As of July last year I was certified as severely sight impaired, in old terms, legally blind. Part of this means I’m no longer able to read printed text. As a result, I decided to OCR some stuff so it could be read via Text to Speech (TTS), but of course that doesn’t work with the pictures. One of the books I am converting is ‘Medieval Sword and Shield’ by Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand, based upon the I.33 manuscript dating from c.1300 and held by the Royal Armories. Writing a description of their photographs, made me take a closer look at better quality images of the manuscript than their book reproduces, and as a result brought to light quite a few deviations. These deviations may well come from practice, but they are worth noting, and the descriptions below also probide a textual version of the pictures.
The manuscript presents seven wards, and has an eighth, half-shield, which is presented more as a defence and not as a ward per se. As described by the original text, translated: Seven guards there are, beginning with under the arm, Give the next to the right shoulder, and the third to the left, To the head the fourth, and to the right side the fifth, To the breast the sixth, and longpoint is your last.
Personally, I refer to sword and shield, rather than right or left, as it’s a bit more automatic, allowing for left handers and those who have a tendency to muddle their sides.
An aspect that has become clear is that the modern authors are far happier having their guards closer to a more generally exposed body, indicating more reliance on late defensive engagement and parries. There is certainly evidence that modern activities have sped up our reflexes and perception. Additionally, it seems likely that modern eyesight will generally be better than those of our ancestors before corrective lenses and treatment for other eye conditions, despite their advantage of more outdoor time. As the years have progressed I have certainly completely dropped purposeful late engagement: I simply no longer have the visual acuity to wait. Now I generally aim to make engagement as early and as far away from me as possible. I have yet to look at other manuals with this question in mind, and I will be interested to see if the trend is maintained.
THE MANUSCRIPT figures have bent legs, with the torso sloped such that the head is forward and the bottom back. This leads to most of the wards covering the head whilst the body is pulled back out of the way. This is very reminiscent of Fabris. It is virtually impossible to be sure which leg is forward due to the way the images are drawn, but when one shoulder is forwards it seems more likely the same leg will lead. However, the more I look at the wards, the less I think which leg is forward is immediately important, and I have done all the wards both ways. Certainly changing the forward leg alters range and immediate fookwork options, and it may well become clear in the later combat descriptions which leg should be forward for any given opening attack.
In most cases the descriptions of the manuscript descriptions are an amalgamation of several images, all of which have slight variances.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS are very upright in stance, with what appear to be almost straight legs, which probably explains why the hand positions are often lower to cover the increased amount of the body which is a viable target. This is a general difference between the manuscript and photographs throughout. Where this makes a particular difference, this is noted. Geometrically, it does mean that the buckler in the manuscript covers more of the body in most cases, and the stance used should be borne in mind when reading/listening to each description.
Ward 1 – Underarm
THE MANUSCRIPT has the sword arm across the chest, with the hand held in front of the armpit. The sword is pointing down at about 30 to 40° under the shield arm, and points backwards. The blade is in the vertical plane. The shield arm is held back and bent so that the buckler covers the sword hand and is pointed out to the shield side. The shoulders are square, or with the sword shoulder only slightly leading the shield shoulder. This reduces the immediate range of the sword, but prevents the sword hand being moved unnoticed in front of the buckler’s protection. The sword arm is exposed.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS have the sword hand at waist height, the sword arm sloping across the chest, with the bottom edge of the buckler above the sword hand and side on to the opponent, with its overall coverage exposing the top of the chest. The blade is at the same 30 to 40° angle, but the blade is in the horizontal plane. The sword is pointed directly backwards. The sword shoulder leads the shield shoulder, and the sword foot is forwards. The edge of the buckler is behind the sword arm, leaving the arm very exposed.
NOTE: The immediate difference is that the obvious manuscript attack will be a near vertical cut across the body from the hip to the opposite shoulder, whereas the photographs are set up for a lower, more horizontal cut. The manuscript perspective allows that the sword may not be directly backward, but be angled out to the side as well. This would allow the buckler to correspondingly align with the angle of the sword and provide a little more front on protection.
Ward 2 – Sword Shoulder
THE MANUSCRIPT has the shield arm extended at shoulder height with the buckler held boss forwards. The sword is rested on the sword shoulder, pointing directly backwards, or perpendicular to the angle of the body, with the blade in the vertical plane. The sword hand is opposite, and just above, the elbow of the shield arm, with the bent sword arm held in, or near, the horizontal plane at sword height. The shoulders are square. It is very similar to the default Bellatrix guard, but with the upper arm not all the way back, and hence not mechanically locked to the movement of the shoulder.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS have the shield arm extended, but slightly bent And hence just a little below shoulder height. The sword is resting on the sword shoulder, pointing backwards, but slightly down. It is unclear where the sword arm is. The shield shoulder leads the sword shoulder. The shield foot is forwards.
Ward 3 – Shield Shoulder
THE MANUSCRIPT shows the third ward slightly differently in the drawing of just the ward compared to the images where it is against an opponent. The latter drawings are more consistent with each other and the other wards. The shield arm is extended at shoulder height with the boss pointing forwards. The sword is pointing backwards on the shield side, at about ear height. The top of the sword arm is level with the shoulder, and the bottom bent across the throat, with the sword hand above the line of the top of the buckler, although well behind it, and just ahead of the head. The palm is outwards, knuckles up. The blade is in the vertical plane. The shoulders are square.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS have the shield arm extended but bent, so that the buckler covers the chest, and is of geometry closer to the body. The sword is resting on the shield shoulder, and the upper sword arm is dropped, such that the lower arm comes up across the chest behind the lowered buckler. The sword is in the horizontal plane, palm down. The sword foot is forwards, and the sword shoulder leads the shield shoulder.
