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    An Introduction to the Essentials of Royal Armouries MS I.33

    by William Blacwoode

    Originally published in Punta Dritta January AS XL (2006)

    This paper is a brief summary of a talk presented to the Innilgard Guild Day, Sunday 29th September 2004

    This paper is based on both the original I.33 manuscript [1] and the interpretation of I.33 by Wagner and Hand (2003). The terminology used comes from Wagner and Hand. Other comments are the author’s opinions.

    The Manuscript

    • technically known as “one-thirty three”
    • Has been dated by various authorities to late 13th C or possibly early 14th C. Oldest Western European fencing manual [2]
    • German fechtbuch. “A theory has recently been advanced that the author of this document was a German monk named Luitger (lit. spear of the people). This is interesting because one researcher has found a record of a monk named Luitger in the records of the monastery of St. Walpurga (Walburga).  Walpurga (under her Latinized name Walpurgis) appears in the last two pages of the manuscript.  Walpurga was an English missionary to Germany, an assistant to St. Boniface, who died around 799 AD”. [3]
    • consists of 32 parchment leaves (double sided) with water colour and ink illustrations and associated brief Latin and German text.
    • movements and wards are depicted by two characters one described as a priest (“sacerdos”), the other as a scholar (“scolaris”). The last two leaves show a female character, named Walpurgis.
    • Technique described uses only sword and buckler (and grappling).

    The Social Context

    • Nothing is known of the general use of this type of sword play
    • Speculations that this may have been a highly developed fighting form used in civilian contexts or as a type of medieval sport fencing, or both.

    The Equipment

    • No body armour
    • To understand this style of fighting it is essential to understand the nature of the weapons in use.

    The Sword

    The illustrations in I.33 do not allow identification of the exact type of sword employed. However, it is clearly a single handed wide-bladed sword with a taper to a fine point. As is typical of the swords of this period, it possessed simple cross quillons and a blade of about 31-33 inches in length, which was edged on both sides. The balance point was probably about 5 inches up the blade from the quillons. (The sword resembled an SCA heavy sword more than a rapier)

    The Buckler

    Steel buckler, round central boss (possibly with small point mounted centrally), backwards sloping outer surface, steel handle running across the diameter at the back. Probably about 12 inches in diameter, but hard to define as odd perspective changes in the drawings confuse size issues.

    Implications of the Equipment

    • Fighting relatively close (making grappling a useful adjunct)
    • Hitting and thrusting are useful
    • Buckler needed to defend the hand and arm. Not normally used to defend body separately from the sword
    • Buckler used to deflect and control opponents sword rather than trap the point
    • Strikes can be delivered with great force.

    General Fighting Characteristics

    • Fighting is aggressive, fast, and lethal. Killing is primarily (but not always) with thrusts.
    • At close quarters grappling is used to bind the opponent for a strike.
    • Footwork is very important in this fast moving style. However, the stylised drawings do not provide an adequate indication of foot or body movements (though they supply detailed views of the complex hand positions). Wagner and Hand have found that 16th C foot movements generally work well with the style, and some illustrations suggest similarity in form. Generally the footwork is illustrated as being conducted on the balls of the feet, possibly as a result of the poor traction associated with the leather soles on medieval turn-shoes. [4]

    Basic Principles

    • If the sword arm or hand is exposed it should be cut or hit. The buckler covers the sword hand and arm (and the buckler hand and arm) at all times unless the opponent’s sword is completely bound or unless the sword arm is out of reach of the opponent’s sword. The buckler can be rotated across the forearm so that it is nearly always between the sword arm and the opponent’s sword.
    • Aggressive control of opponents blade through binds:
      • Four types of sword binds (with combinations).
      • bind to left
      • bind to right
      • underbind (falling under the sword)
      • overbind
      • overbind to the right (illustrated left below) provides most possibilities, followed by underbind to the right (against a right handed opponent) (illustrated right below)


    • I.33 repeatedly indicates that failure to bind should be met with an attack - a hit or thrust
    • Attack by binding the sword arm
      • the shield knock (“schiltschlac”) (illustrated below)


    • on the line:  the Tread Through (“durchtritt”)
    • off the line: StabKnock (“stichslac”)


