Monday, 2 January 2012

The Italian fencing schools in Elizabethan London

Italian fencing masters who plied their trade in Elizabethan London accepted considerable risk. The local Maisters of Defence, into whose market they pushed uninvited and un-privileged, looked at the interloppers with a jaundiced eye. And to prove that their ancient trade was superior to the Italiante rapier taught by the likes of Rocco Bonnetti  and Vincentio Saviolo, they liked to call out the newcomers to public trials of skill.
Some Italians, like Saviolo, deftly sidestepped the challenges. Some were pushed to engage—and often paid with life or limb. But other Italians may actually have sought out public fights. In Legends of Northeast ScotlandWynness recounts the apocryphal London adventures of a young Scot by the name of Donald Oig. No date is given for the story, but the setting would place it in the late 1500′s.
Donald Oig is somewhat of a country bumpkin. We have no inkling of his expertise with the sword, not even what kind of sword he favored. Indeed, the account of the mortal wound he inflicts on the Italian would indicate that they both engaged with rapiers.Soldiers in cuirass and morion (from an old English print, seventeenth century).
“On his way to the palace, Donald encountered the Italian surrounded by his retinue and heard the drummer issue his master’s challenge. Donald immediately drew his sword and ran both drum and drummer through, crying as he did ‘hae deen wi’ yer din’.
“The Italian was very annoyed because a crowd had gathered and were wildly applauding Donald for his prompt action. He challenged Donald himself, and arrangements were made for the duel to take place the following day.
“That night Donald searched through all the taverns in London until he found the Italian’s serving-man from whom he learned that his master bore a charmed life. (…) If the Italian’s body was pierced by a sword and the sword withdrawn the wound would close immediately and the Italian would remain unharmed. This was the secret of his charmed life.
“Early next morning a great crowd assembled to witness the duel between the Italian swordsman and Donald Oig. The duel was fast and furious, but Donald managed to pierce the Italian’s body with his sword. ‘Withdraw thy sword,’ cried the Italian, knowing of course that if Donald did so he would immediately recover and fight on. But Donald, remembering what the serving man had told him, let loose the hold on his sword, left it in the Italian’s body and exclaimed ‘Lat the spit gang wi’ the roast.’
“The Italian fell to the ground and died.”

The Arte of Defence was studied and taught by masters in the late 15th and 16th Centuries. 
The most famous of the teachers typically came from Italy. Until the advent of the smallsword
 and the French schools of fence, the Italians and to a lesser degree
 the Spanish, enjoyed the role of the most sought after teachers of the Arte of Defence. 
 This is not to say that earlier fencing schools did not exist.
  The Germans had fine schools and some of the oldest existant fencing manuals come from 

The English at the end of the 16th Century followed the continental fencers in taking on
the use of the rapier. In defense of English technique, George Silver published a treatise
 called the Paradoxes of Defence.

 This treatise was used to espouse the use of the English weapons and to downplay
the use of the rapier. Silver hated the Italians and Spanish and
made sure that his readers knew that these styles

 were more dangerous for the user than good English practices. He also wrote a treatise on
 his Paradoxes called Brief Instructions. Two Italian Elizabethan Masters of note
  were Saviolo
Vincentio Saviolo (d. 1598/9), though Italian born and raised, authored the first book on
fencing in the English language.

He arrived in London from Padua in 1590. John FlorioFile:John Florio.jpg described Saviolo's fencing school being, in 1591,
 "in the little street where the well the sign of the red Lyon." It was described by George Silver as being 
"within a bow shot" of what was later the Bell Savage or la Belle Sauvage, at this time "Savage's inn, 
otherwise called File:La Belle Sauvage Inn.jpg
the Bell on the Hoop" ( Inns and Taverns of Old London by Henry C. Shelley, 1909), on Ludgate Hill.
 His particular nemesis among the Masters of Defence of the English school was this George Silver,
 who wrote his own book to attack Saviolo's systems.
Vincentio Saviolo, his practise, in two bookes, the first intreating of the use of the Rapier and Dagger,
 the second of Honor and honorable quarrels. London, printed by John Wolfe, 1595,
 undertakes to instruct in the rapier fencing techniques of his day.
 The careful reader will notice the absence of the lunge.
As was ordinary in that day, it was structured like a conversation between Saviolo and an imaginary student. Those of today, used to FAQs, find this easier to follow than readers twenty years ago did. The original version has the idiosyncratic spelling common to the age. The terminology is strange to those used to modern fencing, but the illustrated versions make it possible to reconstruct. He was, after all, writing for people unable to get to a fencing master like himself). and Di Grassi. 

Saviolo' s works cover not only his view on fencing mechanics but also honor.
 Di Grassi in the author's opinion is one of the finer manuals translated to English
 in this time period.

 Although Di Grassi predates the Elizabethan period proper, his manual
which was orginally published in 1570 was translated into English in the
 late Elizabethan period. 

