General information about Mamluk Sword and Shield

This is a article of how to use the sword and shield in the Mamluk fashion. This stems from the Furusiya tradition which spans from the 9th to 15th Century, incorporating both Arabic and Turkic elements.  These are also seen from communities which still use the straight sword, such as in Yemen and Sudan; both also have similar move-sets despite their geographical distance, the reason being because of the survival of Mamluk style sword and shield work, due to relative isolation.

If a more conceptual framework is needed, please see my article Mamluk Lance work: Implying Mamluk sword play from two lance treatises (https://nicholaspetrou.net/2019/08/mamluk-lance-work-implying-mamluk-sword-play-from-two-lance-treatises/)

1. The Sword
The general mentality of the sword seems to be it’s reverence, in the eyes of the Arabs, as a weapon than can take the form of any other weapon, so the advice given is it use it like everything else. This is neatly describes by Ibn Hudayl in his 1392 treatise Gala of the Knight, Blazon of the Champion.

And it is that the Arabs drives the sword as if it were a spear; with it they beat, as if it were a rod; with it they cut, as if it were a knife; they used it as a whip and as a lash; it is his ornament in public; his light in the darkness; his company in solitude; his fellow in the desert;  his comrade of sleep and the way, so they call it: “coat”, “cape”, “rod”, “dress”, “clothing”. It is the “judge of combats”, the “decision of  human litigation”.
All these facets have inspired poetry, and have cradled proverbs or histories.
This is how Utba ibn Abd al-Sulami referred: The prophet handed me a short sword, and warned me: “if you cannot wield it, spear with it”.
[1]

This means a lot of material that has been translated, such as lance/spear work, can be used interchangeably, coinciding with the same concepts that can be used such as the tagri. Therefore stances, strikes, parries and move may also be applied.

There are some indications on how the sword is cut with according to Arabic terminology for the sword. It describes the edges shafra/shafratan, ghirar/ghiraran, dhukra, qarn, dabib, dariba (“sword, swordblade”, literally “that with which ones strikes”), but more interestingly, Jawhari describes the part of the blade that delivers a blow to be about one span of a hand from the top end of the blade, this was called madrib/madarib. The sharp part of this latter section was called zuba. This term was also applied to tips of spears and arrowheads, it can equally mean “the very tip of a sword” (taraf). The curvature of the tip was referred to as gharb, whereas elsewhere it simply means “sharpness”, not only does is this a reference to swords but to arrows, men, the tongue etc. The tip itself i.e. the upper portion of the blade which was raised slightly with the curvature, was called nasl, which was also employed as a synecdoche of blades or swords as a whole; also attested are zirr, button, as in darabahu bi-zirr al-sayf (“he hit him with the zirr of the sword”) and the extreme tip, tarf, which was also metaphorically tied with the term makhrim (literally meaning “summit”).[2]

2. The shield
The shield is mainly described to defend again arrows or incoming objects:

What are the uses of the wooden shield?
Protecting oneself from arrows of both kinds, javalins and spears.

What most injured a leather shield?
Blows from swords or maces, thrown daggers and being hit by pieces of wood

What are the uses of the iron shield?
Against the sprayer of fire, blows of the mace and sword, the thrusts of lance or dagger, and the throwing of javelins and both sorts of arrows.
[3]

So, in this case, there is simply using the sword to defend against blows which provides some underlining circumstances, and suggestions, for ow the shield is used for. To go further injury from a leather shield, suggests one would need to be cautious when simply using the shield to defend/ward off against weapons. Fortunately, further evidence from Furusiya literature suggests multiple ways the shield could be used, with some technical descriptions to go with it. Ibn Hudayl, in the 1392 treatise Gala of the Knight, Blazon of the Champion, dedicates a chapter to  the shield in which he writes:

During the combat, the one that guards behind a shield, must do it in the central part, be it against sword, javelin or stone. It will turn to the right or to the left, always presenting the outside to the contrary. You should not bring it to the body when you fear that a blow will fall. It will protect itself and your horse, making it turn conveniently.
It is advisable to give the stones the prominent part of the shield, and to place it obliquely, so that it slips what comes on top of you. The spear must be protected with the entire shield, or with its largest surface possible. As soon as you feel that the iron has touched you, it is advisable to throw it back, but keep it away from the body.
You have to avoid, at this moment, hiding the weight of the body on the shield, so as not to fall. It is also advisable to bring back the shield, so that the iron of the spear does not slip through it, which could then become entangled in the clothes. This is an eventuality that must be avoided.
The adarga will be handled like the shield mentioned (turn). But the first offers more ease against the spear, for its smoothness and uniformity. It is convenient, then, to steal the body, taking it back, so that it is not too heavy to the hand or impossible to handle.
[4]

There are four implications in conjunction with how the shield motions: to turn the shield; to keep it outwards; to place obliquely (to deflect incoming objects, but the edge can be used in the context of percussive weapons like the mace); and to throw out. the Implications are thus:

1. To turn the shield: Turn the shield is an effective way to not only fend off blows but to deflect the opponent’s weapon and control it. Ibn Hudayl says “The wheel of vicissitudes (change of circumstances, often to misfortune) turn to it’s circle” when talking about the shield. Perhaps this word has multiple meanings such as literally to change circumstances but also, to turn the shield in order to supplant the opponent’s weapon.

2. To keep the shield outwards: Keeping the shield outwards creates a cone of defence which puts the shield far from the user and deflects oncoming blows easier. The implication of this is also to push the shield outwards as well.

3. To place the shield obliquely: Putting the shield at a slanting angle (where the face of the shield is indirect) is effective is glancing any blows off and hit with the edge. The roundness to the centre enables the user to redirect any momentum from the opponent’s weapon.

4. To Throw the shield outwards: The context of this is similar to how Fiore might say to throw the opponent’s thrust to the ground with a strike in his section on Breaking the Thrust. This is to strike the opponent’s weapon while it is attacking, displacing it. In this context, it means punching outwards.

In short all of these represent the three D’s: Displacement! Displacement! Displacement! As well as being a means in which the sword can move around , it serves as an offhand when the user gets in close to move and to deflect while attacking as well.

With these factors in mind, things begin to make more sense as two-dimensional depictions become more animated. It seems for illustrations and descriptions like these in tandem, the shield is used to protect the hands and body and the moment contact occurs, up close, the shield is then used as an off-hand to displace the opponent’s weapon and the sword to take advantage. When looking at later single-sword/sabre work in North Africa and the Middle East, this makes a lot of sense as, it seems, the displacement of the opponent’s blade was once assisted by the buckler but now is, instead, accompanied by the freehand to grapple (though it seems single/sword work was also independently its own discipline during the Abbasid and Mamluk periods), or the role is completely supplemented by the sword itself. This varies between two mentalities: To use the shield as protection to deflect, or to use it as a secondary assistant to accompany the sword. Both seem to be valid and used together depending on the circumstances. One might use the blade to measure and then the shield to punch against the opponent’s arm/weapon, pinning it, and follow up with a strike. Or they might use the blade to cover the sword hand behind, thrust it and then hide it again.

2.1 Displacing with the Buckler, punching as an example
If we’re to talk about using the Buckler to displace, the below example has turning, keeping the sword outwards, keeping the shield at an oblique angle and  throwing the shield in the form of punching and pinning at the same time. This example is taken from Razmasfar but more or less follows the same principle. The buckler is punched out to pin the hand/weapon and the user sidesteps.

This ends in a horizontal strike to the face.

3. Mamluk Guards
Please note, these are based on a mix of historical evidence and a transferral from lance work, adapted for sword and shield use. Some of the stances are used in Yemeni, and Sudanese, sword and shield work as well and also have eerily similar stances to Mamluk lance work. Others come from Historical manuscripts in the form of illustrations. The descriptions given within the treatises are “tilts”, “blocks” or “parries”. All these terms are applicable, and have their own implications however for simplicity I have chosen guard as an easily transferable term.