    • The manual says it has seven wards (“custodia”)(and even supplies a latin poem to aid in remembering what they are). The number seven had great religious and numerological significance at the time. In fact the system has at least two or three additional wards (depending on how you count them) that are not included in the count. All these wards are starting positions which are “loaded” for attack, i.e. they clearly predispose the attacker to a particular type of attack (exceptions: Longpoint and Walpurgis Ward).
    • Each ward has one or more counters (“contrarium, obsessio, obsedeo, obsessor”). These counter positions block the major possibilities of the corresponding ward and can open attack possibilities. As wards can counter wards, and attacks can me made from counter positions the differences between counters and wards is subtle. Interestingly, I.33 assumes that when faced with the standard counter to a ward the attacker will not be so foolish as to attack with the obvious movement that flows from that ward.
    • Speed is important. The attacker needs to move into a ward and attack before his opponent can nullify the potential with his counter.

    The Wards

    The First Ward “Underarm”

    • Perhaps the most commonly depicted ward in I.33. A good defensive and offensive ward
    • Has the potential to lead to powerful strike to the right side of opponent. Not the favoured option.
    • Can lead to falling under the sword followed by shield knock or stab knock
    • Has the potential to lead to an overbind on the right.
    • Counters:  Half Shield (very common in I.33), Crutch, Walpurgis, and Priest’s Special Longpoint.

    The Second Ward “Right Shoulder”

    • Can lead to powerful forehand blows. Useful opening move.
    • Can lead to overbind on the left, but this is unstable.
    • Counters: Right Cover, Half-Shield or Priest’s Special Longpoint.

    The Third Ward “Left Shoulder”

    • Can generate powerful strikes from the left directed above the opponent’s shoulder
    • Can rotate the blade around the opponents defences and strike at the right side of the body
    • Counters: Left Cover, Half Shield, Priest’s Special Longpoint

    The Fourth Ward “Vom Tag”

    • Has the potential of offering heavy blows from above (Vom Tag = “from the roof”)
    • Counters: Underarm, Half-Shield,  Priest’s Special Longpoint

    The Fifth Ward “Nebenhut or Longtail”

    • I.33 recommends either a thrust from the left, or using the buckler to block the opponent’s sword, an approach followed by a strike overarm from above and to the right.
    • Counters: Half-shield, Tail-Cover, Priest’s Special Longpoint

    The Sixth Ward “Pflug”

    • Primary attack from Pflug (=the plough) is the thrust from the left
    • Counter: Half-shield

    The Seventh Ward “Longpoint” (“Langort”)

    • I.33 does not recommend Longpoint as a starting ward but indicates that all attacks pass through Longpoint as a stance and so responses to it should be well practiced. The author of I.33 indicated that Longpoint is the stance often adopted by what he describes condescendingly as the “ordinary fencer”.
    • Longpoint can be high, low, or in a middle orientation.
    • Little offensive potential in Longpoint
    • The appropriate counter to Longpoint is simply to bind the blade.
    • There is a further minor variation of Longpoint described in I.33, this is Fiddlebow (“vidilpoge “) (illustrated below). In Fiddlebow the sword rests across the forearm of the buckler arm.

    • Wagner and Hand interpret Fiddlebow as an invitation to attack through Middle Longpoint. Should the attacker thrust in this way, the defender can sword parry and overbind on the right or he can grasp the attackers sword with his buckler hand, which has the potential of removing the sword from the attacker’s hand..

    Additional I.33 Wards

    Ward “Priest’s Special Longpoint” (“specificatum langcort sacerdotis”)

    • This is clearly a separate ward and does not resemble Longpoint. Here the sword foot is forward, with the sword on the left side pointing backwards and down, but with the knuckles upwards. The buckler is held well back to avoid entangling the sword.
    • Most of the classic moves can be done from this ward. It is easy to fall under the sword, perform a stabknock from the left, and can be used to counter virtually all other wards. Wagner and Hand suggests it is the most versatile and useful of the I.33 wards.
    • Counters: Half Shield, Special Cover, Priest’s Special Longpoint

    Ward “The Walpurgis Ward or Priet’s Second Special Ward” (“specificata custodia secunda sacerdotis”)

    • Introduced by a new character “Walpurgis”. A woman dressed in upper middle class clothing of the late 13th century.
    • Wagner and Hand speculate that the introduction of a female character may be an allusion to the fact that this ward seems withdrawn and unaggressive (therefore a female type of ward), by analogy with the later work of Fiore and his ward the “posta di donna”.
    • Very strong defensive ward. Most attacks can result in simple counter attacks as there is little opportunity to bind the sword or the buckler (which is sitting vertically, at an angle to the opponent, in front of the midline and high near the shoulder)
    • There is an invitation to attack the left shoulder which an easily be met with an overbind to the left or a stab knock from the right.


