Finding Swetnam’s True Guard – Fabris Plate 60

This plate is, I think, the most similar of Fabris’ plates to Swetnam’s true guard.

Plate 60 - "...a third of sword and dagger, which should be formed with the weapons joined..."

Plate 60 - "...a third of sword and dagger, which should be formed with the weapons joined..."

Fabris shows a guard in which your dagger is held on level with your cheek – Swetnam says “…keepe the hilt of thy dagger right with thy left cheeke.”

Fabris’s guard shows the weapons joined: “the point of thy Rapier two inches within the point of thy dagger, neither higher, not lower;”

The body is bent forward, with both shoulders presented toward your opponent: “and your body bowing forwards, and both thy shoulders, the one so near thine enemie as the other,”

The forward heel here is roughly in line with the middle of the back foot: “the heele of thy right foote should ioyne close to the middle ioynt of the great toe of thy left foote,”
Like Swetnam, Fabris shows that the fencers “Carrie the edge of thy rapier upward, and downward,”

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The most serious differences are these:

Swetnam says “Keepe thy rapier hand so low as the pocket of thy hose at the armes end, without bowing the elbow joint,” and he goes on to say “likewise, keepe both your points so high as you may see your enemie clearly with both your eyes, betwixt your rapier and dagger,”

Fabris shows both fencers looking over their blades and with right arms bent. In a typically Italian fashion, the point is much more of a threat to the opponent than in Swetnam’s guard, which is essentially a straightening and lowering of the right arm, with a slight change in dagger placement.

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Published in: on January 27, 2009 at 5:44 pm  Comments (2)  
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Swetnam – Does He Lunge?

On page 82 of The English Master of Arms (generally an excellent overview) J. D. Aylward says

Although the Italian masters had been feeling their way towards the lunge, or botta lungha, for at least half a century, and Capo Ferro had developed the movement completely by 1610, Swetnam is not yet aware that the problem of reaching the enemy at a greater distance has been solved.

I was fairly certain Mr. Aylward was mistaken, so I ctrl-F’ed a transcription of Schoole of Defence for the word “lunge.” Nothing. Is Aylward correct, then? It is certainly true that Swetnam never mentions the lunge explicitly. He does, however, say this:

To observe distance, by which is meant that thou shouldest stand so far of from thine enemy, as thou canst, but reach him when thou dost step forth with thy blow or thrust, and thy foremost foote and hand must goe together, and which distance may be twelve foot with a rapier, or with a sword four foote ling, and yet thy best foote which should be the hindermost foot of a right handed ma, should bee mored fast and keepe his standing without moving an inch…

He says that the correct distance is as far from your opponent as you can stand, but still reach him when you thrust or cut while stepping forward with your foremost foot – but make sure that you keep you back foot planted, and don’t drag it!

Add to this the fact that Swetnam expects you to make this sort of attack from 12 feet away, and I think the conclusion is clear. Does it sound like a lunge to you? It sounds like a lunge to me.

Shame on you Mr. Aylward – it appears you just read the titles of Swetnam’s chapters, but never the content.

Published in: on January 26, 2009 at 12:28 pm  Comments (6)  
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How to Hold it

Swetnam says you can hold the rapier in three ways:

These are three waies for the holding of a Rapier, the one with the thumb forward or upon the Rapier blade, and that I call the naturall fashion, there is another way, and that is with the whole hand within the pummell of thy Rapier, and the thumbe locking in of the fore-finger, or else they must both ioyne at the least: this is a good holding at single Rapier.

Then the third is but to have onlie the fore-finger and thy thumbe within the pummell of thy Rapier, and thy other three fingers about thy pummell, and beare the button of thy pommel against the in-side of thy little finger; this is called the Stokata fashion, and these two last are the surest and strongest waies: after a little practice, thou maiest use all three in thy practice, and then repose thy selfe upon that which thou findest best…

The Bluffer’s Guide says:

  • The thumb forward on the rapier blade, this is the “natural” fashion.
  • The whole hand on the grip, with the thumb locking down on the forefinger, or at least touching it. This is a good grip for single rapier.
  • [Swetnam doesn’t say what to do with the fingers and crossguard. Steve Hand suggests that in the first grip the finger is hooked over it, and same with the second grip, with the thumb on the finger rather than on the blade.]

