Study Guide for the Single Sword Play of Joseph Swetnam's
Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence

By Brian Kirk 2017

The true guard for the single Rapier.

Keepe your Rapier point something sloping towards your left shoulder, and your Rapier hand so low, as your girdle-stead, or lower, and beare out your Rapier hand right at armes end, so farre as you can , and keepe the point of your Rapier something leaning outwards toward your enemie, keeping your Rapier alwaies on the out-side of your enemies Rapier, but not ioyning with him, for you must observe a true distance at all weapons, that is to say, three feete betwixt the pints of your weapons, and twelve foote distance with your fore foote from your enemies fore foote, you must bee carefull that you frame your guard right, now you must not beare the Rapier hand-wide of the right side of your bodie, but right forward from your girdle-stead, as before-said.

Gloss: For use of the single Rapier, the true guard is to hold the rapier with your right foot forward and your hand at the height of your belt or slightly lower. Your sword arm should be extended with your arm relatively straight. The blade should be point forward but sloping toward your left shoulder for it is necessary that you keep your rapier on the outside of your opponent's blade. Always manage your distance with your opponent, keeping around 12 feet between your front foot and his, which is the farthest distance for which you can reach on the lunge.


The Reasons of this guard.

In keeping your point something sloping or compassing your face, your enemie cannot offend you with a wrist blow, which if you keepe your point directly upright, you may verie easily bee hit in the face.

Begin guarded as beforesaid, if your enemie discharge a thrust at you, carrie your Rapier hand over your bodie towards you left side, keeping your point directly in his pace untill you have defend your enemies assault, then presently after let fall the point of your Rapier, turning your knuckles inwards, and discharge your thrust at your enemies thigh, or bodie, as you see occasion.

There are likewise many other guards to be framed at single Rapier, as that one of the short Sword is a good guard at some times, and for some purposes, if a man be perfect in it, by skill and practice aforehand, as heereafter you shall see the manner thereof more at large, when I come to that weapon.

Now another fashion is, by holding your left hand upon the blade, and so with the strength of your forefinger and thumbe of your left hand, you may breake your enemies thrust cleere of your bodie, by turning of your rapier point downe-ward or up-ward accordingly as your enemie chargeth you; and then charge your enemie againe with a quicke answer.

Now another is, by standing upon the Stocke, readie to choppe in upon your enemies assault, but must turne in your left shoulder to your enemie nearer then the right, onelie to be as it were a baite unto him, but when he doth thrust at you, wheele about your bodie, falling backe with your left foote; but withall, thrust out your rapier, and so you may hit, and defend onelie with the shift of the bodie, and you shall find that the oppressor will come upon his won death, by proffering at that shoulder, which you make shew to be open unto him: but you must not offer to defend it with your rapier, but only trust unto the shift of your bodie.

Gloss: You want to hold this guard because to have your rapier sloped across your face a little prevents quick wrist cuts to your head. If your opponent thrusts at you to the inside, parry across your body and turn your hand into Quarta. Keep the point high until you have cleared your opponent's point, then make a half cave and thrust low to your opponent's thigh or stomach.

There are other guards that exist for the single rapier, such as the Hanging Guard, which is good at some times, and one can become quite proficient at it through practice.

Another alternative guard is the half-sword guard, wherein you hold the strong of your rapier with your left hand. In doing so, any parries that you make will be greatly strengthened. From this guard you basically use your rapier in the manner of a staff, as is described later in the manual.

Lastly, you can stand in the Stocke Guard, wherein you stand with your left side forward in order to bait your opponent into attacking there. When he thrusts at you, quickly pivot on your right foot, retreating with the left, and thrust home with your rapier. In this manner you don't engage your opponent's blade and only use your quick dodging to avoid his thrust.


False play at the single Rapier.

If your enemie doe lie in this guard, according to this Picture then proffer or faine a thrust unto his left side, but presently plucke backe your hand, an thrust it home unto his right arme shoulder or face, for hee will carry his rapier over his bodie, to defend the fained thrust, but can hardly bring him backe againe to save your second or determined thrust, except hee be very skillful, active, or nimble: now if he doe not beare his Rapier to defend the fained thrust when you proffer it, then you may hit him with a plaine thrust a second time, if you put it home without falsing it at all.

Gloss: If your opponent stands in the true guard, then feint a thrust to his inside. When he moves to defend this, pull back your sword and thrust it home on the other side of the blade to his arm, shoulder, or face. If he does not react to your first thrust then you can either continue it to his body as a real thrust, or quickly make a second thrust to the same opening.


Another deceit.

