The Changing Face of Truth. Article. London 1998.

The Changing Face of Truth  by Terry Brown Author, English Martial Arts.

In 1599 George Silver wrote:

“Fencing (Right Honorable) in this new fangled age, is like  our fashions, everie daye a change, resembling the Camelion, who altereth  himselfe into all colours save white: so Fencing changeth into all wards save
the right… There is nothing permanent that is not true, what can be true that  is uncertain? How can that be certaine, that stands upon uncertain  grounds?”

In 1747 Capt. John Godfrey wrote:

“…Endeavoring to weed the ART of those superfluous,  unmeaning Practises which over-run it, and choke the true Principles, by reducing it to a narrow Compass,…The plainest Work may be laid down to be the
strongest, and though Fashions are titillating for a Time, even to Sense, yet  in the End Nature’s Taste will prove triumphant.”

The words of both these men accord nicely which should come as  no surprise since both men were master swordsmen. Therefore, when reading  their respective books we should expect more of the same with both men  advocating similar principles and methods. Indeed, this is often the case  BUT there are crucial differences. One of them being over the fundamentals of  Distance and Measure. For example, Godfrey tells us that:

Measure, in respect of the sword, is the mutual Distance  between your adversary and you…

In other words he treats them as being one and the same. Silver,  however, treats Measure and Distance as being two distinct qualities. Of  Distance (which he categorises as a component of The Four Grounds) Silver  says, rather succinctly:

through Distance you take your Tyme.

Measure, he includes in The Four Governors and says of  it:

Measure is the better to know how to make your space true  to defend yourself, or to offend your enemye.

It would, however, be unjust to think that Godfrey did not  understand the concept of Measure because he talks of the Body’s  Measure by which he means standing in line (sideways) with the sword  and contracting the body somewhat. This of course has the effect of aligning  the body with the sword and also of reducing the target area available to the opponent. In other words it creates the “line” that is so important  when fighting with the smallsword.

So even here, despite the apparent discrepancy between the words of  the two masters, we can still perceive some agreement between them. When  Godfrey talked of ‘Body Measure’ he was concurring with Silver’s  advice to ‘make your space true’. The question is now begged that  if they agreed so closely why did Silver separate Measure and Distance while  Godfrey, as far as the sword is concerned, didn’t? Why is it that two men who  were both so insistent on sticking to the true principles of the art of  fencing should appear to hold radically different views on the fundamentals  of Distance and Measure? The answer lies in the fact that they were talking  of different types of weapons. Godfrey’s theories related to the smallsword,
a thrusting weapon pure and simple. Silver’s principles, on the other hand,  were applicable to a wide variety of war weapons. In other words because the  weapons were different, their usage was different, because their usage was  different the principles applicable to them were perceived and applied
differently. We might, with some justification term this the changing face of truth.

With the smallsword to keep the point directed at the enemy was to  keep your Measure because the horizontal alignment of the blade was the root  of all recognised defensive movements for the smallsword. Although, as an  interesting aside, it should be pointed out that Godfrey did admit that the  hanging guard from backsword fighting could be utilised for the smallsword.  However, the crucial factor with the smallsword is that the point of the  weapon, in effect, acts as a fulcrum or pivot around which the wrist arcs to  provide the angular changes necessary to deflect incoming thrusts. Another  way of looking at this is to imagine the sword point as being the apex of an  acute triangle with changes of wrist position providing movement along the  baseline of the triangle. By moving the hilt across the base of the triangle
the defender is able to deflect incoming thrusts. Once the thrust has been  dealt with the defender is able, by virtue of his weapon’s alignment, to  quickly and accurately counter-thrust.

We can now understand why Godfrey regarded Distance and Measure  as being one and the same but why did he then take the trouble to discuss and  describe body measure? Again it comes down to the fact that he was treating  of a different weapon to those used by Silver. In this context we must again  refer the aforementioned triangle. Using Godfrey’s body position we can see  that the swordsman, in effect, stands behind the baseline of the triangle.  Therefore the small wrist actions so crucial in smallswording are sufficient  to defend the body against an opponent’s thrusts. However, were the defender  to stand fuller on to his opponent he would naturally enlarge the target area  and subsequently allow his opponent more attacking options. In other words he  would be out of Measure, his body would no longer be wholly behind the  protective baseline of the triangle. Consequently, He (the defender) would be  forced into using his elbow, and even his shoulder, to move his hilt across  the extra distance, becoming Wide-Spaced in the process. This would not only  result in a lost time but would also indirect his point meaning that the
necessary corrective action would represent a further lost time and therefore  render his counter-attack less likely to succeed.