    Half Shield

    Crutch (“krucke”)

    Right Cover

    Left Cover

    Tail Cover

    Special Cover


    Grapples considered in I.33 include grasping the blade (not illustrated), and grasping the opponent’s forearm(s). A more extended sequence is shown as a defence against a shield knock.

    Adapting I.33 to an SCA Rapier Context

    The different nature of the swords employed in SCA fencing and I.33, together with the limitation on hitting an opponent (or grappling) limit the scope of I.33 to SCA fencing. Nonetheless, a substantial component can make the transition and will provide a very effective and different style.

    I.33 is a very aggressive style designed for fast movement and close fighting. It is in many ways a marked contrast to late 16th C rapier fencing. The emphasis in I.33 is on aggressive attack by controlling the opponent’s sword, forcing this offline and then thrusting into the opponent’s head or body. Such attacking movements are often associated with movement of the body offline, usually to the outside of the opponent’s sword hand. . The buckler is used as an adjunct to the sword and has little role to play as a separate defensive weapon. Standing back, trapping the opponent’s thrust with the buckler and then thrusting at an opening is a common 16th C rapier strategy which is quite opposed to the philosophy of I.33.  With the type of sword used for I.33 fine point control was not possible nor particularly useful. I.33 deflects the opponent’s sword and sword arm with forceful and rapid blows and parries.

    While fibreglass blades often only possess simple cross quillons they are very different from an I.33 blade in weight and length. Some of the movements in I.33 would not be possible with a 40” blade. Similarly, forceful shield knocks directed at a simple fibreglass sword’s hand grip may be illegal under SCA rules. However, such shield knocks would be appropriate and legal if the opponent carries a sword with a basket hilt. Certainly overbinds, shield knocks and stab knocks provide new and useful tools for the historical fencer.

    I.33 provides an opportunity to see a very different philosophy of fencing. It provides different lines of attack which are not usual in rapier fencing (e.g. the stab knock from the left) and empahsize the importance of deflecting and controlling the opponent’s blade and sword hand. This fast moving aggressive style also emphasizes rapid closing and the use of the buckler and sword in a forceful and controlling way.

    I.33 and the Heavy Fighter

    I.33 is contemporary with the type of fencing upon which SCA Heavy fighting is based. Indeed, it may be the closest period source to SCA Heavy fighting. However, it has several very significant differences which will limit its relevance. Targeting the hand, a basic technique in I.33, is both prohibited in SCA Heavy and usually protected against by a basket hilt. The large size of the shield in SCA Heavy and its mounting on the arm makes many of the sword movements of I.33 impractical.  The presence of body armour may make many of the thrusts, unless delivered with considerable force, ineffective.

    The idea of binding the opponents blade, the thrust from the left, and some of the starting wards may have some relevance to SCA Heavy fighting. I.33 becomes more useful when a fighter has lost the use of their shield and must engage in sword parries. In this context many of the I.33 ideas retain their value.


    I.33 should not be seen as a primitive style of fencing. It is a complex, elegant and very efficient style built around the weapons in use at the time. Much of it can inform rapier fencing, and to a lesser extent Heavy fighting, with new possibilities.


    [1] Forgeng (2003) The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship. A translation with illustrations can also be found online from Dieter Bachmann at

    [2] Wagner and Hand 2003

    [3] John Jordan 2004

    [4] Wagner and Hand 2003


    Bachmann, Dieter (2003). I.33. online at

    Jordan, John (2004) A Partial, Possible Interpretation of the I.33 Manuscript. online at

    Forgeng, J.L. (2003). The medieval art of swordsmanship. A facimile and translation of the world’s oldest personal combat treatise. Chivalry Bookshelf: California.

    Wagner, P and Hand, S. (2003). Medieval sword and shield. The combat system of Royal Armouries MS I.33. Chivalry Bookshelf: California

    Last updated on 8 Apr 2011, 22:21:29.