Royal Armouries Ms. I.33

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fol. 32r showing the priest in first ward and in schutzen, and Walpurgis remaining in her 'special ward' on the right shoulder
fol. 4v showing the student first in krucke and then gripping the priest's arms with his shield arm

Royal Armouries Ms. I.33 (also known as "the Tower manuscript" because it was kept in the Tower of London during 1950-1996; also referred to as British Museum No. 14 E iii, No. 20, D. vi) is the earliest known surviving European fechtbuch (combat manual), and one of the oldest surviving martial arts manuals dealing with armed combat worldwide.[1] It was created around 1300 in Franconia and It remained in a Franconian monastery (presumably in Eastern Franconia) until the mid-16th century. It is first mentioned by Henricus a Gunterrodt in his De veriis principiis artis dimicatoriae of 1579, where he reports it to have been acquired (looted) by a friend of his, one Johannes Herbart of Würzburg when serving in the force of Albert Alcibiades, Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach in the campaigns of 1552/3. From the 17th century, the manuscript was part of the ducal library of Gotha (signature Cod. Membr. I. no. 115) until it disappeared in World War II and resurfaced at a Sotheby's auction in 1950, where it was purchased by the Royal Armouries. The author of the treatise may be a cleric called Lutegerus (viz. a Latinised form of the German proper name Liutger).

The 32 parchment folia (64 pages) of the treatise expound a martial arts system of defensive and offensive techniques between a master and a pupil, referred to as sacerdos (priest) and scolaris (student), each armed with a sword and a buckler, drawn in ink and watercolour and accompanied with Latin text, interspersed with German fencing terms. On the last two pages, the pupil is replaced by a woman called Walpurgis. The date of the manuscript is variously given as late 13th century or as early 14th century, with a consensus range of about 1290-1320.[2] The Latin text of the manuscript is written in a clerical hand, using the various sigla which were standard at the time (but which fell out of use at the end of the medieval period; an image from the manuscript (the second image on fol 26r) was copied into Codex Guelf 125.16.Extrav. in the 1600s by a draughtsman who under his drawing stated that he could not decipher the Latin text).


The fencing system is based on a number of wards (custodie) which are answered by defensive postures (obsessiones). The wards are numbered 1 to 7 on the first two pages and supplemented by various 'special' wards later in the text. The seven basic wards are:

  1. under the arm (sub brach)
  2. right shoulder (humero dextrali)
  3. left shoulder (humero sinistro)
  4. head (capiti)
  5. right side (latere dextro)
  6. breast (pectori)
  7. 'long-point' (langort)

The German terms appearing in the Latin text are the following:

  • albersleiben (possibly the fool's guard position)
  • durchtreten, durchtritt ('stepping through')
  • halpschilt ('half shield', one of the obsessiones)
  • krucke ('crutch', a defensive position)
  • langort ('long-point', may be either a custodia or an obsessio)
  • nucken ('nudge', a specific attack)
  • schiltslac ('shield-blow')
  • schutzen ('protect')
  • stich ('stab')
  • stichschlac ('stab-blow')
  • vidilpoge ('fiddle-bow', a specific custodia)

Sporadic dialectal elements in these terms (notably nucken and halpschilt) suggest a location of composition consistent with the reported discovery in a Franconian monastery in the wider area of Würzburg.


  1. ^ There are some passing references to armed combat in ancient treatises on warfare, e.g. in Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus. There are also long lists of weapons in early medieval Indian texts such as the Agni Purana, but no systematic treatise on fighting technique. Technical descriptions of Chinese martial arts which survive from the Han Dynasty (such as the Six Chapters of Hand Fighting, 1st century) are on unarmed combat exclusively. The 13th-century Indian Malla Purana is also on unarmed combat. Technical descriptions of armed fighting in Asia date to the 16th century or later (e.g. the 16th-century Chinese Ji Xiao Xin Shu, the 17th-century Japanese The Book of Five Rings).
  2. ^ The manuscript is dated to the "late 13th century" in the description by Royal Armouries. Alphonse Lhotsky in a handwritten note suggested the late 13th century and identified the scribe as a secretary to the bishop of Würzburg.


  • Jeffrey L. Singman (now Forgeng), "The medieval swordsman: a 13th century German fencing manuscript", in Royal Armouries Yearbook 2, pp. 129-136, 1997.
  • Jeffrey L. Forgeng, The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship, A Facsimile & Translation of the World's Oldest Personal Combat Treatise, published jointly with the Royal Armouries at Leeds, The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2003; ISBN 1-891448-38-2
  • Paul Wagner & Stephen Hand, Medieval Sword And Shield: The Combat System of Royal Armouries MS I.33, The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2003; ISBN 1-891448-43-9
  • Stephen Hand, "Re-Interpreting Aspects of the Sword & Buckler System in Royal Armouries MS I.33", in Spada 2: Anthology of Swordsmanship, pp. 91-109, The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005; ISBN 1-891448-35-8
  • Franck Cinato & André Surprenant, Le livre de l’art du combat. Liber de arte dimicatoria. Édition critique du Royal Armouries MS. I.33, collection Sources d'Histoire Médiévale n°39, CNRS Editions, Paris, 2009. ISBN 978-2-271-06757-9
  • Herbert Schmidt, Schwertkampf Band 2, Der Kampf mit Schwert und Buckler, Wieland Verlag, ISBN 978-3-938711-29-3

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