By Michael Magallenes
Free Scholar - Bankeside Schoole of Defense
It has been the opinion of most modern medievalist is that during the Middle Ages the art of combat was “rough untutored fighting”, and subsequently paid little attention to the subject. During the Middle Ages personal combat had been at the core of European life. The re-discovery of MS I.33 changes this modern thinking of brutish medieval European combat, and transforms it into a sophisticated European Martial Art. At nearly 700 years old, MS I.33 is the foundation of this sophisticated system of personal combat that not only has stood the test of time as Europe’s oldest personal combat treatise, but can be found in more than 10 other European treatises that have been created since the mid 14th century¹.
Unlike most treatises, we do not know who authored this manuscript. When the manuscript was taken to the Royal Armories at Leeds in England, it was given the catalog number of I.33. MS I.33 was first found in a Franconian monastery during the mid 16th century possibly by Johannes Herbart while he was involved with Hohenzollern Margrave Albrecht Alcibiades’ (1522-68) and his campaign of violence and destruction, where monasteries were often the targets. Herbart gave the manuscript to his fencing pupil, Frederick William, Duke of Saxony-Weimar (1562-1602). The manuscript finally left the hands of Frederick William’s family when it passed to his son-in-law Duke Ernst around 1672². The manuscript resurfaced several times since then including during 1860 when it was examined by martial arts historian, Karl Wassmanndorf. His commentary is still attached to the binding. It resurfaced again in 1950 at a Sotheby’s auction and was purchased by the Royal Armories where it rests today.
Originally thought to be created in the 15th century³, but after much further investigation, it is now understood to be created in the late 13th to early 14th century. The main point defending this opinion is type of clothing worn, as well as the hand writing and artistic styles lead directly to this much older time period⁴. The manuscript was originally written in 3 different hand styles (A,B,C), leading some modern historians to suspect the possibility of a collaboration. The majority of the writing is in Latin, but there is some text in German.
Rebuking of Pope Pius II on the monastic discipline on page 1.
Although we are uncertain of the true identity of these authors, we do know that the majority of the 64 page manuscript was written between the A hand and the C hand⁵. The A hand author began the manuscript and in fact authored the majority of the first 17 pages. The C hand then took over and authored the majority of pages 18-50, and ultimately finished the manuscripts last 4 pages including the insertion of the woman Walpurgis⁶. It is most interesting to this observer that most of the corrections were made in the B hand.
There are 2 other hand writing styles (D,E) documented within MS I.33. The E hand is the signature of Johannes Herbart, which can still be found very prominent of page 13 of the manuscript. The reason he signed this page is speculative. The final hand writing style in MS I.33 is the D hand and that of Aeneas Sylvius (1405-1464) Pope Pius II. In his rebuking of the monastic indiscipline, Pope Pius II, wrote on the first page, Non audet Stygius Pluto tentare quod aude[t] Effrenis monachus, plenaque dolis anus “The devil of hell does not dare attempt that which the wanton monk dares, and the old women full of wiles.” There other markings of the manuscript as well, possibly from a child where some of the bucklers are scribbled over and occasional doodles on several pages on the manuscript. There are even mustaches drawn on the figures on pages 36 and 37.
Signature of Johannes Herbart on page 13 of MS I.33.
The first reference to MS I.33 came almost from its very finding by Johannes Herbart. A close friend to Herbart, Hierich von Gunterrodt, wrote a pamphlet “On the True Foundations of the Art of Combat” in Wittenburg 1579, noted the manuscript as “…a uniquely ancient source.”
“…I have chanced upon a very old book with text and pictures composed by aristocratic monks. For just as many great emperors and dukes, toward the end of life, would betake themselves to a monastery, where at leisure they often recorded the battles in which they had triumphed and when they were defeated and considered the causes why they had been able to win, so that they might advise their posterity in writings; so also noblemen of the past, who were generally mighty and experienced in both foot and horse combat, at length as seasoned man ready for retirement would choose the monastic life; yet because of their accustomed work they could not live in idleness, but periodically engaged in this exercise to preserve their health; so it is not surprising that they should have discovered these true foundations…”⁷
Page 36 shows coloring over original picture and mustaches drawn on the priest and scholar.
Although there is strong evidence as to the manuscripts monastic origin, there are also compelling arguments against the monastic theory. First and foremost, being found in a monastery does not mean that it was created there. There is also strong evidence that the manuscript might have been of clerical origin. There is nowhere in the text that it mentions monks, but only priest and student, which was much more apt for clerical vernacular. In fact, on page 4 the verse states, “Here the student counter binds and steps; he should execute a Shield-Strike. Or with his left hand let him envelope the arms of the cleric.”⁸ Even the clothing worn is generically clerical rather than specifically monastic. The female presence of Walpurgis is not as plausible for the time near a monastery. There is evidence of clergy carrying swords and bucklers despite the prohibition of the practice⁹, and violence of the time was a severe breach of the monastic discipline¹⁰.
