Stepping Back

Today I will look at another illustration from John Clements’ book on Medieval Swordsmanship.
This sequence shows how a downward strike is accompanied by a step forward with the right or rear foot, and the text describes how to resume the initial position(left). What I like about this is that if you view it right-to-left it equally illustrates a downward strike that follows stepping back with the left or lead leg. For example, an enemy targets your lead leg, so you step back to avoid the strike and simultaneously strike at his head. Striking low may have exposed the upper part of his body.
Medieval Sword and Shield describes a similar sequence, although this time the defender is in “half-shield” guard (above, left). Again, if the enemy strikes low, the targeted leg is brought back and the sword is brought down on the attacker.
Clements’ book makes a lot about the prevalence of leg wounds among the remains of the Battle of Visby. The above sequences suggest that attacking the legs was foolhardy, at least with shorter weapons such as swords. Some context helps us understand the discrepancy. The victorious Danish forces were mainly composed of professional soldiers and mercenaries. The Gutnish forces were primarily farmers, and only partially equipped with armour. It seems likely that professional fighters would readily exploit the defender’s lack of experience and equipment and target the legs. Whether such tactics were common in other battles against experienced fighters is open to debate.
The “step back while striking” drill has obvious applications to modern combat. If we do not hold a sword it can be adapted to other weapons or empty handed techniques. In a previous post I have mentioned that the leg raising actions so typical of Scottish Highland dancing may have been training to take the leg out of the way of low strikes.
Many years ago I wrote about a very silly sequence that appears in some knife-fighting manuals. It should be apparent to readers that when an attacker threatens your leg, a more practical response will be to withdraw the leg and simultaneously strike at any target available, such as arm.

Shields and Angles

In the previous blog I noted that some of the techniques seen in I.33 and “Medieval Sword and Shield” were not suited to shields larger than bucklers. This suggested that a blog on larger shields might be useful. What might the Middle-Ages teach the modern riot shield user?
Talhoffer: Judicial duel with long shields. Note that Right is in inner ward and attacks past the left edge of his shield.
One of the first documents I found was the paper “Reconstructing Early Medieval Sword and Shield” by Hand and Wagner, the authors of Medieval Sword and Shield. I was surprised to learn that there were no surviving medieval fechtbuch on shield use. The oldest known texts on shield use are from the Renaissance, when shield use was already well on the wane. Medieval artwork showing shield use is less than ideal, due to lack of perspective and other factors that affect realistic, accurate depiction. While there are no manuals on battlefield use of shields, Talhoffer’s 15th century fechtbuch does show the use of very high duelling shields used in judicial combats. This has supplied Hand and Wagner with some suggestions on how shields could have been used.
Hand and Wagner quote the following passage from Giacomo Di Grassi (1570) on how to use a round shield (“target”):
“Of the maner how to holde the round Target
If a man woulde so beare the rounde Target, that it may couer the whole bodie, and yet nothing hinder him from seeing his enimie, which is a matter of great importance, it is requisite, that he beare it towardes the enimie, not with the conuexe or outward parte thereof,… Therefore, if he would holde the said Target, that it may well defend all that part of the bodie, which is from the knee vpwardes, and that he maie see his enemie, it is requisite that he bear his arm, if not right, yet at least bowed so little, that in the elbowe there be framed so blunt an angle or corner, that his eyebeames passing neere that part of the circumference of the Target, which is neere his hande, may see his enemie from the head to the foot. And by holding the saide conuexe parte in this manner, it shall warde all the left side, and the circumference neere the hande shall with the least motion defend the right side, the head and the thighes.”
Di Grassi: Square target and lines of vision.
Renaissance swordsman with shield
Points to note are that both the surface of the shield and its circumference (rim) are used to protect the user. The right side of the rim is used to protect the right side of the user. The shield should be held so that it does not obstruct one’s view of the enemy. The least motion of the hand is needed to move the shield to defend the strong side, head or thighs.
I also had a look at the sword and shield chapter of John Clements’ “Medieval Swordsmanship”, a comprehensive work, although I have some issues with Clements’ writing style.
Clements shows a variety of ways a shield may be moved to counter attacks from various angles. Given a shield may mass eight to twelve pounds or more, there is wisdom in using a hold that minimizes any extraneous movement.

