Joseph Swetnam - Biographical Sketch

By David Kite 2017

Of unknown origins and unknown fate, the details concerning Joseph Swetnam's life are few, and the certain facts fewer. The certain facts are derived from two letters of administration, one for himself in 1621, and the other for his daughter in 16261. His own letter of administration, drawn up after news of his death had reached England around October 1621, recorded that he died overseas (nuper in p[ar]tibus transmarinis decedentis). His daughter, Elizabeth, was his administer of estate and was left £21. No other details are given. In his daughter's letter of administration, Swetnam was described as a citizen of Bristol (nuper de civit[ate] Bristoll). Elizabeth was married in November 1613. If her age at first marriage was between twenty and twenty-five, the average age for women at the time, then she would have been born in the early 1590s. To have a legitimate daughter, Swetnam himself must have been married at one point, and if the same age range holds true for Joseph, this would put his birth somewhere in the 1560s or early 1570s. In his infamous pamphlet on "lewd women," he made the not very reliable claim that he had been a traveller for "thirty & odde yeeres" by the time of its publication in 16152. If he had begun travelling between the ages of fifteen to twenty, which was also the average for the time, this would further corroborate the date range of his birth. This would put him in his fifties at the time of publication of his two books, and at least sixty at the time of his death.

The speculative details derive primarily from internal evidence found in The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence3. Van Heertum concludes that he was a West Country man, basing the assumption on the fact that many of the anecdotes he related occurred in that region4. Despite being described as a citizen of Bristol in his daughter's letter of administration, some assume he may have been a native of the city of Plymouth. Certainly, he only mentions Bristol once in passing, though he makes frequent references to Plymouth and to occurrences in the surrounding area. Although it is clear that he felt warmly toward Plymouth, he even composed the sentimental "My farewell to Plimouth" at the end of Schoole of Defence, he never revealed what this connection was. However, since he pined over the city's heyday, when Plymouth prospered during the threat of Spanish invasion, it is possible he was there in some military capacity. As far as Van Heertum's research, there is no record of a fencing school in Bristol during Swetnam's lifetime, and only one mention of a "Joseph Sweetnam" concerning the baptism of a Jocina in the parish register of St. Andrew's, Plymouth, dated 1604, though "it is impossible to say whether this is [the] Joseph Swetnam" who wrote the Schoole of Defence5.

That he was a professional Master of Defense is made clear by the title page's claim that his Schoole of Defence was "the first of any English mans invention, which professed the sayd Science," as well as his addressing an entire dedicatory epistle to his "most noble brethren by profession," exhorting them to be model citizens and Christians. Later in the book, he claimed that the science of defense "hath been my study and practice this twenty years."6 He also related the fates of several members of the English Masters of Defense, a blue collar association of martial artists who worked and lived throughout England. Despite the fact that several of these tales were told in the printed literature of the time, as well as Swetnam's propensity for "borrowing" from other sources, it is probable he was relying on his own knowledge in these cases. Swetnam even claimed to have known the Master of Defense John Turner personally7. Unfortunately, as noted above there is no record of a fencing school in Bristol, and the only known extant (and evidently incomplete) document produced by the Masters of Defense, the British Library's Sloane MS 2530, only includes records up until 1590. However, given that he was itinerant, and since it can be confidently assumed he spent at least some time in London to have his books printed, as well as Plymouth for unknown reasons, the possible location of any fencing school ranges far and wide.

One tantalizing clue about Swetnam's role as a martial arts master is his claim in the "Epistle Dedicatory" to have been tutor to James I's son, Henry Frederick Stuart. Unfortunately, the extent of this tutelage is so far untraceable, and the available corroborating evidence is not promising. For example, according to the Exchequor Issue Rolls, a Charles Guerholt was appointed to teach Prince Henry the "science of defence" between the years 1604 to 16068. Further, Swetnam's name is absent from the Privy Purse books for the Prince's household for the years 1608 to 1612 when the prince died9. Of course, this assumes he was actually hired to teach fencing to Prince Henry. His instruction may not have been part of an official paying tutelage, and Swetnam may actually have been retained as a servant in the household of someone close to the Court. Several Masters of Defense were retained by the gentry, and several performed before the Court or worked for the Crown in other capacities. Regardless, he seems to have had a frequent enough relationship with the young prince for Henry to peruse a draft of his book and urge him to print it. Whatever the case, it is generally accepted that Swetnam would not have been able to make such an easily refutable claim if there were not at least some truth to it.