Likewise, you may proffer or faine a thrust two foote wide of your enemie his right side, and presently thrust it home to his breast, for hee will beare his rapier beyond the compasse of true defence, by reason it will seeme unto a cunning player that your Intention is to hit him on the out side of the rapier arme, so that when he thinketh to strike your point from offending his arme, by that means hee will open his bodie, although he open himselfe but a little, yet with your second thrust you may hit him as aforesaid.

Gloss: Additionally, you can feint a thrust wide to his outside and then finish with a real thrust onto his chest on the inside.


The defence of this false play.

You must be very carefull that you doe not over carry your Rapier in the defence in anie maner of thrust, yet you must carrie him a little against every proffer which your enemie doth make: for if a man be verie skilfull, yet is he not certaine when his enemie doth charge his point upon him, and proffer a thrust, whether that thrust will come home, or no: wherefor (as I said) you must beare your Rapier against everie thrust to defend it, but beare him but halfe a foote towards the left side, for that will cleare the bodie from danger of his thrust, and so quicke backe againe in his place, whereby to meete his weapon on the other side, if he charge you with a second thrust, thinking to deceive you as aforesaid.

Gloss: In order to not fall victim to this feinting yourself make sure to never over carry your rapier for your own defense. However, your must also always respect the possibility that any thrust proffered at you may be real, so always respond the minimum amount to all thrusts (this corresponds to about half a foot towards your left side). If your opponent does feint against you, after moving to address his first thrust, defend the second by meeting it on the opposite side and drive it away.


A slippe at single Rapier.

Now if your enemy doe charge you with a blow, when as you see the blow comming, plucke in your Rapier, and let the blow slippe, and then answer him againe with a thrust, but bee carefull to plucke in your rapier to that cheeke which hee chargeth you at, so that if the blow doe reach home, you may defend him according unto the rule of the backsword.

The defence of this slippe is to forbeare striking at all, but if you doe strike, not to over-strike your Sword, but so strike your blow as you may recover him into his place hastily againe; for in fight if you doe strike, you must forebeare strong blowes, for with a strong blow, you may fall into divers hazzards; therefore strike an easie blow, and doe it quicke, but to thrust, and not strike at all, is to thy best advantage.

Gloss: If your opponent means to strike at your rapier to generate an opening, you may slip his cut by pulling your blade to yourself (always to the side which the cut is threatening), so that his cut will over shoot, and you can thrust to the new opening. In order to avoid this happening to you, the first rule is to not make cuts. However, if you do cut, then, as with your defense, you must manage how much you risk over carrying your blade during any action. For this reason you must avoid making uncontrolled cuts. However, Swetnam's advise is to only thrust, which is your best advantage.


Another slippe

Put your thumbe long wayes, or forward upon the handle of your rapier according unto the natural fashion, and your enemie lying in this guard, ioyne your Rapier according as the Picture, and so soone as you have ioyned, turne the heele of your hand upward, and your point downeward, and so bring your point, compassing under your enemies right elbow; and then with the strength of the thumb, turne it unto his breast: the like you may doe if your enemie offer to close with you at single rapier, for if hee come hastily upon you, you can not drawe out your point whereby to offend him, but by turning it in as before-said, you may hit the skilfullest man that is in his comming in: Now if hee doe defend your point below, you may by a sodaine turning up your point, thrust it him to his right side shoulder or face, whether you will our selfe.

Gloss: Another play. If your opponent does make an outside bind with you and over pushes in this bind, then put your thumb to the flat of the blade and rotate your hand into a hanging position (point down Secunda), such that your opponent's blade will slip past yours to the inside. In this manner, move your hand slightly to the outside and then rotate the point upwards (counter to the direction you just dropped it) in order to thrust your opponent in the chest. If your opponent follows your point downwards and defends your thrust, then by quickly rotating your blade upwards, you should be able strike to his right shoulder or face. Use this type of slip against fencers who wish to charge in against you and push out your blade with force.


The defence of this slippe.

If your enemie doe ioyne his weapon with yours, to close or to turne in a slippe, then make your selfe readie quickely, by putting your thumbe upon your rapier, as aforesaid, when he falleth his point towards his left hand, to fetch the compasse of your rapier arme; then fall your point the contrary way, I meane towards your left hand, so shall you meete with his weapon below againe, and this will defend your selfe, and when he raiseth his point againe, then doe you raise yours likewise into his place againe.

Gloss: In order to defend against your opponent doing the previous slip to you, when your opponent drops his tip, then rotate your sword counter to his motion so that you go around his hand with your tip and meet his sword going the opposite direction to force a low bind. From here, thrust to any openings perceived. If your opponent attempts to rotate back the way he came, then you rotate back the way you came, to meet him again with an upper bind.


Another Slippe.