Fighting with a Shield

Some description of how a sword (or other weapon) would have been used with a large shield will be helpful. Clements describes three guards (or wards) for use with a shield and sword: high, middle and back. Similar techniques are used for axes, maces, spears and other weapons. Cycling from one of these positions to another is simple, and they allow strikes to made with little shield movement.
From the high guard the sword can make vertical, horizontal and diagonal cuts, thrusts and parries to either side of the shield. It can even deliver rising strikes from some angles. The hand is held just above forehead level, with the pommel just within peripheral vision. The blade slopes 45 degrees upward and inward so there is no clue to which direction the attack will take. The ochs (ox) position is similar but has the point directed forward. High guard is called high cocked guard in Attack, Avoid, Survive.
Frontal view of high guard.
Middle position is well suited to thrusts and is less fatiguing if maintained. Cuts are best made by shifting to high or back position.
Back position is also known as “tail” or nebenhut. It allows cuts or thrusts to be made from a wide range of directions, and the weapon hand is hidden from the foe. The position is, however, poorly suited to combat from close formations where comrades may be behind and beside a fighter. A similar position, with a club or mace held vertically, is shown in figures 35-37 of Hand and Wagner’s paper.
Typically we see shields used with the face towards the threat, and they are depicted as chiefly protecting the left side of a fighter. The shield may even be moved to the left for an offensive move to be made!

How shields are usually shown used. Airspace to outside of left arm is covered by the shield, but right-side of torso is exposed.

Angling the Shield

The passage from Di Grassi got me thinking. If you can defend your right side with the right side of the rim, why not position the shield so that it covers the entire torso and as much of the right arm as practical? Hand and Wagner suggest an “open ward” with the shield sloped at an angle around thirty degrees. Conceivably, a shield held at such an angle could cover most of the torso while presenting an angled face that is more likely to deflect attacks. A turn of the waist would increase protection to the right side, or create the “inner ward” Hand and Wagner describe. A drop of the hand would deflect low strikes.
Angled shield at inner ward.
If we look at the illustrations that Di Grassi provides of round and square targets it is plausible that what it is showing is the right edge of the target on a line close to the outside of the right shoulder.
Di Grassi: Illustration of holding the round target.

Torso fully covered, with room to conceal right arm when in middle guard.
Against missile fire the shield was probably held perpendicular to the threat, for maximum cover. The angled position would prove more useful for close combat. This is essentially the open ward that Hand and Wagner describe, with the variation that the right edge extends to the outside of the right arm. The shield might even be angled in two planes at once, which might improve visibility.
This concept of angling the shield addresses several elements of the conventional (“forward”) depiction of shield use. A human male is around 20 inches wide, so why are most shields 28-32 or more inches wide? To the left side of a user the shield protects an area of empty air, meaning non-functional mass to carry. If the shield is sloped vertically more of its width is used to defend more of its user. I.33 and Medieval Sword and Shield illustrated how vulnerable a sword-hand was without a correctly used buckler. Fighters using larger shields must have had some means to protect their weapon-hand. With the shield angled, middle-level thrusts might have been made without the weapon-hand passing beyond the forward rim of the shield. Similarly a sword-hand in high ward or tail ward would be some distance behind the protective zone created by the shield. The forward rim of the angled shield can be used offensively, and has more impact than striking with the flat. It is possible that both sword and shield were sometimes thrust forward at the same time, in a technique similar to “stab-knock”. The forward edge of an angled shield may hook the inner edge of the foe’s shield. The fighter may then swing his sword across the face of his own shield to cut behind the enemy’s shield.
Frontal shield and angled shield. Right could cut to Left’s sword arm. Left has effectively blocked his own view.
There is no evidence shields were used this way, but neither is there any that proves they were not. It is likely a variety of techniques were used, varying with the user’s skill, understanding and situation. It would be interesting to conduct some experiments.

