Advice and Ethics in Joseph Swetnam’s Schoole of Defence
By Matt Bryant ©2017
The School of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence, published in 1617, contains much more than martial arts theory and techniques. Joseph Swetnam’s work offers a bounty of wisdom, insight, and meaningful philosophy. This not only gives us a fascinating glimpse into the historical context of the English science of defense, but it has significant implications for martial artists living today.
Swetnam’s ethics permeate every aspect of his book. His faith was the bedrock of his ethical code and he likely saw little separation between the two concepts. Roughly the first half of The School of Defence is dedicated to this sagely advice. After 105 pages, he finally begins to show his system of self defense. This is where most other works on martial arts begin. Even the technical instruction itself is embedded with advice and ethics.
Swetnam’s thesis is that our training in the physical aspects of martial arts should be accompanied by their behavioral components as well. One must go hand in hand with the other if we hope to be balanced: “…thou must … know not only how to use and govern thy weapon, but also thy self… for kind and courteous behavior wins favor and love wheresoever thou go.”1
The School of Defence offers guidance on a wide range of topics. Some are immediate and practical such as how to break up a fight, avoiding alcoholism, motivation to practice, career, and retirement. Other topics are more ethereal such as the fragility of life and the emotional burden of killing. This article will focus on self-control, the proper use of violence, humility, kind speech, comradery, and having mercy on an opponent.
Self-awareness and self-control were especially important to Swetnam. He asks us to examine ourselves and our circumstances in life. If you have happened upon a fortune, don’t go on a spree.2 If you notice your bad habits, work to correct them.3 If you are looked up to by others, be a good role model.4 This thoughtful approach to life is meant to keep us from acting rashly and becoming bound to impulse and irrationality.5 We should think before we get into a fight. Is it truly worth the physical danger and the possibility of getting in trouble with the law?6
Is it worth the emotional and spiritual damage we may do to ourselves even if we win the fight? Over and over again he implores us to consider the consequences of our words and actions.7
Self-discipline permeates The School of Defence so thoroughly that it is even included in the Seven Principle Rules. These principle rules form the core of Swetnam’s fighting system just as Liechtenauer’s system is rooted in the Five Words and Silver’s teachings are framed within the Four Grounds and Four Governors. It is intriguing that, unlike other masters, Swetnam’s foundational concepts do not deal solely with the act of fighting. The fifth principle rule is “patience, and that is one of the greatest virtues...” He presses us to “let the bridle of reason and judgment” overrule our impulsive nature so “that in no case anger gets the upper hand.”8
We are warned that we can expect many people in our lives to be frustrating, yet we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture.9 Swetnam profoundly states that a person of proven value will often hold back “when he is wronged or challenged” and “the wiser sort” will not call them a coward for their restraint.10 Swetnam says “the mighty or skillful ought to use their power moderately” and not react to inconsequential annoyances.11
In his forward specifically addressing martial arts instructors (professors of the noble and worthy art of defense), Swetnam quickly points out that many people look up to masters of defense and see them as role models.12 He puts a higher standard of behavior on these instructors saying, “we are as a beacon set on a hill, or like a candle in a candlestick.”13
How might one improve their patience? Swetnam prescribes training in the art of defense!14 He writes that those who cannot “arm [themselves] with patience” and overcome their rashness should spend their free time training with someone skillful. While training, they will see how easy it is to get hurt or killed, so they will “know the danger of rashness” and learn to curb their aggression.15
The School of Defence expressly addresses a grave issue: abusing the art. Skill in martial arts is a powerful thing. Violence is a tool that can be used for both good and ill. Swetnam wanted everyone to be able to protect themselves but “it is pity that a man without [self-] government should know the secret skill in weapons… for a good thing learned and abused were better… never learned.”16 As important as it is to learn martial arts, it is equally important not to abuse the power gained through our training.17
The School of Defence references men who would spoil for a fight, wanting to exercise their new found ability. This author has also observed such behavior. It was suggested that one should start a bar fight in order to test their skills. I found this to be a rash, ego driven idea. As mentioned above, training reveals how dangerous violence can be. We should only use violence “in cases of necessity.”18
Many examples can be noted throughout history of a strict code of conduct being applied to the warrior class. This was presumably a control on those who were empowered by the ability to do violence. If someone wields such a deadly tool, it is best to urge them toward using it properly.
The School of Defence promotes a sense of selflessness and goodwill that underlies the rest of his ethical code. He encourages us to think in terms of benefitting others and to “lead thy life in true humility.”19 We should be a boon for our friends, family20, county,21 and the world at large.22
He makes it clear that humility is especially important for martial artists. “I never knew any man but he had met with his match” so don’t “think thy self better than any man.”23 He lauds the martial artist who “will be no whit the prouder of skill, but go as if he had it not.”24 He adds that “amongst wise men he is accounted most valiant which brags least.”25
The School of Defence discusses the martial artists who “think their own wit best” and hate to be corrected.26 We should “take heed of ignorance’s pitfall,”27 and remember that “a man of understanding may learn wisdom, and gain experience [from] a fool.”28 This rings true in the present day regarding our differing interpretations of old martial texts among other things. He later adds that we should never think we “have learned all the skill which is possible to be learned already, far deceived are thou if thou think so, for if thou live till thou are old, yet thou may learn still.”29 He also writes against a rigid view of fighting methods, saying “there are more ways to the wood than one, and he which knows many ways, may go the nearest.”30
Towards the end of his book Swetnam brings up a certain weapon that is more important than all the others. He wants us to “be well armed with patience for thy buckler, and a fair tongue for thy sword.”31 The tongue is often the most effective thing for our defense. It can save us when weapons would be useless.32 But it can also “cut worse than any sword” and get us in serious trouble.33 Indeed “an evil tongue is the cause of many a man’s death.”34 Avoid talking bad about other people, even in regards to their ability in martial arts!35 On the other hand some people “will be satisfied with words, and some must needs be answered with weapons.”36 Even if we do our best to de-escalate violence there may come a time when physical force is our only option.
