English Martial Arts

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Company for Historical Combat

The True Fight


During the last years of the sixteenth century London played host to a number of teachers of swordplay from Italy. These men set themselves above The Maisters of Defense and successfully marketed their systems to the Gentry.

It was however the nature of their systems that prompted one of the Gentry, a Gentleman by the name of George Silver, to set his understanding of combat down in writing. We know very little about George as a man, but we can certainly draw from his works that he held strong feelings about the subject. He describes “great abuses of the Italian teachers of offence” and places the blame for the prevalence of the “false fight” squarely at their door. We will not look at whether he was right to do so, simply at what he considers the false fight to be, and in contrast what he describes as “true”.

Of Truth and Perfection

After a long introduction his discourse starts in earnest with a description of the four reasons that the Italian teachers of defence never had “perfection of the true fight”. Before we go on to discuss this it is worth spending a little time explaining his terminology. Whether a fight is true or not simply refers to whether what you are attempting to do is effective and/or wise. It bears no relation to whether you are skilled at doing it, it is simply a reflection on the efficacy of your system, not your level of technical ability to perform it. Perfection on the other hand is the opposite. It is a description of the level of skill you have and not related to the efficacy of your techniques, and so it is possible to be less than perfect in the true fight, and conversely it is also possible to near perfection of a false fight. Of course the ideal is to have perfection of the true fight, but this pinnacle of achievement is unlikely to ever occur given that we are all human and prone to error.

Bearing this in mind, at this point, Silver is not yet accusing the False teachers of fighting with a false fight. Simply of not having perfection of the true fight. He does however go on.

The four points he lists are:

  • They seldom fight without protection, he describes gauntlets and a coat of maile.
  • More often than not both combatants are hurt.
  • They do not teach that the perfect length of weapons is important.
  • The cross on their rapiers is not suited to the true carriage of the guardant fight.

Interestingly reasons one, two, and four are summarised in a single sentence, the third reason takes over four hundred words. It is the length of their weapons that Silver seems to object to the most.

It is clear from this that he is accusing them, not only of a lack of perfection, but also of having a false fight.

Of The False Fight

He then goes on to describe six reasons why a man who feels himself to be skilled in swordplay often finds himself defeated:

  • Not knowing the four governors
  • Not understanding the four actions
  • Not knowing false times from true times
  • Not understanding which fight to use against the Variable fight at which distance
  • Their weapons are too long
  • Their weapons are too heavy.

This is a list of reasons a fight may be false despite the fighter being close to perfection. Interestingly the subject of weapon length crops up again, but as well as this he mentions true times and false times. Later we shall see that these are intrinsically connected. For now however we will set aside the question of weapon length and go on to look at how we can know the difference between true and false times.

Of Times, Both True and False

In Paradox 14 Silver makes an attempt to describe the difference between true and false times. He says this:

"The true fights be these. Whatsoever is done with the hand before the foot or feet is true fight. The false fight are these: whatsoever is done with the foot or feet before the hand, is false, because the hand is swifter than the foot, the foot or feet being the slower mover than the hand, the hand in that manner of fight is tied to the time of the foot or feet, and being tied thereto, has lost his freedom, and is made thereby as slow in his motions as the foot or feet, and therefore that fight is false."

This section has been the subject of much debate and so it is important that we look at what he says in some detail.

“Whatsoever is done with the hand before the foot or feet is true fight.”

This is quite clear. If the action of the hand is carried out before moving the foot it is true. However even this simple statement is open to misinterpretation. Let us look at what he says about the false fight to see if we can get any clarification. He splits this into a specific statement, and a general description.

The specific statement simply says:

“whatsoever is done with the foot or feet before the hand, is false, because the hand is swifter than the foot,”

This tells us that if you step and then carry out an action of the hand it is false. However he goes on:

“the foot or feet being the slower mover than the hand, the hand in that manner of fight is tied to the time of the foot or feet, and being tied thereto, has lost his freedom, and is made thereby as slow in his motions as the foot or feet, and therefore that fight is false.”