Shields and Vision

Many years ago I watched an interesting demonstration by a pair of Roman Legion reenactors. “A” thrust at “B’s” eyes, so B raised his shield. In the moment that the shield blocked B’s vision, A stepped in and slammed his shield against B’s, knocking him off balance. The attack to the eyes was repeated. This time B parried upwards and outwards with his sword. As the sword was swept to A’s left, his sword arm was extended so B struck it with his own shield.
A nice demonstration of the offensive applications of shields, but also of one of their liabilities. The Scottish fencing master Donald McBane (1664-1732) notes:
“This Target is of great use to those who rightly understand it, but to unexperienced People is often very Fatal, by blinding themselves with it, for want of rightly understanding it.”
Certainly there are numerous period illustrations that appear to show a shield blocking a user’s vision, although lack of perspective makes any interpretation open to question.
Clements argues that it is inefficient to parry with a sword if one has a shield. The shield frees the other weapon to attack while a defence is conducted. The Roman demonstration illustrates there are times when the parry with a sword or other weapon is preferable to movement of the shield. Perhaps raising of the shield should be accompanied by an outward swatting movement to open a new line by which to keep the enemy in view? This might incorporate a simultaneous cut to the enemy’s attacking arm.

Shield and Buckler and Long Har Chuan

Recently I read a very interesting book called “Medieval Sword and Shield” by Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand. The generic title is a little misleading, since specifically the book covers the fighting system shown in I.33. Royal Armouries Ms. I.33, which is the earliest known surviving European fechtbuch (combat manual) and addresses the use of the sword and buckler. The book “The Medieval Art of Swordsmanship” by Jeffrey L Forgeng has a very nice reproduction and translation of I.33. The above volumes sit side by side on my bookshelf.
I.33 is not an easy work to understand. Medieval conventions on artwork make is uncertain as to the actual postures of the fighters, and the text is often less than clear and has some probable errors. It has been suggested that the manuscript was written for readers already familiar with the system described. Perhaps there was once an earlier “beginner’s course” manuscript, since lost to history.
If you read I.33 you will appreciate what a sterling job Paul Wagner and Stephen Hand have done in interpreting I.33 into a realistic fighting system. The book is comprehensive and logically laid out. Nearly every technique described is illustrated by a photo sequence, and in most cases the text is on the same page as the photos. As I know from personal experience, the latter is often much harder to achieve than one might think!

Stab-Knock and Shield-Knock

I.33 only deals with the use of sword and buckler, and the way these are used is distinctive. The buckler is seldom used independently. If the sword is held back in a cocked or charged position the buckler is advanced towards the foe. When the sword is forward the buckler is kept near the sword hand, and moved so that it is always between the sword hand and the likely approach of the enemy’s blade.
“Half-shield” counter and “Underarm” ward. Core techniques of I.33
Two of the core techniques of I.33 are “stab-knock/ thrust-strike (stichslac)” and “shield-knock (schlitslac)”.
A stab-knock is made when the buckler contacts and controls the opposing blade. Since the fighter is to keep sword and buckler together the stab-knock is both an attack and defence in single time. While the term thrust or stab is used, the attack may actually be a draw-cut or push-cut (aka “file”). Contrary to the tired old myth that medieval swords were only swung, I.33 shows a number of thrusts. Often the line of the sword obstructs the threat from the foe’s blade. This is reminiscent of the Long Har Chuan variant where an arm punches over an inward parry, simultaneously taking the parry over and striking. Addressing another common myth; in I.33 a parry or bind with the blade often precedes the involvement of the buckler.
A stab-knock (or possibly a shield-knock and strike). Hands would be closer together at the beginning of a stab-knock.
Shield-knock generally refers to binding the foe’s bucker with your own. Ideally this pins the opponent’s sword and buckler against his body, allowing the fighter’s sword to attack independently. The latter assumes the enemy has his sword-hand and buckler close together, as recommended by I.33. Shield-knock is sometimes seen applied to a buckler alone, or sometimes the sword-hand. If the enemy has not protected the sword-hand with his buckler then striking his arm with the buckler, preferably edge-on, is suggested. Shield-knock differs from stab-knock in that the sword may be wielded independently when a shield-knock is used.
Right stays too long in fifth ward, so left shield-knocks his buckler and strikes. A strike in the other direction would inhibit right’s sword-arm from making a late attack. Left probably stepped to right’s weak side, but this is not shown by medieval art.
Right shield-knocks both buckler and sword. With no opposition to his blade he strikes the head.

