Wednesday, May 10, 2000

The True Arte of Defence

by Ralph Lovegrove

For most people, the term “Martial Arts” will conjure up images of inscrutable oriental masters of combat, remote Tibetan monasteries, and black silk-clad barehanded warriors who whoop and sail through empty air with deadly grace. Yet “Martial Art” is western term, and in its broadest sense applies to any form of military technique in combat. Oriental Martial Arts are long established in the public eye because of their apparent exclusivity, their esoteric practises and their spiritual traditions. Sadly it seems that in the west we have not taken quite as much care of our own martial heritage, discarding our Bills and Bows in favour of firearms, aircraft carriers and push-button warfare.
There is, however, a quiet army of enthusiasts working in the background who are steadily unearthing and reinterpreting ancient texts, sagas, prose and accounts of battles in an effort to recreate our European martial systems of old. It’s only recently, though, with the advent of the Internet that the Western traditions have suddenly become accessible to the scholar, who now has a wealth of information at their fingertips in the form of online texts and advice from groups throughout the western world. A glance at the works of Talhoffer or Silver will immediately show that our swordsmen of old were not ham-fisted barbarians, hacking and slashing their way through the annals of history. They were indeed artists, understanding combat as a science with basic underlying principles through which they applied their techniques. The martial traditions of Europe have as much practicality, elegance, poetry and in many cases spirituality as those of the Orient.
This article is mainly derived from the English martial arts and the use of the sword, as those are my primary sources of information. Obviously the historical detail I can provide in such a small space (and being only an amateur) is limited, but there is plenty of good stuff available from books and web sites, a list of which I will provide at the end of the text. Whether you want to run an historical game or simply take inspiration from the Ancient Masters, hopefully you’ll find something of interest.

Three Englishmen

Before we begin, I’d like to introduce you to three fine upstanding English gentlemen:
George Silver, Gentleman
Silver’s treatise of 1599 entitled Paradoxes of Defense, and the Brief Instructions that followed it, are regarded by many scholars as definitive works. Within the texts Silver lays down the law on the effectiveness of different lengths of weapons, the science of the fight including the Grounds and Governors, and a few good anecdotes. Silver was without a doubt an educated and intelligent man. Some modern scholars hold that he hated the Italians and Spanish, but in truth the thing he hated most was the rapier. The continental masters of fence certainly did not have many kind words to say about our own English backsword, which Silver defends most eloquently whilst pointing out the shortcomings of the rapier styles.

Sir William Hope
Actually, Sir William was a Scot. However, his New and Easy Method of Fencing was derived from the style of the English broad sword (backsword), and he is remarkable for being a small-sword master in a period when nearly all other fencing masters were French or Spanish. He wrote numerous books around the turn of the eighteenth century, including The Scots Fencing Master and the New Method.

Terry Brown
A practitioner of both western and eastern arts for over thirty years, Terry Brown is very much alive and giving classes in English arts from his studio in London. Terry’s book, English Martial Arts, is a fantastic read for both its historical content and its technical sections, which include a clarification of some of Silver’s principles of fighting.

Some Useful Terms
Artist - one who is skilled in the Art of Defense. The term Martial Arts is as much a western term as an oriental one.
Command the sword - meaning to seize an opponent’s weapon in order to disarm him
Contre-temps – an attack which occurs in single time, i.e. at the same time as an opponent’s attack. Normally the attacker would be relying on a parrying hand, dagger or simply dodging out of the way in order to preserve his life as he delivers his own attack. Because of the risk involved, the contre-temps is often synonymous with the Exchanged Thrust.
Ignorant - not usually derogatory, this term merely means one who is not skilled in (i.e. ignorant of) the art of defense.
Exchanged Thrust – an exchange where both combatants simultaneously attack and wound or kill one another. Common in rapier duels.
Measure - the distance of a fight. To retreat, or to move aside and out of the line of attack in combat is said to be Breaking Measure.
Time – a “time” is a single action, such as an attack, a parry, or the act of drawing one’s arm back to strike. Some “times” are faster than others. Silver talks extensively on “true” and “false” times.
Voiding - the act of dodging or otherwise avoiding an attack by movement of the body. To void is often taken to mean the circular breaking of measure.
Ward (or Guard) – (noun) the manner in which the weapon is held in combat to allow the combatant to defend himself; (verb) meaning to defend oneself against an attack.

