Saturday, April 13, 2013

George Silver: Somewhat of an Explanation


The manuals written by George Silver are often pushed aside due to their apparent lack of content with regard to the use of the sword. However were a reader to examine the situation of Silver himself and the time in which he wrote his inflammatory manuals more understanding is possible. This article is an attempt to bring George Silver out into the limelight and bring some understanding as to the reasons for his treatises, and also to understand some of the uses of these manuals.

Back in the dim, dark days of my fencing history I took up Silver's "Paradoxes of Defence" and began to read. I was pointed toward this as a manual of the period. I read and found no use to me as a user of a rapier besides being told how useless it was and that I should use more native English weapons. Needless to say it put me off the treatise so I put it aside and went on to read something else.

A little later on I re-read "Paradoxes of Defence" from a clean slate and found it an interesting political statement. Further I read his "Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence" and found it to be a much more useful read with regard to the practical application of the sword against an opponnent, sure I found some political statements but the practical nature of the book was apparent. It is for this reason that I am writing this explanation, to bring Silver back into the light of practicality.

Before we can understand George Silver himself, it is important to put him into his context, as his surroundings affected his feelings and his writings. This means a brief look at some Elizabethan history. In the early Elizabethan period there was religious instability with arguments between Protestants and Catholics. This was affected by the outside influences of the Spanish and to some point the French. In the early part of her reign Elizabeth was not a secure bet for survival as Queen of England. The influences of the Spanish and Italians were felt everywhere from politics to fashion.

The Italian and Spanish fashions were very popular in England during the Elizabethan period. Indeed what we consider to be the classic Elizabethan fashion is actually partially Italian and partially Spanish. To be seen with some Italian influence was to be seen to be cosmopolitan. These Italian influences seemed to invade all parts of life. Traditionally it was seen that the English weapons were the sword and buckler, but as the influence of the Italians was felt more and more this combination was forsaken for the rapier and dagger. It was into this that George Silver grew up.

The best way to describe George Silver was as a xenophobic military man. To this particular point he had two strikes against the rapier before it was even used. Firstly it was foreign, and secondly it was of no use in a battlefield situation. Thus the native combination of the sword and buckler was more useful in war and thus more appreciated. Further the rapier was immediately lethal whereas the sword and buckler seemed to be less so. This was the foundation of his arguments, it could be seen that he felt himself as the defender of English weapons against the invasion of the foreign.

"Paradoxes of Defence" (1599) was written as a response to the rise of the rapier and the teachers and practitioners of it and the decline of the London Masters of Defence. In this he rails against the teachers of the rapier and their practices which he sees can only lead the practitioners to death. This treatise was more of a political paper rather than a practical manual on the use of weapons. In the treatise he compares "good English weapons" against those of the foreigners and states that the English weapons are of better use. What will be noticed in these comparisons is the presence of weapons which were not civilian but military, thus revealing his military mind and thus the rejection of the rapier as a militarily-useless weapon. This treatise is often seen as a simple rant, but read from his point of view it reveals interesting aspects of the English psyche.

"Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence" was undated when it was discovered and thus it can only be estimated to have been published a little after "Paradoxes" this placing it c.1600. This treatise is an effort to explain more of what Silver was indicating in his previous manual. What should also be noted is that it is also a response to Vincentio Saviolo's "His Practice in Two Bookes" as Saviolo is mentioned specifically. Needless to say these two contemporaries did not get on particularly well. "Brief Instructions" is more of a fencing manual and gives description and instruction upon the correct use of weapons. However, it should be noted that this does not mean that there is an absence of his political feelings, quite the opposite actually.

While there is a lot of political elements present in both of Silver's manuals, they should not simply be rejected due to this. Indeed the political elements are very useful to the historian especially, but for the fencing student, it explains much of the author's approach to the weapons he describes. If you have read Silver's treatises before and found them of no use, I encourage you to go back and have another look at what he has written as there is a lot of useful information present for both the historian and the historical fencer. If you take into account George Silver's history and his historical surroundings, his treatises make much more sense.