Illuminating Reading

One of the oldest and most enigmatic treasures in the Royal Armouries archives is a manuscript –  which we refer to as Royal Armouries MSS 1.33 – dated to the latter 13th century. We don’t know who it was written by or for, or even why it was written; but it is the oldest known European fencing manual anywhere in existence.

Illustrations from the manuscript

Illustrations from the manuscript

The manuscript is made up of 32 leaves of parchment. The text is in Latin, but the use of German words which have been used to describe technical terms indicate that it is German in origin. The most impressive feature of the manuscript are the magnificent illuminated illustrations, showing the techniques of sword and buckler combat described in the text.

The main characters in the illustrations are a priest and a scholar, which throws up many questions as to why these men would learn how to sword fight at all. Another unsolved mystery is that on the last two pages one of the combatants is a woman.

Illustrations from the manuscript

Illustrations from the manuscript

Manuscript I.33 – also sometimes called the Tower Fechtbuch – was bought by the museum at auction from Sotheby’s in 1950. It was kept at the Tower of London, hence the alternative name, until it was transferred to Leeds in 1996.

The manuscript has had a hard life and some of the pages have been damaged and crudely repaired. A number of the illustrations show evidence of later additions – such as beards and moustaches -possibly scribbled on by a bored child! Despite this graffiti the manuscript remains a beautiful and very rare treasure which the Royal Armouries is privileged to own.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant