I just had a teenager roundly criticize one of my sword and buckler videos because I did not displace with my buckler, but just kept it over my hand. He mistakenly believes that bucklers are shields and must, therefore, be used to actively displace attacks. His confusion is exacerbated by the fact that bucklers are used to displace attacks in Renaissance rapier or side-sword play. I have received many such comments over the years, so I felt it was time to discuss the buckler and how it was actually used in the Middle Ages. (NB: Everything in this article relates to the Middle Ages; things were different in the Renaissance.)
There are four primary sources for sword and buckler techniques in the Middle Ages: I.33, Hans Talhoffer (primarily his 1459 and 1467 editions), Andreas Lignitzer, and Paulus Kal. There are a few other sources that show the form, but they usually just copy these earlier sources (e.g., the re-drawing of I.33 in Wilhalm and Mair). This is all we really can know about buckler combat; there are manuscript paintings showing the form, but they are too vague to tell us much.
When we look at the Fechtbuch sources, we see that none of them show a single active displacement with a buckler—not one—and yet that is precisely how most people, including the young “expert” above, who have not studied the art seriously think bucklers were used. “After all, if you aren’t blocking with it, why have it? It’s a shield, right? And shields were used to block, right?”
There are some few plays shown in the Fechtbücher which can be confusing and which might lead someone who has not studied them carefully to believe he was seeing an active displacement. For example, this plate from Paulus Kal looks like one. Translation: “The first technique: Catch his weak on the buckler while striking down wherever you wish.” (Fol. 53v)
But when you study the source carefully, you find that the initial displacement was done with the sword, and the buckler was then used to pin his opponent’s sword, freeing him to leave the bind with his sword for the leg cut. Here is the previous plate showing the actual displacement. Translation: “Do this in the first bind.” (Fol. 53r)
So in the plates from Kal above, we are shown that you first displace his cut with your sword (53r), then you pin that sword in place with your buckler to make it safe to leave the bind to cut at his leg (53v). Folio 53v does not show a displacement with the buckler, it shows what to do after the displacement with the sword in 53r. This is in keeping with the teachings of the Liechtenauer tradition, which say that you never leave the bind unless you have first done something to prevent your opponent from killing you with a Nachreisen as you do so.
There are several sources that show this kind of pinning action. For example, in this play from I.33, we see a bind with the sword (top), then the buckler is used to pin the attacker’s hands (and thus his sword) so the defender can safely cut him (bottom).
If bucklers were not used to displace attacks, for what then were they used? There were several uses for the buckler; we have seen one of them already above: to pin the enemy’s sword so as to make it safe to leave the bind. In addition, bucklers were used to strike one’s opponent, and for “zone denial.” Their most important use, however, was to protect the fighter’s right hand—a sort of gauntlet, if you will, without the limits a gauntlet places on flexibility and sword handling.
Striking with the buckler is easy to understand. While you are bound sword to sword (or, as in this case, cutting), you strike with the buckler as shown here. Also, in Lignitzer’s last play of the buckler, you displace with your sword in a halfsword grip, then release your right hand, grab his buckler with it, and strike him with his own buckler (see Ringeck fol. 55v); Kal shows the same play (see Kal fol. 56r).
The next use, zone denial, is somewhat less obvious. We usually see bucklers held out at arms’ length, as in this plate from Talhoffer 1459. The reason for this is that by doing so, you create a cone-shaped zone in which you cannot easily be hit. To understand this, we must look (just for a moment) to a master from the Renaissance, Giocomo di Grassi. In the buckler chapter in his book, we see this picture. As the lines on the picture show, the further the buckler is held from the body, the broader the area in the “shadow” (protection) of the buckler is. When the buckler is held close to the body, it protects an area only the size of the buckler itself; at arms’ length, it protects an area several times that size. This is not a displacement, it is a zone defense intended to force your opponent to strike where you are unprotected, thus limiting the angles at which he can attack. When he does attack, you cannot just leave the buckler in place and hope it stops his attack, you must actively displace it with your sword.
The primary use of the buckler, however, is as a gauntlet for the right hand. Unlike later weapons, medieval swords did not have elaborate guards around the sword hand to protect them from being hit. Thus, an enemy could simply strike your hand or arm as you attack, as we see in this plate from Talhoffer 1467. To prevent this, the masters taught us to cover the sword hand with the buckler both as we displace with the sword as we see in this plate from Talhoffer 1467, and to cover the hand as we attack, as shown in the top pair of figures from I.33 here. (NB: Mair shows figures performing some of these exact same techniques while wearing gauntlets, which can be confusing to some. Remember that he was copying earlier works in his possession, and that he did not always copy them accurately. For example, when showing Langenschilt dueling, which was never done in armor, Mair shows the techniques being performed by fully armored men.)
Again, please understand that the buckler is not used for an active displacement in any of these sources—not even once. If you think that is what you are seeing, you need to study the source more carefully.
In conclusion, bucklers were used for a variety of purposes, including pinning an opponent’s hands or sword to make it safe to leave the bind; buckler strikes; zone denial; and as a pseudo-gauntlet for the right hand. They were not used, however, for the thing most people who have not studied this art believe they were—actively displacing attacks.
One last note: Whenever I post something like this, I usually receive comments arguing that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” In other words, they argue that I cannot claim bucklers were never used to displace attacks just because none of the extant sources do so, and claim that there may have been sources showing displacements which did not survive. There is a microscopic grain of truth in this largely fatuous argument—one which holds in every real-world argument that claims a thing does not exist: You can rarely prove a negative conclusively. The fact remains, however, that we have varied sources that show consistency, and since we can only practice the art we are given, the argument is moot.