Swetnam Preface to the Reader

This is part of an ongoing project to sumarize 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.


As I said in my previous post I’ll be breaking Joseph Swetnam’s manual down by sections.  This is for the first three sections (kinda).  It includes title page, dedication, and first preface.


Prince Henry
Prince Henry 1594 – 1612

I’ll throw a few pictures in to break up the 1700 word post.

First off we have our standard title page with a bit of aggrandizing.  We have our dedication to the Prince Charles, the brother of his dead Patron.  I wonder if he was hoping to snag himself a new patron with this.  Nothing surprising here.

Then we have our introduction for those who aren’t his patron.  It’s entitled: “An Epistle unto the common Reader”.  The intro to the reader is fourteen pages long.  It includes such comments as that he isn’t a scholar and has never attended university.  But he seems to consider himself good enough anyway.  The next five pages seem to be his trying to prove that you don’t need a university education to quote random things.  The only problem is that he’s not very good at it.  He is more than heavy handed with his metaphors – which go on forever – and he approaches his point in a slow spiral so you know about where he’s going, but he never seems to get there.  He mixes quotes from scripture with morality plays and popular ballads.  It very much seems like a first year university student trying to pretend he’s learned by spewing as much information onto the page as possible.

The general theme of this seems to be that although God will save us from our enemies he often does so by giving us tools and skills to save ourselves.  Therefore the rapier or sword is the tool and the skill can be learned from his book.  There, I just saved you five pages of reading.

He does have one comment that I want to share though:

but as I was about to tell you of a sort of logger-headed asses which further more will perswade their familiar friends, by telling them that skill will doe them no good, for whn they haue learned skill and afterwards when they shall haue occasion to vse their weapons, then such dunces will say that a man with a sword will cut off thy rapier at one blow, but I say this is a most cowardly kind of ignorice, for if a skilfull man doth hold the rapier, it is not a hundred blows with a sword can doe a rapier any harne, no although they light vpon him.

I found this amusing because it is the sort of thing that comes up often for those who know a little bit about swords, but not enough- mostly gleaned from watching movies.  Apparently the belief that a rapier is silly because a larger sword will go right through it is four hundred years older than I thought.

The next section concerns people who don’t want others to learn to defend themselves – believing that it will increase the chance of violence.  Swetnam refers to them as “false prophets” and starts quoting the bible again.  He then basically says that by reading the bible he’s discovered that those who don’t learn to fight are sissies.  Not in so many words, but that is what he’s getting at.  He then says that he won’t go into too much detail about the verses he referenced because he doesn’t want the preface to be too long… and yet there are almost eight more pages of this.

And now to the meat of the introduction.  Swetnam discourses on how his manual includes everything that helped him to “perfect” the art and that everyone can profit from reading his manual – because everyone should have some skill in weapons.  Well I believe him, because it’s now four hundred years later and I’m reading it for that exact reason.  Though it seems a bit conceited that he considers his method to be the perfect one, but that’s a standard fencing master conceit.  He cautions against thinking that you can be the better swordsman just by being faster or braver, but that true skill is needed.

true wardHe warns us that he wrote the manual in “leasurable fits as time would permit me” so it may be a little disorganized (ahh the lack of word processors in the early 17th century).  But that his friends pressured him to write it and he knows that people who know him will love the manual even if it were more disorganized.  He then says that there are some people who will find fault with small parts of the manual and will then dismiss the whole, but they would be wrong and that you need to take the manual as a whole rather than the sum of it’s parts.

reade it ouer before thou giue iudgement

Seems like he’s afraid that he’s going to get jumped on for minor errors in this book.  This is the first glimpse we’ve had past his bravado.  He seems a bit insecure about his writing.  That may be why he started off with the bible quotes.  Swetnam was probably a very well read man, and sees his lack of education as a fault, so he is trying to make up for that by aping other great writers of the time by referencing the bible and other works to give his own more credence.  But he’s afraid that people will criticize his book for the minor errors he made.

I speake this because I know there are some will speake they care not what, to disgrace they know not whom, without rendring any reason at all, but onely out of a dogged humor, or an idle braine

This seems to be an attempt to stop his centuries version of forum trolls from ragging on his baby.

He then apologizes for having a lot of fundamental work in his book and says that the reason for that is that it is not the healthy who need a doctor, so it is not the skillful who need a book on how to fight.Prince Henry

The next section of the introduction is his lament that Prince Henry died at 18 and never became king.  He feels that Henry would have been an excellent king (the man was quite popular in truth and probably would have avoided the civil war of twenty years later).  He comments on how Henry saw one of the early drafts of the manual and had encouraged Swetnam to finish it.  Swetnam seems quite heartbroken over the death of the prince.

Next follows instructions to the reader.  First it is easier to learn weapons if you’re in shape.  This is because it is hard to understand a concept that you can’t put into practice, and by exercising your body in many ways it will be easier to put the skills in the manual into practice.  Swetnam talks about how it may be a while until you are skillful, but that you should continue practicing until you are.  Also, he says that being in shape is good for all aspects of your life, not just swordsmanship.  It is important for all people to be skilled in weapons for you never know when you may be set upon, and are required to defend yourself.  Do not stop learning to fight just because you don’t think you can become a master of it on the first day.  you need to keep working on it.

It’s not enough to have some knowledge about weapons if you don’t know how to use them.  He feels that you should learn how to fight rather than just talking about it.  Swetnam feels that if you use his manual properly you can be functionally able to defend yourself within twenty days.

And now for the last page.  Swetnam comments that it is not enough to just read his manual.  You have to study it, you have to put it into practice, and you have to practice against a variety of opponents with a wide variety of skill levels and styles.  In this way you will become the best you can.

And he closes the introduction with the following paragraph/sentence:

Neither doe I write this booke altogether to profit those in learning that which they before wanted, but only to set them and other willing minds a work which by arte and learning can better swim through such a deepe riuer then I can, it should haue been better if my learning had been answerable to my wil, yet hoping that the wise, will rather winke at small faults, then rashly reproue that which may profit the simple, for all haue not skill and cunning alike, I am perswaded that some will the rather passe it ouer with patience, although it be but only for affection to the arte, and so hoping that this my worke may bee profitable to all, for so it can no way be hurtfull to none, but if you chance to meete with this booke after he hath serued out the apprentiship of seauen yeeres, if God grant me life so long you shall see him in double apparell, and then you shall haue iust cause to say that his master hath fulfilled his couenants, for I wish all men well, and euery one an increase of skill in all laudable and profitable arts or sciences, and so with this long entry into a little parlor, I leaue you to him whose seate is in heauen, and whose foot-stoole is the earth. And rest,
Thine in the Lord,
Ioseph Swetnam

A fitting end to his interminably long intro.  There you have it.

In his own words Swetnam’s manual is designed for those who have very little experience at fighting.  It’s aim is to give you the basics of how to fight.  You need to read the whole thing in order to understand it.  And he seems to recommend exercising or cross training so that you are in shape and able to fight to your best ability.

But Wait, There’s More!

Yep, the next section is a preface to the “Professors of the Noble Science of Defence”.  On the plus side it’s only eight pages long.  I’ll go over that in my next post.

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