Sunday, March 13, 2016

Virtues Gained From Swordsmanship


Based on some of what I said in a previous post on the ethics of swordsmanship, I had a request from one of my readers to write something about what virtues are gained from studying and performing swordsmanship. For your interest, the original post called "A Question of Ethics" can be found here: So, what I am going to do is have a little chat about these virtues gained from swordsmanship. To begin with I will have a look at some primary sources. Then I will have a look at some of the things from my own point of view, some of which will refer back to the post indicated above.

Primary Sources

Call me biased, I am only going to be using manuals and masters which are written in English because I only speak/read English. This makes for much easier translation on my part. First we start with one of my own favourites, di Grassi.

"For this cause I beseech the gentle Reader to show himself such a one in the reading of this my present work, assuring himself by so reading it, to reap profit and honour thereby. And not doubting but that he (who is sufficiently furnished with this knowledge, and has his body proportionally exercised thereunto) shall far surmount any other although he be imbued with equal force and swiftness."
Giacomo di Grassi 1594 His True Arte of Defence

In essence, first thing that Giacomo di Grassi focuses on is profit and honour from following what is written in his book. This is the result of training. Further that the reader will be able to defeat any other opponent who is of equal physical ability. So, in essence, di Grassi claims that his method will give you honour through defeating your opponents if you study hard and this will result in profit of some kind. This is not particularly specific.

"I speak not against Masters of Defence indeed, they are to be honored, nor against the Science, it is noble, and in my opinion to be preferred next to Divinity, for as Divinity preserves the soul from Hell and the Devil, so does this Noble Science defend the body from wounds and slaughter. And moreover, the exercising of weapons puts away aches, griefs, and diseases, it increases strength, and sharpens the wits. It gives a perfect judgement, it expels melancholy, choleric and evil conceits, it keeps a man in breath, perfect health, and long life. It is unto him that has the perfection thereof, a most friendly and comfortable companion when he is alone, having but only his weapon about him. It puts him out of fear, & in the wars and places of most danger, it makes him bold, hardy and valiant.
George Silver 1599 Paradoxes of Defence

George Silver, as I have noted previously, is a character and a half, and his claims about his method are just as characteristic. He claims that the swordsmanship will "defend the body from wounds and slaughter", as one would expect, but then he goes on to list a long list of health benefits of swordsmanship. These health benefits which he lists are not just physical, as one might expect, but they are also mental. The significance of the idea of the benefit to both mind and body is often passed over by many.

“This irresistible power of practice does not only master and overcome the unflexibleness of our bodily members, but also affects and prevails very much, even over our more dull and ignorant judgements.”

Sir William Hope 1707 A New Short, and Easy Method of Fencing: Or the Art of the Broad and Small sword Rectified and Compendiz’d

Sir William Hope, much like Silver also highlights the benefits of swordsmanship to the swordsman as being to both the mind and the body. This idea of swordsmanship being as much a mental pursuit as a physical one is something which must be realised for the greatest benefits of it to be attained.

“[Fencing] which justly forms part of the education of persons of rank; giving them additional strength of body, proper confidence, grace, activity and address; enabling them, likewise, to pursue other exercises with greater facility.”
Domenico Angelo 1787 The School of Fencing With a General Explanation of the Principle Attitudes and Positions Peculiar to the Art

Domenico Angelo, is focusing on an address to a particular clientèle, thus insisting that it is an important part of their education. Further to this he also explains further health benefits much like the previous examples which have been presented. Angelo expands his list to include benefits to the social sphere and interactions with others.

My Stuff


The first thing that will be easily noted is that fencing does supply health benefits. It does improve cardio-vascular fitness, it does increase musculature (even if it does this in some interesting spots), in general it will improve your general health overall. From my own point of view, if I had not taken up and continued fencing my own personal health issues most likely would have rendered me to a wheelchair for a period of time. But this is not really what this is all about...

The virtues which really need to be talked about are those which cannot be seen directly but their effects can be felt in other ways. They can be felt personally by the fencer and felt by others by the actions of the fencer, these are the more important virtues which we should really concern ourselves with. While the physical attributes allow us to perform and live longer lives and thus enable us to learn more it is the other virtues beyond the mere physical which are more important.