A Brief History of the Art
Terry Brown tells us that “Martial Arts have always been held dear by Englishmen… which is not surprising when one considers how frequently England was invaded”. This tells us something of both our Anglo-Saxon heritage and of the martial heritage of Europe in general. The English arts were the arts “not of a family or village… but of an entire nation”. Clearly this points to some military structure and tradition of the arts which was handed down throughout English history, and probably throughout other parts of Europe as well. Actual treatises on European arts only go back as far as the medieval period; however, our culture is littered with accounts, sagas and prose that illustrate the prowess of the pre-medieval warriors. Not only must these heroes have been brave, but their technical competence must also have been very great. One can appreciate how Anglo-Saxon arts developed through training and exploration by masters of the sword, to be passed down from generation to generation and tested in battle and community prize-playing.
The oldest surviving manuscript on sword-art in Europe is German. Entitled I.33 (“one-thirty-three”), it is an illuminated manual from 1295 which demonstrates techniques in sword and buckler. The illustrations show one combatant with a tonsure, and the general consensus is that it was produced by a German cleric – the German text is repeated in Latin, and refers to the tutor as “Sacerdos” (priest). Perhaps the mixed image of the monastic and the martial is not exclusive to the eastern arts!
A large proportion of the medieval masters of the sword were German and Swiss. This period spans several centuries, from the anonymous I.33 at the end of the 13th century, through Hans Talhoffer who published his Fechtbuch between 1450 and 1470, to Joachim Meyer’s Art of Fighting of 1570. In the latter period the Germanic long sword started to overlap with the emergence of the rapier, and Meyer makes allusions to both weapons (as well as staves, pole-arms and unarmed combat). The most significant point about the medieval style is that sword-art was not taught as a separate art but was combined with wrestling and dagger techniques in training, as it was critical on the battlefield to use any possible advantage to penetrate heavy armour. A lot of medieval armour defeating methods involved using the “half-sword”, which involved gripping the sword close to the tip with the off hand and using it in the manner of a short spear to trap limbs and wrestle whilst striking with point, quillions and pommel[i]

The techniques, and the weapons of the medieval sword-man remained in use by soldiers throughout the Renaissance period (16th cent. onwards), particularly the English. However, around this time the rapier also appeared, and the treatises on rapier emerged from Italian and Spanish masters, as well as one or two Englishmen (such as Joseph Swetnam, who also included admonitions to the use of another great English weapon, the quarterstaff). The Italian masters of fence flooded the civilised world, and the mania for duelling began. The rapier is a very different weapon from the longsword; it balances differently and it is principally used for thrusting. The rapier required a great deal of skill to use, and there is no question that its masters were very skilled martial artists. However, many duellists did not posses such skill. George Silver’s objections to the rapier were mainly directed at those boastful masters of fence who claimed that it was a perfect weapon. Silver himself devotes some of Paradoxes of Defense to the exposition of the flawed arguments of the Italians and Spanish. His principle objection, it seems, was that the masters of the rapier were inflating the prestige of the rapier. As a result, many young men would attend a couple of lessons and, thinking that they had been instructed perfectly, would wear a rapier in public, involve themselves in duels, and die.