After Henry's death, Swetnam evidently sought the patronage of Henry's brother Charles by dedicating his Schoole of Defence to the new Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, it is unknown what became of this, as the account books of Charles' household are no longer known to be extant10. However, we should not assume that the dedication to Charles indicates any connection between the two. By the middle of the sixteenth century, dedications were as often as not little more than job applications. By the seventeenth century, appeals for patronage were so common, and were aimed at so few individuals, that most became so devalued as to be worthless11.

Swetnam's Arraignment: A Bad Joke Poorly Told

Joseph Swetnam is perhaps best known for his misogynist pamphlet, The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women. This heavy-handed and poorly executed "joke" was first printed in 1615 and enjoyed a number of reprints over the next two centuries. A detailed treatment of this pamphlet and its surrounding controversy and reception can be found in Francisca Wilhelmina Van Heertum's, A Critical Edition of Joseph Swetnam's "The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women." Since this pamphlet is outside the scope of the present work, only a brief summary of her treatment will be dealt with here.

Attacks on and defenses of women seem to have been a fairly popular literary genre during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While the attacks were, understandably, written by men, defenses were written by both men and women, with some male authors writing tracts on both sides of the debate. Rather than being serious polemics, however, these attacks and defenses seem to have been, for the most part, regarded as a game. The defenses commonly focused on rebutting specific arguments and stereotypes, and sometimes even specific tracts. Where Swetnam's pamphlet is unique is that it prompted three responses directed specifically at Swetnam the author. The three direct responses were: Contantia Munda's, The worming of a mad dogge: or, a soppe for Cerberus; Rachel Speght's, A mouzell for Melastomus; and Ester Sowernam's, Ester hath hang'd Haman: or an answere to a lewd pamphlet. All three responses were published in 1617. A few years later, a play, Swetnam the Woman-hater, Arraigned by Women, was printed in 1620. Despite the popularity of Swetnam's pamphlet, none of these rebuttals are known to have been reprinted.

The first edition of Swetnam's Araignment of Women bore the name Thomas Tell-Troth as the author. The persona of Thomas Tell-Troth was a relatively common one, and anyone adopting it would have wished to assume a self-evident status rather than anonymity. As such, rather than hiding behind a false identity, Swetnam probably intended to give The Araignment of Women the hallmark of truth12. Although it is impossible to know whether Swetnam intended to remain genuinely anonymous, given how quickly his real name was outed (the second edition of the pamphlet revealing his real name was published the same year), it is possible that his connection to the pamphlet and its contents were well known before its publication in print.

Swetnam's respondents made sport of the difference in social class between themselves and their target by deriding his lack of education, a lack which is both painfully apparent in the sophistication of his writing and to which he readily admits in The Schoole of Defence. His rhetorical abilities are attacked on two fronts: plagiarism and an over-reliance on proverbs. When van Heertum discussed how Swetnam's detractors attacked his plagiarism, she argued this was because that by this time, though still common, plagiarism was no longer an acceptable means of literary composition. To carry the point further, the reality here may not be that Swetnam was merely guilty of plagiarism, but that he copied his sources so inartfully. There was a difference between simply copying what someone else had done word for word (which Swetnam often did), and an artist absorbing whatever he had learned and adapting it to his own experiences, tastes, and art (which Swetnam also did, however inept he was). On the second front, Swetnam used proverbs extensively, and seemingly randomly, in both his books. Many of the proverbs used in The Araignment of Women were recycled in The Schoole of Defence, though often in different contexts13. Just as with plagiarism, by 1615, reliance on proverbs as fountains of wisdom was already dated, or at least considered uneducated14. Van Heertum quotes Sir William Cornwallis' Essays, wherein he wrote, "whose throates are worne like roade-wayes, with, Little said is soone amended : it is no halting before a Cripple, and such like: when I heare one of these, I looke for his drye nursse, for from her armes he plucked this language" (Ee7r). Amusingly, both of those proverbs find a place in The Schoole of Defence. Like they did with his plagiarism, Swetnam's detractors were merciless in their criticisms of his proverb-mongery. The Araignment of Women is saturated with empty proverbs, and the whole pamphlet is largely without substance. Even without Swetnam's admission that it was meant tongue-in-cheek, the pamphlet is not to be, indeed cannot be, taken seriously. By contrast, even where the Schoole of Defence is littered with proverbs, its narrative voice seems to contain quite a bit of the author's own mind, and in that respect is a more genuine composition.

