Some Rapier Combats in Early 17th century English Literature

By J. Clements

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Published between 1621 and 1635, The Triumphs of Gods Revenge, offers a series of ostensibly fictional (though possible true) tales of revenge and murder by the little-known English author John Reynolds.  In the Triumphs we are given a number of detailed accounts of duels and affrays that range from the honorable to the malevolent.  Reynolds’ prose style more than adequately conveys the tension and drama of such violent encounters as well as offering insights into rapier dueling from the period.  More interestingly, the narratives reveal a grasp of fencing and attention to the elements of the combats that suggests either he was borrowing from other sources or was writing from real-life accounts of various countries.  The descriptions of the wounds are entirely consistent with our understanding of the nature of combat in the early 17th century with nearly edgeless blades of the later rapier.

In Book I of The Triumphs, Reynolds writes of the Italian gallant Gasparino’s challenge to Pisani. The conditions were that the fight would take place at the west end of the park at four or five after dinner and that the combat would be on foot with seconds, and the weapons, according to Gasparino  “if you please, two single Rapiers, whereof bring you one, and I the other…”.  Their seconds, Sebastiano and Sfondrato, were to meet earlier to provide and match the rapiers.  Gasparino and his second, Sebastiano arrive first in the field with Pisani and his second, Sfondrato following soon after.  They tie their horses to the hedge and then pull off their spurs and then, interestingly, “cut away the timber-heeles of their bootes, that they might not trippe, but stand firme in their play.”  This is unique in that they do not attempt to fence in heavy riding boots. As they begin, the seconds first search the principals who then throw off their doublets and “appeare all in their shirts, not as if they feared death, but rather as if they were resolved to make death feare them.”

Gasparino and Pisani then draw their blades and make their approaches and Reynolds describes the fight and the multiple wounds: “At the first incounter Pisani is hurt in the out-side of the left arme, and Gasparino in the right flanke, the bloud whereof appeared not, but fell into his hose: they again separate themselves, and now trie their fortunes afresh, here Pisani receives two wounds, the one glancing on his ribbes, the other in the brawne of his right arme, and Gasparino one deepe one in his left shoulder.”  Each duelist has been stabbed three times at this point and Reynolds then writes, “these slight hurts they only esteeme as scarres, not as wounds, and therefore seeing their shirts but sprinkled, not dyed with their blouds, they courageously come on againe”.  Gasparino then warded Pisani’s thrust and ran him through his hose without doing any harm.  At the next instant Pisani purposely closed to turn himself around and thereby have the sun in his backe instead of in his eyes. 

Both fighters then paused to catch there breath and Reynolds’ prose describes how:   “Their Seconds withdraw not from their stations, neither can they yet imagine to whose side fortune will incline, they being well-near as equal in wounds as courage; and now Pisani and Gasparino dressing their Rapiers, and wiping off the blood from them, begin again to make trial, on whom Victory is resolved to smile: but they alter the manner of their fight: for Gasparino now fights with judgment, and not with fury, and Pisani with fury, and not with judgment, whereas heretofore they both did the contrary. They traverse their ground. Pisani is so violent, as he hath almost put himselfe out of breath, but Gasparino is so wary and cautious, as he contents himselfe to breake his thrusts, and resolves not to make any but to the purpose, and upon manifest advantage”. 

Then, “at the very next incounter, as Pisani runnes Gasparino into the necke, he runnes Pisani thorow the bodie, a little below the left pappe; and his sword meeting with Cava Vena (which leads directly to the heart) makes a perpetual divorce betwixt his body and his soule, and so he falles starke dead to the ground. Gasparino knowing him dispatched, sheathes up his Rapier. But Sfondrato and his Chirurgion [surgeon] runne to his assistance: but the affection of the one, and the art of the other were in vaine: for Pisani his life had forsaken his body, and his soule was already fled from this World to another.”  At the end of the fight, Gasparino has four thrusting wounds, including two to the torso and one in the neck. 

Next, as was often customary, the two seconds begin to fight and we learn that as: “Sfondrato and the Chirurgion were stretching out the dead body of Pisani, and covering it up with their cloaks; Sebastiano runs to Gasparino, and congratulates with him for his victory, extolling his valor to the skie. But Gasparino tells him, that these prayses appertaine not to him, but to a higher providence, and withall prayes him to bee carefull, and to manage his life both with courage and discretion: and for himselfe, finding his wounds no way desperate nor dangerous, he is resolved not to suffer his Chirurgion to binde them up, till hee see the issue of the Combate betwixt his faithfull friend Sebastiano and Sfondrato. 

By this time Sfondrato thinks it high time to begin, and being no way daunted with the misfortune and death of his friend Pisani, but rather encouraged and resolved to sell it dearly on the life of Sebastiano; he drawes, and with his Rapier in his hand comes towards him. Sebastiano meets him half way with a verie fresh and cheerful countenance; and so they approach one to the other.”  We then read that “at their first incounter, Sebastiano gives Sfondrato a large and wide wound on his right side, but receives another from him thorow the left arme, a little above the elbow; but that of Sfondrato powered forth more blood, and to bee briefe, they both give and take diverse wounds, and perform the parts of valorous Gentlemen.”