The rapier was a weapon for civilians. Gradually it became smaller and lighter - and in many cases longer; Queen Elizabeth issued an edict that all blades over a yard in length be broken when it became apparent that gentlemen were tripping themselves and others up with their ludicrously long trailing scabbards. The “transitional” period from rapier to smallsword occurred around 1700 – essentially the rapier became shorter and lighter and bladework became more subtle. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, duels between gentlemen – and on occasion between their seconds as well - were still bloody affairs that left one or both men dead. Most of the masters of the smallsword were French or Italian, but two notable Englishmen, Donald McBane and Sir William Hope, occupy a prominent place in the annals of history. Gradually the smallsword technique became more refined and less deadly as grace and composure rivalled Art as the recognised qualities of the swordsman. By the 19th century, fencing owed as much to the dancing styles of the period as it did the legacy of the rapier. The foil and epee are the direct (bastard) descendants of the smallsword today.

Warriors have played for sport throughout the ages, but once pistols became the mainstay of the duelling field from 1830 onwards, the sword was a sporting weapon as far as civilians were concerned. It was not, however, the only violent sport that was enjoyed. Pugilism and wrestling were also popular, and manuals on both unarmed martial arts are available. It is most important to note that, by this period, the arts of the sword and those of the fist were taught separately. Although a swordsman might also train to use certain holds, locks and throws in case his weapon be commanded, the art of the sword was very much aristocratic, whereas the barehanded arts were somewhat plebeian. That is not to impugn such arts - indeed, boxing was highly regarded as a sport, and drew large crowds. However, boxing was a bare-knuckle art and it was only when a few of the upper class decided to take lessons that the wearing of mufflers (gloves) in order to prevent broken jaws and noses in the training ring came into fashion.

The battlefield use of the sword continued up until the early twentieth century. Whilst the civilians of the Regency period were attending the classes of Angelo in the smallsword - by then not much heavier than an epee - the troopers were taking lessons from the manual of the 1796 light pattern sabre, a most deadly weapon that (by virtue of excellent design) was capable of cutting the head from a horse. Sabre combat was still an art of war in the Victorian era, as shown by the 1889 treatise Cold Steel by Sir Alfred Hutton. However, for obvious reasons the sword eventually could not be a practical weapon for battlefield use when portable machine-guns and pistols were available. The sword was (mainly) restricted to ceremonial use after the First World War.

It is only relatively recently that the earlier texts on Medieval sword-art have been unearthed as part of the ongoing effort. Why? Well, for one reason, the fashion for the rapier around the time of the Renaissance coincided with the birth of the printing press; prior to this, the medieval sword techniques were copied on manuscripts and were much less easily obtainable. Another, possibly related factor might have been the dictates of society and fashion. The wearing of a sword in the medieval period was a practicality, but in the Renaissance it was a fashion statement. Much to the ire of George Silver the rapier gained a perhaps undue amount of public acclaim at this time, prompting many masters of the weapon to write their own treatises.

The sword seems most favoured among the weapons of history for the sheer volume of material devoted to it. It is by no means a perfect weapon, but it has a particular mystique in history, culture, and fantasy role-playing games. We shall now explore the nature of the sword.

The Evolution of the Blade

Had the process for manufacturing cheap steel swords never been invented, there would be no Art of Fence per se - the sword would remain prohibitively expensive for ownership by the masses. The pattern-welded steel blades of the pre-900 AD era were chieftains’ weapons, labour intensive to make and very valuable. The only way a common warrior was likely to come by such a weapon was by either a gift, or by looting the dead on the field of battle. Swords are linked forever with both authority and legendary figures.

The early steel swords, like their pattern-welded predecessors, had blades with virtually parallel edges. Around the early medieval period when fighters would carry shields, combat was a matter of taking turns striking blows and defending with their shields until they could strike again. As the sword technology developed and the weapon became tapered and lighter, the sword could be employed more easily to both attack and parry and the system of fencing with a single blade emerged. However, there was considerable overlap between the use of sword and shield and single sword, and the methods that worked with the heavier Saxon blades were retained and used effectively with the later, tapered weapons. Hans Talhoffer refers to the use of both single sword and of sword and shield in his 15th century treatises.

