What Sorts of Men Ought not to be Admitted to Trial of Arms

*Originally posted November 9, 2010

This is a transcription that I did from a passage of The Third Book of Of Honor and Arms that I thought might make interesting reading for a [Saturday] morning.  I took the liberty of modernizing some of the language in hopes of making it easier to read.  If anyone would like it in the original please feel free email me.  My contact information can be found on the about page.


Reference: Author Unknown. The Booke of Honor and Armes. Published by Richard Jones. 1590. Available from http://eebo.chadwyck.com/home. Downloaded Sept. 2007

What Sorts of Men Ought not to be Admitted to Trial of Arms

Because the trial of arms is the realm of the gentleman and gentility itself is an honorable state it is not fit that any person of base or mean condition (i.e. any ungentlemanly person) should be admitted into that realm.  Just as judges of civil trials will often reject the testimony of an infamous witness, so to should a man of mean or base quality be disallowed from accusing an honorable man.  After all, how can such a man charge another of a crime when he himself has committed an offence against his own reputation?

1.       It has therefore been determined that no man having committed treason against his prince or country should be admitted.

2.       Also any man who has had intelligence or conference with the enemies of this prince or who having been taken by his prince’s enemies chooses to remain with them even if he has the means to return to his prince’s service.

3.       He who becomes a spy for the enemy, takes an oath against his prince, or takes his prince’s money and leaves before serving his full time.

4.       He who abandons the army of his prince and flees to the enemy, or who after having been discharged goes to the enemy during a skirmish or fight.  He shall be reputed as infamous and as a traitor.

5.       He that abandons the ensign of his prince or captain or that either during the day or night maliciously departs from the place of his charge about the prince’s person or in camp.

6.       All thieves, beggars, bawds[1], victuallers[2], excommunicated persons, usurers, men banished from the army, and every other man engaged in an occupation or trade unfit and unworthy of a gentleman or soldier.

7.       Finally, whosoever is defamed of any notable crime or who is by law not allowed to bear witness.

These are the men who should rightfully and lawfully be disallowed from challenging any gentleman or soldier and should also be abhorred by every honest person.  If a man of good reputation should fight with such person be besmirches his own character in doing so.  However, if a gentleman would refuse a challenger on these grounds he must confidently know that this man has been condemned for such crimes or at least he has been condemned for crimes so notorious that the repulsed party cannot deny it.  It should be known though that if any man of such infamy were to be challenged by a gentleman or a soldier, he may not himself refuse, unless after the challenge the challenger commits some infamous act which must be observed by both parties.

Citation: Unknown. The Booke of Honor and Armes. http://eebo.chadwyck.com/home. (1590) p.30-32

[1]Bawd: a person dealing in the prostitution industry.

[2] Victualler: a person licensed to sell alcoholic beverages.  Also used to refer to the landlord of a public house or similar establishment

Dueling According to Saviolo’s Honor and Honorable Quarrels: After the Lie is Given Gentlemen Should not Immediately Take up Arms

Image from Saviolo's PracticeTo date we have discussed giving the lie, how and why the man who receives the lie becomes the challenger, and some of the different kinds of lies.  Today I would like to begin our discussion of what happens once the lie is given.

Some might think that once the lie is given that a man should immediately run for his weapon.  But this is not so.  The basic presumption of the duel is that both men are gentlemen intent on proving and preserving their good reputations.  In his section entitled “That straightwaies upon the Lye, you must not take armes” Saviolo asserts that reason is the realm of gentlemen while violence is the realm of beasts.  A true gentleman should do everything within his power to prove his reputation and the truthfulness of his case.  The sword should not be the first thing he reaches for.  Rather he should endeavor to prove himself through other methods first.  If those avenues do not work then it may come to the sword, but that should be the last avenue he comes to.  While some might think that it shows weakness and would be a crime to even consider other option than the sword, Saviolo continues to assert that such thinking does not reflect well on those that believe it.  Rather than showing their honor and strength of character he maintains that such thinking makes them appear common, hot tempered, and imprudent.  A gentleman should have more control over himself and by pursuing other avenues for satisfaction before reaching for his sword he shows himself as a true gentleman and not a rash and unthinking brute.