In keeping with the theme of his title, Reynolds then writes, “But in the end, God, who would not give all the victory to one side, but will make both parties losers, to shew that hee is displeased with these their bloody actions, and uncharitable resolutions, which though Honour seeme to excuse, yet Religion cannot.”  He then describes that, “after they had three several times taken breath, Sebastiano advancing a faire thrust to Sfondrato's breast, which only pierced his shirt, and ravelled his skinne, Sfondrato requited him with a mournefull interest; for he ranne him thorow at the small of the belly, and so nayled him to the ground, bearing away his life on the poynt of his Rapier.” 

Reynolds concludes his tale of illicit dueling by describing, “Thus our foure Combatants, being now reduced to the number of two, Sfondrato expected that Gasparino would have exchanged a thrust or two with him: the which certainely hee had performed. But Gasparino finding that the losse of so much blood made him then weake, and that it was now more then time for him to have his wounds bound up, they having taken order for the decent transporting of their dead friends, that night to Pavia, they, without speaking word one to the other, commit themselves to their Chirurgions, and so their wounds being bound up, they take them with them, and, to save themselves from the danger of the law, they take horse, and poast away Gasparino to Parma, and Sfondrato to Florence, from whence they resolve not to stirre, before their friends have procured and sent them their pardons.” (p. 79-82) 

beauflet1.jpg (18550 bytes)Next, Reynolds offers an example of what must have been a not too uncommon occurrence.  He tells how the gallant Thomaso Piracquo challenged Alsemero to “meet mee at the foote of Glisseran hill to morrow at five in the morning without Seconds, and it shalbe at your choyse, either to use your Sword on horsebacke, or your Rapier on foote.” We then read how they “meet at the houre and place appointed: Piracquo is first in the field; and Alsemero stayes not long after, but hee hath two small Pistols charged in his pockets, which in killing his enemy shall ruine himselfe, they draw, and as they approach, Alsemero throws away his Rapier, and with his Hat in his hand, prayes Piracquo to hear him in his just defence, and that hee is ready to joyne with him to revenge his Brothers murtherers. Alsemero being as courteous as couragious, and as honorable as valiant, likewise throws away his Rapier, and with his hat in his hand comes to meet him, but it is a folly to unarme ourselves in our enemies presence; for it is better and fitter that hee stand at our courtesie, then we to his, when Piracquo fearing nothing lesse then treason, Alsemero drawes out his Pistols and dischargeth them, the first thorow his head, and the second thorow his brest…” The lesson here is don't duel without taking every precaution. (p. 162) 

In Book 3, Reynolds similarly tells of the bodies of one Captain Benevente, and his gentleman Fiamento, found after a duel by Benevent’s son Alcasero: “his father with a Pistoll bullet was shot thorow the head in two places, and runne thorow the body with a Rapier in three” while “Fiamento had five deepe wounds with a Rapier, and once shot thorowe the head.”   (p. 174) 

In Book 4, Reynolds writes of a challenge by Don Ivan to De Perez to fight in Madrid over Perez’s sister who was his wife.  The tale again notes the rules used for the combat, the pauses for rest and the number of misses and wounds sustained by each fighter. “So these two Duelists disdaining to be tainted with the least spice of dishonour, or shadow of cowardise, they at first sight of each other, throw off their doublets, and in their silke stockings and pumps, with their Rapiers drawne, they without any further complement or expostulation approach each other; But here before they beginne to reduce malitious contemplation into bloudy action, I hold it fit to informe my Reader with a circumstance that now past betweene them, wherein doubtlesse the Providence of God was most conspicuous and apparant; For as by the Law and custome both of Spaine and Portugall, all Rapiers should bee of one length, yet De Perez curiously casting his vigilant eye upon that of Don Ivan, either his feare, or his judgement, or both, informe him that that Rapier is longer than his, whereat…De Perez…as a Noble and generous Gallant, he freely exchangeth Rapiers with him, gives De Perez the longer, and contents himselfe to fight with the shorter…they againe approach each other to fight.”  

“At their first comming up Don Ivan runnes a firme thrust to De Perez breast, but hee (bearing it up with his Rapier) runnes Don Ivan in the cheeke towards his right eare, which drawes much bloud from him, and he in exchange runnes De Perez thorow his shirt sleeve without hurting him. At their second meeting they againe close without hurting each other, and so part faire without offering any other violence.”  