  • The third is to have only fore forefinger and thumb on the grip, the other fingers around the pommel, with the very end of the pommel on the inside of your little finger. THis is called “Stoccata fashion”.

These last two are the strongest, but you should try all three, and use the one that works best for you. But practice them all because they are all useful in a fight depending on the circumstances.

Apparently Stephen Hand thinks that the first 2 grips are with the forefinger over the quillions. I’m not sure I buy that on the first or “naturall” fashion with the thumb on the blade is likely to have a finger over the crosspiece.

The second sounds more plausible. While someone did mention the possibility that none of these grips finger the crosspiece, I’m not certain why Swetnam would talk of “ the thumbe locking in of the fore-finger” if these fingers were not locked over the quillions. Still, I don’t think that figering the crosspiece is necessary to fulfil Swetnam’s grip instructions.

The third grip sounds like “posting” as frequently done in modern epee.

Published in: on January 25, 2009 at 1:07 am  Comments (1)  
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Finding Swetnam’s True Guard – Fabris Plate 59

The next plate that resembles Swetnam’s True Guard is plate 59:

Plate 59 - "...an angled third..."

Plate 59 - "...an angled third..."

Unlike plate 57, there’s not much in the text uniting this stance with Swetnam’s. Fabris does suggest using the dagger to parry with the dagger and riposte below it in third – something that Swetnam also mentions.

However, Fabris spends most of his time talking about how difficult it can be to parry an attack coming in at this angle – something that I do not recall Swetnam ever touching upon.

If this plate had any influence on Swetnam, it would have been as a plate – not an idea. The actual stance is fairly reminiscint of Swetnam’s, with a straightened sword arm and fully extended dagger. Fabris keeps his traditional right foot forward, but also with the left shoulder squared toward the opponent – not standard in Italian fencing (See Capo Fero 4 years later).

I have always imagined Swetnam’s stance as more verticle – something that Eric Meyers also commented (on my post about Fabris plate 57). Swetnam instructs one to “holloweth thy bodie,” while Fabris’ stances feel more like leaning than hollowing to me.

Swetnam’s true guard again for reference:

Keepe thy rapier hand so low as the pocket of thy hose at the armes end, without bowing the elbow joint, and keepe the hilt of thy dagger right with thy left cheeke, and the point something stooping towards the right shoulder, and beare him out stiff at the armes end, without bowing thine elbow joint likewise, and the point of thy Rapier two inches within the point of thy dagger, neither higher, not lower; but if the point of thy rapier be two or three inches short of touching thy dagger, it is not matter, but if they join it is good; likewise, keepe both your points so high as you may see your enemie clearly with both your eyes, betwixt your rapier and dagger, and bowing your head something toward the right shoulder, and your body bowing forwards, and both thy shoulders, the one so near thine enemie as the other, and the thombe of thy rapier hand, not upon thy rapier, according unto the usual fashion of the vulgar sort, but upon the naile of thy fore-finger, which will locke thine hand the stronger about the handle of thy rapier, and the heele of thy right foote should ioyne close to the middle ioynt of the great toe of thy left foote, according to this Picture, yet regard chiefly the words rather than the Picture.

Carrie the edge of thy rapier upward, and downward, for then thou shalt defend a blow upon the edge of thy rapier, by bearing thy rapier after the rule of the Backe-sword, for this is the strongest and surest carriage of him.

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Published in: on January 23, 2009 at 5:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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George Silver

I’m using George Silver‘s “Paradoxes” and “Brief Instructions” as my main reference for English swordsmanship. Many of the elements of Swetnam’s fight answer complaints by Silver regarding the rapier.

