This is part of an ongoing project to summarize and provide SCA focused commentary on The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence by Joseph Swetnam, published in 1617.

For links to the other sections of the Swetnam Project please go here.

I am using this facsimile: for the project.


This first Chapter sheweth what weapons are chiefly to be learned, with many other principall notes worthy of observation

Swetnam likes long chapter titles.

Now we get to the beginning of the manual.  As I understand it the first several chapters are not directly about combat, but are instead about various topics related partially to combat.

A number of different looks at Joseph Swetnam I’ve read ignore these chapters.  I’m hoping to get a feel for his concept of combat through reading them.

I’ll try to organize his thoughts, something Swetnam doesn’t seem to have done.  That means that it won’t be in the original order, as Swetnam jumps around a lot.


Which Weapons to Choose:

Swetnam is going to focus on the weapons which are currently in use rather than ones which have limited use.  To that end he will be focusing primarily on the Rapier and Dagger, and the Staff.  They are the most useful weapons for any situation, and as such they will form the core of his teachings.

Swetnam believes that the rapier and dagger is superior to the sword and dagger, or sword and buckler.  He feels that the rapier is the best and “comeliest” weapon in England and that all men should learn and practice it. Also:

  • It is the best exercise
  • It is the best for defense
  • It is the weapon used by foreigners (the implication is that the English should be better than foreigners at everything, including their own weapons)

Everyone Should Know How to Fight:

At this point he begins discussing reasons why everyone should learn to fight, while at the same time cautioning against intemperance.  He recommends that a wound is better than killing blow, as many times quarrels are for silly things.  Do not use your skill for drunken brawls.  Don’t be vain or cocky about your skill either.  Do not speak ill of anyone, true or false, to their face or behind their back.

Avoiding Duels:

He speaks a great deal about avoiding quarrels or anything that could cause someone to hate you.  If someone else speaks ill of you do not revenge it, but first think about whether the person insulting you is worth your time.  Just because you are very skilled does not mean that you should fight for no cause.

If someone tries to back out of a duel, let them.  Don’t force someone to fight if they don’t want to.  If you don’t want to duel someone, don’t let them push you into it.

Don’t fight with a drunkard – even if he’s sober if you win he’ll claim it was because he was drunk.

Do not fight if there is nothing to be gained.

Do not be the sort of person who becomes furious during practice or challenge your practice opponent.  Swetnam also gives some advice on how to deal with such a person if you are the one running a Schoole of Defence.

Do not maintain an idle quarrel.

Let thy hands be slower then thy tongue, yet let not thy sword rust for want of use, or yet surfet with bloud

Swetnam encourages his readers to be slow to fight, but not to avoid it completely.  He wishes us to be fast to fight for King, Country, and personal reputation, but not to brawl, or fight with foolish men or in idle quarrels.

Don’t join into other people’s quarrels.

If you agree to a duel in the heat of passion or drink go to the other party and work out a way of ending it without a duel.  If this is not accepted then fight as best as you can without fear – but remember to that it is better to wound or disarm than to kill.

If you can’t avoid a duel:

Before you fight put God first.  Commit yourself to him and you will have no reason to fear when you fight.  If you are the best fighter in your school that does not mean that on the field fighting for your life in a duel you will have the same level of skill.  The fear of dying affects everyone differently.  For this reason a man is more bold with a foile  than with a sword.

When you fight a duel, do so in the morning, while sober.  Do not fight upon a sudden falling out, but give time to calm down to all parties rather than spilling blood out of hand.

Do not fight after drinking anything.  It dulls the wits.

Don’t treat your weapons like toys, respect them and keep them ready.

When fighting, make sure that you fight with your back to the sun so that it shines in your opponents face.  If there is no sun to shine then make sure you have the lower ground because the low ground is the most advantageous in a duel.

If you drop your raper pretend to throw your dagger at your opponent to gain the time to recover it.  If you take your opponents weapon don’t give it back to him unless that is the end of the duel.  To disarm an opponent is better than to kill him.  Never lend your opponent a weapon.

When preparing for a duel set down some ground rules such as if someone falls to the ground or looses their weapon then the duel is over without death.

On Your Weapon:

Go for a longer rapier rather than a shorter one.  He recommends four feet long (I assume he means pommel to tip).  If your opponent tells you how long his weapon is you must on your honor match his length as close as possible.

Make sure that your weapon is always clean and ready

A workeman is knowne by his tooles

Closing Comments:

Swetnam admonishes us to keep not only the laws of the King, but the laws of God as well.  Remember that if you kill your opponent during a duel you answer not only to man, but to God.

A few comments for SCA Rapier:

I’ll add my comments here rather than inline.  I may do them inline in the future, but I wanted to try this way first.

As SCA combat is closer to fighting in the “Schoole of Defence” than to fighting in the field most of his admonishments – though informative from a sociological standpoint – aren’t very helpful.

A few exceptions are: Don’t become angry during a practice bout.  If you run a practice and you see someone who habitually does this Swetnams advice is to pair him with someone who is significantly better. That way he will focus on learning more rather than on winning in practice, and this should hopefully temper his rashness.

He has a great quote as well: “Let thy hands be slower then thy tongue, yet let not thy sword rust for want of use, or yet surfet with bloud”

In the SCA it is inappropriate to maneuver so your opponent is facing into the sun, or to pretend to throw your weapon at your opponent, or to stop your opponent from retrieving a dropped weapon.  But there is one point of information in the dueling advice that I found very interesting.

He advocates taking the lower ground, because in a duel that is the best.  Kinda interesting as our culture has a higher ground mindset, but it makes sense.  If you are on lower ground more of your opponent is available to hit while less of you is available to hit.  It is also harder to lunge downhill than up hill.

He recommends a 4 foot sword.  Base on contemporary weapons still in existence I suspect that he is referring to the entire weapon tip to pommel.  If you’d like to read a very long discussion on the length of rapiers please take a look at this forum thread:  I’ll have to check my sword length when I get home, but I believe that it will fall into the about 4′ range.

And finally remember to keep your sword clean and ready.

He also made one reference I’ m a little confused about – he referred to using a “close hilted dagger”.  I’m not sure if that means something with a guard on it, or a basket, or just complex rings.  I’ll save that for a future examination.

This chapter was 15 pages long.  The next chapter is three.  I suspect that the next chapter will take me much less time 🙂


Thoughts on Reading Swetnam » Tomas de Courcy · June 13, 2011 at 12:56 pm

[…] 1. The First Chapter Shewing what weapons are chiefly to bee learned, with other principal notes wor… […]

Thoughts on Reading Swetnam | Tomas de Courcy · June 28, 2011 at 11:40 am

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