Paradoxes of Defence and Brief Instructions.
Manuscripts by George Silver
A review by Bill McConnell (1995)
.

At the end of the sixteenth century an English Gentleman and Teacher of defence Mr. George Silver was concerned with the rising popularity of the Rapier, and the subsequent rapier based combat that was occurring at the time. A traditionalist, Mr. Silver believed that the rapier was a flawed weapon and so the combat, also being flawed, was responsible for the deaths of many gallant Englishmen. He truly believed that many men who had died in such rapier duels may have lived if they had adhered to the use of more conventional weapons, and used established combat techniques. Because of his firm beliefs, Mr Silver wrote his manuscript "Paradoxes of Defence" in which he challenged the use of the rapier and put forward a number of points (his paradoxes) to support his argument. This was published by Edward Blount in 1599. He also wrote "Brief Instructions on my Paradoxes of Defence" in which he actually details combat philosophy and techniques.

I first heard of Paradoxes of Defence while watching the video "Masters of Defence" by the Tower armouries. This is a wonderful video on the development of the civilian sword and in it they misquote Mr Silver and casually discard his opinions; primarily I think because he did nothing to alter the adoption of rapiers by English swordsmen. At the time while I was watching the video, I remembered thinking how interesting it would be to read Mr Silvers work and listen to his arguments. Early this year (1995) I was lucky enough to be given a copy that was taken from off the Internet (posted by a USA member of the SCA). After reading and re-reading "Paradoxes" I must say I was impressed by his arguments and he makes a number of very good points. A few months back the same SCA chap (Greg Lindahl) posted the companion volume "Brief Instructions" which in my opinion is even better and an absolute must read for all serious students of swordsmanship.

The online versions of these documents may be found at:

  • Pardoxes of Defence
  • Brief Instructions
  • Greg Lindahl has told me that the credit for typing out these documents goes to a chap called Steve Hick (thanks Steve and Greg).

    It would be difficult to summarise all of Mr Silvers points in both manuscripts so I will briefly discuss some of his major points (as I see them). The rapier is not a sword developed from any martial concern or pressure. In fact this kind of sword, as a civilian weapon, developed as an article of fashion; a costume accessory. Techniques of rapier combat evolved to suit the new style of word but since the weapon itself has dubious character (in combat at least) the swordsmanship is likewise flawed.

    Mr Silver points out that most rapiers are too long. Once your opponent is past your point, it is too difficult to clear your weapon and bring the point to bear again. The long blades drag in the hand and even though they are made lightweight they exert a leverage that make them slow to respond to the hand. Also, he dislikes the dismissal of the cutting blow and subsequent reliance on thrusting only. He points out that a thrust is rarely a killing or incapacitating blow (especially from a rapier) and so a wounded opponent is still a threat; possibly a greater threat. Mr Silver disregards the view that the thrust is a faster blow by pointing out that when delivering a thrust or cut a swordsman's hand moves the same distance. He also points out that a thrust may be turned aside with little effort whereas a blow (cut) must be warded with manly strength.

    Mr Silver is also highly critical of attitudes to duelling being taught in England by Foreign Masters. A major criticism is that they teach a man to seek duels readily for any real or imagined offence. Mr Silver points out that words should be answered with words, and that if things are more serious, England is a lawful country and there are courts wherein to seek satisfaction. A Gentleman must use a sword to defend himself, his property or his Prince and not for any kind of murder. By seeking satisfaction by violence when other courses are available, and by inciting friends to indulge in such violence, we become brutish men, no better than beasts.

    Mr Silver is also critical of duelling technique where the various foreign schools teach offence not defence. In these schools the swordsmen concentrate too much on killing their opponent that they fail to defend themselves properly and so perish. He makes mention of several cases where the outcome of a rapier duel was the death of both men. Mr. Silver also points out that with this new technique of swordplay a Master cannot fight a duel and guarantee his safety; even against an untrained but valiant man. Basically, he believes the high mortality of men in rapier duels is due to the use of a flawed weapon and an overly aggressive style with poor defence and so regardless of skill and training, a swordsman is always at great risk.

    Also in condemnation of rapiers and such duelling Mr. Silver points out that these weapons are useless against armour and so have no place in the training of a man to defend his country and Prince. Silver also notes that men armed and trained in rapier fighting could be easily thrashed by common ploughmen or other ruffians and so such swordsmanship is questionable defence for a gentleman.

    In the manuscripts Mr Silver points out that the traditional "short sword" is a superior weapon. It should be pointed out that this "short sword" has a blade of about 90-100 cm and this is based on your stature. Being this length, it is possible to draw the weapon back to ward or attack when your opponent has closed to within arms reach (and this without stepping back). He also indicates the superior nature of this sword in that it may wound a man through armour. Also, such a sword with a single blow may so wound an opponent that they are no longer a danger; and in fact a death may not be necessary to decide a fight.

    The manuscripts mention many other weapons to be used in combat with comments on their advantages and failings and these are well worth a look.

    Discussion:

    As a swordsman I can hardly claim that I am a real expert. I have trained and fought with swords of various kinds regularly for the past 12 years or so but I have never fought a real battle and I have never killed anyone. I don't believe I am any great authority but I think I know as much about swords and sword combat as the next re-enactor (swordsman). I personally found myself agreeing with Mr Silver's point of view and though I did not really enjoy his arrogant (writing) style I can accept that as a function of the time the work was written in. Some would think the author is just a raving bigot who hates all foreigners and their damned new ideas. However, Mr Silver has a number of valid arguments that I think most swordsmen would have to agree with. There are many who would defend the Rapier and Rapier combat (duelling). However, few could not agree that the development and success of the civilian weapon was more a function of fashion and social pressure than the superior nature of the weapon itself. That scholarly men were able to develop techniques for the use of these weapons (and partially influence their evolution), should be counted as a bonus but no proof as to the supremacy of such weapons.

    Conclusion:

    I firmly believe that anyone interested in studying swordsmanship should take the time to read both of Mr Silvers manuscripts. Even if you do not agree with his point of view, the manuscripts' do contain valuable information on 16th century weapons and combat. I was very interested in the author's views on the philosophy of combat; not just how to fight but why to fight. It is definitely worth taking the time out to read these works. I am also sure that like scholars reading Shakespeare, different swordsmen will find their own interpretations and meanings in Mr Silvers words.

    In closing let me repeat three of Mr. Silvers points that are heavily emphasised.

    A swordsman should use a weapon with a length that suits his stature.

    Both the cut and thrust are needed in sword combat.

    A swordsman should be not so interested in the destruction of his opponent that he disregards his own defence. A Master of defence is he who can take to the field and know that (unless God is against him) he shall not come to any harm.




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    © Bill McConnell 1996.
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