The topic of Common Fencing is one of those recurring topics in HEMA. People have been trying to figure out exactly what the common fencing of the medieval and renaissance period looked like. This is probably due to the fact that most of the manuals we have are NOT “common” fencing but rather some sort of advanced system taught by a knight, or nobleman, or someone otherwise special, usually making hinting references to what techniques are “common”. In fact, many of the systems we have manuals for seem to be systems designed to beat the common fencing of the period.
I will not get into the Liechtenauer system and its relation to common fencing, or the common fencing with the longsword in the 15th century. Others have delved into that in more depth already and are more knowledgeable than I am about it. In this article, I will discuss the so called “common fencing” of MS I.33. I have discussed it previously in the context of the intended audience of the manual, but this article will discuss the specific techniques and style that we can gain from examining the references to common fencing in I.33.
First, let’s look at the word “common” in this context. In I.33, the word used is “generalis”, which of course is where we get the word “general”. So you could just as easily say “the general fencer” or “the general people with a sword” or “in general”. But “common” is a simple and useful way to translate it, so I will continue to use it.
Common Fencing in I.33 – Explicit Mentions:
There are several things that are explicitly mentioned to be “common” in I.33. Some of them techniques, some strikes, some Wards, etc. But from this we can get a foundation of some of the things a “common fencer” at the time (and location) of I.33 did. I will simply list out all the occurrences of “common” in I.33.
1) “in general all fencers….use these seven wards” – Folio 1r
Relatively simple, but far-reaching. As discussed in previous articles, the 7 Wards are a way to categorize or classify all the actions an opponent might do. Right off the bat, I.33 tells us that all fencers “in general” use the 7 Wards. All this tells us about the “common fencer” is that their actions can be classified into the 7 Wards, although this is true for “all men holding a sword”.
2) “If he is a common fencer, he will strike to the head” – Folio 2r
In the first play of the manual, we have one fencer in 1st Ward, his opponent uses the Halfshield Obsessio. 1st Ward then Falls Under Sword and Shield, resulting in being in a left underbind. It then tells us that if the opponent is a “common fencer”, he will strike to the head without a schiltslac. It then says what you should do to counter this, and then continues to say “if he binds and enters, ….”. It is showing the common and then the “priestly” response to this left underbind. From this, we can derive our first “common” technique. The Common Fencer, when confronted with his opponent binding against him underneath and from the right (the opponent’s left), he will strike to the head without a schiltslac. Furthermore, we can hypothesize that this indicates that the Common Fencer will also sometimes use Halfshield Obsessio (although it does say that the common Obsessio to 1st Ward is Langort).
3) “a certain counter that is called langort, and it is a common displacement” – Folio 6v
We are told that when one fencer is in 1st Ward, the common Obsessio used against him is Langort. Again, relatively simple, but it tells us that the Common Fencer has knowledge of using an Obsessio to enter distance against a Ward, even if it is by using a sub-optimal Obsessio.
4) “He might get an opportunity for a strike to the left, as it is done by general fencers, or to the right, as it is done by the priest” – Folio 9v
From the play of Schutzen vs 2nd Ward. 2nd Ward binds against Schutzen, and the fencer who did Schutzen then has three options; the durchtritt, striking to the left, or striking to the right. I.33 tells us that striking to the left is what Common Fencers do. Like the previous example, it seems to indicate that the Common Fencer has knowledge of using Schutzen to enter distance under cover, he just doesn’t use the durchtritt or the priestly strike to the right. While I have yet to see a solid interpretation of the strike to the right or left, this passage is still useful to show that the Common Fencer has knowledge of some of the basic Obsessio.
5) “Note how many ordinary fencers will be seduced by the displacement shown here. They think they can achieve a separation of sword and shield” – Folio 11r
One of the most explicit examples of a technique used by Common Fencers. It’s the play of using Halfshield Obsessio against 2nd Ward, and it tells us that the Common Fencer from 2nd Ward will be tempted to strike to separate the sword and shield of the one in Halfshield. I.33 even tells us that while it’s a “common” thing to attempt that only works in Halfshield delays, it will depict it anyways for educational purposes. This is a clear statement that Common Fencers try to strike to separate sword and shield. Furthermore, on Folio 24r it states that the strike to separate sword and shield is a “useful strike”. This is another example of something that is both “common” AND “useful”, showing how the Common Fencer is still skilled.
6) “Here the third ward is re-adopted, which will be displaced by langort, which all common fencers execute” – Folio 14r
Once again we see that Langort is a “common” Obsessio, although this time it’s used against 3rd Ward. This seems to show a trend that the Common Fencer will commonly enter distance using Langort against a variety of Wards.
