In the following extensive essay article exclusive for ARMA, Terry Brown, author of the recent English Martial Arts, from Anglo-Saxon Books, examines some unique elements. He offers us insights into methods of swordsmanship between the cut & thrust style as represented by the grand-master of the English systems, George Silver, and the later system of small-sword fencing through the work of one John Godfrey, "A Treatise Upon the Science of Defence". Although some technical elements of this examination may be over the head of all but the most die-hard scholars of the sword, it makes for a very interesting read. Enjoy and ponder. - JC
The Changing Face of Truth
In 1599 George Silver wrote:
"Fencing (Right Honorable) in this new fangled age, is like our fashions, everie daye a change, resembling the Camelion, who altereth himselfe into all colours save white: so Fencing changeth into all wards save the right There is nothing permanent that is not true, what can be true that is uncertain? How can that be certaine, that stands upon uncertain grounds?"
In 1747 Capt. John Godfrey wrote:
" Endeavoring to weed the ART of those superfluous, unmeaning Practises which over-run it, and choke the true Principles, by reducing it to a narrow Compass, The plainest Work may be laid down to be the strongest, and though Fashions are titillating for a Time, even to Sense, yet in the End Natures Taste will prove triumphant."
The words of both these men accord nicely which should come as no surprise since both men were master swordsmen. Therefore, when reading their respective books we should expect more of the same with both men advocating similar principles and methods. Indeed, this is often the case, BUT there are crucial differences. One of them being over the fundamentals of Distance and Measure. For example, Godfrey tells us that:
"Measure, in respect of the sword, is the mutual Distance between your adversary and you "
In other words he treats them as being one and the same. Silver, however, treats Measure and Distance as being two distinct qualities. Of Distance (which he categorises as a component of The Four Grounds) Silver says, rather succinctly:
through Distance you take your Tyme".
Measure, he includes in The Four Governors and says of it:
"Measure is the better to know how to make your space true to defend yourself, or to offend your enemye".
It would, however, be unjust to think that Godfrey did not understand the concept of Measure because he talks of the; "Bodys Measure" by which he means standing in line (sideways) with the sword and contracting the body somewhat. This of course has the effect of aligning the body with the sword and also of reducing the target area available to the opponent. In other words it creates the "line" that is so important when fighting with the smallsword.
Even here, despite the apparent discrepancy between the words of the two masters, we can still perceive some agreement between them. When Godfrey talked of "Body Measure" he was concurring with Silvers advice to, "make your space true". The question is now begged that if they agreed so closely why did Silver separate Measure and Distance while Godfrey, as far as the sword is concerned, didnt? Why is it that two men who were both so insistent on sticking to the true principles of the art of fencing should appear to hold radically different views on the fundamentals of Distance and Measure? The answer lies in the fact that they were talking of different types of weapons. Godfreys theories related to the smallsword, a thrusting weapon pure and simple. Silvers principles, on the other hand, were applicable to a wide variety of war weapons. In other words because the weapons were different, their usage was different, because their usage was different the principles applicable to them were perceived and applied differently. We might, with some justification term this the changing face of truth.
In smallswording to keep the point directed at the enemy was to keep your Measure because the horizontal alignment of the blade was the root of all recognised defensive movements for the smallsword. Although, as an interesting aside, it should be pointed out that Godfrey did admit that the hanging guard from backsword fighting could be utilised for the smallsword. However, the crucial factor with the smallsword is that the point of the weapon, in effect, acts as a fulcrum or pivot around which the wrist arcs to provide the angular changes necessary to deflect incoming thrusts. Another way of looking at this is to imagine the sword point as being the apex of an acute triangle with changes of wrist position providing movement along the baseline of the triangle. By moving the hilt across the base of the triangle the defender is able to deflect incoming thrusts. Once the thrust has been dealt with the defender is able, by virtue of his weapons alignment, to quickly and accurately counter-thrust.
We can now understand why Godfrey regarded Distance and Measure as being one and the same but why did he then take the trouble to discuss and describe body measure? Again it comes down to the fact that he was treating of a different weapon to those used by Silver. In this context we must again refer the aforementioned triangle. Using Godfreys body position we can see that the swordsman, in effect, stands behind the baseline of the triangle. Therefore the small wrist actions so crucial in smallswording are sufficient to defend the body against an opponents thrusts. However, were the defender to stand fuller on to his opponent he would naturally enlarge the target area and subsequently allow his opponent more attacking options. In other words he would be out of Measure, his body would no longer be wholly behind the protective baseline of the triangle. Consequently, He (the defender) would be forced into using his elbow, and even his shoulder, to move his hilt across the extra distance, becoming Wide-Spaced in the process. This would not only result in a lost time but would also indirect his point meaning that the necessary corrective action would represent a further lost time and therefore render his counter-attack less likely to succeed.
