“Heh, you Italians – get off my lawn!”
George Silver definitely had some issues with the Italian schools of fence. Let’s take a look at them using Silver’s own words.
George Silver wrote his treatise “Paradoxes of Defence” in 1599. In it, he puts forward what was to him, in any case, a cogent argument against the rapier. His contention was that it was an ineffectual, indeed, effete and effeminate weapon.
“These apish toys could not free Rome from Brennius’ sack nor France from King Henry the Fifth his conquest.”
Well, true to a point. But no one in his day was about to fight with a Gladius Hispanica which probably might not have fared well against an English backsword. And it also ignores the fact that the victories of Henry V and his predecessors against the French at Agincourt, Crecy and Poitiers were largely due to the employment of the longbow, not the sword. Nor had anyone ever suggested that the rapier was a weapon of war. Indeed, one of the theories of the origin of its name is that it derives from the term “espada ropera,” or a “sword of the robes,” which seems to strongly imply that it was a civilian rather than military weapon. Further, a close reading of Silver’s Italian contemporaries, Di Grassi and Saviolo, make no mention of the rapier being a weapon of war. It is also a fact that during Silver’s day, the face of battle was becoming increasingly dependent on the firearm and the pike.
There was also an implied upper-class snob appeal of the rapier. The times were changing and Silver apparently wanted no part of it. In addition to the rapier being perceived as a predominantly Italian weapon, there was also openness to adopting new ideas including the concept of what constituted honour and what it meant to be a gentleman
Cultural and societal influences notwithstanding, there’s also a great deal of commentary on Silver’s part that speaks to either a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Italian swordplay.
His contention is that the cut is superior to the thrust (although he does recommend that the thrust be used) – a reasonable conclusion considering his own weapon of choice. But it ignores the medical fact that a thrust that penetrates internal organs causes massive bleeding. It is thought that more people succumbed to hemorrhage or septicemia after the duel was over than were actually killed on the spot during the fighting itself.
Another of his contentions is that were you to measure the distance of a cut and compare it to the distance of a thrust, they are one and the same with regard to distance travelled. He also contends that a cut can be delivered faster than a thrust. He uses, by way of illustration, two duelists, both with rapiers which “not be crossed of either side.” One makes a cut, the other a thrust and “the measure of the distance or course wherein the hand and hilt pass to finish the blow” shall be “in distance, all one.”
I have occasionally wondered whether or not he was referring to the distance between opponents rather than the distance traversed by the sword, but I see no real evidence to support this.
First, geometrically speaking, the distance of an arc and a straight line cannot be equal in length. Ask Pythagoras. Second, with regards to speed, a cut from presentation of the guard to completion requires, at the very least, the rotation of the wrist, whereas a thrust can be delivered by simply dropping the point and possibly by the simple extension of the arm.
As for deadliness, this is a relative thing. As the Roman historian Vegetius observed, it requires only two inches of penetration to kill. But a sufficient blow hitting an artery is equally as deadly – in fact, not considering traumatic shock which adrenaline in a heightened physical state promotes and can help to temporarily mitigate, a pranged artery often kills faster than a perforating wound where death can often occur much later due to the aforementioned septicemia. But in either case, accuracy is necessary.
Silver is also skeptical that “they never teach their scholars, nor set down in their books the perfect length of their weapons, without which no man can by nature or art against the perfect length fight safe, for being too short, their times are too long, and the spaces too wide for their defence and being too long, they will be upon every cross that shall happen to be made … the cross cannot be undone in due time.”
Well – first, there is no “perfect length” since humans don’t come in a single standardized size. And there actually are Italian texts that refer to the optimal length of a rapier blade as it relates to drawing the sword or as a proportion of the human body. The only reason sword blades – and here, we are speaking of military swords of a later period – became of a standardized length was because they were being mass-produced for the army and no consideration of any variation of length from sword to sword could possibly be accommodated.