This gives us more information. It tells us that it is not only the foot moving first that makes an action false, but that any action in which the motion of the hand is reliant on the motion of the foot is false because it ties the speed of the hand to the speed of the foot. This tells us a number of things. Firstly that we should expect to see attacks that are reliant on stepping within the systems taught by the “false teachers”. Secondly that we should not expect to see them within Silver's system, as any attack that relies on stepping ties the speed of the hand to the speed of the foot and therefore becomes false. For specific techniques we must turn from Paradoxes of Defense to the follow up book (never published) “Brief Instructions on my Paradoxes of Defense”.

Of the True Fight

This second manuscript opens with the line:

“For the true handling of all manner of weapons”

We can therefore expect to find instructions for the true fight within. We are not disappointed.

After another long introduction where Silver summarises his dislike of the false fight and some of the reasons for it along with a number of moral instructions he describes the four principle grounds. These are examined in some detail in a separate essay, but within them he introduces the concept of “place” which is of huge importance. He tells us that from “the place” we can safely “strike, thrust, ward, close, grip, slip or go back, in which time your enemy is disappointed to hurt you, or to defend himself” He sets this aside for a moment and goes on to explain the four governors. These tell us amongst other things that as we press in we need to have a “twofold mind” as we move forward to fly out if necessary. This suggests that we will indeed press in, not that we should consider it as an option, but that we will do so. It is these governors that he describes as being “that without which no man may fight safe”.

He then exhorts us to make sure that we always maintain a distance so that our opponent should have to step in to attack us. He tells us that if we do so then we will have the freedom to react to the attack in a number of ways. This is in effect forcing our opponent into the false fight. We have forced them to tie the speed of their hand to the speed of their foot thereby making their hand as slow as their foot giving us the time to react as we see fit.

He then tells us that “the place” is where one may strike or thrust home without stepping. This simply means that the place is where we are able to use true times to attack.

Of Gathering In

It would seem however that there is a contradiction here. We are expected to press in to the place so we can attack, but we are also expected to use distance to force our opponent to step in with an attack. Upon closer examination this is not as contradictory as it first appears. The three actions available to us if our opponent attacks are:

  • Attack them when they gain us the place by their coming in.
  • Ward their attack and then attack.
  • Use distance to avoid the attack and then attack them as they lie spent.

All three of these options give us the opportunity to actively manage distance in such a way as to ensure we gain the place and can then attack using true times and it is simply this that is meant by pressing in. A closing of distance. Not a closing of distance with an attack, simply a closing of distance.

However these options are all describing the actions of the Patient, not the Agent, and this lack of ability to attack is seemed by some to be a flaw in the system. Of course this is not so. It is always preferable to act as the patient against an agent who is utilising the false fight, but that does not mean it is the only option. We are specifically told that pressing in is acceptable if it done in the correct manner. In the handwritten notes that accompany BI Silver says:

“There is but 1 good way to gather upon your enemy, guardant. All other are dangerous & subject to the blows on the head or thrust on the body. For no way can ward both but as aforesaid.”

We are also told that we can close to the half-sword in order to “indirect” our opponent in order to gain the place, this too is pressing in. It is closing distance, but it is doing so as the Agent, maintaining our safety without resorting to the false fight.

Of Weapon Length

Earlier we noted that Silver repeatedly makes reference to the fact that the Italian fight is false due, in some way, to the length of their weapons. Now we are clear on the difference between the true and false fights we can begin to see why. Silver tells us that the perfect length of our sword is such that we can uncross from our opponent's sword within the limit set by our outstretched, non-sword hand. This allows us to effectively use true times from the half-sword or bind whilst using our other hand to control our opponent's weapon. If our sword was longer then we would be forced to step to uncross, and therefore would have no way of utilising true times within the close fight.

By increasing the length of our weapon as recommended by the Rapier masters of the day we prevent ourselves from utilising all of the aspects of the true fight, and more worryingly we potentially create a situation where we can only utilise false times.

Of An Integrated System

This now gives us a consistent basis for a system of combat as long as our weapon is of perfect length. Attacks carried out from wide distance are false, attacks carried out using the hand first, from within distance are true. By the use of distance and measure (a principle ground and a governor) we should force our opponent to have to step to attack, so we can win the place and then counter. If they do not do this then we can press in under the safe cover of our surest ward. This is the true fight. The difficulty lies in reaching perfection.

Martin Austwick 2008