7) “Here the first ward is re-adopted, and its displacement will be langort, and it is common and of limited value” – Folio 16r
Simply another reference to Langort being an Obsessio used by the Common Fencer. Important to note is that I.33 also talks about how Langort is the nucleus of the art, that Langort is the bind, which is the true art of fencing. It seems to imply that the Common Fencer would not be someone who is aware of Langort as the bind in that way, yet they use Langort as an Obsessio. We can therefore separate them into two “levels” of Langort, one that the Common Fencer uses as a mediocre Obsessio of limited value, but a position that also forms the core of “art” of fencing.
8) “Here a common ward is adopted, which is called vidilpoge, executed by the Priest” – Folio 22r
This example is particularly interesting to me, since it is one of the different Wards from the basic 7 Wards, yet still described as “common”. It then proceeds to show some techniques from Vidilpoge that the Priest seems to like or advocate as good. This seems to tell us that Vidilpoge is a common Ward, but that it’s also not a bad choice, even as a “priestly” fencer. This of course begs the question of why it’s “common”, or why the Common Fencer uses it. Either way, it’s another indicator that the Common Fencer is certainly not a bad fencer in any way, but uses a specific Ward other than the basic 7 Wards that are used even by ignorant fencers.
9) “the pupil is here dealing a common strike, which all common fencers are wont to deal from the position just treated” – Folio 25r
The position it’s talking about is where one fencer has used Halfshield, and the other Fell Under Sword and Shield. It is saying that from this right overbind, the one who was in Halfshield, if he is a Common Fencer, will often do a strike from that bind, cutting in towards the opponent without a schiltslac. The response as the Priestly fencer is to do a strike (that resembles a stichslac, but isn’t specifically named as such here) to the outside to counter it. Like the second example, we see that the Common Fencer does not use the schiltslac, but rather strikes from the bind without it, and without suppressing the opponent with your buckler, you are vulnerable to him countering it.
So let’s summarize this.
The Common Fencer uses the 7 Wards, just like everyone holding a sword. The Common Fencer also uses some special Wards like Vidilpoge. Whether he consciously fights from the 7 Wards, or whether it’s just that the 7 Wards classify all strikes, so the Common Fencer fits into that the same as everyone else. The Common Fencer will strike from the bind, particularly when he has a superior bind, but he will strike directly to the opponent without using a schiltslac. The Common Fencer also possibly has knowledge of using some Obsessio and Schutzen to enter distance under cover. We know the Common Fencer uses Langort a lot to enter distance, and possibly has knowledge of using Schutzen and Halfshield (but he doesn’t have knowledge of Krucke, Priest’s Special Langort, Priest’s Rare Obsessio, etc). We know the Common Fencer favors trying to strike from strong striking wards (like 2nd and 5th) to separate the sword and shield of his opponent.
This paints an interesting picture of the Common Fencer according to the time and place of MS I.33. The Common Fencer knows how to enter distance under cover, albeit not always with the most effective Obsessio. He also attempts to separate his opponent’s sword and buckler with cuts. The Common Fencer seems to be aware of when he is in a superior bind. But the Common Fencer lacks awareness in one major way: He lacks knowledge of how to properly control the opponent from the bind to strike safely. The Common Fencer does not use the Schiltslac, the Common Fencer doesn’t seem to use the Durchtritt, etc. The Common Fencer does not properly work from the bind to defeat his opponent. The Common Fencer, when confronted by a bind, proceeds to strike at his opponent right away from the bind rather than controlling his opponent. Hence, we come full circle to one of the first things we are told by I.33:
“Note, that the nucleus of all the art of fencing consists in this latter ward which is called langort. Also, all actions of the wards or of the sword are determined by it, i.e. they end in it and not in others. Therefore, do first consider well this above-mentioned ward.” – Folio 1v
We are also told:
“After all the wards above have been treated, here the seventh ward is treated, which is called langort, and note that there are four binds, that answer to this ward” – Folio 17v
The main thing that separates the Common Fencer from the Priestly Fencer is proper understanding of the “art of fencing”; the bind. The core of the art, and the difference between controlling your opponent before winning the fight and simply striking at the opponent risking being killed or countered. Many people discuss whether I.33 is teaching us to beat Common Fencing, or that it’s teaching us how to use the 7 Wards to beat Priestly fencing, or it’s teaching us to beat Common Fencing which in turn is used to beat the bare basics. Personally, I think that I.33 is teaching us how to defend ourselves against anyone with a sword and buckler. It’s teaching us the Priestly way to fight, while referencing some of the common tactics and techniques used by the Common Fencers.