At the turn of the sixteenth Century the Spanish were considered to be the greatest swordsmen in the world. Cool, calm and graceful, they paced elegantly through their duels as though treading a solemn measure
 of the Dance of Death. Even George Silver, the reactionary champion of traditional
 English swordplay over the itlianate style of rapier play, paid grudging acknowledgement
 to the Spanish school, "wherein a man with small practise in a verie short time may 
become perfect. " In contrast to the complex moves and strategems of the Italians,
 the Spanish had a single flat footed stance and two basic positions, or "wards,"
 for the weapon, a single rapier. Image Hosted by ImageShack.usSilver writes, in his Paradoxes of Defence, 1599, that the Spanish swordsmen "stand as brave as they can with their bodies straight upright, narrow spaced, with their feet 
continually moving, as if they were in a dance, holding forth their arms and rapiers 
very straight against the face or body of their enemy. "
As viewed by an outsider like Silver, the Spanish school seemed to recommend itself by
 its simplicity. Unfortunately for those who actually undertook to learn the art, however,
Spanish rapier play was an incredibly complex intellectual task, calling upon a knowledge
of geometry and metaphysics for its true mastery. The fencer's every move
 was choreographed along a "mysterious circle," with its myriad chords and diameters.
In contrast to Silver's brief desciption of the style, witness these directions from a proponent
of the school:
"At the same instant that Alexander drops his foot on the point marked G, Zacharia steps forwards and delivers an 'imbrocade' at his breast. The adversaries having previously been on guard at the first instance with their swords held straight and parallel, Alexander began to work round in order to master his 'contrary's' blade on the second instance X, on the inner side of the diameter. This doing, at the same moment he places his right foot on the letter G, and proceeds in a circular manner with the left, Zacharia bears on him, carrying his right foot inside the circle as far as the letter S, on the inner side of the diameter, forward on the right foot, and rounding the arm by the same action so as to turn the exterior branch of the sowrd vertically upwards. Thus he delivers the imbrocade on his adversary's breast, proceeding further by carrying the left foot outside, on the inside of the quadrangle ."
Need;less to say, there is a complexity here which escaped george Silver's perspicuity.
 Before attempting to penetrate the mysteries of this charmed circle, it might be wise to examine the history of the style, which continued to be practiced in Spain as late as the eighteenth century.
The first Spanish master to describe the "mysterious circle"
 in print was Hieronimo de Caranca, who set the tone for his followers in the title of his 1569 book: De la Philosophia de las Armas, "On the Philosophy of Arms." To Caranca, fencing was no mere physical exercise, nor even a necessary skill for a chivalrous gentleman.
The use of the sword implied an entire philosophy,
 an alchemical distillation of Christian mysticism
 and newly re-discovered classical science.
The dance-like nature of his style fit the elegant airs of the courtly renaissance milieu,
and the relative lightness of the new rapier permitted a straight
 armed stance and provided the sort of control needed
for accurate point work. Spain had been the seat
 of many of the most famous gladiatorial schools
during Roman times, and it is possible that Caranca
was influenced by the tradition that Roman fighting
 men owed their lethal effectiveness to their ability
 to use the Gladius equally well for both cuts and
 thrusts . Unlike some of the Italian masters of the time,
Caranca did not abandon the use of the cut altogether, but understanding the geometric superiority of the thrust over the cut, tended to favor the former over the latter.
Don Luys Pacheco de Narvaez was Caranca's most famous pupil. ith
 the publication of his own Libro de las Grandezas de la Espada around 1600,
 "Don Lewis of Madrid" achieved international fame as "the sole master now of the world ."
Narvaez' influence spread out from the peninsula, in competition with the ideas of Italian
 masters such as Camillo Agrippa, and Giacomo di Grassi, to find fertile ground in France.
Louis XIII's marriage to Anne of Austria prepared french soil for the transplantation
 of Spanish fashions; as the daughter of king Phillip III of Spain, Anne had
very close ties to the Spanish Empire. Girard Thibault was the most notable
 Frenchman to champion the cause of the mysterious circle.
 In 1623 he published his Academie de l'Espee, ou se demonstrent
 par Reigles Mathematiques, sur le fondement d'un Cercle Mysterieux,
 La Theorie et Pratique des vrais et Jusqu'a present incognus secreta du maniement
 Des Armes, a pied a Cheval: "the Academy of the Sword, wherein is demonstrated by
Mathematical Rules, founded upon a Mysterious Cricle, The Theory and practise of
 the true and Hitherto unknown secrets of the management of Arms, on foot and on Horse." In Gallic style, this work expanded the theoretical framework of the Spanish school and gave the mysterious circle a brief continental vogue.
Although roundly derided by modern fencing historians as well as contemporary rival
 masters as being wildly impractical, the "Mysterious Circle" school of fencing must
 have had somethingin its favor in order to have gained its reputation and maintain
 its existence as long as it did. Arthur Wise's suggestion that swordsmen of this school
 were good because of all the practise with weapons they had to put in just to master
 the choreography, though not without some perit, is not sufficient . Clearly, the
 'Mysterious Circle" school of fencing had some greater appeal to the renaissance
 gentlemen beyond its effectiveness in actual combat.
The renaissance was a period of great instability; the world view that had comforted
 Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire was itself collapsing. The authority of the
Church had been challenged by the Reformation, the old feudal order was falling to