Joseph Swetnam: On Holding the Rapier

Swetnam suggests three ways that a fighter may hold the rapier. The first is called the Natural Fashion. This grip is formed by holding the rapier with the thumb forward or on the rapier blade. The second manner is formed with the whole hand held within the pommel of the rapier and the thumb locking the fore-finger in. You may also hold the rapier so that the thumb and fore-finger join at the smallest part of the grip. The third and final method is called the Stokata Fashion. This grip is formed by having only the forefinger and thumb within the pummel of the rapier. The rest of your fingers are held around the pommel and the button of the pommel is held against the inside of the little finger. 

These descriptions may seem vague and confusing at first but upon closer examination we can see that that is not necessarily the case. In the Natural Fashion the sword should be griped so that the palm and fingers of the hand wrap around the grip of the sword and the thumb is held so that it is touching the base of the sword. This adds extra stability and strength to the guard making it ideal for executing cuts. The second and unnamed guard is framed similarly to the Natural Fashion but rather holding the thumb so that it touches the base of the bade the thumb is also wrapped around the grip of the sword where it held so that it touches the first finger. Finally, in the Stokata Fashion the grip of the sword is only held with the thumb and first finger while the rest of the hand is held wrapped around the pommel of the sword. 

A fighter should spend time practicing these grips until he is skillful with all three. Now it’s true that a fighter will be likely to favor one grip over the others just as a personal preference but it’s very important that he still be skillful with all three. There will be times when one grip will be better for executing a particular attack or defense than the others and it may or may not be the same grip that the fighter generally prefers. For example, Swetnam prefers the natural fashion for executing wrist blows because this method of holding the sword adds more strength to the blow than the other two methods and allows a fighter to execute the attack more swiftly.

Dueling According to Saviolo’s Honor and Honorable Quarrels: Certain Lies and General Lies

Image from Saviolo's PracticeLast week we discussed giving the lie.  However, as Saviolo goes on to discuss, there are many different types of lies.  Today I would like to talk about some of the different kinds of lies that may be given. 

There are several different types of lies.  Lies can be certain or conditional and also either general or special. 

Certain lies are lies that are made in affirmative speech or writing.  As an example Saviolo includes the lie “Thou hast spoken to my discredit and in prejudice of my honor and reputation, and therefore doest lie”.  This is a certain lie because it affirms something that has knowingly happened.  However, a statement such as this is also considered a general lie because it does not refer to a specific incidence. 

A general lie however, lacks lawful weight.  According to Saviolo, for a lie to be considered lawfully given it is necessary that the party giving the lie specifically declare exactly why it was given, outlining the exact cause for the giving of the lie.  So for a lie to have full and lawful weight behind it the party giving the lie needs to be able to refer to a particular incident of injury of deeds or words that can be proven to have occurred or been said.  Saviolo includes the following as an example of a sure, certain, lawfully given lie: “Alexander, thou hast said that I, being employed by his highness in his service at Pavia, have had secret conference with the enemy; wherefore I say that thou hast lied”.  This lie refers to a specific incidence and to specific spoken words.  It is also what Saviolo refers to as a special lie.  This status gives it weight and makes it lawful.

Dueling According to Saviolo’s Honor and Honorable Quarrels: Giving The Lie

Image from Saviolo's PracticeDueling in the 16th century was often used as a form of private judicial combat between two individuals in order to settle disagreements over reputation and honor.  “Giving the lie” began the process of the duel itself and there were two basic injuries over which the lie was given: injuries caused by words and injuries caused by deeds. 

Injuries Caused by Words:

As an example of an injury caused by words Edward says to Michael that he is a spy and a traitor.  Michael answers by saying Edward lies (this is the giving of the lie).  In this scenario Edward now becomes the Challenger because the burden of proof has been placed on him to prove that he has not spoken falsely. 

Injuries Caused by Deeds: 

As an example of an injury caused by deeds Edward strikes Michael by beating him violently in some way.  How he strikes him does not really matter, only that he does.  Michael answers the offence by accusing Edward of abusing him or using violence against him (effectively the accusation is that Edward has not behaved as a gentleman should).  Here though it is Edward that gives the lie, saying that Michael lies about the abuse and thus his behavior.  Now the burden of proof is on Michael and he becomes the Challenger. 

The Role of Challenger: 

The role of challenger does not fall based on the righteousness of an individual’s cause.  The role of challenger is assumed by whoever is given the lie falsely.  The man who receives the lie wrongfully must prove that he is not a liar, thus he is the one that must challenge the man who gave him the lie. 