If your enemie doe ioyne his rapier with yours, and doe beare him strongly against you, thinking to over beare you by strength of arme, the so soone as hee beginneth to charge you strongly, beare your rapier a little against him, and then sodainely let fall your pointe so low, as your gerdle-stead, and thrust it home withall, and so you may hit him, for by letting his Rapier goe away sodainely, he swayeth away beyond the compasse of defence, so that you may hit him, and fall away againe before hee can recover his Rapier to endanger you.

Gloss: Another way to act against a fighter who is overly strong in the outside bind is to hold your ground and then push back in order to move your opponent's blade a little. When your opponent pushes back to displace you, cave and thrust to the inside.


A dazeling thrust at single Rapier or Backe-Sword.

Proffer or faine a thrust at the fairest part of your enemies bodie which lieth most unguarded, and then more quicker then I can speake it, thrust it in on the other side, and so changing three or foure times, and then choppe it home sodainely, and you shall find his bodie unguarded, by reason that he will carrie his Rapier or Sword this way or that way, thinking to defend the false thrust, because he supposeth them to be true thrusts: for there is no man so cunning, that kneweth if a thrust be proffered within distance, but that I may hit him, or whether it will be a false thrust, or no, the defender knowes not, and therefore he must prepare his defence against every thrust, that is proffered.

Gloss: Show a thrust at your opponent's closest opening. Then, show a thrust to the other side when your opponent tries to defend. Repeat several times, then actually finish the thrust.


A close at single Rapier or at Backe-sword.

First, charging your enemie with a thrust aloft with an over-hand thrust, directly at your enemies face, and withall follow it in close, bearing your enemies point over your head, by the carrying up of your Rapier hand, and then may you make seisure on the hilt of your enemies Rapier or Sword, or on his hand-wrist with your left hand, and then having made your seizure of his weapon, you may then use what execution you will, I mean either blow or thrust, or trip up his heeles.

Gloss: Thrust in Prime over your opponent's sword (might actually be a thrust on the inside) to his face. When he defends, force both rapiers up high and step in with your left foot and left hand to grab his weapon or arm. Do with him as you will.


The guard for Backe-sword.

Carrie your Sword-hilt out at the armes end, and your point leaning or sloping towards your left shoulder, but not joyning with your enemies weapon, as this Picture seemeth, but so long as you lie in your guard, let there be three foote distance betwixt your weapons, but if your enemie do charge you, either with blow or thrust, carrie your Sword over your bodie against your enemies assault, and so crosse with him according to the Picture, beare also your point steadie over your bodie, something sloping towards your left shoulder; I meane the point must goe so farre as the hilt, but not turning your point the contrarie waie, but carrie both together.

I will make it plainer by and by, because I would have thee to understand it wisely, for having with a true defence defended by your enemies blow or thrust by crossing with him, or by bearing your weapon against his assault (as beforesaid) the danger being past, then presently at the same instant, and with one motion turne downe the point of your Sword, turning your knuckles inward, and so thrusting it home to your enemies thigh, but with all, steppe forth with your foote and hand together.

But there is a great observation to be had in your practice concerning the true carriage of your Sword, true, then it is hard to defend either blowe or thrust; for if you carrie the hilt of your Sworde against either blow or thrust, and doe not carrie the point withall levell, even as you lay in your guard according to the Picture; then your hand and face is endangered, but bearing the hilt and the point about a foot over your bodie towards your left side; and likewise to beare your Sword stiffe out at the armes end, without bowing or your elbows joynt: provided alwaies, that your Sword being in your right hand, you must look with both you eies on the in-side of your Sword, for then you have but one kinde of defence, so that the point of your Sword be sloping towards the left shoulder: but otherwise, if you keepe the point of your Sword upright, then your enemie hath three waies to endanger you, especiallie, if you carrie your Sword right before the middest of your bellie, with the point upright, as I have knowne some hold an opinion of that waie to be good, but I say, hee that trusteth to that guard, may be hit in the head with a sodaine wrist-blow, if his practice were never so good: and likewise both his armes are unguarded, and to bee dangered, either with blow or thrust; but if guard your selfe after my direction, then your enemie hath but onelie the left side of your head, and your legges open, and they are easie to be defended; the legge, by plucking him up, the which you must doe upon everie blow, which your enemie chargeth you withall, and with the same defend the head and bodie, carrying your Sword over your bodie towards your left side, the point and hilt both steadie, as I have before said.

Now although I heere speake altogether of a Backe-Sword, it is not so meant, but the guard is so called: and therefore, whether you are weaponed with a two-edged Sword, or with a Rapier, yet frame your guarde in this manner and forme, as before said.

