Swetnam Chapter 9

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.


This chapter has two purposes.  The first is to remind us that skill is something that can always increase, and the second is a condemnation of telling tales or gossip.

Chap. IX. Sheweth what an excellent thing skill is, with persuasion to all men to forbeare the maintaining of idle quarrels.

In Favour of Skill

Swetnam begins this chapter by giving a disclaimer that though perfect skill is what we aspire to, it is also impossible to reach. Even if a man traveled the entire earth or soared through the sky, or dove to the bottom of the seas he would not achieve perfect skill.

“[skill] is so large that I cannot compas it, so high I cannot reach it, and so deepe a hidden secret, that I cannot sound the bottom of it; for I cannot travaile so far, climbe so high, nor wade so deepe”

chapter 9But he says that he has seen so much that he knows that even though imperfect those who focus their minds on learning, knowing they can never truly achieve perfection, become the most famous of men; for we admire and reward skill, and how it “abateth the choller and courage of the hasty and furious man” and tempers him, just as iron is tempered with steel to make a blade, for steel alone is to brittle, and iron alone can not be sharp enough. So the learned man knows that those who are furious and hasty are soon killed. Skill, use (training/practicing), and exercise are the three key parts of ability.

Skill makes people more prepared to fight, so they do not wince at every blow. A natural coward when he has gained skill becomes bold.

Here he has a note that skill and practice help a man to be able to use both of his hands the same way – being equally skilled with either.

Every man should learn as much skill in weapons as he can, and also learn as many different guards with each weapon as possible so that you may be able to defend yourself in a fight.  For if you have skill with only one weapon, or know only one guard or one kind of blow or thrust you will not be able to protect yourself against the man who knows many guards, blows, thrusts, and weapons.

Man does not know what he is capable of until he not only tries, but practices, and gains experience. Skill is the best armour, for it allows you to fight without fear, and allows you to hurt without being hurt yourself.

Against Gossip

Many people tell tall tales, and boast, but do not put any confidence in the speech of a drunkard, a coward, or a fool, for you should not trust what they say. Similarly a Gentleman, or any good many, should not tell tales. But if you hear a friend of yours “wronged behind his back” you should answer on your friends behalf with reasonable words, but do not tell your friend what was said unless it concerns his life, as you don’t want to be repeating the words of a fool.

Remember: a carrier of tales can never truly deliver a man’s speech without adding or talking away from it, which changes the speech. So it is better to not say anything.  “Tale-bearers are the breeders of great mischiefe”.

When words are passed from one party to another to another malice is perceived, and offense is taken from them, when none was meant. This can create a grudge that may be kept for a long time. Swetnam encourages us to confront each other instead of holding grudges so that everything is out in the open and resolved, either “with weapons or with words or by the persuasions of friends”. Do not let envy, or hatred remain in your heart against anyone, for any reason. Talk with whoever spoke ill of you, be courteous to them, do not be angry until you have heard his tale, for there may be no cause for the quarrel.

Do not meddle with men above your station even if they wrong you, and you have good cause, for you will gain little by the quarrel. It is better to endure the malice of the mighty and to let the quarrel go than to try to maintain it, for by doing so you prove yourself to be the more honourable man.  Do not rail against them, or talk behind their back, for that is dishonourable.

To the might Swetnam says this: do not offer wrong against those lower in station than you. For many men would rather lose their lives than their honour, and so they will fight with no fear of the law. For they know that they have no standing before the law against a powerful or well connected man regardless of what they do. Here Swetnam quotes a proverb “The rich men have the Lawe in their owne hands”.

Swetnam closes this chapter by reminding us that the poor fear to offend the rich and powerful, but the implication is that it does not give the mighty the right to take advantage of those who are lesser.

SCA Take

We have two very important parts in this chapter, one of which is directly applicable to SCA combat and one which is directly applicable to life in general.

There is no way to achieve perfect skill, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t try. Swetnam wants us to practice and practice and train and train until we are as close as possible to perfect skill.

The second section of the chapter is very different.  It is about gossip. He has several things to say about gossip, the first of course is DON’T. But also he recomends that if we hear gossip about someone we know refute it if you can, but don’t repeat it, even to the person it was about. The only reason to pass on gossip is if someone’s life might be in danger.

If you hear gossip about you find the person who said it and figure out who started it, then talk with them.  Find out why the said it and what they meant by it.

And finally do not start a quarrel with those above you, even if you feel that it is deserved. In the SCA if someone of higher rank insults you and the talking it out method doesn’t work let it go.  Do not insult them back either to their face or to others. By doing this you will show yourself to be a more honorable person than the one who insulted you.

Also, do not start a quarrel with those below you in rank, for if you do then you are not living up to the honourable conduct expected of someone of your rank.

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