Saviolo maintains that the reason the role of challenger falls to the man who wrongfully receives the lie is because in court every man is assumed to be honest, honorable, and just until it is proved that he is not.  So if a man is accused of a crime he has only to deny it to be set free, unless there is other proof of his guilt.  Thus the man who receives the lie must prove that his original words were true.

On The Advantages And Disadvantages of Height

I know a lot of tall fighters and a lot of not-so-tall-fighters.  I am a not-so-tall-fighter.  I’m not short by any means but at 5’7” I’m usually shorter than the 6’-ish fighters I generally face.  I know a lot of average and shorter fighters think that height gives tall fighters and automatic advantage but that isn’t really true.  All statures have their own inherent advantages and disadvantages.

A look at historical thoughts on the subject

In his Paradoxes of Defense Silver sets up a dialogue between a master and student about whether a tall man or an average man has the advantage in a fight if both men have a “perfect knowledge” about their weapons. Silver maintains that the tall man always has the advantage over the average man because the taller man has a longer reach, does not have to move as far to gain the “true place”, his pace is longer, and because he is taller his proper sword length is longer than that of an average man. Because of this advantage, the shorter man must be careful not to fail in any part of his fight or he is in great danger. As long as he maintains a true fight and fights in the true time he will still be able to defend himself even though his taller opponent has the advantage.

A perusal of Saviolo’s Practice shows that, in general, he likely would have agreed with Silver’s thinking. He says that if a tall man is fighting a shorter man, the taller fighter may have a great advantage over his shorter opponent due to his longer reach and greater stride, provided that he know how to properly put himself “in ward”. However, if he doesn’t understand proper warding the shorter man could have the advantage. If the taller fighter loses his point the shorter fighter could easily attack him from underneath with a stoccata or a passata.

My thoughts

Personally I tend to believe that each stature holds its own inherent advantages and disadvantages.  A taller fighter generally has the advantage of a larger range.  While tall, average, and even shorter fighters are all fairly just as likely to use the same lengths and kinds of blades, taller fighters are more likely to have longer arms and longer legs, giving them a greater range from which to fight.  Often a shorter fighter will find he needs to use a longer blade to equal the ranger of the taller fighter with a more standard blade.  A taller fighter as has the advantage of being able to more easily make attacks from a higher line than the shorter fighter which does give him some advantage.  However, that doesn’t mean he has all the advantage.  A shorter fighter does have to come further inside a taller opponent’s range in order to make his attack, but once inside his opponent’s range his stature and arm length then become more of an advantage allowing him greater maneuverability in closer quarters.  In this situation a shorter blade can provide even greater advantage for the shorter fighter because he does not have to draw back as far to execute additional attacks.  Similarly, attacks from a lower line are also easier for a shorter fighter.  He’s already closer to the lower line than his taller opponent so executing and attack from that line is not as difficult.

A major part of being successful in fencing is making what you have work for you.  Every body type has its own inherent advantages and disadvantages but not all fighters see that.  Just because you are shorter than your opponent doesn’t mean you can’t be successful.  Pit your advantages against their disadvantages and make them pay for it.

Joseph Swetnam: The Principal Rules of True Defense

Before beginning his discourse on fighting, Swetnam takes the time to lay down “seven principal rules where on true defense is grounded”. These seven principles cover such cornerstones as distance, time, and place as well as several other precepts that make up the foundation of almost every martial art.

The first principal is that a fighter must learn and be able to maintain a good guard for the entire length of time that he is in danger of being attacked by his opponent.  It is not simply enough for a fighter to have academic knowledge of the guard, that is not enough to provide protection against an opponent. Only being able to properly frame a guard that provides a good ward against an opponent will protect a fighter. It is also imperative that the fighter be able to maintain his guard for the duration of the fight. The guard is only able to provide protection as long as it is in use. If a fighter ceases to maintain his guard during the fight he makes himself vulnerable to attack from his opponent.

