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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