George Silver and English Martial Arts

This is the start of a new series of posts concerning “the truth” about sword-related (and other) Western Martial Arts. This has been prompted by two things. The first was this blog post which includes a video by Schola Gladiatora and highlights some wrong assumptions games make about fighting (I did reply but the comment seems to have been lost). This made me think of other fighting-related misconceptions, like weapon length, quarterstaves doing pitiful damage, psychology and decision making in combat. That kind of thing.

The second is that I’ve been collecting all martial-related posts into a single page and I’ve realised that while I’ve quoted George Silver (and Hope) I’ve not written a complete post about Silver. This will be the first thing I put right.

Gamers who read this may find this diversion away from “game” and towards “truth” unnecessary, and I partly agree. If you plan to play a game, what matters is consistency and the social contract to play the same way, and it doesn’t matter if you have a truthful understanding of initiative, or the quarterstaff. So, I’m not setting out to change the way people play, only to shine a light on those misconceptions and give the players an opportunity to make up their own mind.

As for any Martial Artists who read this and, perhaps, think Dungeons and Dragons is a less noble pursuit than sword practice and competition, I say this: Martial Arts is a game, too. It has rules and structures, win and lose conditions, truth and falsehood. And while we may nod to the lethal reality of fighting arts, we are no closer to that lethality in their modern practice than we are in playing a RPG (safe practices notwithstanding). Indeed, arrogance in our own abilities is the thing most likely to bring us harm in the real world.

Truth and Learning

Differences between two scholars concerning “the truth” may lead us to conclude that one or both is wrong; that understanding is forever incomplete, and therefore flawed; that no one individual can observe the whole elephant. In The Changing Face Of Truth Terry Brown writes about the differences in terminology between Silver and Godfrey. How can both be correct, both grasping the Truth of fighting, when they differ on basic concepts like Distance and Measure?

Terry Brown posits that Silver and Godfrey’s differing view of the fundamentals of the “True Fight” arise from mechanical differences in weapons, and the context of their use. But also True Fight is a tacit concept that both men are attempting to make explicit through a system.

In Accelerated expertise: training for high proficiency in a complex world by Hoffman et. al. the authors comment on expertise development as formation of a “rich mental map” of their intellectual domain. These mental maps are procedural as well as conceptual. Two experts in the same field will have different mental maps, and different ways they visualise the same truth. Of course where there are common points of reference in learning the maps may be more similar than different, but they are individual.

Therefore, even when two experts have the same foundations their mental maps may diverge, and therefore their means of expressing those maps. Have you ever been in “violent agreement” with another person? You’ve stated your case on a technical subject and will settle for nothing less than complete agreement from the other party — and they do agree, but they just don’t agree in a language that you like?

Naturally the way to disentangle these agreements is to listen, process and compare the truths therein, which is what Terry Brown does in his essay. It’s just not so easy when your blood is up.

It would be easy to treat the opinions of two masters at the height of their field relativistically, but this would be wrong. There is a truth of fighting, and there is a falsehood, and for as long as we can use physics as a foundation we can also call martial arts a science.

George Silver

George Silver’s Paradoxes and Bref Instructions (sic) can be found in various corners of the web, as well as discussions and analysis of the text. There’s a list of worthwhile links at the bottom of this article. While I think they’re great they are the product of martial arts scholars, and will dive into detail where most readers lack the context to understand the arguments.

My goal isn’t to re-hash a critique of Silver, but to provide an overview — and to point out why Silver is overlooked, and also why his (rather obtuse) texts are so useful, if not essential to comprehending martial arts.

Silver In Context, Ancient and Modern

George Silver’s own context when he wrote Paradoxes was an England where continental swordplay was being introduced as something fashionable and cool. Rapiers were elegant, slender weapons and rapier-men were deadly gymnastic dancers. The problem was the teachers, who took money from young scholars, taught them a few lessons and made them feel invincible with a rapier at their side; those youngsters would promptly go out, pick a fight, and die (sometimes with a double defeat where both sides would run the other through).

While Silver’s subsequent ranting and character-assassination of both continental sword and sword-master looks like English xenophobia, he does back up his arguments with science. He argues the rapier is a imperfect weapon built on incorrect principles. It’s too long. It’s no good for proper cutting. And so on. Silver’s maxim is “our ancestors were wise, yet our age accounts them foolish” meaning the new school of fence has wholly rejected methods of swordplay which have been tried and tested over centuries.

This is pretty much how Silver has positioned himself; on the cusp of the Medieval and the Renaissance, at least as far as fighting goes. And similarly many modern WMA practitioners don’t know where to place him. He’s either the last of the Medievalists, or the first of the Renaissance artists. Terry Brown’s conclusion at the end of his essay favours the former:

“some people are trying to interpret his principles and techniques in light of later methods of cut and thrust fighting. It is my contention that Silver meant no such thing and was, in the main, teaching medieval techniques which had been passed down through schools of defence which had existed in England since at least the late twelfth century”

We’d like to think there is a direct line from Silver to the our favourite later masters such as Sir William Hope; but while it’s true that Hope developed a hanging guard in his New, Short and Easy Method in 1707, his art (while wholly pragmatic) is influenced by the fencing fashion of the long 18th century where blades — court swords and spadroons — were feather-light skewers with pretty handles. Silver might say he was making the best of a bad lot.

