Something Old & Something Different

English Martial Arts of the early Eighteenth Century

On Sunday the 24th of July myself and my senior student Alban set off to Witney in Oxfordshire for an introductory workshop into Western martial arts of the early Eighteenth Century. This workshop was hosted by the Linacre School of Defence and focused on 3 different weapon styles commonly practiced in England some 300 years ago. The first of these was what was referred to as the Small Sword this is basically a skewer like thrusting weapon with influence coming from the earlier Italian Rapier (circa 1700’s) though somewhat shorter by design. This was the common tool of choice employed in duels that most commonly occurred as a means to settle disputes among aristocracy in true judicial form.  Of course such events came complete with stringent rules, along with seconds on hand to see to their conformity. Regardless of this the skewer-like thrusts to the gut, which was the ultimate objective of both combatants, certainly offered the potential for life threatening injury. The sword itself was quite light giving it excellent mobility via the shortest route to the target.

An early manual depicting the Sir William Hope’s method of fencing with the small sword…

Being of skewer-like design much like the Rapier before it, its functionality lies in the point, with thrusts to the gut being the preferred attack. Attacks to the limbs, hands and thighs were also employed though were somewhat less sought after, as were attacks to the neck and face which would occur less frequently as they were considered un-gentlemanly conduct within the confines of judicial combat. However, for matters of Personal Defence from the exploits of the thugs and vagabonds of the day, I’m sure that all such targets were considered valid for Combative functionality, though it’s more likely that some other tool of choice such as the Backsword which was basically a Broadsword with a tapered point and a single cutting edge, would better suit that need.  Or as one fencing master once said

‘’the Smallsword is the call of honour, the Backsword is the call of duty!’’ That is to say that the former is for duelling, the latter for Military conflict.

Depiction of the Backsword a Military sword of the day…

The particular fencing style favoured by the Linacre School of Defence was developed during the Eighteenth Century by a certain Scotsman by the name of Sir William Hope (1664-circa 1730) whose method was based on the study of scientific principles carefully thought out and tested against a variety of fencing methods practiced around this time.  From a practical point of study after donning the extremely dashing fencing gear, we went onto to practice a variety of stance and footwork drills followed by some basic thrusts, parries and ripostes common to the Sir William Hope method.

 

 

The safety kit employed by the Linacre School Fencing jacket, mask and training version of the small sword…

   

A couple of French female fencers showing delightful form…

 

 

   

Hanging guard to thrust from the complete fencing master, the 1692 treatise of Sir William Hope…

 

Alban receiving a fencing lesson…

 

Two of the Linacre School’s instructor’s on hand to give quality instruction…

 

 

A variety of the day’s depictions…

 

Close Quarter disarms from a grappling perspective…

 

The second style demonstrated, focused on the art of Pugilism or to be more exact English bare-fist fighting. According to Terry Brown author of English Martial Arts 1977/Anglo-saxon books its Historical roots can be traced as far back as Alfred the great (871-899) Pugilism is considered the forefather of modern day Western boxing and this noble art was considered a very efficient method of Personal Defence during its time of practiced popularity. As its name implies, pugilism employs the use of the bare-fists for punching. Punches were landed with the bottom three knuckles of the closed fist held in a vertical formation via a linear plane. Such punches were thrown to the jaw, face and head with power manifesting from the pugilist’s dropping of his/her bodyweight into the punch, via the falling step made famous centuries later by the great Jack Dempsey and still employed today by practitioners of modern Combatives.  In addition to these straight punches, pugilism also employed the use of cork-screw hooks, hammer-fist strikes, low-line kicks, cross buttock throws along with a variety of close quarter grappling skills.

 

Pugilism’s lead linear punch powered by the falling step…

 

Our practice began with stance and footwork drills, progressing into the practice of the said punches, strikes and methods of counter-grappling.   Some commonality could be seen to some of the skills shown within the earlier module of fencing with the Smallsword. To me the positions felt rather un-natural and stiff with extended arms and a somewhat upright posture, which was typical of the early bare-knuckle fighters during bouts of this era.   Again this was shown from a judicial perspective, or for a pre-arranged bout held on a Counties boundary line for a purse of money, where two combatants would step to the scratch closely watched as their seconds governed the do’s and don’ts of the contest. Regardless of that, the men that partook in such endeavour were warrior worthy indeed, particularly the likes of James Figg, Jack Broughton and Daniel Mendoza to name just few greats of the time. The latter was responsible for providing some of the earliest scientific principles relating to the noble art and his method is of particular influence to the Linacre School today.   Mendoza’s methods helped transform pugilism from a fairground milling event into the precursor to modern boxing minus all the effective nasty bits. Those who partook with a serious mind were certainly made of toughened resolve.

 

Punches on the pads, corkscrew hooks and simultaneous punch and parries were the order of the day…

 

 

 

 

Nothing like the rigid rod of reality, via a solid shot to the noggin to enhance your practice time…

 

 

 

 

The final module of the three looked at the use of the Backsword, also referred to as the Broadsword this was the Military sword of the day. It was somewhat heavier to wield offering the capability of horrendous injury via point thrusts and sharp edged slashing attacks. The Backsword was very popular in Europe for a significant part of History and for even longer in England. The English employed its use as a favoured weapon of choice long after the rest of Renaissance Europe had replaced it with the Italian Rapier and its various derivatives. The English warrior was through real experience, of the opinion that the Rapier was really only of any use against another Rapier preferring the multitude of slashing and thrusting attacks that the Backsword offered, in addition to strikes with the pommel as well as close quarter strikes, kicks and grappling skills.

 

It is at this point, during this most interesting workshop that we had to take our leave, needless to say that the instructional segments of all 3 disciplines along with all of the historical information put forth by the instructor’s, were truly top notch both interesting and well presented.   From a personal point of view I just love the history and culture of the Western Martial disciplines particularly historical fencing, be it from this period (18th Century) the Italian Rapier of the (17th Century) or 300 years before from the days of Fiore Dei Liberi and Hans Talhoffer. The Fencing of these times referred to more of an All-in method of functional Combatives for the period, including wrestling complete with strikes, kicks eye gouges and ballistic manipulation of the joints, in addition to swordplay, dagger, stick and a vast array of other weapons.   Such commonality was seen all over Europe and such methods hold a huge interest for me from both a Historical and cultural perspective.        

 

All that remains is for me to thank the Linacre school of Defence for their hospitality and for allowing two, no rules, strike bite, gouge and spit Combative practitioners to come and try something old and something different from a gentlemen’s perspective it was great fun.  If anyone is interested in checking out any of this historical stuff be sure to start with the following links.

Peace…L.M

 

www.sirwilliamhope.org

www.bfhs.org

   www.fioredeiliberi.org