Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Joseph Swetnam, the Master of Defence

I have been reading, with interest and approval, Joseph Swetnam. There goes what professional reputation I have! But no, I do not mean the misogynist Swetnam, of The Arraigment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Inconstant Women, but the same Swetnam as the author of The schoole of the noble and worthy science of defence. Being the first of any English-mans invention, which professed the sayd science; so plainly described, that any man may quickly come to the true knowledge of their weapons, with small paines and little practice (1617).

In this, his other work (which I suspect not many Renaissance specialists will have read, in comparison to those who have looked at The Arraignment), Swetnam is completely in the male world. Apart from this complete masculinism of subject, there is no sign here of Swetnam’s anti-feminism. He is calmly, and authoritatively amongst his own, and makes a very considerable instructor.

Swetnam’s anti-woman polemic caused, of course, a lasting stir. It has always seemed to me that he managed to provoke women so much (those who took up pen to answer his book) because of a very particular aspect of his style: Swetnam wrote with a flow of cliches, truisms, proverbs, and reach-me-down phrases. To a woman reading his diatribe, it would not have seemed like an individual was attacking her sex, but that here, horribly, were all the things a whole society seemed to say and hold against women: every old joke, jeer, and cynical adage, with Swetnam as merely the channel of a universal bile.

In this other book for men, Swetnam’s manner is just the same: but here, it renders him the good, untaxing companion, whose opinions make sense because they sound so universal – the ‘old saying going thus’ backing for what he says. Makes sense to me, it will make sense to you: that’s his pitch. Swetnam was clearly a tough cookie, a twenty minute hard-boiled egg. He says in passing that he has fought with rapier and dagger twenty times, and has never himself lost a drop of blood (these would not be duels, but prize fights and challenges between ‘masters of defence’ – but they would have been very hazardous, I am sure).

But Swetnam does not swagger: he addresses with understanding and latitude the kinds of hazards that early modern English men would undoubtedly have faced:

“if you meet with thine enemie in the night, and he charge upon thee, the best means for thy defence, is presently to chop up into this high guard, except thy staffe be of a sufficient length to keep him off, with charging the point upon him, or else the third means is to trust to thy heeles” (p. 139). Fight or flight: Swetnam sensibly admits either option: here’s the best guard if a man is coming at you with a big stick, he says, or run for it (“Run, and tell you old lady to run too”, as Richard Pryor might have added).

Swetnam had been Prince Henry’s “tutor in the skill of weapons”. With his patron, who had (he claims) asked him to put his instructions into print, dying so young, Swetnam dedicated his work to the less promisingly bellicose Prince Charles. He intended a second, expanded edition, with even more woodcuts showing the correct stances, and says he has that work in hand.

But ‘bellicose’ maligns the book: after he has discussed the best managing of all the hand weapons that are likely to be used if actual fighting has to be done, Swetnam produces one last weapon, one he guarantees will get you out of danger: it is “a fair tongue”. Talking your way out of trouble, avoiding the provocations of someone looking for a fight – Swetnam is absolutely sensible.

As for combat, Swetnam really does seem to know what he is talking about. If it comes to man against man combat, his instructions are completely cogent. Fight only in the morning when you are sober. If there is sunshine, maneuver round so it is your opponent’s eyes. If the ground slopes, you want to be on the lower side, for that is the more advantageous ground. If you let your rapier slip, take your dagger’s point in your hand, and shape up as though you are about to throw it: your opponent will hesitate, if you can, recover your rapier in the time you buy.

“Againe, and againe I say” (for that’s Swetnam’s tone), speed is the thing: you watch your opponent’s eyes, as the point of his rapier (if he is fighting correctly, with wrist movements only) will be moving to fast to follow if you try to do that intently. You do not try to use ‘strong blowes’: too much upper arm in it, and so it is too slow, you expose yourself to risk: “therefore strike an easie blow, and doe it quicke” (p.121).

The illustration shows the weapon Swetnam swears by: those are four foot rapiers, and two foot daggers; and you keep your twelve foot distance as an imperative. Swetnam speaks very ill of the modish ‘short sword’ – fight just as well with a tobacco pipe, he says, it's an “idle weapon”. In his measured account of the facts, ever inch counts: if your rapier has an inch on your opponent’s, that inch may be enough to save your life (and end his). Characteristically down to earth, he also notes that anyway a short sword (with its edge) will wear through your clothes three times faster than the rapier.

The choreographed Hollywood duel does not get any support: never give a weapon back, and if you are up against multiple opponents (and not in some narrow way), you are doomed, if your opponents are willing to kill you. (Swetnam is always realistic: men often don’t want to fight, and ofetn will not want to kill even when they can. But if two men really set out to kill one man, he is finished, as he just cannot be quick enough to guard against two purposeful assailants). Left-handers are always at an advantage: they get more practice fighting right-handed men than right-handed men get fighting the left-handed. It’s as simple as that.

What Swetnam lets us through to is the world of the early modern tough: the drinkers and fighters, those careless of their lives. He tells us what became of many of the best masters of defence he has known:

“Henry Adlington for killing his Maister Iohn Deevell, was hanged: Furlong he drank a pinte of Aqua vitae at one draught, and he fell downe and died presently: Westcoat, for some unkindnesse received of his owne daughter, he went into a wood neare Perine in Cornewall, and there hanged himselfe: Richard Caro, hee died most miserably of the French disease in an olde house neare Plimouth, although he had a new suite of clothes from toppe to toe, yet hee was so loathsome a creature, that no bodie would let him harbour in his house.” [Sig C4]

In instructing you to look after yourself, Swetnam will also expound, in the way that is so typical of his age, of how providence will doom those who murder. But, a man’s man if ever there was one, something in him still warms to these hacksters and bravos, with their flamboyant recklessness. “Rufus the Ruffian” (he recalls) was a sword and buckler man: he had “God pictured on the in side of his Target, and the divel on the out-side, with this poesie on the in-side, If thou wilt not have me, the other shall” (p.192).

So, alongside his book in contempt of women, he wrote a book which is (in a very odd way, considering the subject) full of compassion for men. Here’s their other anxiety (he knows) – the thought that some boozed-up thug carrying lethal weapons is going to pick a fight. He will tell you how to get safely home to that little woman… (And as for her…)


Sebatinsky said...

Excellent post!
I am getting ready to tackle a thesis on Swetnam's rapier treatise, and you've certainly done it justice here. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your take on the manual.

DrRoy said...

Well, thanks, this one one of my more considered efforts. I see from your profile on Blogger that you do some fencing - that should give you some insight into the technical stuff Swetnam talks about. Good luck with the project. Vincentio Saviolo (1595) is interesting too, but doesn't have all this gender-related issue going on.

Sebatinsky said...


You said:
"He intended a second, expanded edition, with even more woodcuts showing the correct stances, and says he has that work in hand."

Swetnam mentions several times that he intended to publish a second book, but I cannot recall where he said that it would have more woodcuts. Could you point me toward this passage?

DrRoy said...

Ah, I'd like to do that, but this is the start of my term, I'm marking last term's last papers, and I didn't take notes on the Swetnam which I can access, at least any notes that I kept. I don't suppose that I made this up, but I'd have to look at the work again. Patientez, s'il vous plait...

Sebatinsky said...

I also thought I'd point you toward the Swetnam blog I've now started:
If you have any interest in the martial side of his work (which it certainly seems you do), you may find something interesting over there.