It is clear that Silver, on the other hand, regarded Measure as simultaneously encompassing both body and weapon. Why should this be so? Well, while the smallsword only allows thrusting, that is to say, essentially, linear/one dimensional attacks, the weapons of which Silver was talking allowed multi-dimensional attacks. Blows, after all, can come in from any angle. Given this fact, a small wrist movement would not move the blade far enough, for example, to defend against the downright blow to the head, or the descending diagonal cut to the neck so beloved of English swordsmen. Larger movements become necessary when defending against multi-dimensional attacks. In fact the deflective use of the blade in such circumstances becomes rather risky. This explains why the English used the term 'stop' for blocking. The attack was stopped in its tracks, not deflected, this is not to say that defecting was not recognised or utilised, just that it was not the primary method of defence. This is because of the fact, as stated that blows can come in from such a large variety of angles. Seeking to deflect such attacks smallsword style is not only physically difficult but also very dangerous in that you would be trying to deflect the blow with a very narrow angled opposition. That is to say that your blade would be holding too similar a line to the incoming blade to guarantee either Stopping or deflecting it.
Stopping a cut safely requires that the defender crosses the incoming blade at a greater angle, theoretically, the closer you can get to a ninety degree angle between the two blades the better (this latter fact also plays a crucial role in delivering powerful counter-cuts but thats a subject for another article in itself).
The above differences in defending against cuts and thrusts engendered two entirely different fighting philosophies. The one for the smallsword relied, in the main, on deflection prior to countering. Cut & thrust sword fighting relied, in the main, on Stopping/Receiving before countering. This brings us neatly back to triangles, if the smallsword user stands behind the baseline of the triangle then the cutting sword man, because he (normally) receives rather than deflects stands, in effect, inside the triangle with its apex above his head, its sides forming his Inside and Outside guards and the ground forming its baseline. This is an interesting point because whereas the smallsword user finds it both difficult and dangerous to alter the plane of his triangle to deal with cutting attacks the sword user finds it very simple to alter the plane of his triangle by, in effect, lowering the apex towards his opponent, either to defend against thrusts or to deliver them. This, of course, he achieves by the simple expedient of lowering his sword point towards the horizontal (or raising it if he is in the Hanging Guard) Although, in practise there is little need to risk the loss of time generated by lowering the point since the Outside, True or Bastard Gardant are excellent defences against thrusts.
Coming back to Silvers understanding of Measure we can now begin to investigate what he meant when he said:
"Measure is the better to know how to make your space true to defend yourself, or to offend your enemye"
If the offensive measure of a smallsword is the distance that the point has to travel to kill your opponent (with subsequent defensive ramifications). Then the measure of the broadsword is the distance that the edge has to travel, AND the angle it has to travel through to kill an opponent. Now, given the greater number of angles from which the cutting sword can attack we have a corresponding range of distances, and therefore times, from the cutting edge to the opponents body (not forgetting of course that it can also thrust). With the smallsword the only attack is the thrust, therefore the time is represented by the distance the point travels to the target. It is a one dimensional attack which carries with it a single time. The cutting sword however, having the capability of multi-dimensional attack, has a range of times (representing distances in different postures between cutting edge and target). This is where Silvers definition of Measure applies, making your space true in Silvers terms means adopting a body and weapon position that caters for all of the possible angles, and therefore distances and times of attack. At the same time, whilst understanding this in a defensive sense, you must be positioned in such a way that you can take advantage of that knowledge. For example, if your opponent was foolish enough to face you in the St George stance you would know that his Space was too Wide (providing your Distance was correct) to Stop a thrust to the body or a cut to the leg, in other words you would have the Measure of your man. Yes, an over-simple example but only by degree. Such a principle holds true whenever you perceive a situation where your opponents Lying is false, or where his attack has failed and left you an opening.
Many of the people who read this article will probably think to themselves that what I have said is pretty obvious and I would agree with them. However, I would humbly suggest that if the truth can be perceived differently by two swordsmen as eminent and honourable as Silver and Godfrey simply because they used different weapons might not the same be true now? Might it not be the case that some people are trying to define ancient works by their own theories or prejudices rather than by the theories of the authors? Smallsword masters of the past who, all too often, had little knowledge of the cutting sword tried to convince people that the principles of the latter were dependent on those of the former. In other words to cover for their lack of knowledge (as well as increasing their income) they re-invented broadsword fighting in the image of smallsword usage. As I wrote in my book this was a disastrous marriage of convenience since the principles of the two weapons cannot happily share the same bed".
Silver, sadly, falls victim to the above approach quite a lot in that some people are trying to interpret his principles and techniques in light of later methods of cut and thrust fighting. It is my contention that Silver meant no such thing and was, in the main, teaching medieval techniques which had been passed down through schools of defence which had existed in England since at least the late twelfth century. In the first place, thrusts were used in medieval sword fighting and were not an attempt by Silver to compete with the rapier (although thrusts were less used because the globular/fist grip allows less opportunity to do so). Secondly, if one studies Silvers sword techniques closely it immediately becomes apparent that attempting to use them while, for example, employing spadroon stances and positions renders the vast majority of them contradictory to the principles that he took so much time and care to propound. But that too would require another article to explain.
Terry Brown's book, English Martial Arts is published by Anglo-Saxon Books.