Secondly, a fighter must have a good understanding of distance. A fighter must be able to stand so that he is outside of his opponent’s range but close enough that he can still reach him with a step forward and an attack. When he does attack his forward foot and hand must move together. He should also take care to keep his rear foot firm on the ground so that he may more easily regain an en-guard position once he has finished his attack.  The best way to gain a true understanding of distance is by practicing with other fighters. However, if that is not possible, a fighter may gain a good knowledge of distance by practicing alone and using a wall to represent one’s opponent. When using a wall for practice a fighter should be standing with his rear foot approximately 12 feet from the wall and should be practicing with a rapier approximately 4 feet long.  Distance is a fundamental concept of fighting. It is important that a fighter understand and be able to determine not only their body’s distance from their opponent, but also the distance covered by his and his opponent’s range of attack. It is vital that a fighter have an understanding not only his own range, but also the range of his opponent. Once he understands these ranges he will be able to determine not only when he is within range to attack his opponent but also when he is within their range and in danger of being attacked himself. Once a fighter has obtained an understanding of range and distance he can then manipulate them to his advantage.

The Third Principal Rule that a fighter must keep in mind is that he must have a good understanding of place. There are several “places” that a fighter must understand: the place of the weapons, the place of defense, and the place of offence. However, Swetnam is chiefly concerned with the place of offence, meaning the place on a fighter’s opponent which is most vulnerable to attack; the place the fighter is most able to hurt his opponent without overly endangering himself.  A fighter needs to have a good understanding of how to spot or create openings in his opponent’s defense. Otherwise he runs the risk of creating openings in his own defense while executing ineffective attacks on his opponent. If a fighter wants to be effective at endangering his opponent it is imperative that he understand is opponent’s vulnerable areas and be able to attack them and manipulate them to his advantage.

To take the time”, the fourth rule, dictates that a fighter should take care to strike his opponent the moment his is given an opportunity to do so. He must take care to both defend himself and attack his enemy in the same time. He also must take care to attack quickly and not allow his opponent to regain his guard or else he will lose his advantage.  If a fighter does not take care to defend himself when he attacks his opponent then he runs the risk of leaving himself vulnerable to a counter attack and places himself at a disadvantage to his opponent. Similarly, if he does not take care to attack and defend in the same time but takes multiple times to complete these movements he also leaves himself open to a counter attack by his opponent.

Swetnam’s Fifth Principal Rule concerns “keeping the space”. The space can refer to two things. The first is the space between a fighter and his opponent which is covered in the rule concerning distance. The second concerns the space between attacks, which is what Swetnam discusses in his fifth rule. Swetnam cautions that a fighter must take care to mind the space between his attacks, meaning that when a fighter charges his opponent with a blow or a thrust he must take care that after his attack he takes time to regain his guard and defense before attacking again. He cautions that a fighter must attack with discretion, mindful of what he is doing, and that he should not charge forward needlessly or rashly. If a man does not attack mindfully and allows his emotions to control his actions during the fight then he makes himself vulnerable, no matter how skilled he may be otherwise.

It is also imperative that a fighter posses patience, the subject of the sixth rule. A fighter must have patience in order to govern his own emotions, an ability that is vital to a fighter’s success.  If he can not govern himself he leaves himself vulnerable to his opponent and allows his opponent an undue advantage.

Finally, a fighter must practice and practice often. Not only is practicing good exercise for maintaining health but it also helps a fighter firmly entrench the skills that he has learned of the Arte of Defense. If a fighter finds himself in need of the skills he has learned they will be readily available to him if he has taken the time to practice.

The Seven Principal Rules that Swetnam discusses may seem like common sense but they are the same basic principals that help to make up the foundations of all the martial practices that make up the Arte of Defense. If a fighter does not understand the purpose of a proper guard and can not form one to protect himself then he is open to attack from every angle. Similarly all fighters have to be able to understand distance in order to know where they are in relation to their opponent and at what point they or their opponent is within range of attack. He also has to be able to understand when he or his opponent is vulnerable to attack so that he is able to both protect himself and assault his opponent. The rules are basic but that is because they help make up the very basics of the fighting art and are necessary to both attack and defend.

George Silver: On the Placement of the Feet

I thought I would take some time today to talk about my theory on Silver’s stance.  While Silver discusses wards in his discussion of the Four General Fights, he does not directly discuss the placement of the feet. In his discussion of his general rules he does stress that a fighter should stand comfortably, constantly thinking about his opponent’s stance and attacks but he does not directly mention the placement of the feet in his Bref Instructions so we are left to conjecture on how he would have had his students stand 

Image from Arte dell’ Armi (1568)Of his contemporaries and predecessors, his fighting style and mindset seem to be most similar to that of Marozzo. They both rely heavily on cutting attacks but do not exclude thrusts. Their movements seem similar, and although Silver has far fewer wards, some of his wards bear a resemblance to those used by Marozzo, certainly more so than those used by some of his other contemporaries. Thus I think we can surmise that his stance is probably also fairly similar to that of Marozzo. In this stance, as with modern fencing, the fighter wants to present as small a target as possible with their upper body. The front foot is also pointed at the fighter’s opponent with the rear foot at a 60° to a 90° angle from the front foot. The feet and lower body are still spaced similarly to the modern stance with one interesting exception. Marozzo has his fighter’s move their heels out of line apparently to provide a steadier stance.  I have been using this stance predominantly when I fight for several years now and I can say that it does add stability especially when executing many foot movements of the period including the demi volte and the slope step.

