I made something of an ironic point last week when talking about the rapier. And now I’m going to spoil any hint of cleverness by calling attention to it. You see, if George Silver is known for anything these days it’s for hating the “Italianated” Rapier yet I used his Universal Governors as a reason to teach it.
As much as George Silver has a reputation for being an angry xenophobic Englishman, the more I study his works the more I appreciate his genius. He may have hated the rapier fight, but there is no question that he had a deep and profound understanding of how combat works. George Silver’s Brief instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence may not be exhaustive in terms of technique, he succeeds in providing a universal theory to govern the use of any weapon.
Many modern rapier fighters make use of four core concepts that, in theory anyway, guarantee victory in a fight if applied properly. These are Tempo, Measure, Line and Guard. This is a great way of explaining how blade play works. Tempo dictates the speed and rhythm of a fight, Measure is the correct distance in which you can strike, Line has to do with the angle of approach and Guard is the position in which you can safely receive an attack. George Silver also has what he describes as Four Principals of the True Fight. These are Judgement, Distance, Time and Place.
They are are very similar. Place can be described as the combining of Guard and Line, Tempo is Timing, and Measure is Distance. Judgement is where the primary difference lies, and I can’t help but feel gives this philosophy of arms a slight edge. Judgement includes a multitude of individual ideas. It encompasses everything from sizing up your opponent, planning your attack and even what happens before the fight.
In pretty much every fencing class I have ever taken there is an underlying assumption. I can’t remember a single lesson that addressed anything prior in a fight to, “there is an opponent in front of you, your swords are drawn.” George Silver talks extensively about how to avoid a fight and, once that becomes impossible, how to assess the chosen battlefield. I like this. I like the fact that he acknowledges the fact that all true sword fights begin long before the swords clear the scabbards.
It’s an important aspect of martial arts to discuss more than just the act of fighting and this is one of the primary reasons that George Silver is an essential (though sadly often overlooked) part of European Martial History.