Monday, 5 April 2021

Paradoxes of Defence

 A friend sent me this link to a 1599 fencing manual, by George Silver in which the writer SHITS all over the ITALIAN rapier. Because RAPIERS SUCK!

As well as going in very deep on some quite complex time-and-motion studies through entirely verbal means, and talking a lot about the complex interplay of different weapons and methods, it also contains this interesting part about the change in culture brought about by the Rapier;

"That the reasons used by the Italian fencers in commending the use of the rapier and poniard, because it makes peace, makes against themselves.

It has been commonly held, that since the Italians have taught the rapier fight, by reason of the dangerous use thereof, it has bred great civility among our English nation, they will not now give the lie, nor with such foul speeches abuse themselves, therefore there are fewer frays in these times than were wont to be. 

It cannot be denied but this is true, that we are more circumspect of our words, and more fearful to fight than heretofore we have been. 

But whereof comes it? 

Is it from this, that the rapier makes peace in our minds; or from hence, that it is not so sufficient defence for our bodies in our fight? 

He that will fight when he is armed, will not fight when he is naked: is it therefore good to go naked to keep peace? he that would fight with his sword and buckler, or sword and dagger, being weapons of true defence, will not fight with his rapier and poniard, wherein no true defence or fight is perfect: are these insufficient weapons therefore the better, because not being sufficient to defend us in fight, they force us into peace? 

What else is it, but to say, it is good for subjects to be poor, that they not go to law: or to lack munition, that they may not fight, nor go to the wars: and to conclude, what more follows through the imperfect works of the Italian peacemakers? 

They have made many a strong in his fight weak, many a valiant man fearful, many a worthy man trusting to their imperfect fight, has been slain, and many of our desperate boys and young youths, to become in that rapier fight, as good men as England yielded, and the tallest men of this land, in that fight as very boys as they and no better. 

This good have the Italian teachers of Offense done us, they have transformed our boys into men, and our men into boys, our strong men into weakness, our valiant men doubtful, and many worthy men resolving themselves upon their false resolutions, have most willfully in the field, with their rapiers ended their lives. 

And lastly, have left to remain among us after their deaths, these inconveniences behind them, false fencing books, imperfect weapons, false fights, and evil customs, whereby for lack of use and practice in perfect weapons and true fight, we are disabled for the service of our prince, defence of our country, and safety of our lives in private fight."

What has been disrupted here? for, violence is a social relationship, a social activity as much as love and marriage.

Silver talks in the book about the 'true fight' and whatever that is, is very hard to define, especially through the veil of time and the thorns of specialist lore. Let me see if I can glean some basic points;

- Fighters should be able to take their fighting knowledge to the battlefield.

- Fighters should be able to take on unskilled, but athletic men, and unskilled but brave and/or drunk men as well as to take on other skilled and educated fighters.

- Fighters should be taught grappling and " striking with the foot or knee in the cods".

- There is a lot here about 'the Times' and 'the Governors' that I don't really understand but I think generally he is in favour of fighters dancing around less and prioritising hand movements over foot movements I think.

- People should bear weapons of the right size, to take advantage of their bodies movements (I think) and not over-sword by getting into too-long weapons

Someone better read in the social milieux of the time (1599) might be able to tell us something about what is driving these changes. To me it looks like people are taking up fencing at least in part precisely because it is more ritualised, further from the battlefield, less 'common', has less grappling and cod-kicking and ends with less bits chopped off (though still many deaths). At least you die pretty.

The argument about lethality and skill though, that is truly fascinating, it highlights to me something about fundamentally different attitudes to risk, skill, danger and lethality.

The rapier seems to have introduced something like nuclear mutually assured destruction. It is very lethal, often even in unskilled hands, and Silver thinks its more likely to lead to the deaths of both parties.

The fighting he prefers is something else; more skill-based, with different weapons (he favours the short sword) which can also be used on the battlefield, more likely to lead to clear defeat for one party, but, if I am reading this right, easier to control? Easier for the more skilled party to manage and limit the sanguinary nature of the violence?

"..are these insufficient weapons therefore the better, because not being sufficient to defend us in fight, they force us into peace?"

Silver mislikes this because - perhaps safety won through mutual powerlessness before violence, safety won through mutual danger and the equalising, or neutralising of hard-won skills, is not true safety?

Or that it is a poor safety because it is the safety of weak men, bought through fear and maintained through mutual fear and therefore fragile, or corrupt in some way?

Hobbes (who I am also crawling through at the moment) would love this. He might say that men varying in strength but no man being so strong that the weakest might not kill him, it is through mutual fear that men submit to greater authority. and that the rapier has returned these men closer to the state of nature.

It truly is a "paradox of defence".