Gloss: The first guard of the Backsword is as follows: Hold your sword in a similar way as described for the single rapier. Your hand goes in front of your right thigh, your point is forward, but sloping towards your left shoulder, but high enough that you are looking at your opponent under your blade, such that you are more open on your inside, than your outside.

If your opponent thrusts at you, regardless of side, carry your sword across your body to that side, for its defense. Once achieved, riposte with a low thrust to their advanced thigh, or stomach, which will be the closest part of your opponent. Execute this riposte with an advancing step of your lead foot (= right foot).

Make sure that as you defend, you move both the point and your hand as one unit. Defending by rotating (compassing) the point, or by moving the hand (while keeping the point still) is weaker and will prevent you from parrying appropriately.


An other very sure and dangerous guard at the Backesword,
called the Unicorne guard, or the fore-hand guard.

Before the Sword hilt so high as your face, keeping him out at the armes end, without bowing if your elbow ioynt, and alwaies keepe your point directly upon your enemies face, and your knuckles of your Sword hand upward; but if your enemie doe charge you with a blow to the right side of your head, then turne but your Sword hilt, and your knuckles outward, still keeping your Sword arme stiffe in his place, turning but onelie your wrist and your hand: this is a very dangerous guard to your enemie, being carried with a strong arme, for by reason that you keepe him out at the points end, being so directly in his face, that hee cannot come neare you without great danger, either of blow or thrust, but indeed if your sword be not carried out with a strong arme, the your enemie may endanger your head by striking of two blowes together, the one being strooke at the point of your sword to strick him down and the other to your head but they must bee strooke both together verie sodainelie, or else there is small danger in them, now if you are warie in watching when hee makes his first blow, sodainely plucke in the point of your sword to you, and so by the slippe his first stroake hee will over carrie him, so that if you turne an over-hand blow to his head, you may hit him before hee can recover his sword to strike his second blow, or defend himslefe lying in this long guard, you may slippe every blow that is strooke, plucke in your sword even as you see your enemie stricke and turne it over to the right side of his head.

Gloss: Another guard with the Backsword is the Unicorn guard. Put the hilt in front of your face with extended arm, such that your point goes in front of your opponent's face. Turn you hand into Quarta. If your opponent attacks you with a cut to your outside, then turn your hand into Seconda. If your opponent attempts to strike at your blade, to get it out of his face, slip his blow and strike him in the head with a cut.


A Close at back-sword.

Lying in thy guard according unto the picture at single Rapier, and when you meane to close, lift up the hilt of thy word so high as thy cheeke, and charge thy enemie with a thrust directlie at his face, and with the same motion steppe in with thy hindmost foote, turning the knuckles of thy Sword-hand inward, and so bearing thy enemies point over thy head, and then catch hold on they enemies Sword-hilt, or his hand-wrist, with thy left hand, but on his hilt is the surest to hold, and then you may either trip up his heeles, or cut, or thrust him with your weapon, and in this manner you maie close with a Rapier also, if you can make your partie good at the gripe or close, for your enemie in bearing over his Sword over his bodie to defend his face from your thrust, he there by carieth awaie his point, so that hee cannot endanger you if you follow it in close and quicke.

Gloss: This is the same as the previous description of the close at the single Rapier or Backsword (Play #2). However, it does add the detail that, in order to lift your opponent's sword up, you turn your sword hand into Quarta, after previously being in Prime, which suggests that, perhaps, both of these plays are supposed to be on the inside, instead of the outside. This doesn't actually affect the dynamics of the play very much.


False play with the Back-sword.

Your enemie being in his guard, and lying at watch for advantage, you maie faine a blow a the right-side of his head, and presently with the turning of your hand-wrist, strike it home to his left-side, which being done quicke you may hit a reasonable good plaier, for he will beare his sword against the fained blow, and by that meanes unguard his left-side but at no hand must not let the fained blow touch your enemies sword, but give your sword a sodaine checke and so strike it to the contrarie-side, for if your feined blow do ioine with your enemies sword, it will staie his sword within the compasse of true defence, so that hee will be readie to defend your false blow, but otherwise if you touch not his sword hee will carrie him beyond the true compasse of defence, of the seconde blow, which you determine to hit him withall so likewise you may faine your blow at the left-side of your enemies head, but presentlie strike it home to the right-side of his head, in manner aforesaid.

Gloss: Feint a Riverso to your opponent's head in order to land a Mandritto to the left part of his head. Don't let your sword touch his during the feint, as that will prevent him from over shooting his defense and allow him to recover sufficiently to defend the second cut.


Another false play.

Againe, you may ioine your sword within you enemies sword according unto the picture, but presentlie so soone as you have ioyned, strike it downe to his legge, but nimblie recover your sword in his place againe falling a little awaie withall, for so soone as you have discharged your blow, you may verie easilie before hee can endanger you recover your guard and distance: likewise you maie give a back-blow unto the right side of his head, and presentlie withall, fall downe againe with another blow unto the inside of his legge, stepping home with our second blow, for when you have made your first blow as aforesaid, it may bee your enemie will winke, and so you may hit his legge before his eies open againe, so that you do it quick, but if he does not winke, yet a good plaier will think that when hee hath defended your first blow a loft, he will not expect a blow so sodainelie as this ought to be strooke, and therefore may be hit with a second blow, yea although hee looke well to himself, and the rather that manie doth not alow in there teaching a back-sword blow to be stroken at the legge, but I say a man may give a square, or fore-hand blow to the inside of his enemies legge, and verie well recover up your sword again before your enemie can endanger you.

Gloss: Bind your opponent's sword on the inside. Strike from there down to his lead leg, and then recover to your defense. Additionally, you might feint a Riverso to his head, in order to land a Mandrito to his lead leg. Even though many don't teach to make leg blows with the Backsword, this cut shown here will work with the feint.


Another deceipt.

Standing in your guard, and your enemie charging you with a blow, pluck in your sword sodainelie, and let his blow slippe, and so soone as his blow is past, answere him againe, either with a blow or thrust whether you will, but if it bee at blunt with a blow, put it right with a thrust, or by plucking in your sword, and alwaies have a care you plucke him in unto that side of the head which hee chargeth you at, for in so doing, if his weapons point do reach home, yet you are at a guard of defence, but with this skill and a little withdrawing your bodie with all, his weapon will passe clear, for the force of his blow will overswaie his weapon, and he will so over carrie his bodie, that in a manner his backe wilbe towards you, so that with a quick answere you may but him at your pleasure or close with him if you thinke you can make your partie good at the gripe; likewise you may loose upon the crosse, by ioyning weapon to weapon, but when you have made your cloose in your first encounter, take hold on your enemies hand-wrist, or else on the hilt of your enemies weapon, for then hee cannot well offend you being but single weaponed. But to trie your man-hood, at the length of your weapon, I hold it the best fight and lesse danger to both, for there is no certaine defence in a close, then is a passage, for thy are both verie dangerous.

Gloss: If your opponent cuts to your sword arm, slip it in the direction from which the cut originated and the respond with a thrust, or cut, to his opening. You always slip in the direction towards which your opponent's cut is originating so that if he is closer to you then you realize, you will still catch his blade with yours before it reaches your head (or body). However, if you slip with your body in addition to your arm, you will have less need of this precaution. Additionally, instead of thrusting to hit, you may use the tempo of your opponent' missed cut to bind and close, if you think this to your advantage, elsewise stick with thrusting to him.


Another deceipt.

Your enemie lying in guard, you may strike a backe blow unto his right eare, although it light upon his sword, that is all one, for in striking it above, it may cause him to wink, or he will thinke you have don, but so soone as you have delivered your blow above, then presentlie, I meane more quicker then I can speake it, strike it, strike it downe into the inside of his right-legge, or if you doe but touch his sword in ioyning him close as the picture standeth, and so soone as you have but touched his Back-sword on the out-side, strike it done unto the in-side of the legge presentlie, yet alwaies have a care to recover your sword into his place againe for your owne defence, the which you may easilie doe, yea although you encounter with a verie skilfull man, but if you strike a plaine blow at the legge without profering it above first, as is beforesaid, then you endanger your owne head, but in presenting it above, you busie him to defend the first fained blow, so that he cannot be readie prepared to charge you with anie blow of danger before you have recovered your guard, the which you may well doe, although he answere you never so quicke.

Gloss: Make a Riverso. As soon as it touches his sword, cut a Mandritto to his lead leg. Make sure to recover after the Mandritto to make defense against his response. If you attempt this leg cut without the Riverso, it will result in you endangering your own head.


An other verie cunning deceipt with the Back-sword.

Strike a blow to the in-side of the right leg, or foot of thy enemie, but draw it to thee, striking it it something short, and then presently strike it home againe to the left eare of a right handed man, but it must be done quicker then I can speake it, and thou shalt finde his left eare unguarded, for he will looke for it at the right side, and it were not amisse to strike it once or twice from the leg to the right eare first, for then he will looke for the same blow againe, but yet I would no have you make all your play at the legge, but sometimes to offer a blow at the one side of the head, and then to the other, so by making often change of your blow, is the best waie to deceive thy enemie.

