependent on the diligence of the practitioners and even then the results will often differ based on personal taste. For example, Hand writes that the original version of the rare and special counter, as it appears in Medieval Sword and Shield, was inexplicable and wrong. However, on the basis of my limited experience in martial re-enactment I found that the original ward, however spurious, when used during sparring at speed, was surprisingly effective when employed in defence, and allowed highly effective counter-punch attacks. This experience is par for the course with this type of text, but this does not diminish Wagner and Hand's contribution of this readable and confident treatment of a complex and fraught exercise.

As a final note, this text is now essentially out of print and due to complications with the publisher it is unlikely to appear in re-issue or in an updated edition. One remains hopeful that Wagner and Hand are able to incorporate their later adjustments to the system in a new edition in a text that holds a far greater appeal for the general and scholarly reader than most other texts in this field.

Notes

[1] See Valerie Eads' review for De Re Militari here.

[2] Wagner and Hand provide a summary of the debate over date in the notes (p.17). A composition date of 1320 is suggested by Rainer Leng, ed., Katalogue der Deutschsprachigen Illustrierten Handschriften des Mittelalters: Band 4/2, Lieferung 1/2, 38. Fecht- und Ringbücher (Munich: Kommission für Deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters der Bayerischen Akadime der Wissenschaften, München, 2008).

[3] Online interpretations abound, but the DVD by Roland Warzecha and Tobias Wenzel, Sword and Shield: Basic Principles and Techniques of Sword and Buckler Combat (Dembach Mediaworks, 2011), is worth noting.

[4] Franck Cinato and Andre Surprenant, Le Livre de L’art du Combat: Liber de Arte Dimicatoria (Paris: Éditions CNRS, 2007).

[5] Stephen Hand, “Re-interpreting Aspects of the Sword & Buckler System in Royal Armouries MS. I.33,” ed. Stephen Hand, Gregory Mele, and Steven Hick, Spada: Anthology of Swordsmanship 2 (2005): 91-110.

 

Mark R. Geldof

University of Saskatchewan <Cwb004@shsu.edu>

Page Added: January 2012