“At their third assault De Perez runnes Don Ivan thorow the brawne of his left arme, who in exchange requites him with a deepe wound in his right side, from whence issued much bloud, and now they breathe to recover wind” and the judgments of their seconds and surgeons “they hitherto are equall in valour, and almost in fortune; so although these spectators doe of both sides earnestly entreat them to desist and give over, yet they cannot, they will not be so easily or so soone reconciled each to other; So after a little pausing and breathing, they (with courage and resolution) fall to it afresh, and at this their fourth encounter Don Perez gives Don Ivan a deepe wound in his left shoulder, and he requites him with another in exchange, in the necke; and although by this time their several wounds hath engrained their white shirts with great effusion of their scarlet bloud, yet they are so brave, so generous, or rather so inhumane and malitious, that they will not yet give over” 

Marzp081.jpg (961520 bytes)Their fifth close proves more fatal for “after they had judiciously traversed their ground, thereby to deceive each other of the disadvantage of the Sunne, whiles De Perez directs a full thrust to Don Ivan’s breast, hee bravely and skilfully warding it, in requitall thereof, runnes him cleane thorow the body, a little below his right pap…”.  We then are told how Don Ivan then immediately rushes upon his opponent “closing nimbly with him, and pursuing the point of his good fortune, hee whips up his heeles, and so nailes him to the ground.”  Thus, Don Ivan, Spanish gentlemen, had no qualms about getting in against his skewered enemy and tripping him to the ground “where De Perez, still begging for his life, quickly expires from his wounds.” Reynolds adds “he died miserably and wretchedly.” That the account was deemed honorable is made clear as Reynolds concludes by telling the reader: “But this their Duell is not so secretly carried, but within three houres after all Madrid rattles thereof; who knowing the Combatants to be both of them noble Gentlemen of Portugall, it gives cause of generall talke, and argument of universall envie and admiration in all Spaniards, especially in the nobler sort of Souldiers and Courtiers.” (p. 316) 

In Book 5, Reynolds described the not infrequent incident of waylaying one’s enemy in the street.  He tells of one Martino who in the town of Burgos ambushed Don Monfredo by “wayting for him as hee issued forth his house, which hee did betweene eleven and twelve at night, hee with his small Target, and darke Lanterne in his left hand, and his Rapier drawen in his right, runnes him twice thorow the body therewith, of which two mortall wounds he presently fell dead in the street.”  Don Monfredo “was kill'd before he could see his enemie, or have the leasure to draw his sword.”  We then read how “The next morning at breake of day, this breathlesse body of Don Monfredo is found in the street.” 

Lastly, Reynolds tells of Quatbrisson’s challenge to his brother Valfontaine. That evening their two seconds, Pont Chausey and La Roche, provide their rapiers.  On the appointed day and time “they (according to the custome of Duels) doe all throw of their dublets, and each unbooting his fellow, they appeare in their silke stocking and white pumps, as if they were fitter to dance Coranto's or Pavins, then to fight Duels. So the two brothers first draw, and approach each other, and at their first comming up, Valfontaine (without being touched himselfe) gives Quatbrisson a deep wound in his right thigh, and if his Rapier had not beaten downe the thrust, it had undoubtedly nailed him to the ground; at their second encounter they are both hurt, Quatbrisson in the right arme, and Valfontaine of a scarre in the necke, and here they make a stand to take breath, Quatbrisson not as yet despairing, nor Valfontaine triumphing or assuring himselfe of the victory, and the fight and effusion of their blood is so farre from rebating or quenching, as it rather revives their courages with more spleene and animositie, so they will againe try their fortunes; They now traverse their ground, and approach each other, and although they are not lesse vallorous then before, yet (to the eyes of their Seconds and Chirurgions) they are now more cautious in their plea, and more advised in choosing and refusing their ground, when Valfontaine breaking a thrust (which his brother presented him) he then calling to mind… the foulnesse of his brothers malice and treachery towards him, drives home a thrust at him, which entereth betwixt his short ribs, and making the blood to gush and streame forth, doth soone quaile his courage…” 

Finally, their seconds, Pont Chausey and La Roche try to determine whether or not they should fight each other as well.   Neither really wishes to back down and risk appearing cowardly, but neither do they wish to fight over no real quarrel.  Surprisingly, they then agree to roll dice to decide! We are told “a faire paire of dice shall be the judge and umpire betweene them, and that who throwes most at one cast, it shall bee in his choice either to fight or not to fight.”  La Roche wins the roll and “gracelesly insulting and triumphing, with an open throat cryes out, fight, fight, fight; and so presently drawes his Rapier. Pont Chausey seeing his enemy armed, religious thinkes it no longer, either safe or honourable for him to be unarmed, when (yet with a kind of reluctancie, and unwilling willingnesse) hee likewise unsheathes his Rapier, and so without any farther expostulation, they here approach each other…For loe, just as many picks as each of them threw on the Dice, so many wounds they severally received each from other, as Pont Chausey five and La Roche seven, and he who so extremely desired to fight, and so insatiably thirsted after Pont Chauseyes blood, is now here by him nayled dead to the ground, and his breathlesse corpes all gored and washed in his owne blood.”  (p.  497 & 499) 

Once again, Reynolds ends his final tale of rapier combat by noting the multiple wounds sustained by the combatants and the violence of the encounter. His writings give historical fencing practioners some pause to consider the nature of Renaissance rapier combat as something quite different from what has been portrayed in popular media or presumed from the modern sporting versions.



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