“It is to be noted, how in general all fencers, or all men holding a sword in hand, even if ignorant in the art of fencing, use these seven wards” – i.33 1r (1)
I was running an introduction to i.33 session at the weekend and at the end I got the usual comment from an experienced fencer, always something along the lines of:
“That was really good; I’d always viewed i.33 as something of a novelty. Interesting technique but just not practical in a fight”
Again, this is a symptom of how many people view and understand treatises as a series of snap shots to be viewed, taught and understood as standalone exercises rather than as a series of examples of a larger coherent system that must be grasped not only from the treatise but from practical application of the treatise.
I've been to many i.33 workshops where the plays are simply regurgitated for the audience without context or understanding of the wider system. The result, particularly with the i.33 treatise, is pretty but unworkable. You learn that from a bind you can do x, y or z fancy move. Typically all exercises start well within measure and often from half-shield. A play ends up with two people rushing each other with the second person to die being awarded “victory.” When used in free play attempts to use the technique are quickly abandoned because it’s easier and safer to kill people before they enter a bind. The end result: interesting but not practical.
I've been there, the guy who has just picked up a sword and buckler for the first time smashes the “experienced” fencer because he ignores bringing the hands into a half shield position, doesn’t seek the bind and just hammers away from measure.
So what’s gone wrong?
Using knowledge from later treatises we can see that i.33 almost completely glosses over the onset phase of the fight. There are only hints of how you are supposed to get into measure and into the half-shield bind that it favours.
From looking at the “wards” and from the hints in the plays this is what I think is missing, which when implemented suddenly makes the rest of the system practical. I think the “wards” are used like Meyer’s “guard” positions, as decision points that you pass through during your opening attack. They are noteworthy because they are the best time for you to change your action in the face of your opponent making a response, which is vital to avoiding double kills and keeping your measure.
1. So, when out of measure you adopt no ward or position that gives hint of your intention
2. When you wish to attack you spring forwards into long measure and into a ward, pausing for a heartbeat to ascertain your opponents response
3. If they fail to effectively guard against your action then you complete your action with another smaller spring to adjust the measure depending on their response (not necessarily forwards, you want to keep your cutting distance) while bringing your hands together to deal the blow and protect your sword hand from defensive moves, leaning into the action to keep your body as far away as possible.
4. You then immediately “flee” to avoid any injuries from wild defensive flailing.
Following the steps of this process is essential to avoid the age old problem of two opponents simply running into each other and ending up faux wrestling. If your opponent advances as you advance, then you immediately respond in step three by withdrawing to maintain measure while making your action.
It also reduces the near certainty of double kills by explicitly taking into account what your opponent is doing rather than simply launching in and hoping you've guess their intention correctly.
By following this process if you initiate an attack it’s much, much easier to steer the fight into a bind and thereby follow up with all the technique from the treatise. Because, what happens 9 times out of 10 is that your opponent will react to your opening ward with a counter attack, at which point you clear their counter attack with half shield and hey presto, we’re in the opening bind!
The most vital part of making this work however is doing it at speed, if you follow the “old school” model of fencing with people politely stepping into measure, assuming guards and counter guards etc then you do not get the same results. Instead you either encourage a double kill as both parties pick an opening at will and then attack at the same time or you encourage one person to endlessly withdraw from attacks seeking to follow after.