Sunday, August 19, 2012

David Black Mastro - George Silver & The London Masters of Defence - Native 16th/17th century English Fighting Arts

George Silver & The London Masters of Defence - Native 16th/17th century English Fighting Arts

By David Black Mastro

The English of the 16th and 17th centuries had an especially rich martial tradition, focusing on weapons like the "short sword" (actually a basket-hilted broadsword/backsword with a rather long 37"- 40" blade), the "short staff" (aka quarterstaff - not particularly "short" either, being 8’-9’ of ash), and the dreaded "Welsh hook" (aka "forest bill" - a type of bill with a rather light head). English fighting men proved their skill - and the effectiveness of their methods - on numerous occasions against foreign swordsmen, with such obvious examples as:

1. Austin Bagger, who used his sword-and-buckler to defeat Rocco Bonetti, who was armed with a two-handed sword during their encounter. Bagger certainly roughed up Bonetti, but let him live.

2. The mysterious Englishman known only as "Cheese", who pitted his sword-and-dagger against the rapier-and-poinard of Jeronimo (who was Vincentio Saviolo’s assistant at their rapier school in London). "Cheese" killed Jeronimo.

3. The English sailor Richard Peeke, who was shipwrecked in Spain in the early 17th century. Before the Duke of Medina Sidonia, Peeke used a quarterstaff to defeat three Spanish rapier-and-dagger men who attack him at the same time. Peeke killed one of his opponents outright, and disabled the other two.

George Silver wrote two books - the Paradoxes of Defence which was published in 1599, and his Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence, which was not published in his lifetime, but was written c. 1605. The Paradoxes is basically a protest at the mindless abandonment of proven English methods for the new-fangled Italian rapier, whereas the Brief Instructions is Silver’s "how to" manual for using all melee weapons used at that time. Modern-day rapier afficianados have often misunderstood and misrepresented Silver, calling him "xenophobic". The first fencing historian to give an unbiased and intelligent appraisal of Silver was J.D. Aylward, who wrote The English Master of Arms in 1956 (an excellent text which I recommend to everyone). Of the practical aspects of Silver’s ideas, Aylward correctly noted:

His own maxims are surprisingly modern. A man faced with a sharp point must keep well out of distance, taking care that neither hand, body, nor foot is within reach of his opponent, be ready to instantly either to come forward to attack, or to "flie back" on the defence, and to make a lightning "stop hit" on the enemy’s advance. Long before the movements known as "parry and riposte" had become characteristic of modern sword-play, he teaches his disciples to "ward and Aftr to strike or thrust from yt".

The case for a re-evaluation of Silver continued later, during the 1990s, when writer and former mensur duellist J. Christoph Amberger produced his excellent historical fencing newsletter, Hammerterz Forum. While the publication of this excellent periodical eventually (and unfortunately) stopped, Amberger ultimately produced one of the finest books on Western swordfighting traditions ever written - his Secret History of the Sword - Adventures in Ancient Martial Arts. Amberger’s well-thought-out commentary on the value of Silver finally caused many other HEMA/WMA researchers to take notice, and now Silver is viewed in a much different light by many in the HEMA/WMA community.

Silver’s writings are full of practical advice and common sense. His description of the English notion of the "True Fight" (i.e., a fighting method based on sound principles) is really eye-opening. The "True Fight" is composed of "Four Grounds" - Judgement, Distance, Time, and Place, which Silver described as thus:

The reason whereof these 4 grounds or principals be the first and chief, are the following, because through judgement, you keep your distance, through distance you take your time, through time you safely win or gain the place of your adversary, the place being won or gained you have time safely either to strike, thrust, ward, close, grip, slip or go back, in which time your enemy is disappointed to hurt you, or to defend himself, by reason that he has lost his place, the reason that he has lost his true place is by the length of time through the numbering of his feet, to which he is out of necessity driven to that will be agent.

Silver then went on to describe the "Four Governors":

1. The first governor is judgement which is to know when your adversary can reach you, and when not, and when you can do the like to him, and to know by the goodness or badness of his lying, what he can do, and when and how he can perform it.

2. The second governor is measure. Measure is the better to know how to make your space true to defend yourself, or to offend your enemy.

3. The third and forth governors are a twofold mind when you press in on your enemy, for as you have a mind to go forward, so

4. must you have at that instant a mind to fly backward upon any action that shall be offered or done by your adversary.

Silver’s notion of the "twofold mind" is especially compelling. It refers to the unpredictability of real fights, and the flexibility that one must have with one’s actions, in order to cope with any sudden changes in the situation.

Silver also defined the "True Times" as thus:

the time of the hand,

The time of the hand and body,

The time of the hand, body, and foot, (and)

the time of the hand, body, and feet.

It goes without saying that Silver’s "True Times" are still observed in correct fencing, to this very day. That hand MUST move before the feet.

For those who still dismiss Silver because of his negative opinions on the rapier, let me offer you this - the rapier is NOT the sole manifestation of Italian or Spanish fencing genius. We should keep in mind that both the Italians and Spanish had traditions of military cut-and-thrust swordplay, which Silver likely would not have found so many problems with, as he did with the civilian rapier schools. The Bolognese school of Marozzo, for example, taught the use not of the thin-bladed rapier, but of a stout cut-and-thrust sword, as well as all other "weapons of foot" (eg., the two-handed sword, the dagger, & polearms). We should also keep in mind that there were Italian critics of the rapier, like Cesare d’Evoli, who wrote his Delle ordinanze et battaglie in 1583. The rapier can be an effective weapon within the limited circumstances for which it was designed (i.e., as a civilian self-defense tool, best used against other swords of the same type), but the fact remains that more practical cut-and-thrust swords have always been more common historically, and with good reason - they are far more suitable for a much wider variety of situations, such as civilian self-defense, use on the battlefield, use against a wide variety of melee weapons, and so forth.



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