3.1 High Guard/Posta Saracena/ Posta Africana/ tajo hendido
This has no mentioned name within the Mamluk treatises; perhaps it simply depicts a sword striking downwards in motion (or being ready to strike). However, various terms are given, such as those of the above, in various European sources and are readily seen in Mamluk and Ottoman illustrations. Pacheco gives an informative quote on how this works:

“rising your arm straight upwards and then lowering with great power”.[5]

By Pacheco’s time the shield fell out of use in North Africa, however it is important to emphasise that the effect would have been the same: the purpose was to cut the opponent’s sword and follow up with a cut or a thrust. With the shield, this can be used to punch the opponent to pin or displace their arm/weapon.

Fatmid plank with men dueling with swords and shields, 11th Century AD (Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo).
An illustration of Mamluk stick and buckler, and dagger, training from the 1470 Treatise “The Treasure That Combines All Things“. Source: Ms. Arabe 2826, fol. 80 (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale).

3.2The Tagri (breach)/Sagr Guard
The guard is recognisable in Persian and Ottoman sword and shield and is parallel to how the lance, the user mounted, is held. The term Tagri means a breach and, in short, denotes creating an opening in which to thrust. It is a displacement of the opponent’s weapon and a thrust at the same time; indeed the term in Arabic is used as a verb to imply stopping something firmly, or to mean something which obstructs. A parallel can be made to the term versetzen in German and the Liechtenauer tradition (displacement of the blade with an immediate thrust at the same time). It’s generally done from the front but, dismounted, is used to accommodate stepping offline (though with the shield, punching it can accommodate linear sword work).

Fatmid Ceramic Wall-plaque, depicting a fight between a Berber Infantryman and Turkish Cavalryman (Tunis, Bardo Museum)
A drawn reconstruction of the above image

3.3 The Damascus/Anatolian/Syrian/Roman style Guard
The concept and theme of the Damascus block is that of the lance being tucked into the armpit. With this in mind, the sword and shield guard mimics this, with the sword being held close to the body, near the armpit, and the shield being held outwards. This is also evident in Yemeni and Sudanese sword and shield work, and easily transfers to the tagri guard. The type of group varies. In Sudanese sword and shield, the grip is normally held; in Yemeni sword and buckler, the wrist is upwards.

Fatmid Manuscript Fragment from Fusat, 12th Century (British Museum, Registration Number 1938,0312,0.1

3.4 Khorasani Guard
As with lance work, the general theme is that the sword is held downwards and aligned. With the shield, this covers the sword hand above it. This is seen in Yemeni sword and shield.

3.5 Daylami Guard
In lance work, the lance is rested upwards with the wrist facing the user. Transferring the concept to sword and shield, the sword hand does the same while the shield protects the hand. This is evident in Georgian as well as Yemeni sword and shield.

Sword and Buckler from the Khvesur region of Georgia. Note, the standard “at ease” stance is shown by the person on the left who holds the sword behind the buckler.

4. Thrusts
Various types of thrusts are evident from source material and living traditions.

4.1 Under Thrust
This thrust is shown in Mamluk art work as a counter to a high thrust. This is easily placed from tagri and can target any point in the body as long as the centre is still held.

4.2 Mid/inverted wrist thrust
This type of thrust is evident in Yemeni and Sudanese sword and shield and is done by twisting the wrist, towards the user, so that the sword thrusts straight. It enables the user to flick the thrust forwards, before quickly moving it back. This is used a lot in the Daylami guard to enable adequate hand protection.

4.3  High thrust
This is evident in Yemeni and Sudanese sword and shield but has slight variations. In Yemen, the thrust is done with the wrist completely twisted (so the knuckles are facing the user) while in the Sudan the blade is held with the knuckles facing up, so the blade is horizontal. Both have their uses; the Yemeni style enables better hand protection and the possibility to quickly cut, whereas the Sudanese style enables the sword to move downwards more efficiently due to the position of the wrist.

