English Martial Arts


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An Introduction to Silver's Principle Grounds


Introduction

In this article we will look almost exclusively at Silver's Principle Grounds, though as they are so intrinsically linked with the Governors it is inevitable that they will be referred to on occasion. The Governors will be discussed in detail in a separate article.

Firstly we need to look at what Silver himself says about the Principle Grounds.

The Manuscript*

"through Judgment yo kepe yor dyſtance, through Diſtance yo take yor Tyme, through Tyme yo ſafly wyne or gayne the Place of yor adurſarie, the Place beinge woon or gayned yo haue tyme ſafly eyther to ſrtyke, thruſt, ward, cloze, grype, ſlyp or go back, in the wch tyme yor enemye is dyapoynted to hurt yo, or to defend himſelf, be reaſon that he hath loſt his true Place, the reaſon yt he hath loſt his True place is by the length of Tyme Tyme though the numbg of his feet, to wch he is of neceſſytie Dryven to yt wilbe Agent."

The first thing that we can gain from reading this familiar passage is the knowledge that Silver was writing hundreds of years ago and that the English language has changed considerably since then. Meanings of words and phrases have evolved over the centuries and the modern use of the words and phrases may not be what Silver intended when he wrote his manuscripts over four hundred years ago. To try and get some understanding of what his intent was it is necessary to look at the lines individually.

Judgement

“Through judgement you keep your distance”. This opening line clearly places Judgement first amongst the principle grounds, and rightly so. Without the ability to judge accurately, everything else becomes irrelevant. Judgement encompasses all other aspects of Silver's system, none of the other principle grounds or the governors are of any use to us if we have faulty judgement. It is the foundation upon which is built the art of swordplay. However we may be able to judge accurately how long the reach of our opponent is, how fast they are moving, how heavy their blow is, but if we are not able to make those same judgements about ourselves we are lost. Our judgement must be good, but above all it must be objective. We must be honest when looking at our own abilities, we must be aware of our strengths and weaknesses in order that we can grow as swordsmen. So our judgement must be accurate, it must be objective, and it must be fast.

Distance

However we cannot stop there, judgement alone would make us little more than a commentator on the fight. We must be able to apply that judgement which we have strived to perfect. It is through our use of Judgement that we are able to “keep our distance”. This is a prime example of how language has evolved over time. We are all familiar with the phrase “keep our distance”, it means to stay away, to keep a long distance, but this is not what it meant 400 years ago when Silver was writing. Then it simply meant to keep to the distance you have judged appropriate. If the stress is placed on the word “your” the sentence suddenly makes sense. Through Judgement you keep your distance. It is our ability to accurately judge the situation that allows us to maintain the distance that we have chosen, but more than this it is our judgement that allows us to know what the distance we should be keeping is. This is by no means static or fixed. It is a dynamic concept, where we do much more than simply pick a distance and stick at it regardless, that would not be using our judgement. We press in and fly out as we need to, to provide ourselves with the most opportunities. We judge the actions of our opponent and we react accordingly to ensure we remain at the optimum distance to act. This is more than simply being in the right place as our opponent attacks, it is taking charge, it is using our judgement to stamp our authority on the fight, it is both reactive and proactive.

Time and Place

“Through Distance you take your Time” Our judgement has allowed us to control the distance to our benefit, to keep our distance, this leads us nicely to the next step in the process. Of course being in the right place is not enough, in and of itself, to win the fight. We need more than simply keeping our distance, we need to act, and Time is the Principle Ground that refers to our actions. Our goal in the simplest possible way is to use true times to force our opponent to defend in false times. If we are able to do this then we have created a situation where we are able to offend our opponent without them being able to offend us, or even to defend themselves. This is what Silver refers to as the “Place”. He also describes the true place as being where you can attack using the time of the hand (a true time) but as he also tells us that the time of the hand is faster than the eye and therefore almost impossible to defend it can safely be argued that the place, and the true place are one and the same thing, or at least close enough that any discussion about their differences is academic at best.

Having safely won or gained the place of our adversary Silver tells us we can safely strike, thrust, ward, close, grip, slip or go back. It would be a mistake to assume that we have only won or gained the place if we can do any of the list Silver gives us, our judgement has allowed us to be at the appropriate distance to use a true time to carry out the specific action we wish to, whichever of those actions we have chosen. The Place with regards to striking may not be the same as the place with regards to thrusting, of closing, or gripping, and so on.

“in the which time your enemy is disappointed to hurt you, or to defend himself, by reason that he has loft his true Place” If we have gained or won the place we have manage to create a situation where we are using a true time against a false time of our opponent, he has lost his true place and therefore is not able to ward using the time of the hand, or even to ward without being offended by our attack but this does not help us, how do we get to this point? Silver tells us that “the reason that he has loft his True place is by the length of Time” but what does this mean? That he is acting slowly? No, it is far more complex and yet infinitely more simple than that.

“Time though the numbering of his feet,” It is not that your opponent does move his feet, two of the true times involve the movement of feet, nor is it that his feet are moved before anything else, but simply that he has to move his feet in order to be able to safely defend. Nowhere does Silver make this more explicit than when discussing weapons of more than the perfect length. If you fight them at your distance then they are by necessity forced to defend using false times and are therefore false weapons. We'll look at the true and false times and how they provide us with the most dynamic system of footwork in Martial Arts in more detail in a separate essay.

In Summary

So we have Judgement first and foremost amongst the Principle grounds, it is the base upon which our fight is built, it is our strong and stable platform which allows us to control the distance at which we fight in such a way as to maintain our own safety. By controlling the distance to our own benefit we create the opportunity to act within the true times and force false time defences in our opponent. And lastly by doing this we win or gain the place where we might offend our adversary in the manner of our choice without him being able to reply in kind.

It has however taken something in the region of fifteen hundred words to summarise a single paragraph, so perhaps we would be best to simply say:

"through Judgment yo kepe yor dyſtance, through Diſtance yo take yor Tyme, through Tyme yo ſafly wyne or gayne the Place of yor adurſarie, the Place beinge woon or gayned yo haue tyme ſafly eyther to ſrtyke, thruſt, ward, cloze, grype, ſlyp or go back, in the wch tyme yor enemye is dyapoynted to hurt yo, or to defend himſelf, be reaſon that he hath loſt his true Place, the reaſon yt he hath loſt his True place is by the length of Tyme Tyme though the numbg of his feet, to wch he is of neceſſytie Dryven to yt wilbe Agent."

Martin Austwick 2008



* After much discussion on the use of the "long s" in this transcription on various internet forums I have decided to include a photo of the text as it appeared when it was first published in in Captain Cyril Mathey's book.


PHOTO