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Schools and Masters of Fencing
From the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century
By Egerton Castle
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Egerton Castle
All rights reserved.
PARADOXICAL as it seems, the development of the "Art of Fence" was the result of the invention of firearms. Its history need not therefore be taken up higher than the fifteenth century. The very few writers who have devoted their attention to the subjects, generally carry their investigations a great deal too far when they go back to antiquity and expect to find the origin of the science in the works of Polybius or Vegetius.
The ideas of the Greeks and the Romans on such a subject could not possibly persist through the Middle Ages. During that period the habit of wearing plate armour in battle, and, indeed, on most occasions out of doors, caused the sword to be regarded in the light of a weapon of offence only, sufficient reliance being placed on helmet and carapace for protection. On the other hand, unarmoured foot-men, in the impossibility of parrying or withstanding the heavy attacks of an iron-cased antagonist, had to learn either to avoid them by agility or overcome them by skill. So that it may be surmised that as long as the fashion of wearing complete armour prevailed —that is, before the general introduction of gunpowder into warfare—two very distinct schools of fighting existed side by side and with very little in common.
One was that of the noble warrior who cultivated his battering power in the lists and tournaments and the accuracy of his eye by tilting at the ring or quintain, but who otherwise learned little of what would avail him were he deprived of his protecting armour. Indeed, the chivalrous science never had anything but a retarding effect on the science of fence.
The other school, on the contrary, which was adapted to the weapons of the villain or burgess, was much more practical; it induced him to rely to a certain point on his weapons, as well as on general activity, for defence, instead of on the artificial resource of armour. The issue of a personal combat between two knights was determined, in a great measure, by the resistance of their armour and, ultimately, by their power of endurance. But a fight between two villains, armed only with clubs, or with sword and buckler, necessarily admitted of a far greater display of skill.
A universal feature of the history of all old schools of arms is that they arose among the middle classes. Whilst the nobleman practised at the barriers, the burgesses and artisans—who also owned weapons, though of a less noble kind than the knightly sword and lance—learned their use from jugglers, sword-dancers, or wrestlers, or some ancient veteran well versed in all the cunning of the art.
Throughout the Middle Ages, when towns managed to obtain a certain amount of independence, schools were founded where tuition in the art of fighting with every kind of weapon used on foot could be obtained by any one possessing the requisite pluck and sinews. On the Continent especially, where the military value of the middle classes was their chief safeguard against oppression, a number of "fighting guilds " arose, in which traditions of skill were handed down through generations ; so that in the course of time it came to pass that men of all classes who wished to acquire great proficiency in the use of arms, found it necessary to resort to some such old school of fence. When "knightly " habits disappeared and were replaced by "cavalier "manners, the " gentleman "took his lesson in arms from some plebeian fighting-master.
This change in fashion corresponds chronologically with the rising of the sword, as the arm paramount, from the crowd of brutal armour-cracking weapons such as the schwerdt, the voulge, the halbert, the flail, and such like.
With the disuse of total armour, the superiority of the "point" asserted itself, and from the cultivation of the point arose fencing proper. Hence the result that the old fencing schools, which were at the outset altogether popular, ended by being devoted chiefly to the practice of the more aristocratic rapier.
The materials necessary to the history of the art of fencing in England are very scanty. Personal combats always were in high favour, both as a means of settling private quarrels and as a violent pastime congenial to the Teutonic character. In war, our forefathers fought as stoutly with the sword as with all other weapons, but, until the latter part of the sixteenth century, only surmises as to the existence of any definite system of swordsmanship can be set forth.
Until that date, woodcuts and miniatures representing fighting or dancing swordsmen, and references to sword and buckler as national weapons, are all the data that can be gathered on the subject.
A kind of "Pyrrhic dance," or display of skill in the management of sword and buckler, was a favourite entertainment in Anglo-Saxon days. This martial exercise was still looked upon as a necessary accompaniment to all festivities in most parts of England as late as the fourteenth century, a fact which indicates that it could not have been otherwise than congenial or familiar to the Danish and Norman conquerors.
In most cases, however, the sword dance developed into sham combats, and often into real fights, for the delectation of merrymakers with sportive tendencies.
The distinction between such "cheironomy" and fencing is but slight, and these jugglers or sword-dancers are evidently early instances of those "sword-men" and masters of fence so often mentioned in Elizabethan literature.