Gloss: Feint a Mandritto to the leg of your opponent, but not by pulling it. Instead, cut short in order to loop the cut back high to make a Mandritto to the head. This deceit will work especially well if you show your opponent the leg cut, followed by a Riverso before hand, so that he will expect that. However, caution is in order here not to make too many leg attacks as they do endanger your head. Feinting while using head cuts from one side to the other is also a good tactic.


A verie dangerous blow at Back-sword.

Thy enemie lying in this guard, soddenly plucke in the pummell of thy sword to thy breast, and with all turne thy knuckles inward, and the presentlie proffer a thrust towards thy enemies breast, but turne it over with a blow to his right eare, with the which blow thou maist hit a god plaier, if he bee not aware of it before hand, for hee must beare his sword against the thrust for the defence thereof, now if he do over carrie him never so little further then he ought to doe for his true defence, then hee cannot bring him back time enough to defend the blow before you have hit him, as beforesaid.

Gloss: Make a strong thrust in Quarta to your opponent's chest. As he defends himself turn a Riverso to his head.


This blow is also good for a Left-handed man, or
against a Left-handed man.

If you would hit a Left-handed man with this blow, then present your thrust full at his face by a sodaine lifting up the hilt of your sword so high as your head, and withall you must now turne your knuckles outward, and so soone as you have presented your thrust, presently strike it home unto the let side his head.

Gloss: Against a left handed man, the previous tactic may also be used, but here, thrust to his chest in Seconda, and turn a Mandritto to his head when he defends himself.


A false play to be used in fight at Back-sword.

Proffer your thrust tow or three foot wide of thy enemies left eare, and withall let fall thy point so low as thy enemies girdle-stead of lower, and then presently with the same motion, raise thy point on the other side of thy enemies sword, and shop it home unto his right arme, shoulder or face whether you will your selfe, for in bearing his sword over his bodie to defend the fained thrust, hee cannot well recover him backe againe to defend you second thrust before you have hit him, as beforesaid, except hee hath by much practice beene used to that false thrust before hand.

Gloss: Feint a thrust to the left side of your opponent's head, then cave in order to thrust to the other side to whichever target appears most open.


An other dangerous blow.

Thy enemie lying in his guard, strike a blow to the in-side of his right leg,, and presentlie with as much speed as possible thou canst strike it home unto his left cheeke, for he will beare over his sword to defend the first proffer, and so with-draw himselfe into his guard, so that he will be unprovided for the defence of his left side, if he struck in with a quicke hand. All manner of false blowes, flips and thrusts at what weapon soever, are to avoided and defended with the true carriage of thy weapon, as at rapier and Dagger, if a false thrust be made below, and the Rapier above. And if either blow or thrust be falsified at the Back-sword, or at Sword and Dagger, thou must beare thy Sword against every proffer. But be sure thou doe not over-carrie him, but that thou maist be quick backe againe, to meete his second blow on the other side, as bringing thy weapon into his place by practice, thou shalt finde thy selfe surely guarded as in some places in this booke thou shalt fine the defence.

After the false play at everie weapon, although I have not set downe the defence of everie slip, nor of everie fault, which had been verie necessarie: for as everie lesson on a fiddle hath a severall kinde of Offence, and Defence, but heere thou shalt finde the Defence that belongeth unto manie of them, and the rest I left out of leasure to write them, but they sahll follow in the next Impression.

Gloss: Feint a low Mandritto to his lead leg. If he lowers his sword at all, then lift your arm and go from that feint into a Mandritto to his head. For every attempt at a thrust or cut made against you, you must react to it as if it is a real action. However, while doing so, you must not over carry your sword, as that will open you up to feinted attacks. In order to achieve this, one must practice.

Swetnam has not laid down every possible action either offensive or defensive here, but has included the ones he felt most important. He has included enough here to allow the audience to get a flavor for the types of actions going on.


Analysis of Swetnam's historical significance.

Swetnam's use of the sword in one hand (shown above) represents one of only four sources for single handed swordsmanship that we have documenting the 1600s in England. The question though, is does his system represent good instruction? Is it novel, or directly influenced by other traditions? Finally, was his system influential to others?

First, to access Swetnam, we have to look at how his system is organized. His guard structure, with such focus on starting off with an outside approach has elements that are very similar to Di Grassi. Both men favor a "low guard" for its defensive and offensive characteristics, and both men favor that outside sword angle. Both men also strongly emphasize the thrusts with the rapier while acknowledging that you can still make cuts if you really want to. This would be in contrast to another possible influence source, George Silver, who was very much pro cut. However, Di Grassi presents a very specific diagonally left footwork that is absent in Swetnam. For this reason, one cannot help but think that Swetnam and Di Grassi would be superficially similar at the approach, but would not be said to be fighting the same way.