5. Strikes
Strikes are given in the figure of 8 pattern which is the following.

– Horizontal strikes (left to right)
– Vertical strikes (up and down)
– Diagonal strikes (cross-cutting downwards and upwards)

Cuts are given both to clothed targets and non-clothed. Al-Kindi, a scholar in the 9th Century Abbasid Caliphate compiled sword-making in the Empire, and wrote the following:

As for trenchant swords, with respect to their forms rather than to their natures, they are the ones that are short, if they have good bodies and their surfaces and thickness are equal. (On them there is not a place inside and a place outside), nor a place thicker than its equivalent. Their blades are coarse, except the edge itself, for the edge should be the measure of a hair on each side. These are the most trenchant of swords in adversity. As for what best cuts clothes and flesh, it is what combines in it all these properties, except for the coarseness, for the thinnest blade is what best cuts flesh and clothes, and it is not praiseworthy if the blades are not thin. Moderation of the quenching is an aid to sharpness, for if the quenching is severe, the blade will be severed in adversity; whereas if it is light, the blade will be strong in adversity.[6]

 We have a direct quote, stating that the targets could be to both clothed and bare (perhaps this is also with the use of draw cutting, despite the use of straight blades in the Medieval Period) and would explain the preference to thin edges. In the 18th to 19th Centuries it becomes clear that bare targets (the head, neck, hands and arms, legs in some cases etc) are also primary targets both in a social setting and on the battlefield, when it comes to North Africa. Therefore the above cuts would be aimed at these targets with more draw-cuts aimed at clothed areas like the body, both in the Medieval to the Modern Period, showing a lineage of moves that stayed relatively intact


[1] Ibn Hudayl, Gala de Caballeos, Blason de Paladines, Ed and translated into Spanish by Maria Jesus Viguera (Madrid: Editora Nacional, 1977), p. 217-219

[2] Muelhlhaeusler, Mark and Hoyland, Robert, “Swords in Arabic Poetry” in G. Hoyland, Robert and Gilmour, Brian, Medieval Islamic Swords and Swordmaking: Kindi’s treatise ‘On swords and their kinds’ (Cambridge: E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust, 2018 reprint) pp. 115-116

[3] David Nicolle (1994) The reaslity of Mamluk warefare: Weapons, armour and tactics, Al-Masaq, 7:1, 77-110, DOIL 10.1080/09503119408577007, p. 181

[4] Ibn Hudayl, Gala de Caballeos, Blason de Paladines, Ed and translated into Spanish by Maria Jesus Viguera (Madrid: Editora Nacional, 1977), p. 217-219

[5] Luis Pacheco de Narvaex section, Against the Alfanje, trans by Xose Nieto, ed by Ton Puery and Rob Runcares p. 2

[6]  G. Hoyland, Robert and Gilmour, Brian, Medieval Islamic Swords and Swordmaking: Kindi’s treatise ‘On swords and their kinds’ (Cambridge: Gibb Memorial Trust, 2018) p. 25

2 Replies to “Basics Medieval Mamluk Sword and Shield”

  1. This is very fine work Nicholas. Have you not thought of creating a series of books to spread the art? I am sure this quality of research will gain you a loyal following in a very short time. It is also the ultimate weapon to respond to those who have recently made your life so difficult. I would be first amoungst your buyers. You have a very special and valuable body of work here . Anybody can reap credit from the academic but there are few that can research and produce such a work. You need to protect this legally.
    Best wishes, Rob

    1. Hi Robert, thank you for your kind words. Truth be told, I have considered writing a book on Mamluk/North African Sword work. I want to wait until this 1470 Treatise gets translated before I do any further work, there might be a lot more material that I can work from/correct my own work, plus I’ll actually have a treatise to work from. Though, part of me feels I haven’t earned the right to do so yet, I want to be sure that when I do I know everything is in place. Hopefully, it’ll happen with time.

      Many thanks, Nicholas

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