These "sword-men," whether jugglers in sport or gladiators in earnest, were, of course, in great request as teachers of the art of handling weapons dexterously and gracefully by the knightly youth anxious to appear to advantage in the lists, and also by the less aristocratic townsfolk and their prentices, in days when to go unarmed or unpractised was to court violence and robbery. Accordingly, the first regular schools were established by such men, and curious places they must have been !—each master following his particular fancy, and inculcating to all his pupils what he had found suitable to his particular build and habit.
They were dangerous dens, most of them, inviting the attendance of the pugnacious and dissolute, and had the very worst reputation from the first time they are heard of as institutions.
Men who professed to excel in the practice of fighting could hardly escape the suspicion of making better use of it, for their own ends, than merely teaching the use of the sword in battle or honourable combat ; and, on the other hand, the inducement was great, in those lawless days, to their patrons, noble and otherwise, to employ their capabilities for private vengeance.
People were shy of interfering too openly with these bullies, and many scenes of brutal revelry, as well as darker deeds, must have taken place in comparative safety behind the walls of fence schools.
In London, especially, the conduct of " sword-men" and their scholars was often so obnoxious that regal authority had to intervene, as, for instance, is shown by the following extract from one of those edicts which prohibited at various periods the keeping of schools of arms, and forbade all loyal citizens to "Eskirmer au Bokeler.".... "Whereas it is customary for profligates to learn the art of fencing, who are thereby emboldened to commit the most unheard-of villainies, no such school shall be kept in the city for the future, upon penalty of forty marks for each offence. And all the Aldermen shall make a thorough search in their several wards for the detecting of such offenders, in order to bring them to justice and an exemplary punishment. And, as most of the aforesaid villainies are committed by foreigners, who from all parts incessantly crowd thither, it is therefore ordered that no person whatsoever, that is not free of the City, shall be suffered to reside therein."
The last part of this extract is remarkable as showing that foreigners were then, as now, to be found among the ardent devotees of the schools. Such edicts were naturally evaded ; fencing schools always reappeared, and were openly frequented. It is, however, probable that many of them, able to give some kind of guarantee for the good character of their attendants took their existence by license.
But besides these licensed schools, many others were kept surreptitiously, as is shown by such instances as the following, picked out from the records of the city of London :—
"On the 13th day of March, 1311, before Sir Richer de Refham, Mayor of London, appeared, among other delinquents :—Master Roger, le Skirmisour, attached for that he was indicted for keeping a fencing school for divers men, and for enticing thither the sons of respectable persons so as to waste and spend the property of their fathers and mothers upon bad practices." ...
Notwithstanding the prejudice against them, schools of arms were a necessity for the bulk of a warlike nation, and they continued in existence as a matter of course.
Henry VIII., who was a great lover of all military sports, in order to encourage the practice of martial exercises, instead of suppressing, as his predecessors often attempted to do, the institution of fence schools altogether, incorporated all the most celebrated teachers of defence of the day in a company. And in order to mitigate the evil of independent sword-men, both in their professional teaching and in their private lives, altogether forbade anyone to teach the art of fence on any pretence, in any part of England, if he did not belong to the said company.
In a curious black-letter book entitled "The Third University of England," and describing the schools and colleges of London in 1615, we find details of the institution of that "Normal" school of fence, and the ordeal that any would-be teacher had to undergo before being "passed" and permitted to call himself a master.
"Henry the eighth made the Professors of this art a Company, or Corporation, by letters patent, wherein the art is intituled the Noble Science of Defence.
"The manner of proceeding of fencers in our schools is this: first, they, which desire to be taught at their admission are called Scholars, and, as they profit, they take degrees and proceed to be Provosts of Defence.
"That must be wonne by public triall of their proficiencie and their skill at certain weapons, which they call prizes, and in the presence and view of manie hundreds of people. And at their next and last prize, well and sufficientlie performed, they do proceed to be maisters of the science of defence, or maisters of fence, as we commonly call them.. .. None but such as have thus orderly proceeded by public act and trial, and have the approbation of the principal masters of their company, may profess."
The places where they exercised were commonly theatres, halls, or other enclosures sufficient to contain a number of spectators, as Ely Place in Holborn, the Bell Savage on Ludgate Hill, the Curtain in Hollywell, the Gray Friars within Newgate, Hampton Court, the Bull in Bishopsgate Street, the Clink, Duke's Place, Salisbury Court, Bridewell, the Artillery Gardens, &c.