Swetnam does not rest his defence on the idea of single time counters, nor do the more Italian attacks in opposition receive much attention in his manual. In fact, Swetnam falls in line with other works in the English martial tradition save for two notable exceptions: his weapon and his stances.

Obviously the different weapon requires different techniques, and Swetnam certainly pulls through on that. The heart of his system seems to be a very simple attempt to pull your important bits as far from the opponent as possible and deceive him about your range.
Swetnam says:

To observe distance, by which is meant that thou shouldest stand so far of from thine enemy, as thou canst, but reach him when thou dost step forth with thy blow or thrust, and thy foremost foote and hand must goe together, and which distance may be twelve foot with a rapier, or with a sword four foote ling, and yet thy best foote which should be the hindermost foot of a right handed ma, should bee mored fast and keepe his standing without moving an inch, for then he will be the readier to draw backe thy fore foot and body into the right place of distance againe for thou must doe upon every charge, whether thou hit thy enemy or not;

In fact, it looks like Swetnam has simplified Silver’s ideas. By using a long sword – generally longer than that of your opponent – you can nearly eliminate the need to “press in” on the defensive, and rely primarily on Silver’s other half – to “fly out.”

Mark Hillyard describes Silver’s attitude toward defence, and the “true fight,” like so:

If your aim is to survive the encounter without hurt or injury, you may only consider executing options that cannot compromise your defence. This does not mean that you will never attack, only that you will attack when you know you cannot be offended during its execution.

Swetnam seems to indicate that you can simplify this process – by having a sword much longer than the opponent’s and by maximizing your reach, you cut down on the number of favorable variables required to attack in the “true fight.” Silver, obviously, disagrees. Yet, Wagner and Hand say “…it is interesting that Silver saves his most vehement abuse forItalian rapier men, and indeed some have accused Silver of being ‘consistent only in his dislike of Italians'”

I think I’ve lost the thread of my argument here – but this is interesting stuff. I’ll follow up on this idea at another time.


Published in: on January 22, 2009 at 8:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Finding Swetnam’s True Guard – Fabris Plate 57

1/13/09

The Bluffer’s Guide to Swetnam offers a modern English interpretation of Swetnam’s true guard:

Keep the rapier hand low, below waist level, and the arm straight. Hold the dagger in line with your dagger-side cheek, the arm straight and the point close to the sword point, two to three inches apart.

Keep the points high, make sure you can see the opponent between them. Hold your head a bit to the swordside with your body forward. You should have your shoulders square on.

Don’t put the thumb of the rapier hand on the blade, but on the nail of the forefinger.

Your sword foot is forward, and the heel of it should be in line with the middle joint of the toe of the off foot.
Carry the sword with the edge up and down, you parry with the edge.

Allen Reed has suggested that Swetnam largely based his practice upon Fabris’. Following are some images from Fabris’ treatise that I have found to bear some similarities to Swetnam’s description of the true guard.

Plate 57 - "...another kind of second guard with the feet parallel and apart."

Plate 57 - "...another kind of second guard with the feet parallel and apart."

Fabris, as translated by Leoni, says:

Here is another kind of second guard with the feet parallel and apart. The body is bent forward with the chest squarely facing the opponent. The arms and weapons form an oval, and the weapons are held high to protect the head. Against this guard, the opponent can only attack between and underneath the blades. The chest is held squarely facing the opponent’s point.

Fabris also advises on our response to the opponent’s attack when we are in this guard. For the most part, he says that a void with a counter in opposition is the way to go from here. This part is not very Swetnam-esque, but the guard itself is, in many ways.

Swetnam says:

…keepe both your points so high as you may see your enemie clearly with both your eyes, betwixt your rapier and dagger…

Or, as Fabris puts it,

…the weapons are held high to protect the head. Against this guard, the opponent can only attack between and underneath the blades.

But wait, there’s more! Fabris says:

This guard is very effective against cuts, since the head is well protected on either side,

And Swetnam, similarly:

The reason that your points should be so high as you may see your enemie plainly and clearly under them, is for a sure defence of a blowe,
Fabris offers this as one of many possible guards, but Swetnam’s is the “true guard.”