Additionally, one cannot help but notice that the method for which Swetnam describes his defenses take on much more similarity with how parries are described, and not how counter-thrusting is described. To this end, I think I have to describe Swetnam's system as a parry-riposte system. Another clue that this might be true is that his very first riposte in the rapier system is not a thrust in opposition. Obviously, thrusting in opposition to your opponent's blade is kind of foundational to counter-thrusting behavior, so to avoid it in the very first example seems to speak to the fact that sword opposition is not something Swetnam particularly seems to care about. In this manner, Swetnam really sets himself apart from his contemporaries, particularly the Spanish and Italian rapier traditions. It is impossible to say whether this indicates that Swetnam was on the vanguard of the types of changes to fencing theory which would take place in France, and lead directly to parry-riposte smallsword fencing, or if he is actually a hold out from an older English parry-riposte tradition that was actually getting overwritten by the Italian system, until the French "brought it back".

Additionally, Swetnam lacks the other main component of the Italian and Spanish rapier systems, the Stringere. This is the act of using leverage to your advantage to land your thrusts. While Swetnam mentions leverage in the broad sense, he does not include any elements that can even superficially be described as Stringeren. The possible reasons for this are interesting. On the one hand, he could legitimately not like binding and using leverage, although that seems like poor fencing to me, or it could be that his rapier system is just not his primary focus. Stringeren is definitely much more relevant to the single rapier than any of the other weapons in the manual. Considering this, perhaps Swetnam was just not as versed in the best uses in the single rapier as he was with rapier and dagger, where one can avoid the need for stringeren through judicious use of the dagger. As evidence supporting this assertion, Swetnam specifically states that the real training purposes for his manual lie in Rapier and Dagger and Staff, so that a man may safely defend himself about town (Rapier and Dagger) or in the countryside (Staff).

However, Swetnam does feature many other recognizable elements of good rapier play. He demonstrates enough caving plays, feints, and slips, to suggest that he would present a nice lively blade to his opponent. In this style of play, one doesn't really seek to bind with his opponent, but instead constantly seeks openings as they present themselves with a free blade. He also mentions a fairly wide measure of engagement, and while he does include closing and grappling, it doesn't seem really his primary attack strategy either. Taken together, to my mind, Swetnam actually fits the description of a modern epeeist fairly well. Both keep to the wide measure, try to keep their blades free, and make great use of feints, while maintaining a mostly linear relationship. There is nothing in Swetnam which suggests that he would disapprove of this strategy, although he would take strong issue with the modern epee guard, with its blade low and parallel to the ground.

As a sort of miscellaneous collection of other observations, it is also interesting that Swetnam includes a note on half-swording the rapier. We actually see this quite a bit in other period literature. Both the Italians Gigante and Capo Ferro mention it, as does the Frenchman Liancourt several years later. We even get a brief mention of this by the German L'Ange. Clearly, this was a practice which was common, if not particularly developed.

Considering the Backsword, Swetnam treats it almost identically to the single rapier, but now allows cuts. With this system, we see that the feints are Swetnam's primary means of generating hits. Looking at how this system is presented, there is some evidence that Swetnam's Backsword system is connected to the larger English Backsword tradition. In addition to his True guard, Swetnam presents a Unicorn guard as well. This Unicorn guard is described as being extended to the opponent's face with the hand in either Quarta or Seconda, as required. We can look to one of the next English authors to include the Backsword, Zachery Wylde (1711), and we also find him including the use of the Medium guard, described as:

"The Medium Unicorn or Center Guard, is made thus, Extend your Arm strait out at length, and your Sword placed betwixt your Opposer's Eyes, lying true half Body, your Sword - Hilt as high as your Chin, keeping it out at the Arms end stiff; then if he charge you with a Blow or Strike either to the in or outside, cross his Sword, which makes a perfect Guard: This Guard keeps your Opposer from encroaching upon you, if he does, he endangers him-Self."*

We see that these two guards are described in essentially the same manner. Wylde's description of the Outside guard also rings quite familiar:

"I'll begin with the Outside or Dexter, thus demonstrated, Stand upon a true half Body, and extend your Sword - Hilt out at the Arms end stiff, without bowing the Elbow - joint, your Point leaning or sloping towards your left Shoulder, or your Opposer's right Eye, lying as hollow as you can with your Body; then you may see your Opposer the inside your Sword, so long as you keep this Guard."

From this we can conclude that Wylde, while adding many elements from French Smallsword theory, is also continuing a system built around many of the same elements as Swetnam, showing that English Backsword maintained a fair level of transmission, from generation to generation. Wylde also maintains other terminology from Swetnam including "slipping" and "falsifying", showing that, while French terminology was quickly taking over and it was replacing preexisting English terms.

