The earliest martial arts manuscript known is a sword & buckler text from Germany, 1300 AD, known today as Royal Armouries Manuscript I.33. I.33 is a medieval fencing instructional manual that makes key techniques of Europe’s medieval men-at-arms available to us today. The manuscript shows a priest giving combat instruction to a young man – and also to a young woman. I.33 details a system of combat using a short single-handed arming-sword and a small buckler or hand-shield, roughly the size of a dinner plate. Contrary to popular belief, medieval swords in general were light and well-balanced tools, and swords of this type generally weighed between 2.5 and three pounds.
MS I.33 is a manuscript of 32 folios (64 pages) detailing martial training sequences between a priest, who is the teacher and is referred to as “sacerdos”, and a student, referred to variously as student, disciple, youth or client (scholaris, discipulus, iuvenis, clientulum). It is written in Latin with some fencing-specific loanwords from German. The manuscript may or may not be complete: there are places ruled for text which contain no text, and we do not know if there was additional material preceding the first folio or following the last; the text begins without preamble, which may or may not have been intended.
Folios two through thirty-one of the manuscript shows two instructional sequences on each side of the folio (verso or recto), with each sequence showing the priest and scholar opposed to each other, and performing a specific action. They are accompanied by descriptive text that clarifies and amplifies the actions being performed. The manuscript does not depict “fighting” per se: the priest teaches the student use of the weapons in a structured lesson format, and the text makes frequent reference to the specifics of instruction. The narrative voice often employs phrases such as “…this is adopted here by the priest as an example to his students “ (que duciter hic per sacerdotum suis scolaribus in exemplum), and often when the priest is struck, the text indicates that he has allowed this as an example to his student.
The manuscript is systematically organized into specific positions of the weapon and body called custodie and obsessione – in essence, two classes of guard positions, with specific qualities (this is similar to the stabile, instabile, and pulsative division of Fiore’s poste; into specific classes of actions, as well as combat principles. The first folio (recto and verso) details seven custodie or basic fighting positions, and comments that these positions are common to all men, even those ignorant of the arts of combat. Almost all combat principles covered in the manuscript are laid out in folios two through eight of the manuscript in the material covering prima custodia (the first guard position shown in the manuscript) and amplified through the six subsequent custodie as depicted in the remaining twenty-four folios. All of the remaining sequences, at one point or another, refer back to the principles established in the plays of prima custodia . Every instructional sequence is marked at the start by a cross drawn on to the page, crosses that are very similar to those drawn in medieval prayer-books, which were used to mark reading in the text, and which the priest would physically bless before reading. These careful organizational methods and practices employed in the creation of MS I.33 are typical of the ordering and analyzing qualities of medieval scholasticism.
A detailed examination of the manuscript and the variety of plays within it shows that the fundamental concerns of the authors of I.33 go beyond mere plays or techniques, but delve into fundamental principles of fencing and other martial arts, eastern and western. These principles have been expressed in a variety of ways over the centuries, but I.33 is our first look at them in Western European culture.
I.33 does what any good instructional martial arts text ought to do: it uses a “play” or technique to express a concept that can be applied in other situations – in other techniques in the treatise, or in new situations not detailed in the treatise. The good student learns not just the play but the lesson contained within it, and the good teacher is conscious of the lesson contained within the play and the necessity of transmitting this concept, rather than simply a mechanical action. Students trained in this fashion become fencers and martial artists who can think quickly in the context of a fight.
For further information on various European martial traditions, visit the Traditions page.