Fabris offers this as only one guard of many, but to Swetnam, this is the “true guard.” Swetnam, being an English master in England, explains why a guard that protects well against cuts to the head is important:

…it is the nature of an Englishman to strike with what weapon soever he fighteth with all, and not one in twenty but in furie And anger will strike unto no other place but onely to the head, therefore alwaies if you fight with rapier and dagger, yet expect a blow so well as a thrust…

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Published in: on January 13, 2009 at 9:57 pm  Comments (2)  
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Finding Swetnam’s True Guard

1/12/09

Swetnam’s true guard with rapier and dagger, according to Swetnam:

Keepe thy rapier hand so low as the pocket of thy hose at the armes end, without bowing the elbow joint, and keepe the hilt of thy dagger right with thy left cheeke, and the point something stooping towards the right shoulder, and beare him out stiff at the armes end, without bowing thine elbow joint likewise, and the point of thy Rapier two inches within the point of thy dagger, neither higher, not lower; but if the point of thy rapier be two or three inches short of touching thy dagger, it is not matter, but if they join it is good; likewise, keepe both your points so high as you may see your enemie clearly with both your eyes, betwixt your rapier and dagger, and bowing your head something toward the right shoulder, and your body bowing forwards, and both thy shoulders, the one so near thine enemie as the other, and the thombe of thy rapier hand, not upon thy rapier, according unto the usual fashion of the vulgar sort, but upon the naile of thy fore-finger, which will locke thine hand the stronger about the handle of thy rapier, and the heele of thy right foote should ioyne close to the middle ioynt of the great toe of thy left foote, according to this Picture, yet regard chiefly the words rather than the Picture.

Carrie the edge of thy rapier upward, and downward, for then thou shalt defend a blow upon the edge of thy rapier, by bearing thy rapier after the rule of the Backe-sword, for this is the strongest and surest carriage of him.

Now, a very helpful fellow published a “Bluffer’s Guide to Swetnam,” which I cannot cite because the site has gone missing. It is his attempt to transcribe Swetnam’s fencing instructions into modern English. This interpreted version of Swetnam’s true guard is as follows:

Keep the rapier hand low, below waist level, and the arm straight. Hold the dagger in line with your dagger-side cheek, the arm straight and the point close to the sword point, two to three inches apart.

Keep the points high, make sure you can see the opponent between them. Hold your head a bit to the swordside with your body forward. You should have your shoulders square on.

Don’t put the thumb of the rapier hand on the blade, but on the nail of the forefinger.

Your sword foot is forward, and the heel of it should be in line with the middle joint of the toe of the off foot.
Carry the sword with the edge up and down, you parry with the edge.

Images and further interpretation to follow….

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Published in: on January 13, 2009 at 5:20 pm  Comments (6)  
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Italianated, Mr. Silver?

In “Paradoxes of Defence,” George Silver frequently tirades against the Italian fencing masters and the “Italianated” English masters, with their “Italianated, weak, fantastical, and most devilish and imperfect fights.”

It is therefore interesting to note the 4 “chiefest” variable guards as laid out by Silver:

Stocatta: which is to lie with your right leg forward, with your sword or rapier hilt back on the outside of your right thigh with your point forward to ward your enemy with your dagger in your other hand extending your hand towards the point of your rapier, holding your dagger with the point upright with narrow space between your rapier blade and the nails of your dagger hand, keeping your rapier point back behind your dagger hand if possible.

Or he may lie wide below under his dagger with his rapier point down towards his enemy’s foot, or with his point forth without his dagger.

Imbrocatta: is to lie with your hilt higher than your head, bearing your knuckles upward, and your point descending toward your enemy’s face or breast.

Mountanta: is to carry your rapier pummel in the palm of your hand resting it on your little finger with your hand below and so mounting it up aloft, and so to come in with a thrust upon your enemy’s face or beast, as out of the Imbrocatta.