One must, however, also keep in mind what separates Swetnam from Wylde, towards the future, and Silver, towards the past. Swetnam does not discuss the Hanging guard with respect to the Backsword. This seems worth mentioning, specifically, because Swetnam does state that one can use the Hanging guard with the Short Sword, Rapier, and Staff. This makes its omission in the Backsword section stand out, because it is so prominently displayed as a feature in both Silver and Wylde's manual. Additionally, William Hope in the late 1600s, when discussing the Hanging guard's implementation with respect to the smallsword, refers to its use and application among Backsword fencers several times. Consequently, one cannot say that Swetnam's system is perfectly reflective of all broader English Backsword development.

One might think that Swetnam might have some relationship with George Silver as both men printed their books in London less than 20 years apart. However, a close reading of both manuals reveals their relationship to be more complicated than one might guess, at least with regard to these weapons. First, the similarities, both men essentially list the same key Elements to fencing in the same fencing terms, showing that these were well established within the fencing community in London at that period, these being Distance, Place, and Time. Additionally, Silver's description of the Stoccata guard would seem to me to be the same guard taken by Swetnam in Rapier and Dagger (and is roughly the same sword position as his single weapon guards). Additionally, the guard that Silver calls Mountanta appears to be the same action as the thrust which Swetnam calls Mountanto (but this again, is found in Swetnam's Rapier and Dagger section). Finally, I believe there is a fairly strong argument that the two men's Staff systems are using the same principles.

However, all of the above being said, when we look specifically at Swetnam's single sword principles, there is less agreement. Swetnam is very specific that he believes that his hand low, point up, True guard is best, while Silver advocates his True Guardant guard (Hanging guard variant) as his preferred guard. Additionally, Silver puts much more emphasis in binding, and the forming of a true crossing of the swords to facilitate the rest of his offense and defense. Swetnam would seem to advocate a much less constrained blade, to better feint and provoke. There is also the somewhat obvious fact that Swetnam is teaching for a weapon, a long rapier (Swetnam lists his rapier at 4 feet, although it is hard to tell whether this is total length, or blade length) which Silver just plain doesn't like. For the Backsword, though, a sword which is much closer to what Silver would like, Silver would seem to be more familiar with the type of play that Swetnam is teaching, than Swetnam with Silver. By this, I mean that Silver discusses many actions and counters to his Stoccata guard, while Swetnam doesn't mention what to do if encountering a Hanging guard.

As an aside, after doing all of this research, and seeing how prevalent the Hanging guard is to his staff, and even Short Sword and Dagger, systems, it really boggles my mind that Swetnam doesn't at least mention it in his Backsword section. I almost wonder if this was just simple oversight, like he knew everyone also often uses a Hanging guard with the Backsword, but just thought he had mentioned it, forgetting that it was his single rapier section where he had done that.

Broadly speaking, Swetnam and Silver are very similar to each other, and I think that if we watched them fence, it would be hard to tell each other apart from their actions alone. That being said, I think that their difference in guard preference is real, and the things that they chose to focus on in their respective manuals are mostly the same elements of fencing, but the points of emphasis are not the same.

Taken together, we see that Swetnam presents a viable, if somewhat simplistic, method of fighting with the single sword, which would seem to broadly reflect English fencing fairly well, as far as I can tell. This is not a system which has really developed theory like the Spanish or Italian methods from the same period. For this reason, perhaps we can better understand why it seems like England was the site of several waves of fencing adaptation to Continental trends which were able to bring the more theoretical aspects to England.


* It is at least possible that Wylde's Medium guard could alternatively be the same as Godfrey's and Miller's Medium guard from 1747 and 1735, respectively. The difference is in the tip height and sword angle. Wylde says place "the sword betwixt your opponent's eyes," but does this mean edge or tip? Godfrey's guard has the point up, Swetnam's has the tip forward. Wylde, of course, uses both "Unicorn" and "Medium" to describe his guard, while sitting temporally between Swetnam and Godfrey. I do think that Wylde's "this guard keeps your opponent from encroaching upon you" is at least suggestive of the point extended position, as I feel having the tip in one's face is more intimidating than just showing a middle cutting position. Later in the manual it says: "dropping your Point, and bring it by your left Ear, then place it betwixt your Opposer's Eyes". Here, presumably the subject of the sentence is "point" so that is what would go "betwixt" your opponent's eyes.

See Also:

The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence
    (Modernized transcription by David Kite)

Joseph Swetnam - Biographical Sketch

Advice and Ethics in Joseph Swetnam's Schoole of Defence

Study Guide for the Staffe Play of Joseph Swetnam's Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence

 

 
 

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