If Silver is suggesting, (and personally, I don’t think he really is) that blades must be of a “perfect” – perhaps uniform length in order to be ‘safe” bespeaks of a rather dangerous inability to adapt to your opponent. And as for being unable to reposition a blade quickly and efficiently when swords, either accidentally or by design, cross blades, Silver seems unaware of the Cavatione, or disengage or the Cavatione Angolata, the cut-over– moves commonly taught and practiced in his day. Or at least in Italy…
Silver also disdains the rapier on the grounds that its blade or hilt is incapable of withstanding a good downright manly blow from a heavier sword. Well, I’m here to tell you that, so long as the weapon is of good quality, yes, it can. I’ve practiced with both swept and cup-hilts against very fine replicas in design, weight and balance, of backswords and broadswords. But it also seems that George had never been exposed to the concept of the void, or simply stepping back out of distance. Many Englishmen of George’s class (which, incidentally, was not Upper) regarded any back-stepping as shameful. The Italian master Vincentio Saviolo, however, had a somewhat different take, saying “There is a difference between retiring orderly and running backwards, for to hit and retire is not discommendable.”
Silver himself has some interesting comments on the concept of measure, breaking down a lunge into several parts, one of which is “lying spent,” the time between the full delivery of the lunge (and ostensibly the hit) and the act of recovering the lunge. This seems to indicate a (hopefully) very brief period where the body is left fully exposed to retaliation. If anyone has a different interpretation of this period of tempo, I would appreciate correction.
Surprisingly enough, George does like the Spanish system of rapier play, the Destreza, although he believes it is a system “wherein a man with small practice in a very short time may become perfect.” Although its fundamentals might be considered to be “simple,” anyone with any real knowledge of the Spanish system must surely understand that it’s anything but.
I could continue, but Paradoxes of Defence is widely available, including on the Internet. Read it yourself and draw your own conclusions.
Now – does all this mean that Silver was just an ornery old crank whose methodology was without merit?
No, not in the slightest. First, Silver was a very credible practitioner who was more concerned with the sword as a weapon of war or a tool for serious self-defense, not a dueling weapon. Indeed, it was his contention that not only the introduction of the rapier but the Italianate ideas accompanying it were leading to frivolous and oft fatal dueling. And when it comes to “traditional” English weapons, George offers sound advice.
Silver admonished Englishmen to “cast off these Italianted, weak, fantastical and most devilish and imperfect fights” and return to “their own ancient weapons.” In other words, he wished the old ways preserved, regardless of whether or not they had any current validity in the society that was evolving at the time. And, of course, he was also trying to state a patriotic case for the validity of his own teachings against what he saw as dangerous competition.
For better or worse, George and his contemporaries ultimately lost. In 1624 the Monopolies Act struck down the warrant granted to the English Masters of Defence and within about ten years, many of them were out of business for refusing to adapt to the changing times.
Now for those who might think this article is about fomenting against George Silver and his Italiophobia, there is a greater issue here with regards to validating historical sources, including from contemporary documents. Were you to have read Silver without also reading Bonetti, Saviolo, etc, you would be presented with a very slanted (and in some instances, utterly unfounded) impression of the Italian methods of fence of the day. You might even be tempted to disregard studying Italian swordplay altogether, and this would do you a great disservice. Silver is, after all, just one man and his opinions are tempered with his own agenda. Similarly, Johann Joachim Hynitzsch, writing in the late 1600’s, accuses Nicoletto Giganti of not only publishing Fabris’ second book under his own name in 1622, but also contends that Giganti is ignorant of the art of fence. However, since he gives no examples of this alleged ignorance, his accusation lacks credibility. As for Silver’s criticisms of the Italian school, some of them evince a false historical perspective while some others are simply demonstrably wrong.
As always, when reading critiques of other masters and systems by their contemporaries, you should always ask “is there an alterior motive for this criticism,” or at the very least, “is there physical validity to the criticism?”