Thursday, December 13, 2018

Sword and Shield Treatises


The following is a discussion, as indicated by the title, about treatises in the discussion of the use of the sword and shield. Before any further reading is done, it should be noted that the buckler has been excluded from this discussion, thus the discussion is about larger shields which were typically used and associated with war. While this is the case, the rotella and variants has been included due to its size, and thus use characteristics. What will be noted is a distinct gap in knowledge...


          In studying the idea of the use of sword and shield in the medieval period there is an issue as there is a large gap in knowledge. Studying the sword and shield in the Renaissance period is not so much of an issue as when the shield left the battlefield it found a place in civilian combats thus there were theorists willing to write about its use. Previous to these writings however, there is a gap in our knowledge. It would seem that the knowledge for this period was either passed from one man to another or if it was written down it was lost.

Vegetius: Roman Source Material

          One of the earliest treatises we have with regard to the use of the sword and shield is Flavius Vegetius Renatus, or as he is more commonly known, Vegetius (2008). He wrote at the end of the Western Roman Empire discussing the training methods of legionaries of the earlier periods when the Empire was at its height. It will be claimed that this particular source is not of much use because it discusses Roman methods of warfare rather than medieval forms, however, it was significant enough to be re-written and re-purposed in the medieval period as the Poem of the Pel (Neele, 1460).
          The six stanzas which are considered by most practitioners to make up the Poem which, start with the second, are an almost direct copy of the writings of Vegetius. If a comparison is made between the two documents, it will be noted that there are too many similarities between these two documents that make it unlikely that the Poem was not a paraphrasing of a selection out of Vegetius’ treatise. Unfortunately in the thousand-year gap between Vegetius and the Poem there seems to be little to go on.

Norse Sagas

          The Norse, like many people wrote great stories of the histories of their people. Within these stories there are battles which are told, these stories can tell us something of what combat was like for these people and tell us how they used their weapons. Of course being the great stories that they are, they also have to be taken with a certain degree of criticism as well as in such stories there are often exaggerations made.
          These stories cover a period in which there is not much written down which means it is useful to have them to gain some understanding of combat in this period, but they are not exactly the combat treatises that we are used to seeing from the Renaissance period. The information which is presented needs to be examined, critiqued and then experimented with for validity. The same can be said for any primary source material, but in the case of the written word where stories are concerned more care needs to be taken.
          Of course it does not mean that valuable information cannot be extracted from such sources, but it should always be validated by other sources. In some instances these sources may be other contemporary sagas, or experimental archaeological findings. In both cases the examination needs to be taken with a level of caution to avoid incorrect interpretation or personal bias.

The Medieval Gap

“anyone who might believe that there are no actual Medieval fighting manuals or that there are no real historical sources for Medieval martial arts is entirely ignorant on the subject.” (Clements, 1998:11)
           There is a large gap with regard to written sources between the Norse sagas and the Poem, mentioned previously. This leaves a gap in our written knowledge of how the sword and shield was used in the medieval period. Again, some information may be gained from eye-witness accounts and other chronicles of the period which, just like the Norse sagas, need to be critically examined before the information which they contain can be used with any authority.
          Most of the units in the medieval period were household units or units organised by a particular lord. The individuals with rank who were trained in the use of arms would have been trained by those who knew, and they would have been trained by others who knew, thus training would have been passed practically and by word of mouth rather than written down. This, of course, leaves few written sources for the historian or practitioner of martial arts to interrogate.
          What this means is that other sources have to be found to interrogate, and there are other sources available, if a person is willing to look and broaden their horizons. Rather than limiting a search to treatises, chronicles of battles can be useful where individual conflicts are described, as are individual encounters. Further, the artists of the period would paint what they had in front of them to paint or illustrate in some fashion. This gives us snapshots of situations where equipment is being used and these can be interrogated for information as well. Combined with an examination of museum pieces and accurate replicas, some experimental archaeology based on such information can discover the skills which are hidden within these sources.

The Renaissance Flourishing

          Some would claim it was firearms which sent armour and swords from the battlefield in the Renaissance period, but this is a very simplistic view, especially considering members of cavalry were still wearing breastplates and using swords in the Napoleonic Wars. What the Renaissance really did for the sword and shield was enable the information about its use to be put to print thanks to the invention of the printing press. It is true that as armour improved the shield was removed from the armoured man’s armoury, but it found a new life in that of the civilian’s, and it would also remain on the battlefield for a little while longer.
          The duelling shield as seen in Talhoffer’s (2000) manual of 1467 is a shield which is different from all others in that it could also be used as an offensive device as well, having a spike at both ends. Without using these appendages it could be utilised the same way as any other large shield of the period. This demonstrated a judicial use of the sword and shield, relatively common to the Germans.
          More common to this period was the use of the rotella of the Italians as typified by the manuals of Marozzo (1536), Agrippa (1553), di Grassi (1570 and 1594), Lovino (1580), and Capo Ferro (1610), who demonstrated the use of this round shield for civilian combats. These treatises give us detailed examinations of how these shields were used in civilian combats against others with like weapons, and while some information can be inferred about the use of previous shields caution must be taken with regard to this endeavour that personal preferences and prejudices do not interfere in this research.
          There is one final source which needs to be noted and that is Colombani (1711). This is an interesting source as it does not supply much information about how to use the shield, but places it in with other devices. The date of this treatise is also interesting in that it is so late and places it quite out of the usual range of Renaissance period instruction in this form. It does, however demonstrate a continued interest in its use.

Source Use

          In the investigation of the sword and shield it is important that rigorous investigation is made of all the available material. What has not been noted in this collection is that there are also Iberian sources which also mention the use of the shield and these need to be taken into account. Thus the researcher needs to make clear what their purpose is in their research, and also which particular area of research is being pursued.
          Further complications can arise as to whether a particular shape of shield is being used or a particular size is also being used. If, for example, the buckler is also being included in such research then treatises such as the M.S. I.33 also need to be taken into account. What will also be noted is that the buckler is a much smaller shield and thus the use of this form of shield is quite different to the much larger forms, thus some sort of focus is actually required to do the subject justice.
          A subject needs to be chosen which limits the parameters of the search, but then this search should not be limited only to the written word or only written treatises. In the case of the medieval shield, if limited to the written word, it would be severely hampered and there would be much which would have to be assumed or estimated, such things need to be taken into account. The search needs to take into account the broadest amount of materials but to keep focused on the particular subject area for efficient and effective research.


Agrippa (1553) Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise, Edited by Ken Mondschein (2009), Italica Press, New York

Clements, J. (1998) Medieval Swordsmanship: Illustrated Methods and Techniques, Paladin Press, Boulder, Colorado

di Grassi (1595) His True Arte of Defence: Showing how a man without other Teacher or Master may Safelie handle all Sortes of Weapons, Signe of the Hand and Starre, London,

Kirby, J. (ed)(2004) Italian Rapier Combat: Ridolfo Capo Ferro, Greenhill Books, London, UK, Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania, USA

Neele, John (1460) “Poem of the Pel” in Knyghthode and Bataile (Cotton MS Titus A xxiii), Wiktenauer (

Talhoffer, H. (2000) Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth-Century Illustrated Manual of Swordfighting and Close-Quarter Combat, Greenhill Books, London, UK (Translated and Edited by Mark Rector)

Vegetius (2008) On Roman Military Matters: A 5th Century Training Manual in Organization, Weapons and Tactics, as Practiced by the Roman Legions, Red and Black Publishers, St Petersburg, Florida, Translated by Lt John Clarke (1767)