Swetnam Chapter 12 seven principles

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: http://tysonwright.com/sword/SwetnamSchooleOfDefence.pdf for the project.

We have now reached the combat portion of the manual.  There is a major change here in that the rest of the book is part of chapter 12.  The table of contents has broken it down into 18 sections.  I will be using the sections as they are listed, but as with the previous chapters still using each inline heading as the heading for the post.

I may need to go back through and add more sections if my posts prove too long, but I’ll cross that bridge when I burn it.

Chap. XII. Sheweth of seauen Principall rules whereon true defence is grounded.

The seven principles are:

  1. A good guard
  2. True observing of distance
  3. To know the place
  4. To take time
  5. To keep space
  6. Patience
  7. Often practice

Swetnam dives right into his seven principles.  As I go through them I will list them with their principle.  Because we are now into the combat section I will try to give some commentary immediately following each section.

1. A Good Guard: it is important to have a good and secure guard which will defend your body (and he will explain it better later), but more importantly you must never let your guard drop as long as you are in range of your opponent.

This one is fairly straight forward, have a good guard, never let it drop.

2. True Observing of Distance: stand as far from your opponent as you can so that you can only hit him with a thrust if you step forward.  When you step forward your hand and foot must go together.  This distance could be as much as twelve feet if your rapier is four feet long.  Swetnam says to have your best food back, and to not move it, so that you can be ready to withdraw back into your guard.  You must return to your guard at distance after every attack regardless of whether you hit your opponent or not.  If your hind foot comes forward when you make your attack then you have broken distance and you will not be at the proper distance when you return.  Swetnam says that the best way to learn distance is to practice often with a friend or else in a chamber attacking a wall that is twelve feet away (assuming your weapon is four feet long).

This sounds exactly like a lunge.  The only odd point is that he refers to your rear foot as your best foot, but with body mechanics what he describes only works if your rear foot is your left foot.  Perhaps he means that the left foot is the best foot.  I practiced this lunge and after taking into account blade length (mine is 42″ instead of 48″ as Swetnam prefers) I’m still six inches short.  A friend of mine who is over six feet tall was able to accomplish the twelve foot lunge however (again taking into account blade length)

The twelve foot lunge seems to require an outstanding balance, and for the person to be over six feet tall.  I am unsure of how tall Swetnam was, but I would not be surprised to find that he was a very tall man.  I double checked measurements of today compared with the measurements of Swetnam’s time and the foot is still the same length, so it isn’t an error of conversion.  I recommend that SCA fencers have a 12′ lunge as a goal, but focus on being steady at an 11′ lunge and then work their way up to a 12′ maximum (again remember to take blade length into account).

3. To Know the Place: There are three parts to place, the place of the weapon, the place of defense and the place of offense.  The most important part is the place of offense though.  You must know what the nearest part of your enemy is to you, and what is the most unguarded (dagger hand, knee, leg, etc) or where you can best hurt him without any danger to yourself and preferably without killing your enemy.

Place means knowing where to strike.  It includes knowing where to defend, and where to put your weapon, but mostly it’s about the attack.  What part of your opponent can you hit easiest and with the best effect.  It doesn’t matter if his leg is nearest to you if it’s fully defended.  You need to be able to see where his defense is lacking.

4. To Take Time: be ready to take advantage of any opportunities that present themselves, either by a part of your enemy which is unguarded, or in response to your enemy’s movement, you must be ready to attack.  Your movement must be at the “very motion” of your opponent.  You need to defend and attack at the same time.  You cannot let your enemy recover his guard after his attack, because if you do then you loose your advantage.  You need to answer him quicker than you can say it, because if you wait too long and attack after your enemy has returned to his guard you give him the advantage.  “He which maketh the first assault doth endanger himselfe most”.

You must attack only when your opponent gives you the opportunity, but you must attack as soon as it’s presented.  When your opponent moves in a way that opens his guard you must attack right away, before he realizes it.  Similarly when your opponent makes an attack you need to be able to defend and respond at the same time.  If you parry first, and allow your opponent to return to his guard then you’ve lost the advantage, and if you make an attack against his secure guard then he will have the advantage.  Parry and attack must be the same movement.

5. To keep Space: there are two ways of thinking of this, the first is what Swetnam calls distance, and he already went over, but what Swetnam means by keeping space is that you should keep a certain space between each attack.  By this he means that after every attack (of any sort) you should recover to your guard so that you can defend or attack again.  You should not charge rashly or furiously, “for hastinesse is foolishnes”.

This links in with his words on taking time.  By recovering into your guard after an attack you are ready for your opponents response, and have the ability to throw another attack of any type; but if you move from your first attack into another attack then your opponent has the ability to attack you while you aren’t guarded, and your attacks are limited by what you did previously, which lets your opponent figure out what you are about to do quicker.

6. Patience: this is one of the greatest virtues of man.  Regardless of how hasty or violent you are by nature you should let reason and judgement guide you, do not let anger rule.  Swetnam has talked at great length about this previously in chapter eight.

Fairly self explanatory.  Be patient, don’t get angry or hasty, especially in combat.

7. Often Practice: Practice is one of the healthiest things for the body, and it is also the best thing for skill.  If you practice frequently you will gain skill and will have a great advantage over the unskilful.  Those who practice leave behind those who fight haphazardly or by hoping for a lucky shot.

Practice.  Practice. Practice. For only by this will you gain skill.


These seven principles are the basis of everything that follows in Swetnam’s manual; everything else will build upon these.


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