Fencing and learning has been related to the treating of depression and other mental illnesses, and indeed physical illnesses. Increased levels of adrenaline and endorphins from the victories, be they large or small can be related to an increase in positivity in the student. This can be only beneficial to a student's well-being. Such heightened positivity also increases the yearning in the student for more knowledge, which can only be a good thing. Fencing, done properly, is a thinking man's game.

Broadening Thought Processes

Fencing broadens the thought processes. What? Fencing allows you to think about things from different perspectives rather than thinking about things only from a single perspective. The primary source for this in fencing is in tactical thinking. Each opponent is a tactical puzzle and you must solve that puzzle. One way to do this is to figure out what they are going to do against you. This same process can be applied outside of fencing to allow you a different point of view on all sorts of things, and not just arguments.

Similarly the idea of awareness comes from a similar source. While fencing, you do not have time to check around you, but you become familiar with things around you, including your opponent's position. This can also be useful in other situations. This awareness can be applied to situations outside of fencing also, and not just finding your keys in the dark.

Not only can fencing teach you about these things but it can also teach you about problem-solving. The obvious one is in dealing with an opponent, as above. This is a purely tactical idea, which can be applied to all sorts of other situations, but it can also apply to ourselves and our own problems. We can look at different ways to get around problems that we all have as opponents, and thus look at ways to defeat them.

Increased Capacity for Thought

Next we move on to the idea of the increased capacity for thought. Once again, I am going to expect people to look at their screens incredulously. A fencer who looks at fencing as more than just a game of physical actions performed can really miss out. The other fencer who is willing to read and learn more can open a door to a much wider world where there are more possibilities than they ever realised, this fencer has a true relationship with the swordsmen of the past.

Most of the time when fencing manuals are read the first parts are skipped over for the "good" parts, the parts where the action starts. The problem is that in these earlier parts of the manuals you will find the author's thought processes, what he was actually thinking as he was assembling the manual. This can lead you into the reasons why he produced the manual and thus the reasons why or why not certain techniques may or may not be present. Our two English Gentlemen George Silver and Joeseph Swetnam are perfect examples of this.

As martial artists carrying weapons the concept of ethics must come up somewhere along the line, and thus must come up in the thought process. For many, as soon as they have done the safety brief they think they are done, but it should stretch further than there. We are carrying weapons, we are delivering blows and thrusts which have the potential to do serious damage and even kill. The concept of ethics is vital. In carrying any sort of weapon, you have a responsibility to others, and you also have a responsibility to yourself. This actually goes for all martial artists and all weapons. Any time either is seen in the media in a negative way, it is a black mark against us all.

Cultivation of Virtue

Most of all the virtues which have been discussed must be cultivated. They cannot just grow on their own. We must teach patience, we must teach honour. These virtues are gained through teaching and combat. Sure some of the thought processes can be learnt through the student engaging in reading but we must all teach them also. "But I am not a teacher/trainer/master." Doesn't matter. How you act, what you do, what you say, will inform newer students and people around them how they should act, and there is always someone newer than you.

The Renaissance period, through which we find many of our sources for rapier and longsword combat, was the time of Humanism and Humanistic thought. This is of great benefit to us. It is because these thoughts are imprinted in the pages of the manuals. You will find these thoughts in the so-called "boring" bits at the beginning of the manuals. Humanistic thought believes in the capacity for the individual to grow and become something better, and it is something which we need to embrace, regardless of in which particular period our particular weapon preference is found.

The virtues of honour and the Gentleman or Gentle-woman (Yes, an anachronism), need to be emphasised. We need to find the highest standards found here and push these to the limit and beyond. We need to push these ideas and make them our own and present ourselves as we would wish ourselves always to be seen. I believe that once we have done this then we will truly be on the way to performing our Arts as the Masters we so dearly cling to would have, and then we will truly find that the virtues gained from swordsmanship are vast, and beyond anything we thought possible.