Before we proceed further, it would be useful to clarify some sword nomenclature. Most role-players are probably familiar with the generally accepted standard of the Broadsword, usually taken to mean the heavy single- or double-handed broad bladed weapons of the medieval period. In fact the term only came into use in the 18th century, in describing those historical and contemporary weapons which were broad bladed by comparison with the rapier and smallsword. I use it as a general default term for any broad bladed cleaving sword. One specific example of the “broad sword” is the 16th century English Backsword, a single edged blade (with maybe a back edge on the top six inches for draw cuts), between three and four feet long, with a considerable knuckle-guard or cage for hand protection.

Next, we have the Long sword and Short Sword. Again there is no “standard” description other than taking the terms literally, i.e. the long sword is longer than the short sword. Many people will consider the Short Sword to be a little longer than a dagger, a heavy broad bladed cleaving weapon like a Gladius, but in fact it covers numerous styles of weapon from Roman gladii to Italian spontoons to the infamous knife of Jim Bowie. Silver’s distinction between the Long and Short sword was based on its functionality - in Paradoxes he explains how the short sword is superior to the long sword or long rapier because it is quicker to riposte from the parry. Silver’s reference was therefore to the use of shorter blades compared to longer ones, rather than any absolute; most blades were between 3 and four feet long (although there were much shorter blades in use). The only distinction we can make of the Long Sword, aside from its length, is that it frequently had a longer grip and could be employed two-handed as in the style of the German medieval masters.

At the extremes of the scale there are various “Great” swords, which could only be used double handed, and very short swords that might have been employed by archers and pikemen who would kneel or stand very close to one another on the field. All of these weapons, whilst varying in length, still retained their basic relative dimensions and balance, though the techniques for each varied.

Just to confuse things, though, later in history we encounter the Small sword. This little weapon is the predecessor of the modern epee or foil and is of similar dimensions. It is totally different from the short, broad sword of the medieval period. Like the rapier from which it evolved, the smallsword balances near to the hand and was used solely for delivering thrusts (although some were sharpened at the tip to improve penetration). The smallsword was mainly a civilian weapon and saw little military service[ii].

Let us return to the medieval period of the 14th and 15th century. By this point, steel swordmaking was well understood and light swords could be wielded with great agility to both attack and parry. The process of making a lighter and quicker blade was by no means the only technical refinement. Swords were developed with any number of grooves or “fullers” along their blades. This may have been done with the intention of making the weapon lighter, but there is also the notion that these provided a “blood gutter” which allowed the blood to drain freely from one’s victim once one had impaled them and (more importantly) broke the vacuum of the wound and allowed the fighter to extract his weapon from his opponent’s body.

Some blades were triangular, for thrusting only. These weapons could punch through armour in some cases (apparently, some examples of antique armour have small triangular holes at the base of the skull or over the heart…). The estoc was one such weapon, and was about the length of a longsword. Its triangular blade was probably designed to find mail links and joints and pierce them that way. It was most likely used with “half-sword” techniques.

A medieval soldier could expect to have his fingers repeatedly broken during the course of his career. One of the most significant developments was the inclusion of protection for the hand. Initially, the standard cruciform hilt was embellished with rings to protect the hand; later (around the 16th century) the hilt gained bow guards, shells or cups to cover the whole hand or even full cages. These refinements to the hilt and grip were not solely for protection, though. The elaborate hilts often included a ricasso for “fingering” the blade - essentially a little loop of metal over the leading quillion to protect the forefinger, which would rest over the quillion to improve control of the point[iii]. This practise of fingering the blade was very important to the Italian styles of fence, especially the rapier[iv].