Among those who distinguished themselves as amateurs in the science of defence are found Robert Greene, "who plaide his maisters prize at Leadenhall," and Tarlton, the comedian, who "was allowed a master" on the 23rd of October, 1587.
This act must have had as an incidental result that of greatly raising the standard of ability among English teachers, and also, by making the "professed" masters jealous of their monopoly, that of reducing the number of interloping swordsmen, whose character partook as much of the "bravo" as of the teacher.
Stow probably refers to members of this corporation when he remarks "the Art of Defence and use of weapons is taught by professed masters."
The author of the "Third University of England," who, as was mentioned before, wrote in 1615, mentions a weapon which only came into use in England towards 1580.
"There be manie professors of the science of defence and very skilfull men in teaching the best and most offensive use of verie many weapons, as the long sword, the back sword, rapier and dagger, case of rapiers, single rapier, the sword and buckler or targate," &c.
Although in his days the new-fangled "rapier" had become quite acclimatized in England, in Henry VIII.'s time, and indeed as late as the first years of Elizabeth's reign, it was only known to a few travelled courtiers as an outlandish weapon much used in Italy and Spain, and sometimes in France.
The national weapon was the "sword," with a plain cross hilt, and perhaps a half-ring guard. It was intended mainly for the cut, and usually accompanied by the hand buckler or targate.
Notwithstanding general restrictions, a great deal of obnoxious swaggering was common among the fencing gentry, who were as a rule looked upon with dislike and suspicion by the quieter portion of the community. The contemptuous name of "swashbuckler," applied to obtrusive devotees of the art of fence, graphically described these shady braves, and the clattering noise they created in their brawls, or even when merely swaggering down a narrow street.
It would seem that "swashbucklers" congregated mostly in West Smithfield, the London "Pre au Clercs," one of the few spots where their rioting could be tolerated.
"They got their name," says Fuller, "from swashing and making a noise on the buckler, and that of ruffian, which is the same as a swaggerer," because they tried to make the side swag or incline on which they were engaged.
"West Smithfield was formerly called Ruffian Hall, where such men usually met, casually or otherwise, to try mastery with sword and buckler; more were frightened than hurt, hurt than killed therewith, it being accounted unmanly to strike beneath the knee, or with the point. But since that desperate traitor Rowland Yorke first used thrusting with rapiers, swords and bucklers are misused."
Smithfield is also mentioned by Ben Jonson, in the introduction to "Bartholomew Fair," as the common resort of sword and buckler men.
Between the years 1570 and 1580, the rapier began to make its appearance, and being much more practical for individual fighting than the clumsy old-fashioned sword, never complete as a weapon without the buckler, the latter rapidly went out of fashion. But the foreign weapon was not admitted, and the old one discarded, without the usual murmurs and regrets.
"Sword and buckler fight begins to grow out of use," says a sturdy Briton, in "The Two Angry Women of Abingdon," "I am sorry for it, I shall never see good manhood again; if it be once gone, this poking fight of rapier and dagger will come up; then a tall man, that is a courageous man, and a good sword and buckler man, will be spitted like a cat or a rabbit."
Stow's "Annals" contain a passage describing the fashion of sword and buckler fights and its disappearance soon after the importation of the foreign custom of wearing rapiers:—
"And whereas until the twelfth or thirteenth yeare of Queene Elizabeth, the auncient English fight of Sword and Buckler was only in use, the buckler being but a foot, with a pike of four or five inches long; then they beganne to make them full half an ell broad with sharp pikes ten or twelve inches long, wherewith they meant either to breake the swordes of their enemies, if it hitte upon the pike, or els sodainly to runne within them and stabbe and thrust their bucklers with the pike into the face, arme, or body of their adversary. But this continued not long, every haberdasher then sold bucklers. For, shortly after, began long Tuckes and long Rapiers, and hee was helde the greetest gallant that had the deepest ruff and longest Rapier. The offence to the eye of the one, and the hurt that came unto the life of the subject by the other caused Her Majesty to make proclamation against them both, and to place selected grave citizens at every gate, to cut the Ruffes and breake the Rapier's poynts of all passengers that exceeded a yeard in length of their Rapier, and a nayle of a yard in depth of their ruffes."
Excerpted from Schools and Masters of Fencing by Egerton Castle. Copyright © 2003 Egerton Castle. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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