Ward 4 – Head
THE MANUSCRIPT has the sword hand level with, or just above, the top of the head, over the sword shoulder. The blade is usually pointing straight backwards and the blade is in the vertical plane. The sword arm is bent, with the elbow pointing forwards. In practice the exact angle of the sword seems to depend how high the forward elbow is held and how upright the body is. One illustration shows the sword angling down behind the back, rather than near horizontal. The buckler is held back against the upper chest with the shield hand on the vertical line below the sword hand (although on the opposite side of the body). The shield is shown edge forwards and in practice is probably parallel to the chest. There is no room for it to face forwards. The sword shoulder leads the shield shoulder, and this puts the sword elbow foremost, ahead of the buckler and sword, apparently exposed.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS have the sword arm straight up and the shield arm straight out in front. The sword is thus at arm’s length above the shoulder, and raised above the head. The sword is pointing backwards with the blade in the vertical plane. The buckler is pointing forwards. The shield leg is forward and the shield shoulder leads the sword shoulder, such that the vertical sword arm is just behind the head.
NOTE: In the manuscript this ward uncharacteristically has the shield behind the leading part of the body. Usually it is placed right out in front, or directly covering the most forward body part.
The authors of the book have completely altered this ward from the manuscript’s intent. Having the shield straight out in front, does initially seems sensible, and consistent with other wards, but they have also brought the shield shoulder into the lead with it, neither of which is consistemt with the manuscript for this guard. Worse, in my view, is the straightening of the sword arm. It looks impressive, and is probably the root of their naming the ward Vom Tag, but it limits the immediate attack or defence to a downward strike within a limited range of angles. The initial bent arm of the manuscript, raised only slightly from the position in Ward 2, Sword Shoulder, still allows the same range of options down to, and beyond, the horizontal.
Ward 5 – Sword Side
THE MANUSCRIPT shows the sword arm dropped straight, but parallel with the slope of the body, such that the hand is at thigh height, just behind the leg. The sword is held almost horizontal, pointing backwards. I suspect in practice the sword also points out to the side slightly too, rather than straight back. The blade is in the vertical plane, with the palm outwards. Again, I suspect the blade may not be completely vertical. The shield arm is held straight forwards, with the buckler (usually) pointing forwards. The buckler is thus about chest height, also covering the lower face. The shield shoulder leads the sword shoulder.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS show the sword arm held straight and downwards, with the sword hand behind the hip and a bit out sideways. The sword is almost horizontal, the blade in the vertical plane, and pointing about 45° to the right and behind. The shield arm is held straight out in front, but with the arm sloping down slightly, with the buckler pointing forwards. The buckler is at chest height, but doesn’t cover the face. The shield shoulder leads the sword shoulder, and the shield leg is forwards.
Ward 6 – Breast
THE MANUSCRIPT shows the shield shoulder leading the sword shoulder. The sword arm is doubled back on itself such that the upper arm points backwards and the lower arm forwards, slightly lower, such that the hand is level with the breast. The palm is outwards, and the knuckles up. The sword is held straight forwards, blade in the vertical plane. The sword is at the same height as the shield arm, which is held straight out in front with the buckler pointing forwards. From the side the shield arm and the sword obscure each other. If the sword is long enough, the point emerges beyond the buckler with the point level with the centre of the boss.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS appear to follow the manuscript for this ward, albeit with the ever present upright stance. Much of the guard is obscured.
Ward 7 – Longpoint
THE MANUSCRIPT never shows this ward at the start of a fight, only as an intermediate or final position. It also shows it at various angles, from pointing down, through straight forwards to pointing upwards. The example shown as the ward is reminiscent of the longsword fool’s guard and is the most difficult to engage. The sword and shield arms are both held straight and perpendicular from the body, with the hands close together. The sword continues this straight line with the blade in the vertical plane. The buckler is side on, covering both hands. The sloped stance thus means that the sword is pointing downward at about 45° and also appears to leave the head apparently exposed, although still well begind the hands and buckler. The shoulders are square.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS show the sword and shield arms held straight, angled down at about 60°, with the hands close together. The sword continues this straight line with the blade in the vertical plane. The buckler is side on, covering both hands. The upright stance means the head is less individually exposed, but that other parts of the body are now also reachable. The guard is of geometry closer to the body. The shoulders are square and the sword leg is forwards.
Defensive Ward – Half-shield
THE MANUSCRIPT has both arms extended at shoulder height, with the bottom of the buckler covering the sword hand, and the top covering the horizontal line to the lower face. The sword blade is between 45° and 60° upwards towards the opponent, in the vertical plane. The shield hand is raised relative to the sword hand. The shoulders are square.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS have the hands together at waist height, arms bent, with the buckler’s boss covering the sword hand. The sword is at the same angle and in the same plane as above. The ward is of geometry much closer to the body than in the manuscript. The sword foot is forwards.
NOTE: The stance makes quite a difference to how this ward is performed. The manuscript guard is high, with much of the sword ‘too’ high. However, the sloped stance means that, disregarding the arms, the head is the closest target, whilst the torso below is progressively further from an attack. Thus, the strongest part of any guard, the hands and proximate parts of the sword, can be placed to block the only target in immediate danger. This also means that the defence can be placed geometrically as far ahead of the head as possible using extended arms.
Conversely, the book’s upright stance means that the entire head and torso are geometrically viable targets, which could be attacked underneath the guard used in the manuscript. This requires using more of the sword to cover the head and torso, dropping the hands. Geometrically this means the defence must be much closer to the body, making any defence of necessity closer and later. That isn’t good if you have poor eyesight or slow perception.