*Note: The above image is from Marozzo’s Arte dell’ Armi (1568).  For some unknown reason I am having trouble with image captions right now.  I hope to have this fixed shortly but I did not want to have to put off posting any longer because of it.

George Silver: The Four Times

In his discussions of time in his Bref Instructions, George Silver outlines Four Times: The time of the hand, the time of the foot, the time of the hand and foot, and the time of the foot and hand

The time of the hand is the amount of time it takes to strike with the hand, ether from a ward or in place. 

The time of the foot is the amount of time it takes for a fighter to step forward to strike or to move towards their left side. 

The time of the hand and foot is when you move in order to strike rather than simply pressing forward.  It also refers to when you slide or move backwards and the hand and foot are equally agile.  

The time of the foot and hand refers to when you fight in guardant and use a slow motion for both the foot and hand.  

Something I always think about with respect to these times is that it seems in the time of the hand and foot the hand is positioned and/or moves before the foot.  When you strike your hand is moving before your foot so as to better maximize the time of you attack and so as not to telegraph your attack to your opponent.  When you retreat your hand still remains in front of your feet in order to better keep your sword between you and your opponent.  In the time of the foot and hand the position is reversed.  In the True Guardant fight the hand is above the head and thus above the feet and behind the front foot.  In the Bastard Guardant fight it is at shoulder height but still behind the front foot. 

Stephen Hand also discusses the following times in his book English Swordsmanship: The True Fight of George Silver, Vol. 1

The Time of the Hand is the amount it takes to move the hand and it is the fastest of the four times he discusses.  The Time of the Hand and Body is the time it takes to move the hand and then the body and thus it is the second fastest time.  Similarly the Times of the Hand, Body, and Foot and of the Hand, Body, and Feet are the times that it takes to move all of those limbs in turn and they are the third fastest and slowest times respectively.  Just as with Di Grassi’s circles of the arm, as you involve more of the body it takes longer to make the movement.

George Silver: No Perfect Fight Without Both Blow and Thrust

Silver is most often known as a proponent of the blow rather than and advocate for the thrust.  His fighting style, by virtue of favoring the English Broadsword as the weapon of choice, incorporates far more cutting attacks than thrusts.  He is also quite infamous for his Paradoxes of Defense in which he lays out all of his arguments for why the true fight of English Broadsword is superior to that of the rapier.  But Silver is actually a very well rounded fighter and teacher.  In his Paradoxes he argues for a complete education for students of the art of defense and he also argues, quite effectively, that the true fight must incorporate both blows and thrusts.

Perfect fight standeth upon both blow and thrust, therefore the thrust is not only to be used.

-George Silver, Paradoxes of Defense

An illustration from Di Grassi's treatise (1570's) showing a situation in which attacking with a cut would be preferable to a thrust.
An illustration from Di Grassi's treatise (1570's) showing a situation in which attacking with a cut would be preferable to a thrust.

Silver argues that the perfect fight must incorporate both blows and thrusts.  Neither attack is perfect for each and every situation.  Sometimes you will find yourself in a position where striking with a blow is the most effective attack and other times it will be a thrust.  You may find yourself in a position where a quick thrust to your attackers hand will end the fight.  In some positions though you may find that if you attack with a thrust it will cost you time, requiring two movements, when a blow would only require one and cost significantly less time.  This is very effectively illustrated with a woodcut from Di Grassi’s treatise.

While Silver may have originally intended this paradox to argue for the importance of the blow it also very effectively argues for the inclusion and importance of the thrust.  No one attack can be relied on for every situation so it is imperative that you be able to execute both effectively so that both will be available to you when you face your opponent.

*Sorry I’m still off schedule guys.  I blame actually setting the schedule in the first place. 🙂  But hopefully this should be the last off schedule post for a while.