The Oldest Book on Fencing

Ms. I.33, detail of Fol 2 V showing the Scholar (left) and the Priest (right)
Ms. I.33, detail of Fol 2 V showing the Scholar (left) and the Priest (right)

This German manuscript is the earliest known example of a European martial-arts manual, or Fechtbuch. It is about 700 years old and depicts a style of fencing with sword and buckler.

The main characters in the illustrations are called the Priest and the Scholar. In the last pages a third character, a lady called Walpurgis steps in. It is written in Latin, but uses some German technical terms.

The manuscript has belonged to several collections in Germany and has been seized in battle at least once. It has been badly damaged in several places and there are certainly pages missing.

We don’t know who the manuscript was written by, or for, or even why. Although battered, the manuscript is an example of the attempts of people in the past to record and pass on their knowledge.

But how did an old German book on Fencing arrive in Leeds?

Royal Armouries’ Manuscript Ms. I.33

Journeys are not just limited to people: objects, thoughts, ideas and knowledge all travel from place to place, and as the pace of technological change increases those journeys become ever further and faster. However, not so long ago the only way for knowledge to travel was physically; either in somebody’s mind or written down on paper or parchment. One particular manuscript in the Royal Armouries’ collection typifies this kind of physical journey that knowledge can take, and shows how that knowledge can spread and perpetuate over time.

Manuscript I.33 is the oldest known surviving example of a Fechtbuch, or Fight Book. These were instructional treatises which taught various aspects of combat and self defence techniques; this one depicts a system of fencing with the sword and buckler. The system includes seven basic guards – referred to as custodia, which are opposed by counter-attacks known as obsessiones or besieging’s. The manuscript in its current form contains over 36 different sequences or plays, some of which are longer and more complicated than others, and some are now incomplete. It was produced in Germany, and although it uses some German technical terminology it is largely written in Latin.

No other manuscript covers the use of sword and buckler as fully, or sequentially as I.33 does. It is a highly evolved system of fencing, clearly with a long tradition behind it before it was set down in this manuscript. As well as depicting a highly skilled system of fencing, the manuscript also conveys that system in a very advanced, even modern way; using a combination of sequenced images and explanatory text to assist in teaching. Although the manuscript alone could not teach you how to fight with a sword and buckler from scratch, it certainly gives a good overview of the system it represents.

The characters depicted are described in the text as the Priest and the Scholar, with the Priest taking the lead role in most of the sequences. In the last couple of pages, the Scholar is replaced by a woman named Walpurgis. A close scrutiny of the text reveals that the surviving manuscript was the work of three scribes, and several artists were responsible for the illustrations. This small workforce was presumably guided by a single author, but we do not know who he was.

Detail of Fol 32 R, showing Walpurgis and the Priest
Detail of Fol 32 R, showing Walpurgis and the Priest

History

Over the years the manuscript had a rather chequered history. It has had several different homes, and has been a spoil of war at least once. It has been damaged in several places; burned, scribbled on, graffitied, disbound, and in its current condition there are certainly pages missing. It’s first known home was a monastery in Franconia in Bavaria, but as it is not recorded there until the mid 16th century, it is probable that it was not produced there.

It was taken from the monastery by a soldier named Johannes Herbart von Wurzburg, who served as Fencing Master to Friedrich Wilhelm, the duke of Saxe-Weimar, during a military campaign in the 1550s. He presumably recognized the manuscript as being of interest, and took it when the monastery was looted. He even went as far as signing his name on one of the pages, before passing the manuscript to his master.

Fol 7 R, signature of Johannes Herbart von Wurzburg
Fol 7 R, signature of Johannes Herbart von Wurzburg

From Friedrich Wilhelm the manuscript passed into the hands of the dukes of Saxe-Gotha, and it is listed in 18th and 19th century catalogues of the Gotha ducal library. Although the manuscript can be identified in several academic works from the 16th to the 20th centuries, it remained largely obscure until 1936, when it featured in an exhibition of German Medieval sports, related to the Berlin Olympics.

During the last few weeks of World War Two the manuscript, along with several others, was taken to Coburg, Bavaria for safekeeping. In 1949 the manuscript was offered for sale to the Bavarian State Library, who declined to purchase it. It was offered for sale again at Sotheby’s in London in 1950, and there it was bought by the Tower Armouries, and entered into our collection.

