The I.33 manual is a pretty cool look in to history. A medieval document seemingly written by monks and for monks that totally shatters any idea of these folk were as gentle as we might now like to think. The modern view of medieval monks is that of a life of quiet contemplation, scholarly works and prayer. And yet we have I.33, which shows images of these same monks fighting with sword and buckler. So is I.33 an aberration, or does it show us a side of monk life that we wouldn’t otherwise see?
We can see parallels in other cultures, most notably in the Shaolin Monks of China. In both cases we have a group of people who should in theory abhor violence and yet practice a form of it. To figure out why, we need to look at the character and life of a monk.
Monks, by definition, usually lived in monasteries. These places must have made very tempting targets for roving armies, so it’s natural that monks would need to defend their homes. We have historical accounts of the monks of Shaolin Temple defeating attacks by pirates and no doubt their European counterparts had to do the same from time to time.
I can’t say much about what kind of person would become a monk in the Chinese tradition, but in Europe monks were often the younger sons of lesser lords, without much in the way of land claims. Compelling your offspring to choose a monastic life meant that your land wasn’t divided as much between them upon your death. These younger sons were far removed from the modern idea that people would enter a monastery to live a quiet life removed from violence.
It is, in the end, reasonable to expect medieval monks to be trained in martial arts. At the time, anyone who was of noble birth was expected to be trained in swordplay, so it follows that many monks would be as well. From personal experience I can attest that when you get two sword fighters together the default activity will be to fight with swords. When you combine that with the fact that the monks were generally the best educated people of the era, it follows that they would be the ones to record the system of swordplay practiced.