Passatta: is either to pass with the Stocatta, or to carry your sword or rapier hilt by your right flank, with your point directly against your enemy’s belly, with your left foot forward extending forth your dagger hand with the point of your dagger forward as you do your sword, with narrow space between your sword and dagger blade, and so to make your passage upon him.

Let me repeat those for you: Stocatta, Imbrocatta, Mountanta and Passatta. All used incorrectly (just like Swetnam), but all very much Italian. In fact, Silver’s description of the Stocatta guard is similar to  Swetnam’s “Stokata.”

Who’s Italianated now, Silver?

Published in: on January 9, 2009 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Theatrical Connection

Paul Wagner pointed this out to me. Following is an excerpt from Ben Jonson’s 1598 play “Every Man in His Humour.” Johnson was a known fencer and duellist.

Bob. Look you, sir. Exalt not your point above this state at any hand, and let your poinard maintain your defence, thus…Come on: O, twine your body more about, that you may fall to a more sweet comely gentleman-like guard. So, indifferent. Hollow you body more, sir, thus. Now, stand fast o’ your left leg, note your distance, keep your due proportion of time – O, you disorder your point, most irregularly!
Mat. How is the bearing of it now, sir?
Bob. O, out of measure, ill! A well experienced hand would pass upon you, at pleasure.
Mat. How mean you, sir, pass upon me?
Bob. Why, thus, sir (make a thrust at me) come in, upon the answer, control your point, and make a full career at the body. The best-practiced gallants of the time name it the passada: a most desperate thrust, believe it!
Mat. Well, come, sir!
Bob. Why, you do not manage your weapon with any facility or grace to invite me: I have no spirit to play with you. Your dearth of judgement renders you tedious.

Paul Wagner had this to say about the passage:

What is remarkable about this scene is the striking similarity with Swetnam’s instructions. The terms “judgement”, “note your distance” and “keep your due proportion of time” are all typically English concepts common to Silver and Swetnam, while to “hollow you body” and “stand fast o’ your left leg” are right out of Swetnam’s system of rapier. Additionally, the instructions to “make a thrust at me” and then “come in, upon the answer” seem to describe a parry-riposte approach as advocated by Swetnam.

I think it’s a little overboard to point to the parry/riposte approach as evidence for a connection, as that was an incredibly popular approach, however phrases like “hollow you body” are not so common, and seem particular to Swetnam.

Where does that leave us, then? Swetnam’s treatise was published in 1617, leaving 19 years between the two. We do not know how old Swetnam was at the time of publishing, so it is entirely possible that he was teaching at this point (it is still unclear whether he was a member of the London Masters of Defence). It seems unlikely, however, that he was so well established that we would find his system replicated in contemporary media.

Another possibility, then, is that Swetnam’s system is not actually his own system, but rather an articulation of a pre-existing English method for using the rapier. This would be interesting, but would not really change my goal of examining the English and Italian influences on this system of rapier fencing.

A third possibility is that Swetnam’s system was his own invention, and that he was instructing in 1598 Though he may not have been terribly well known, it is possible that he had a personal acquantance with Ben Jonson. There is no evidence for this, but neither is it particularly unlikely. If this were so, Jonson’s use of Swetnam-esque terminoligy in his play would not be strange at all.

Published in: on January 9, 2009 at 12:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ballet

I recently got some books from the library about ballet history. After hearing comments about Swetnam’s fencing stance resembling a ballet stance, I thought I would investigate.

I know nothing about ballet, so I started online. I found mentioned several times a connection between fencing and ballet. More specifically, it was said that the first ballets were based on the motions and stances of fencing (certainly early ballet was for men, not women).

Not being very reputable sources, I went by the library. I intend to only review the first few chapters of each book (as well as the bibliographies), but I hope that I can track down some kind of connection, even if it is not a causal one.

I was hoping to look at both cultural and martial influences on Swetnam’s fencing stances, but thus far I have found next to nothing on the cultural side.

Published in: on January 8, 2009 at 9:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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