The Armouries bought the manuscript for the sum of £500.00., a not inconsequential amount of money in those days. The auction catalogue describes the manuscript as being South German, dating from the first half of the 15th Century. Our scholarship has since moved on, and using the artistic style and the type of script used as clues, we now view the manuscript as belonging to the early 14th Century; around the 1320s or 30s.

The manuscript lived quietly in the archives at the Tower, largely unremarked and unremarkable, although it was briefly mentioned in the 1982 exhibition catalogue Treasures from the Tower of London.

In 1996 the bulk of the Royal Armouries’ collections – I.33 included – moved from the Tower of London to our new Museum in Leeds, and it was in the early 1990s that the manuscript came to the attention of one Jeffrey Forgeng – then of the University of Michigan, and the rest as they say, is history.

Jeffrey transcribed the text and first published an article about the manuscript in the Royal Armouries Yearbook vol. 2 of 1997, and in 2003 published the first English language translation of I.33; with revised editions being published in 2013 and again in 2018.

Since Jeffrey’s first publication brought the manuscript to a wider audience, an enormous amount of ink has been sacrificed at its altar. Many works now exist covering every possible aspect of the study and interpretation of I.33 – and there will doubtless be many more to come in the future. It is interesting to note that the re-emergence of I.33 has coincided with the revival of interest in European Martial Arts, both as practical and academic disciplines. This may not be a coincidence, and it is likely that the 2003 facsimile of I.33, really helped to kick-start this revival.

Of course, in this day and age we do not need to rely only on printed works to disseminate and share knowledge. The revival of European Martial Arts has certainly been assisted by the technological and information revolutions of the early 21st Century, and there are a host of videos and online content relating to I.33 – albeit of varying quality – which all provide different opinions and interpretations on the manuscript; there are probably more interpretations of the techniques than there are actual pages.

In 2012 I.33 was gently taken apart and rebound into a new, limp-vellum binding. This allows the pages to fall open more easily and is much better for the continued preservation of the manuscript than the old binding it had; which in turn was not original. The binding that we inherited is made of reconstituted cardboard, and dates to the late 19th or early 20th Century. We have of course kept it and preserve it as part of the manuscript’s long history. In this new format the manuscript was loaned to the Wallace Collection in London, to take part in an exhibition linked to the London Olympics (hopefully a less controversial Games than the last one she was at!)

The new limp vellum binding
The new limp vellum binding

Legacy

Ms. I.33 is a hugely popular thing, with a global following of scholars and practitioners keen to discover it’s secrets. As for us at the Royal Armouries, we acknowledge that I.33 is one of our star items – possibly the most well-known object in our whole enormous collection – quite a feather in the Library’s cap! We continue to publicise and promote it, and try to make Walpurgis, The Priest and The Scholar earn their keep. The facsimile edition published in 2018 is the best selling book the Royal Armouries has ever published by far. It features in a recent publication Treasures of the Royal Armouries: A Panoply of Arms, and a German translation of Jeffrey’s 2018 edition was brought out in 2021 – neatly bringing the circle to a close.

Fol 1 R, showing four of the seven custodia. Some of the damage to the manuscript (burn marks and patches) can also be seen
Fol 1 R, showing four of the seven custodia. Some of the damage to the manuscript (burn marks and patches) can also be seen

So, just what is the appeal of this scruffy little manuscript of uncertain origin to today’s audience? We all have our own reasons for falling in love with it, but I think that there are two main reasons: I.33 is the oldest known surviving fencing manual of European origin; but more important I think is that there is an unperishable air of mystery about Walpurgis and her friends that all of our scholarship has yet to penetrate.

We still don’t know exactly when or where the manuscript was written, by whom it was written, for whom or why. What is it for – and just what is a young lady doing having a sword fight with a priest? Come to that; who is Walpurgis? Ultimately we might never know the answers to these questions for certain and that, for me, is the crux: I.33 reminds us that no matter how much we know about medieval history, social and martial culture, there is still so much more that we have yet to learn.

The journey will continue…