These Cathedrals that housed these clerics also gave rise to the German universities. The study of personal combat could very well have been part of this culture. With the German passion for fencing and personal combat, Heidelburg University (1385) forbid fencing among students 4 years after its founding, suggesting fencing was well entrenched by then¹¹. Other notable priests known to be involved in martial arts treatises are: Hanko Döbringer with Liechtenauer (1389) and Johannes Lecküchner (late 15th century). Walpurgis could also be much easier to explain if created by clerics, since they had much more contact with laypeople.
The woman Walpurgis (left) on page 63
Another possibility is that the manuscript could have very easily migrated into a monastery over a 200 year period or by an owner who in later years entered into monastic life. This was a very common occurrence for aging knights and men-at-arms of the time.
How it found its way into the Franconian monastery may never truly be known. We will never fully understand the complete text and intention of MS I.33. The technical terms, concepts and most importantly the context can only be inferred. Describing physical disciplines in words are difficult at best, and translating ancient text into modern physical terms is even more difficult. We need to bear in mind that there are verbal limitations to describing physical motion.
For those that have viewed or read this manuscript and found it to be non-practical, incomplete or inaccessible, they need to realize that like most manuscripts, MS I.33, is not intended to teach a martial art, but is a by-product of the practice. Although MS I.33 is a very complete combat system there are many omissions and general practices that the authors of MS I.33 did not include. The reasoning and usage of the buckler is never fully explained in the text of the system. The buckler is never used independently of the sword and almost always lies between the sword-hand and the opponent’s sword and never explained. It is presumable that men-at-arms were trained in this style of fighting, as strikes to the sword-hand are generally debilitating in combat thus giving way to the need for an explanation. MS I.33 also never discussed sword basics such as foot work, proper handling of the sword or buckler and body positioning or balance.
The MS I.33 system of fighting has enjoyed a long and successful history in German combat. MS I.33 had also bled into other styles of German sword fighting suggesting a broader sense of MS I.33. Liechtenauer’s (1389) Longsword combat system uses some of MS I.33 Longpoint positions (langort or High Longpoint and alber or Low Longpoint also known as the guard of the fool). In fact the MS I.33 system of sword and buckler is an extension of longsword combat using the buckler to protect the sword-hand and ultimately increase the range of the blade to that roughly of a longsword¹².
The possible collaboration of 3 authors suggests that the MS I.33 system fighting was more widely used than just by Franconian monks. The obvious omission of sword basics and the use of the term “ordinary combatants” on page 6 show that there was an existing organized combat system in affect well before the authors began scribbling this treatise. Other combat treatises, such as Liechtenauer used some of the same verbiage as MS I.33, also proves that the theories and techniques documented in MS I.33 were well entrenched within the German combat system. MS I.33 may not be the backbone of European Martial Arts, but this literary work of art shows us a much more sophisticated style of European combat and directly contradicts the modern historian thought that European combat in the Middle Ages was clumsy and brutish.
¹ Liechtenauer 1389; On the True Foundations of the Art of Combat; Augsburg, Universitätsbibliothek Codex; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliotek Mscr. Dresd.; Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliotek Codex Vindob; Galdiatoria, Krakow, Bibliotek Jagiellonska; Queen Mary’s Psalter; New Paleographic Society 1903-12; Rome, Biblioteca dell’ Academica Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana; Meyer 1570; also some likeness to Fiore’s posta di donna with Walpurgis’ initial guard
² The manuscript was given to Frederick William’s daughter Elizabeth Sophia who was wife to Duke Ernst the Pius of Saxony-Gotha. Duke Ernst gained the possessions of Duke William when his family line died out.
³ Jakobs and Ükert 1838
⁴ For comparative illustrastions of the style of costume, cf. Davenport 1948: 165-241
⁵ A-hand: 1-3b, 4-17, 51-56
B-hand: 3c, 33b-34a, 35
C-hand: 18-33a, 34b, 36-50, 57-64
⁶ Walpurgis is a 13th to 14th century woman that inserted to the manuscript on pages 63 and 64
⁷ Gunterrodt 1579: dig. C3v-C4r
⁸ Several references to the word “cleri” or cleric; and no mention of the word “monachi” or monk
⁹ Theory taken from the “Canterbury Tales”
¹⁰ Theory taken from “On the Monastic Tradition”, Brown 1964
¹¹ “On the Later Tradition”, Emerson 1936
¹² “Medieval Sword and Shield”, Wagner and Hand 2003: pg 65
Jeffrey L. Forgeng (2003). The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship: A facsimile & translation of Europe’s Oldest Personal Combat Treatise Royal Armouries MS. I.33, Union City, Chivalry Bookshelf
Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand (2003). Medieval Sword and Shield: The Combat System of Royal Armouries MS I.33, Union City, Chivalry Bookshelf