Still, flawed or not, all of Silver’s principles as laid down in his Paradoxes and Bref Instructions are true for Hope, too. And they are true of all fighting arts; they are an acid test by which one can sort good technique from bad.

Silver’s Truths

While there are techniques in Bref Instructions, the great value of Silver is enumerating simple concepts such as True and False Times, Grounds and Governors, and Gaining the Place. More than providing martial principles and technique, Silver is offering the idea that fighting is a science and therefore repeatable results are obtainable by following simple and fundamental rules.

This is incredibly powerful. It places the tools in the hands of any scholar who wishes to scrutinise technique and tell good from bad. It does not excuse the need for training and securing expertise, of course (10,000 hours of practice!) but by providing a framework it most likely assists retention of skill (q.v. Hoffman).

These are the edited highlights. Have a read through and decide how many of these are obvious.

True and False Times
From Paradoxes, this is a hierarchy of “times” indicating the relative speed of actions. The fastest False Time will not be faster than the slowest True Time.

True Times

Time of the Hand
Time of the Hand and Body
Time of the Hand/Body/Foot
Time of the Hand/Body/Feet

False Times

Time of the Foot
Time of the Foot and Body
Time of the Foot/Body/Hand
Time of the Feet/Body/Hand

You can test why the time of the Hand is quicker by standing within arm’s reach of someone, and then trying to step back while they slap you in the face (not too hard…).

This all seems a bit abstract, but it has implications for all manner of swordplay, and shows why the Distance is key — chiefly that if you stand within a distance where the opponent can cut you by moving their hand alone, you’re unlikely to be able to step away in time.

The Grounds
These are Judgement, Distance, Time and Place, and they follow a hierarchy. Using good Judgement you keep your Distance, and therefore “take your Tyme… and gayne the Place of your adversarie” (Bref Instructions, Cap.I.). What this means is by maintaining the right distance you always have time to act appropriately in attack or defence (and indeed, your opponent does not).

The Governors
These are Judgement, Measure, and the twofold mind to both press in and fly out as the situation demands it — in other words, being reactive to both opportunities and to dangers. Judgement is “to know when your adversarie can reach you, & when not, & when you can do the lyke to him”. Measure here is the least obvious but really it’s just about “making your space true”, that is to carry your weapon in a way that you can both ward an attack and launch your own in the most efficient way.

The Four Actions
These are positions of readiness of a weapon: bent, spent, lying spent and drawing back, in that sequence. Understanding that when your opponent has attacked you they will be, briefly, lying spent; this is an advantage you can seize. Likewise when they are bent (i.e. ready to strike) you must be wary of walking into distance and giving them “the place”.

The above are almost everything you need to design viable techniques. If you only use True Times, if you exercise good Judgement to keep both Distance and Measure, if you exploit advantages as you see them whilst keeping yourself safe — you will be victorious, and your victory will be repeatable.

I told you it would be obvious. So, what’s the catch?


Silver is nothing if not pragmatic, and while he is an exponent of English over continental swords he deals in advantages, not absolute certainties. His contempt for the rapier places it beneath the sword, and thus the latter has the advantage over the former (and sword and dagger has advantage over rapier and poinard), but the sword is disadvantaged against staves (Silver states that a short staff may address two swords and retain advantage).

There are perfect and imperfect weapons (the rapier’s capacity to only thrust makes it imperfect) and moreover there are perfect lengths of weapons that are optimised for the height of the wielder. All of this perfection and advantage comes from being able to operate at a distance where you may offend your opponent with minimal risk; and the problem sword-fighters have against staff-fighters is that the latter has such an advantage of distance that the swordsman must take a step where the staff holder is not obliged to, and thus the one with a sword is using a slower True Time than the one with the staff.

(Yes, we like to think that the swordsman might step within the reach of the staff and grip it or put it aside, but the staff bearer can reposition their weapon using only a time of their hand and body. The advantage is preserved.)

The other truth, perhaps the one we are in denial about the most, is the advantage of stature. There’s an imagined discussion beginning on page 45 of Paradoxes between a master and scholar; and the scholar repeatedly asks what advantage he, a man of “mean stature” might have against a tall man. The answer is, none — because it’s no harder for the Tall man to obey the principles of the True Fight than it is for the shorter man, while retaining the advantage of a longer pace and reach. The best the smaller man can do is to take advantage of his ability to slip away faster than his pursuer can offend him, and otherwise do his best to keep his fight true — for “if he should fail in the least iota of his Art, he should be in great danger of death or hurt”. Silver is not the only master to tackle the question of natural advantage, although other masters phrase it as the dichotomy of Art (i.e. skill) against Strength, which is not quite the same thing.

(This is a popular subject in early 19c boxing manuals, e.g. Fewtrell)

We like to romantically think that the weak can be trained out of weakness, and to some extent this is true — but nevertheless, someone bigger and stronger will always have an advantage.

Further Reading

This is the end of my essay, for now. I haven’t touched on either the Wards of Open, Closed, Guardant and Variable Fight, nor the techniques — but these are best illustrated through an instructor. Furthermore they get into the territory of every other martial manual, which is to be focused on technique. Techniques are important as a learning aid, but Silver’s axioms are unique.

Wikipedia Page
Jonathan Miller’s modern transcription of the Brief Instructions


George Silver making sure he’s getting the full length.