The rapier was relatively short-lived (about 150 years) compared to the standard broad swords which preceded it and which continued to be in use during and after its lifetime. It may have developed from any number of cut-and-thrust style swords, such as the Italian Schiavona. It almost certainly did not develop from the Estoc, despite the latter’s triangular blade for thrusting only. The rapier differed from the broad sword in its balance, which was about one inch from the hand - the broad sword, by comparison, balances about eight inches from the hilt[v]. The principles of the fight with the rapier were the same as those of any other weapon, but the actual techniques were very different. Because the rapier became so popular with the civilian masses, it began to develop without input from the military. George Silver’s admonitions to the shorter sword were partly (if not wholly) directed at the rapier as, under the general assumption that the longer weapon would confer the advantage, gentlemen began to sport longer and longer weapons. At one point the long weapons were such a nuisance in the street that Queen Elizabeth ordered all blades over a yard in length be broken. Other refinements included triangular blades (as opposed to diamond-section weapons) which could be made lighter but retain their strength.

In the “transitional” period, the smallsword emerged from the transitional (short) rapier. Gradually the weapon became lighter and more effete, and after a while became irrelevant to civilian life outside the fencing salon. Meanwhile, however, the broad sword remained in military service in the form of the backsword (the latter day “claymore” used by Scottish regiments) and the ubiquitous sabre. A cutting weapon was much more effective on the battlefield than an impaling one, as it took time to draw one’s weapon from the body of a dispatched foe. There was little more refinement in the sword technology of this period, however, as military interest lay more in firearms.

The evolution of the sword is complicated. The outline above hardly takes into account the variation in tastes in European culture, let alone the cultural differences outside Europe in the scimitar, the shamshir, the katana and a host of other long bladed weapons that have been developed outside the European system.

Society and the Swordsman

There are two ways a man may learn to fight: direct conflict, or skilled tuition. For the soldier, the bulk of his experience would probably be earned on the battlefield. It seems that civilian life was no less hazardous, however. Terry Brown’s English Martial Arts begins with a number of references to England’s violent past, where common men were at risk not only from bandits but from senseless acts of violence by their peers, such as Roger Styward who was kicked and punched to death by Simon de Peckham for dropping litter outside his shop. Men generally travelled armed with a sword or similar in England “…save for the Minister… who weareth none at all unlesse it is a dagger or hanger at his side…”.

The “Ancient Masters” of England were a governing body of swordsmen who regulated the teaching of the sword and other arms. Though almost certainly respected, they were not always officially recognised by the state. In fact, they were not even legally recognised for much of history. Even when Henry VIII chose to directly patronise and officially recognise the Company of Maisters (English Martial Artists), they were still technically classified as vagrants.

Strange, then, that the masters of the rapier were so highly regarded by (continental) society. It was something to be proud of that one had studied under the master Saviolo, for example. Whether it was the arrogant attitude of the rapier masters that inflated their own importance, or the public regard for them that went to their heads, their boastful attitude was not well received by the English. There is no denying that the rapier masters were superb swordsmen, but their techniques were brought into question by Silver as being founded on inexact principles. In many cases the rapier man purchased their tuition by the “label” that came with it, thinking that a couple of lessons under an Italian master would make them the equal of an English swordsman of several years’ experience. No doubt that this notion of false security led to many the death of a boastful young man.

Above all, though, the Company of Maisters was an organisation that sought to maintain the quality of its swordsmen through handing down of techniques and striving for excellence in its swordsmen. The way that this was done was the same as the way standards are maintained in modern Oriental schools - i.e. grading. There were four grades of swordsman: Scholar, Free Scholar, Provost, and Master. Each rank conferred certain assurances of competence, and certain requirements were made of the student for passing from one to the next. The student was tested by the playing of a “prize”. Prizes were played publicly, although in order to demonstrate his readiness for the prize the scholar had to first privately play against six of his fellow scholars to the satisfaction of the Masters.

When enrolled in the English school the scholar normally trained in two weapons, although sometimes three weapons were learned. Weapons included the longsword, the backsword, and the sword and buckler.