 gunpowder, and even the size and shape of the world was being revised. it was
 necessary for society to re-orient itself, to find a new place for humanity in the rapidly
 changing cosmos. Whilst some thinkers looked forward to the coming "reformation of the
 whole wide world," others were rediscovering the heritage of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The concept of a "Mysterious Circle" would not have been new to a person of that era.
 Even now, we have a superstitious recollection of a circle on the floor whose circumference
 is death to cross: the magic circle used by sorcerers when summoning spirits.
 In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ceremonial magic was being practised
in earnest. Dr. John Dee, the most learned man in Queen Elizabeth's England and
 the probable model for Shakespeare's Prospero, was actually performing "scientific
experiments" in communicating with the spirit world. This is not to imply that the (no doubt)
 devoutly Catholic Spanish fencing masters were dabbling in the occult, but rather that their
 theoretical framework was grounded in the intellectual currents of the time.
The Circle, as anyone who has read C. G. Jung can tell you, is a symbol of the cosmos.
 We perceive the world as stretching around us as an infinitely vast sphere, divided
 into six directions: front, back, left, right, up and down. It is thus natural to perceive
 the cosmos as a six-fold sphere or a circle divided into four quadrants; it is a primal "
archetypal image," in mythological terms, it is a mandala, a cosmic diagram.
In the renaissance, it was believed that the universe was a series of nested spiritual layers,
 that the individual human being was a "microcosm," a "little world" that mirrored
 the greater "macrocosm." This is the significanceof those innumerable renaissance
drawings of a man superimposed on a series of circles portraying the solar system.
 An event in the greater world, an eclipse or other celestial phenomenon, for example,
 would have a corresponding occurance in the microcosm, the death of a king, say.
The magician's circle was thus an attempt to create the world in small, in order to
achieve effects on the greater world. The "Mysterious Circle" of the Spanish school
 might likewise be viewed as an attempt to create a miniturized version of the universe
in order to ritually enact the cosmic dance of life versus death, good versus evil, thus
 invoking divine authorization for what otherwise would be mere manslaughter (7).
but the "Mysterious Circle's" appeal was not entirely metaphysical.
 Amongst the gems un-earthed from classical learning was the science
 of geometry, a powerful tool for exploring the nature of the world.
 Of course, the renaissance mind, obsessed as it was with cosmology,
 found it difficult to separate the mathematical from the magical.
Dr. Dee, for example, was a celebrated mathematician as well
as a magus, and sought to apply Euclid to a bewildering variety of fields.
typically, his lengthy geometric discussion of the optics of a concave mirror
 in his propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558) is focussed, as it were, on a means
 of concentrating "astral influences" for magical purposes , belying the fact
 that he had used the same principles to construct a reflecting telescope
 for military purposes . Thus it would be unfair to dismiss the "mysterious circle"
 as superstitious without examining the soundness of its science.
To understand the "scientific" basis of the school, it is necessary to examine the state-of-the-art in swordsmanship at the time. As noted above, the advent of the rapier made swordplay a matter of skill and finesse rather than strength and endurance. the fencing strip was still in the future; whether the combat was held in the open or in a confined space, neither opponent would feel obliged to limit movement to a narrow, linear space. Indeed, there was a great strategic value to moving about the field of combat so as to take advantage of lighting and topography; this sort of fencing was jeux de terrain, a "topography game."
Since the modern fencing lunge was still the closely guarded secret of a
few Italian fencing masters, attacks were usually made on a "pass,"
 that is, the fencer would extend his weapon and take an oblique step
 towards his opponent. Anyone who strayed within the length of a single
 pass of his enemy's weapon would be in grave danger. Just as a modern
 fencing coach might attach an elastic cord to a fencer's waist in such a
way that it would be slack when the fencer is within striking distance of his or her opponent, so a sixteenth century master might draw a circle on the floor that would indicate when the swordsman was within a single pass of his opponent. the geometry of the 'Mystic Circle" school is, in fact, quite correct: the "danger zone" between two fencers who are not limited to a narrow fencing strip generates a circle one fencing step longer than the extended arm and blade in diameter. Any incursion into the zone would be potentially fatal., and all successful attacks must be made along a chord within this circle. Since the rapier was not light enough to allow rapid parries, the best defence wold be to "void," or remove one's self, by counterstepping along an imaginary chord that would restore the oriinal distance, and, incidently, define a new circle.
The Mysterious Circle School's claim to infallibility is therefore not without justification: in the final analysis, the victor in a rapier bout could almost invariably be proven to have conformed to the geometric principles described above. Unfortunately, in the heat of the mortal combat it requires a great deal of calm detachment to think with such geometrical precision, and even then it is no guarantee against a suicidal attack or a craftily kicked face-full of sand! Thus, viewed from the harsh vantage of the real world, the Magic Circle School's claims appear to reside in that fencer's El Dorado,
 where the Secret magic Attack and the Universal Parry make
 an uncertain art into a perfect science.

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