  1. Late 16th century you are seeing the follow through of all the Tudor centralisation of power.

    Henry VII eliminates the aristocracy as a rival centre of power - the survivors of the Wars of the Roses are skewered on Morton's fork and can no longer have retinues.

    Henry VIII browbeats parliament and makes it his tool to take over the Church.

    Elizabeth I covers it all in a nationalist veneer and 'you never had it so good' propaganda.

    The end result was that there was no avenue for advancement except as a servant of the Crown, and with the churchmen at least partly out of the way there is more space for gentlemen to make it as civil servants and in the law rather than on the battlefield.

    Jousting, duelling and the like were great training for war, but who wants to go to war when the money is to be made at home wheeling and dealing in all that ex-church land, and increasingly enclosed commons too, not to mention foreign trade?

    And the Renaissance had been having its effect for over a century, gentlemen were now expected to be literate and educated, and thanks to printing there were the books available.

    Silver wrote a BOOK. He was not just some old warhound drilling recruits as his equivalent a century earlier would have been. And it has social commentary and discussion in it, it isn't just a manual for poking bits of steel in people, Silver was a well educated guy.

    Private duelling had become detached from war, honour was about a bit more than stabbing people who dissed you. We were on our way to the trend of reducing everyday violence hand in hand with economic development and wider education that lasts to this day.

  2. Silver's True Times and False Times have generated a lot of discussion in the sword/HEMA community over the years. here is a fairly recent forum thread on the topic.

    1. Thanks for that faoladh, I can see this is a deep, deep rabbit hole.

  3. My expertise lies in the military affairs of the contemporary Holy Roman Empire, so take what I say with a pinch of salt (especially as 16th century England is a bit of a weird backwater, martially speaking; while everyone else is building star forts and perfecting mass infantry tactics, the English are mostly sat at home suppressing minor revolts and getting misty-eyed about longbows), but it does seem that Silver is reacting to some general trends in West European warfare.

    A key driver of this is unsurprisingly the musket, which - even more than the rapier - is the ultimate example of an equalising weapon, as it allows a farmer with a few weeks' training to stand a fair chance of killing a mounted and armoured aristocrat who's been handling a blade since childhood. Inevitably, people reacted to this change in divergent ways, with some theorists (most famously the Orange-Nassaus) trying to formulate ideas for new large-scale tactics to maximise firepower, whereas others tried to rejuvenate more traditional forms of warfare. This was all tied up with proto-national sentiments e.g. some Germans grumbled a lot about the term 'soldier/Soldat' (a Romance-language loanword), contrasting it with the older 'Landsknecht' or 'Kriegsman' associated with a more indivualistic warrior ethos and ancient Teutonic martial virtues.

    My sense is that all this is feeding into discourse around single combat, as some people accepted the creeping obsolescence of the sword as a mainstream battlefield weapon and developed rapiers as an alternative duel-only sidearm, whereas others (like Silver) tried to keep the blade militarily relevant. Of course, pretty soon you get firearms taking over duelling culture too, which I imagine Silver would have hated. Certainly, he would have loathed the fun passage in Grimmelhausen's Simplicissimus (book 3 chapter 9, entitled 'an unequal struggle in which the weakest prevails') in which the protagonist uses some low trickery involving a musket to take down a mounted cavalry trooper in a duel.

    Finally, I think Barry makes a lot of good points, but the last few decades of historiography have swung quite sharply away from the 'Tudor revolution in government' thesis, and generally argue that Tudor centralisation was rather more aspirational than actual. So I'd tend to emphasise the bit about changing cultures of honour and nobility more than a royal monopoly on violence. Nonetheless, as I say, I'm not an expert on Silver and his immediate English context, so I'd be fascinated to learn more about what looks to be a very interesting text!

    1. Thank you for that Montefeltro, Silver to me, reads like a wise man who is clearly falling out of his time and facing cultural changes he can see but not fully understand.

  4. Cheers. I should add that I certainly don't want to be too harsh on Silver, or present an oversimplistic dichotomy of forward-thinking modernisers Vs has-beens; after all, a significant portion of Early Modern military history consists of reformers wildly overestimating the success of their advances and losing because of it.
    On a side note, don't know if you've ever read Simplicissimus, but if not I'd gladly read one of your deep-dive reviews of it some day. It's equal parts great and frustrating, so picaresque it practically defined the genre (if only simpliccissimesque wasn't too much of mouthful...), and has tons of DnDable content. Still, no doubt your recommendation pile is pretty deep at this point.

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  7. I'm reminded more than anything of coal miners. A community takes pride in a shared livelihood and may lash out at the technology that obsoletes them. Or they might get mad at solar because their real nemesis- natural gas, is probably harvested by the same company that employs them.

  8. "in which the writer SHITS all over the ITALIAN rapier. Because RAPIERS SUCK!"
    opinion instantly discarded