The Company of Maisters appears to have had the exclusivity of a secret society or Masonic cell[vi]. Above the “ordinary” maisters (masters) there were four (or six) “Ancient Maisters” who appeared to have an autocratic rule, threatening punishment (though nothing more dire than a fine or a few days in prison) for those who rebelled against the traditions of the school. “Rebellion” seems to consist of dereliction of duties or contradicting the Maisters. This may seem unnecessarily dictatorial, but the purpose of the Company was to ensure excellence of teaching.

Challenges were the other form of public sport. These may have been formalised duels, announced to all and sundry before the event (indeed the challenge may have been issued publicly), or they may have simply been sporting events where two swordsmen demonstrated their expertise. The British certainly had a fondness for watching bouts of the sword, staff and fist. Gladiatorial combat with swords was not uncommon and was remarked upon by Samuel Pepys in his diaries. Pugilism gained popularity in the latter part of the eighteenth century, making names for such masters as Broughton, Mendoza and Gentlemen John Jackson (who, as Terry Brown remarks, was only a gentleman in conduct outside the ring).

The mania for the rapier and the duel on the continent was less genteel and ordered. As far as duelling went, it was common to deal through seconds in contacting one’s adversary. In the 16th century, not only did one have two or three seconds assisting in one’s matter of honour, it was often the case that on both sides the seconds would participate in the duel, making four men aside. It was also not uncommon that a high proportion of those men would be killed outright, as was the case when in one duel the two principles engaged one another, wounded each other and set about wrestling; when the seconds came to disengage the two they became embroiled in the melee and nearly all of the seconds were killed. Meanwhile, the two principles, having come to a reconciliation over the first wound, left the field injured but alive.

In the early 18th century it is reckoned that King Louis XIV was issuing one pardon per day for duelling. Duelling was still illegal, and a man could hang should he kill his opponent. There were some duelling conventions that were observed that might save a man from the noose were he brought in front of the magistrate for killing an opponent. It was reasonable to kill a man in the duel, but to kill him once he had surrendered was murder. Seconds existed partly to act as witnesses that all conduct had been above board.

Men were called out for the most petty and contrived offences, such was the craze for fighting. Avoiding another’s gaze in the street. Waking up a neighbour’s dog. Insulting the Mississippi. On occasion seconds were called for, but in some cases (when duelling was illegal and heavily penalised) a gentleman might simply make it known to his adversary that he would be taking a stroll, alone, tomorrow morning at the hour of five and would, by chance, be carrying his sword.

The amount of blood shed varied by period. In the 18th century duels went on until one man was dead; by the 19th, principles were urged by their seconds to reach a reconciliation after a pinking (i.e. minor scratch). In those latter days, between wounds the tips of the smallswords would be wiped with antiseptic.

And so we come to the end of the first section. In our second part, we’ll look at the grounds and governors of the fight, what the masters thought the necessary qualities of the swordsman to be, and how we can apply the principles to role-playing combat.


[i] I refer here to the German styles practised by modern groups such as the Historical Armed Combat Association. I’m told that some Italian styles of longsword from the same period avoid wrestling in favour of retreating to sword distance, but to be honest I’ve not been tutored in either.
[ii] Actually, there are some examples of “military small swords” which may have been worn by officers, but the likelihood that they would have been employed on the battlefield is small. However a sibling weapon called a Spadroon - a sword of the dimensions of the smallsword but balanced to deliver slashing cuts - was used as a military weapon.
[iii] Not all ricassos on blades were functional. A weapon that claims to be an English backsword is on display in Warwick castle and has a ricasso. This is probably purely stylistic, as the English style of fence tended to use a fist or “hammer” grip.
[iv] However, the practise of fingering the blade can be observed centuries earlier, from illustrations on crypts that show knights holding a blade with a finger over the leading quillion.
[v] Based on an approximate measurement of a wooden replica.
[vi] Note though that the Company of Maisters pre-dated the Masons by several centuries!