Monday, April 23, 2007

Advice from Joseph Swetnam

Joseph Swetnam gives a bit of advice you might not expect from one of the Renaissance fencing masters.
“... when two good men meet, the conquest will be hardly and dangerously ended on the one side, except Discretion be a mediator to take up the matter before it come to the worst, if by friends it be not ended before hand; but if thou canst, hurt thy enemy, yes, although it be but a little, or unarm him of his weapon, which thou mayst very easily do if thou do fight with good discretion. And either of these are accounted for a victory....”
I’m not sure if he is unique in this attitude, but I’m fairly sure that many fencing masters (among them Salvatore Fabris, I’m told) advise their students that a duel is a death match. Don’t play nice; don’t hold back; the surest way to survive is to kill your opponent.

Swetnam actually advises his students to avoid killing an opponent, if possible, because the consequences of killing a man are dire even if your action is legally defensible. This basic attitude lies behind much of his actual technique; his favorite targets are the opponent’s sword arm and shoulder.

Renaissance dueling customs actually allow this kind of attitude. Typically, a duel would not be fought to the death. The purpose of a duel was to demonstrate courage and conviction, to show that you meant what you said and weren't afraid to stand up for it, not necessarily to kill someone. A duel would usually end when one of the combatants could no longer continue; the duelists would bring seconds and physicians to the duel to make that determination.

Swetnam thinks that most duels were the result of ill-advised challenges made by drunken hot-heads, and he was probably right. Most offended parties probably thought the offender would retract his words or otherwise repent when challenged to a potentially deadly struggle, only to find that the offender was just as drunk, hot-headed, or foolish as the challenger.

That being the case, it was probably best for all concerned if a duel ended with the loser disarmed or just slightly injured. There would be no murder charges, and the family of the loser would have little reason to seek vengeance.

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