Not including his direct detractors, the public reception of Swetnam's Araignment does not seem to have been too serious15. The play, Swetnam the Woman-hater, Arraigned by Women, was a comedy. Despite its promising title, however, the play has almost nothing to do with either Swetnam or his infamous pamphlet. The main plot concerns the story of Prince Lisandro and Princess Leonida, and is an adaptation of a novelette written by a Castilian noble, Juan e Flores. The main contention of the play is that Leonida is caught in an apparently compromising circumstance with Lisandro, wherein she is sentenced to death and he is exiled. Through the course of the play, all ends happily at the conclusion of a trial to determine which of the two lovers was first guilty; an allegory reflecting the woman controversy of the time: in the end, both lovers, and hence both sexes, are equally at fault. Swetnam is not portrayed as a serious enemy, and really only enters the play as a misogynist mouthpiece and fool. Many of his lines carry the weight of punchlines intended as comic relief from a buffoon.

Although the play does reveal some biographical details about Swetnam, particularly mention of his travels and the notion that he had a fencing school in Bristol, we cannot take the play at face value in those details any more than we can the joke that his usher's name was Swash, who could always be found by his buckler. The play also dismisses his claim to be a fencing master as merely a ward against reprisals against his misogyny, and also ridicules him for being run out of town on a rail by the city's indignant female citizens.


Crandall, Cory. Swetnam the Woman-hater: The Controversy and the Play. A Critical Edition with Introduction and Notes. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Studies, 1969.

De Ridder-Symoens, Hilde, ed. Universities in Early Modern Europe (1500-1800). A History of the University in Europe, edited by Walter Rüegg, vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

De Ridder-Symoens, Hilde, ed. Universities in the Middle Ages. A History of the University in Europe, edited by Walter Rüegg, vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Devon, Frederick. Issues of the Exchequer: Being Payments Made Out of His Majesty's Revenue During the Reign of King James I. London, 1836.

Swetnam, Joseph. The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Vnconstant Women. London, 1615.

Swetnam, Joseph. The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence. London, 1617.

Van Heertum, Cis. A Critical Edition of Joseph Swetnam's "The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women" (1615). Nijmegan: The Cicero Press. 1989.

Wheale, Nigel. Writing and Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660. London: Routledge, 1999.

1 The letters of administration are held at the National Archives in London. At the time of her writing, Van Heertum cites their numbers as PROB 6/10/f.140 and PROB 6/12/f.92. For a fuller treatment of these details, see Francisca Wilhelmina Van Heertum, A Critical Edition of Joseph Swetnam's "The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women" (Nijmegen: Cicero Press, 1989), chapter 2.

2 Joseph Swetnam, The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Vnconstant Women (London, 1615), A3 recto.

3 Hereafter shortened to Schoole of Defence.

4 Van Heertum, 20.

5 Ibid., 302, notes 39 and 40.

6 Joseph Swetnam, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (London, 1617), C2 recto. Swetnam also told the reader that this was how long it took him to compose his book.

7 The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence, C3 verso.

8 Frederick Devon, Issues of the Exchequer: Being Payments Made Out of His Majesty's Revenue During the Reign of King James I (London, 1836), 17 and 34. He was paid the not inconsiderable sum of 16L. 13s. 4d. over and above his annuity of 100 marks.

9 Van Heertum, 303, note 45.

10 Ibid, 302, note 42.

11 Though the practice did not disappear. Dedications and requests for patronage was still widespread, only the successful receipt of compensation declined. See Nigel Wheale, Writing and Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain, 1590-1660 (London: Routledge), 1999, and Paul J. Voss, "Books for Sale: Advertising and Patronage in Late Elizabethan England," in The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 29, no. 3 (Autumn, 1998), 733-756.

12 Van Heetum, 12-13.

13 Ibid., 25 ff.

14 Ibid., 51.

15 Ibid., 54-59.

See Also:

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

Advice and Ethics in Joseph Swetnam's Schoole of Defence

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