Royal Armouries to publish oldest known fencing manual in Western World

Royal Armouries Manuscript I.33 is the oldest known fencing manual in the Western world.

In this Olympic year it is being lent for exhibition to The Wallace Collection in London.

The Royal Armouries have taken this opportunity to rebind the manuscript and
while it is unbound to photograph it so that a unique full scale colour facsimile can be published.

The Royal Armouries have teamed up with specialist publishers Extraordinary Editions who have designed a replica early 14th-century binding for the facsimile, which will be packaged in a solander box along with a companion volume and feature a page by page transcription and translation as well as a new introduction by Dr Jeffrey Forgeng of the Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester, Mass.

MS I.33 will be published as a limited edition and in order to fund the project a limited number of subscriber copies will be made available at £600 [plus postage and packing]. Remaining copies will cost considerably more.

If wish to register for a copy of I.33 please e-mail mm@extraordinaryeditions.com as soon as possible.

The first 25 copies have already been reserved.

Medieval manuscript illustrations of sword fencing

Royal Armouries MS I.33 – the oldest known fencing manual in the Western World

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