Distance, Wards and Counters

I won’t attempt to discuss most of the techniques in Medieval Sword and Shield since they would be hard to understand outside the context provided by the book.
A useful concept that the book describes is that of close distance, wide distance and out of distance. Close distance is when the fighters can strike each other without moving their feet. Wide distance is that where a stepping movement is needed to move into striking distance. Out of distance is where more than one stepping movement would be needed to reach striking range. Such terminology is fairly common in sword fighting circles but often not so clearly and simply stated in other martial arts.
Another useful concept is the book clearly distinguishes between the terms “ward (custodiis)” and “counter (obsesseo)” as used by I.33. A ward is a position you adopt before making an attack, while a counter is a position adopted in response to a ward. It is stressed that one should not “lie” in a ward. This echoes my own frequent comments about positions and stances not being static and being transitional.

Modern Applications

What can Medieval Sword and Shield teach the modern serviceman or prepper? More than you might think! For example, several of the core techniques show elements of Long Har Chuan, and I will deal with that topic further in a moment.
In Crash Combat I advise the baton and machete user to become familiar with rising and horizontal strikes. The two most versatile wards of I.33 are “underarm” and “priest’s special longpoint”. The bucker is held in a similar position for that recommended for the unarmed “alive-hand”.
While we have machetes and other long blades, a buckler is unlikely to be used. Some of the buckler techniques are not suited to larger shields such as a riot shield. In two of my books I describe using a helmet of entrenching tool in the weak hand to defend from a blade. The I.33 principle of keeping such a defence between your weapon-hand and the threat is directly applicable.
I.33 shows very few attacks to the hands or arms. The implication is that if the buckler techniques described are used such attacks are highly unlikely. In combat without bucklers the hands and forearms will often be targeted, whether a machete, baton or smaller blade is used. This is why you must keep your hands and yourself moving.

Long Har Chuan and Weapons

As I mentioned already, we can see the core principles of Long Har Chuan being used in some of the fundamental techniques of I.33. Long Har Chuan boils down to two ideas: When we make an inward parry, we take over with an outward parry. When we make an outward parry we simultaneously make an action with our other hand, either a strike or the beginning of another parry. If we parry a foe’s right hand with an outward parry from our right hand we would move left and hit him with our left hand.
Using a machete or baton has some influence on how Long Har Chuan is applied. If you have a long weapon in one hand you will likely favour its use. In offence the weapon has more reach and inflicts more damage. For defence it has more reach and is less vulnerable than your empty hand.
A bind. Note how bucklers cover the sword hand.
Suppose your enemy has a machete in his right hand, and you are configured the same. Your first move will be to bind his blade. “Bind” has a number of different meanings in blade fighting, and is used here to mean a sustained contact between blades, usually to exert control. Contact his blade on the outside, with your own, remembering that the strongest part of a blade is near the hilt, so attempt to bind “forte to forte”. Press his blade to your right and step in to your left. Make contact with his weapon arm with your left hand at the wrist, forearm or inner elbow. This hand controls, checks and monitors his weapon arm. This frees our weapon hand to unbind and strike at the foe’s neck. Rather than a broad swing, this may the a thrusting action, resulting in a thrust, draw-cut or push-cut. If we instead sensed his weapon arm reacting we might instead strike down at it with our blade. The procedure is similar for a bind on the inside of his blade, but in this instance his other hand is a potential threat and your should be ready to strike at this if necessary before attacking the neck. As can be seen, both inward and outward parries/ binds are taken over by the free hand to free the blade for use.