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 chapter lays out all the ways that a coward avoids a true show of his skill.

Chap. X. The trickes of a Coward.

The first way to know a coward is that he will carry a lot of weapons.  Swetnam is quick to point out that he doesn’t call all men who go about heavily armed cowards, but he says that if you pay attention you can tell which is which.

When a coward is challenged he will mention several places for the combat, but then will pick the location when only the challenger and he knows where it is.  He will then go to a different spot which he had mentioned previously and brag to everyone that he was there to fight the challenger but they didn’t show up, because the challenger is at the actual location.

chapter 10

Again, cowards will brag and insult a man when that man is with friends and in public so that everyone will see and hear what a valorous man he looks like, or he will draw his weapons at a fair or market because he knows that the fight will be stopped before anyone is hurt.  Swetnam says this is not true valour for there is no true test of skill or “manhood”.

Some cowards challenge a well to do man, but at the duel he makes a great speech about how he didn’t realize what a good man the other was and that he refused to fight such a good man, thus he seems brave for the challenge, and seems honorable for not trying to hurt a good man, but truly is neither.

A cunning coward when he is challenged will begin bragging and acting tough; talking about how there’s no chance that he can be beaten, and about how the man who challenged him won’t show up because he’ll be too afraid of the fight, and the coward will talk about how he doesn’t draw his sword in vain.  If this doesn’t work the coward will, if he knows his opponent well, talk about how to men this close shouldn’t let it come to blows, and if he is of higher rank than his opponent he’ll talk about how he wouldn’t lower himself to fighting someone so base.  Attached to this he adds:

“I have known in a strange place, that a scurvy base fellow will stand so much upon his gentilitie, and think to make the world beleve he is a great man in his own country”

If it turns out that he can not escape his challenger, for example if he’s at a tavern and there are too many people about, he will draw his dagger with little reason so as to show that he wants to fight right then and there, and so those around them will calm him and his opponent down so that they won’t fight in the middle of the tavern. Swetnam doesn’t oppose this so much (the friends stopping a fight), but he does oppose any falling out over something small like a cup of wine or a pipe.

If a coward lives to be old he may boast that he is the best man in the world because he was never tried and never had to draw his sword, even though it was his cowardice rather than his skill that kept his skin whole.

A wise or valorous man could say the same thing, for a man can answer a challenge and yet keep himself safe. And why should we fear death by combat? You do not fear a bed, yet men die in their beds. You do not fear crossing the sea, but many men die at sea. Swetnam says that there “is less danger in fighting a good quarrel with skill and discretion” than in many other things that we do every day.

It once was that a coward will have a sword or rapier at the length of half a pike (6 feet), but now that shorter swords are the fashion it is harder to tell a coward by the length of their sword. In this Swetnam seems to dislike the fashion for very short swords, but at the same time says that he won’t be vocally opposed as he knows a number of good men who prefer the shorter weapon.  Now instead of the very long weapon the coward buys the most expensive weapon he can, yet Swetnam again says that you cannot know a coward by his weapon any more than you can by his injuries or scars.  You can’t know how good a judge is by his robe, or a sailor by his whistle.  You don’t know if gold is good till you’ve tested it. Similarly you don’t know if a man is a Man or a Coward till he’s been tested.  But you will rarely see a coward use his weapon in earnest except when he’s drunk or forced into it, but he will draw his weapon frequently around others and shows off tricks with his sword in an attempt to get people to believe that he’s a good fencer.  Cowards will, by speaking libels and dealing underhandedly, revenge themselves upon others in private because they can not respond “manfully”.  But at the same time the coward gets upset when he hears of other men called brave or valourous, as he doesn’t want any other man to be better than himself.  If he hears of anyone commended for being valourous a coward will reply that “he is no body; or he is not the man you take him for”.

A coward delights in creating quarrels between people and in spreading rumors and tales.  Swetnam claims that the chief cause of cowardly minds is ignorance and want of skill.  He warns that you should never trust “a coward in his fury” and to not let him closer than “the point of thy rapier”.  Let the coward have his word, but don’t let him get any advantage on you, or give him room to do any tricks, especially if he is your enemy.

Swetnam won’t say that all of those who practice throwing a dagger or “darting” a rapier are cowards, but he does say that anyone who uses it in a fair fight is a coward.

He then gives us a real world example of a coward.  One Cosbe had a quarrel with the Lord of Burke.  It grew and they arranged a duel.  Just before they began Cosbe said “my Lord you have spurs which may annoy you” and said that he should take them off.  As Burke was removing his spurs Cosbe ran him through and killed him.  Lord Burke was a skillful swordsman and would have done well in a fair duel, but instead he was murdered and Cosby was hanged for it.

Swetnam ends with a final anecdote which seems to be more about murderers and less about cowards.  A man commits murder and is granted leniency by a judge. He later kills a second man and is granted leniency again by the same judge.  He kills a third man and the judge sentences him to death as he has been warned twice.  The murder then said that the judge is wrong to condemn him for killing three men because the judge killed two of them.  The judge asked what he meant and the man replied that if the judge had hanged him for the first offense he wouldn’t have killed the other two, therefore he was guilty of killing only one man and the judge was guilty of killing two.  Swetnam references this story to remind us that a “man-slayer” should be hanged for the first offense if it wasn’t in self defense or for a true quarrel.

SCA Take

I don’t believe that there is much of an SCA rapier take from this chapter.  But the chapter is an important one for understanding the early 17th century concept of honour.  The killing of a man in a fair duel over a good reason was not an evil thing, but the use of any tricks or pretending to be what you are not was dishonorable.

I think the most important thing to take from this is to remember that it is dishonorable to present yourself and your skill level as greater than they truly are.  I may have more to say on this later, but I’ll come back and edit this some time for that.

1 Comment

Thoughts on Reading Swetnam | Tomas de Courcy · February 16, 2012 at 3:09 pm

[…] 10. This tenth Chapter sheweth the trickes of a coward […]

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