Through all the anecdotes and admonitions we are given a glimpse of the martial arts culture of the time, including behavior in the fencing schools. Swetnam discusses training injuries, maintaining your gear, grudges between instructors, and not mocking less-skilled fencers. But special attention is paid to a pervasive issue: how martial artists regard each other. This applies to members of a different school as well as your own.
He acknowledges that it is our tendency to have “a kind of grudging hatred” toward other fencing instructors but he “would gladly wish it otherwise.”37 He requests that martial artists “be loving and kind to one another, meeting together in their travels, and like birds of a feather hold together, and in brotherly love embrace one another.”38 He asks that this goodwill between “professors of the noble art” be genuine and not merely a show.
Swetnam has an address “unto scholars and unto ushers of schools of this profession” demanding that they “proffer no wrong to your masters neither in word nor deed” and to respect your lower level tutors as well.39 In a powerful statement, he writes that instead of disrespecting your instructors you should “bear a hearty love unto him which has brought you from nothing to something, from a shadow unto substance.”40
Sparing an Opponent
Swetnam had mixed feeling toward killing another person. The School of Defence is unique in that it emphasizes sparing your opponent’s life if you can do so without endangering yourself.41 Though Swetnam often instructs us to thrust to deadly targets, he prefers merely wounding the opponent. This can be exemplified in Swetnam’s third principle rule, “to know the place,” which is defined as “where thou may best hurt him at a large distance without danger to thy self, or without killing of thine enemy.”42 Swetnam’s “place” is similar to Silver’s but not identical. Like the rest of his system, it is a simpler and more direct concept. For Swetnam, knowing the place is merely perceiving the best place to attack at a particular moment, wherever that might be.43 There is often direction to thrust the opponent in the thigh.44 In a duel, it is also considered victory to disarm the opponent or to call a stop after they have been wounded.45 Not killing is ideal, but Swetnam acknowledges that this might not always be possible: “rather kill, than be killed, if there is no remedy.”46
There is a clear distinction between killing in self-defense and out right murder. Killing in a duel is a trickier issue. If someone kills “in his own defense” or in a “just quarrel in the field [a duel] … then it may be the better tolerated both before God and man.”47 Even so, Swetnam reminds us that his opinion is superseded by the commandment of “thou shalt not kill.”48
There are several examples of karma catching up with murderers. There are tales of ambush on the street, perceived insults sparking violence, and cruel deception on the dueling field. All of these murderers were acquitted by the courts, “yet God pursues them with the hue and cry of His vengeance, which follows them, and apprehends them.”49 These stories end with the killers getting their comeuppance. One was killed by a stray pistol shot, another committed suicide with his own rapier. Swetnam wrote of secret murders as well. There are harrowing tales of fratricide, infanticide, bodies thrown into the sea, and buried under fireplaces. But “as the proverb goes, murder will not be hidden.”50 All these secret homicides are figured out and these killers “receive [their] wages with shame.”51
The School of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence is brimming with pearls of wisdom. Self-control and humility can give us a foundation from which we may speak kindly, appreciate one another, and use violence with wisdom and restraint. The practical and ethical advice put down in Swetnam’s book still resonates with us today. It also shows that he and his contemporaries faced many of the same issues as we do. Swetnam thoroughly integrated ideals of personal development with technique and martial theory. He clearly thought it was imperative that we improve as people as we strive to improve as martial artists.
1 Joseph Swetnam, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (London, 1617), 76.
2 Ibid., 80
3 Ibid., 48
4 Ibid., C3 recto
5 Ibid., 4 & 114
6 Ibid., 14
7 Joseph Swetnam, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (London, 1617), 3 & 42.
8 Ibid., 84
9 Ibid., 15
10 Ibid., 42
11 Ibid., 37
12 Ibid., C3 recto
13 Ibid., C3 recto
14 Ibid., 62-64
15 Ibid., 10-11
16 Ibid., 29
17 Ibid., 30
18 Joseph Swetnam, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (London, 1617), 3.
19 Ibid., 30
20 Ibid., 51
21 Ibid., B3 verso, C3 recto, & 51
22 Ibid., A3 recto & 51
23 Ibid., D verso
24 Ibid., 33 & 10-11
25 Ibid., 10-11
26 Ibid., B verso
27 Ibid., B verso
28 Ibid., A3 verso
29 Ibid., D recto
30 Ibid., D recto
31 Joseph Swetnam, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (London, 1617), 177-179.
32 Ibid., 179
33 Ibid., 180
34 Ibid., D verso
35 Ibid., D verso
36 Ibid., 13-14
37 Ibid., D verso
38 Ibid., D verso
39 Ibid., D2 recto
40 Ibid., D2 verso
41 Joseph Swetnam, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (London, 1617), 7-8.
42 Ibid., 83
43 Ibid., 83
44 Ibid., 94
45 Ibid., 34
46 Ibid., 102
47 Ibid., 18
48 Ibid., 18
49 Ibid., 20
50 Ibid., 26
51 Ibid., 26
Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence