George Silver, master of defense

A good twelve years ago, maybe 15, I found this web site with the complete text of George Silver’s “Paradoxes of Defense,” a book largely devoted to explaining why people should not be hiring these upstart Italian fencing masters (and their newfangled rapiers) and instead rely on the more traditionally English weapons, as taught by English masters of defense, such as, oh I don’t know, maybe George Silver.  You might want to dismiss his arguments but from what I’ve read about him, Silver actually was a serious martial artist and fought duels with all manner of weapons and even challenged a rival Italian master to a duel with the full array of weapons (including battle axes, bills, two-handed swords, staves… everything).  The Italian master did not bother to show up, which Silver took as vindication but which can equally be seen as the dismissal of a crank.

An image from Geo. Silver’s Paradoxes of Defense, demonstrating the perfect length for a sword in relation to the wielder’s measurements. This illustration is often taken to be a portrait of Silver himself but there is nothing to support that assumption in his book.

Anyway the interesting thing is that Silver detailed what he thought of as the hierarchy or order of superiority among weapons, both for dueling purposes and at war:

First I will begin with the worst weapon, an imperfect and insufficient weapon, and not worth the speaking of, but now being highly esteemed, therefore not to be unremembered. That is, the single rapier, and rapier and poniard.

The single sword has the vantage against the single rapier.
The sword and dagger has the vantage against the rapier and poniard.
The sword & target has the advantage against the sword and dagger, or the rapier and poniard.
The sword and buckler has advantage against the sword and target, the sword and dagger, or rapier and poniard.
The two handed sword has the vantage against the sword and target, the sword and buckler, the sword and dagger, or rapier and poniard.
The battle axe, the halberd, the black-bill, or such like weapons of weight, appertaining unto guard or battle, are all one in fight, and have advantage against the two handed sword, the sword and buckler, the sword and target, the sword and dagger, or the rapier and poniard.
The short staff or half pike, forest bill, partisan, or glaive, or such like weapons of perfect length*, have the advantage against the battle axe, the halberd, the black bill, the two handed sword, the sword and target, and are too hard for two swords and daggers, or two rapier and poniards with gauntlets, and for the long staff and morris pike.**
The long staff, morris pike, or javelin, or such like weapons above the perfect length, have advantage against all manner of weapons, the short staff, the Welch hook, partisan, or glaive, or such like weapons of vantage excepted, yet are too weak for two swords and daggers or two sword and bucklers, or two rapiers and poniards with gauntlets, because they are too long to thrust, strike, and turn speedily. And by reason of the large distance, one of the sword and dagger-men will get behind him.
The Welch hook or forest bill, has advantage against all manner of weapons whatsoever.
Yet understand, that in battles, and where variety of weapons are, among multitudes of men and horses, the sword and target, the two handed sword, battle axe, the black bill, and halberd, are better weapons, and more dangerous in their offense and forces, than is the sword and buckler, short staff, long staff, or forest bill.
The sword and target leads upon shot, and in troops defends thrusts and blows given by battle axe, halberds, black bill, or two handed swords, far better than can the sword and buckler.
The morris pike defends the battle from both horse and man, much better than can the short staff, long staff, or forest bill.
Again the battle axe, the halberd, the black bill, the two handed sword, and sword & target, among armed men and troops, by reason of their weights, shortness, and great force, do much more offend the enemy, & are then much better weapons, than is the short staff, the long staff, or the forest bill.
Man, he really hates rapiers.  But interestingly he thinks a longish polearm is best for dueling or personal defense and that in full-on battle the best weapons are the sword & shield, the two-handed sword, and short polearms (if we assume, as I think we should, Silver’s “battle axe” is a sparth or pollaxe, and that the black bill is the short “military” bill).
Anyway this all sounds fairly reasonable to me, although I’d be curious to hear what the reenactors say, and moreso what the guys reinventing/recovering medieval European martial arts, like the ARMA, would say.
The closest I’ve come to any ‘weapons testing’ has been fighting a lot with padded weapons in high school and college. But we never developed shields that were practical and so my experience is entirely with one or two swords, maces, flails, and pole arms, and I’m sure our techniques were very stylized and crude, since we disallowed head shots, and were using freaking padded weapons.  We did try to make them realistic in terms of weight and length.  But we could ignore the fact that sword edges chip or blunt, or that metal may cut wood, and other physical properties of real weapons, so I am not confident it counts all that much.
*”perfect length” for a pole arm for Silver is about 8-9 feet — see below.  For taller people, longer; for shorter people,  shorter.  He actually has a lot to say about long weapons ought to be:
To know the perfect length of your sword, you shall stand with your sword and dagger drawn, as you see this picture, keeping out straight your dagger arm, drawing back your sword as far as conveniently you can, not opening the elbow joint of your sword arm, and look what you can draw within your dagger, that is the just length of your sword, to be made according to your own stature.

The perfect length of your two handed sword is, the blade to be the length of the blade of your single sword.

To know the perfect length of your short staff, or half pike, forest bill, partisan, or glaive, or such like weapons of vantage and perfect lengths, you shall stand upright, holding the staff upright close by your body, with your left hand, reaching with your right hand your staff as high as you can, and then allow to that length a space to set both your hands, when you come to fight, wherein you may conveniently strike, thrust, and ward, & that is the just length to be made according to your stature. And this note, that these lengths will commonly fall out to be eight or nine foot long, and will fit, although not just, the statures of all men without any hindrance at all unto them in their fight, because in any weapon wherein the hands may be removed, and at liberty, to make the weapon longer of shorter in fight at his pleasure, a foot of the staff being behind the backmost hand does no harm. And wherefore these weapons ought to be of the lengths aforesaid, and no shorter, these are the reasons: If they should be shorter, then the long staff, morris pike, and such like weapons over and above the perfect length, should have great advantage over them, because he may come boldly and safe without any guard or ward, to the place where he may thrust home, and at every thrust put him in danger of his life, then can the long staff, the morris pike, or any longer weapon lie nowhere within the compass of the true cross, to cross and uncross, whereby he may safely pass home to the place, where he may strike or thrust him that has the long weapon, in the head, face, or body at his pleasure.

Of the lengths of the battle axe, halberd, or black bill, or such like weapons of weight, appertaining unto guard or battle.  In any of these weapons there needs no just length, but commonly they are, or ought to be five or six foot long, & may not well be used much longer, because of their weights, and being weapons for the wars and battle, when men are joined close together, may thrust, & strike sound blows, with great force both strong and quick. And finally for the just lengths of all other shorter or longer weapons to be governed with both hands, there is none. Neither is their any certain lengths in any manner of weapons to be used with one hand, over or under the just length of the single sword. Thus ends the length of weapons.

**a “morris pike” would be a regular 14-18 foot pike, longer than the “perfect length”
I think a “black bill” and a “Welsh bill or forest bill” would be a bill-hooks of differing shaft lengths, but I have not seen any definitive explanations of these terms.  One explanation I’ve seen is that a “black bill” is a heavier military weapon while the “brown bill” or “forest bill” is a lighter civilian tool.  It seems pretty clear from Silver’s writing that black bills are shorter than brown bills though.
Published in: on June 20, 2011 at 9:08 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is interesting stuff. Thanks for posting!

  2. phenomenal. Who knows if he was right or not? Or if what he says reflects his own experience but not that of other places/masters?

    I’m thinking there should be a reference wiki, like “links to wisdom”, for historical source material like this. I’m imagining something like GURPS Low Tech but with links you can trace back to the original reference. Or is that too much like academic work?

  3. There is a reference wiki – Wiktenauer (a pun on an early fencing master Liechtenauer). In my opinion George Silver was spot on, though he’s overly negative towards rapiers. If anyone is interested in learning his system, I’ve written a book on it, English Swordsmanship.

    Stephen Hand
    Stoccata School of Defence

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