It is clear that Silver, on the other hand, regarded Measure as  simultaneously encompassing both body and weapon. Why should this be so?  Well, while the smallsword only allows thrusting, that is to say,
essentially, linear/one dimensional attacks, the weapons of which Silver was  talking allowed multi-dimensional attacks. Blows, after all, can come in from  any angle. Given this fact, a small wrist movement would not move the blade  far enough, for example, to defend against the downright blow to the head, or
the descending diagonal cut to the neck so beloved of English swordsmen.  Larger movements become necessary when defending against multi-dimensional  attacks. In fact the deflective use of the blade in such circumstances  becomes rather risky. This explains why the English used the term ‘stop’ for  blocking. The attack was stopped in its tracks, not deflected, this is not to  say that defecting was not recognised or utilised, just that it was not the  primary method of defence. This is because of the fact, as stated that blows  can come in from such a large variety of angles. Seeking to deflect such attacks smallsword style is not only physically difficult but also very  dangerous in that you would be trying to deflect the blow with a very narrow  angled opposition. That is to say that your blade would be holding too  similar a line to the incoming blade to guarantee either Stopping or  deflecting it.

Stopping a cut safely requires that the defender crosses the  incoming blade at a greater angle, theoretically, the closer you can get to a  ninety degree angle between the two blades the better (this latter fact also  plays a crucial role in delivering powerful counter-cuts but that’s a subject  for another article in itself).

The above differences in defending against cuts and thrusts  engendered two entirely different fighting philosophies. The one for the  smallsword relied, in the main, on deflection prior to countering. Cut &
thrust sword fighting relied, in the main, on Stopping/Receiving before  countering. This brings us neatly back to triangles, if the smallsword user  stands behind the baseline of the triangle then the cutting sword man,  because he (normally) receives rather than deflects stands, in effect, inside  the triangle with its apex above his head, its sides forming his Inside and  Outside guards and the ground forming its baseline. This is an interesting  point because whereas the smallsword user finds it both difficult and  dangerous to alter the plane of his triangle to deal with cutting attacks the  sword user finds it very simple to alter the plane of his triangle by, in  effect, lowering the apex towards his opponent, either to defend against
thrusts or to deliver them. This, of course, he achieves by the simple  expedient of lowering his sword point towards the horizontal (or raising it  if he is in the Hanging Guard) Although, in practise there is little need to  risk the loss of time generated by lowering the point since the Outside, True  or Bastard Gardant are excellent defences against thrusts.

Coming back to Silver’s understanding of Measure we can now  begin to investigate what he meant when he said:

Measure is the better to know how to make your space true  to defend yourself, or to offend your enemye.

If the offensive measure of a smallsword is the distance that  the point has to travel to kill your opponent (with subsequent defensive  ramifications). Then the measure of the broadsword is the distance that the
edge has to travel, AND the angle it has to travel through to kill an  opponent. Now, given the greater number of angles from which the cutting  sword can attack we have a corresponding range of distances, and therefore  times, from the cutting edge to the opponent’s body (not forgetting of course  that it can also thrust). With the smallsword the only attack is the thrust,  therefore the time is represented by the distance the point travels to the  target. It is a one dimensional attack which carries with it a single time.
The cutting sword however, having the capability of multi-dimensional attack,  has a range of times (representing distances in different postures between  cutting edge and target). This is where Silver’s definition of Measure  applies, making your space true in Silver’s terms means adopting a body and
weapon position that caters for all of the possible angles, and therefore  distances and times of attack. At the same time, whilst understanding this in  a defensive sense, you must be positioned in such a way that you can take  advantage of that knowledge. For example, if your opponent was foolish enough  to face you in the St George stance you would know that his Space was too  Wide (providing your Distance was correct) to Stop a thrust to the body or a  cut to the leg, in other words you would have the Measure of your man. Yes,  an over-simple example but only by degree. Such a principle holds true  whenever you perceive a situation where your opponent’s Lying is false, or  where his attack has failed and left you an opening.

Many of the people who read this article will probably think to  themselves that what I have said is pretty obvious and I would agree with  them. However, I would humbly suggest that if the truth can be perceived
differently by two swordsmen as eminent and honourable as Silver and Godfrey  simply because they used different weapons might not the same be true now?  Might it not be the case that some people are trying to define ancient works  by their own theories or prejudices rather than by the theories of the  authors? Smallsword masters of the past who, all too often, had little  knowledge of the cutting sword tried to convince people that the principles  of the latter were dependent on those of the former. In other words to cover for their lack of knowledge (as well as increasing their income) they  re-invented broadsword fighting in the image of smallsword usage. As I wrote  in my book ‘this was a disastrous marriage of convenience since the  principles of the two weapons cannot happily share the same bed”.

Silver, sadly, falls victim to the above approach quite a lot in  that 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. In the first place, thrusts  were used in medieval sword fighting and were not an attempt by Silver to  compete with the rapier (although thrusts were less used because the  globular/fist grip allows less opportunity to do so). Secondly, if one  studies Silver’s sword techniques closely it immediately becomes apparent that attempting to use them while, for example, employing spadroon stances  and positions renders the vast majority of them contradictory to the  principles that he took so much time and care to propound. But that too would  require another article to explain.

Terry Brown, London ‘98

Terry Brown’s book, English Martial Arts is published by Anglo-Saxon Books Ltd