The fencing salle, or school or club, if you will, is a hall of mirrors to the soul, and if not to the soul, then at least to fundamental character. It is a magical place whose special sights and insights are enriched by a special language accented with the unmistakable sounds of blade on blade.
Perhaps Rafael Sabatini put it best in Scaramouche (1921):
“From a room beyond, the door of which was closed, came the stamping of feet, the click and slither of steel upon steel, and dominating these sounds a vibrant, sonorous voice speaking a language that was certainly French; but such French as is never heard outside a fencing-school. ‘Coulez! Mais, coulez donc!…So! Now the flanconnade—en carte…And here is the riposte…Let us begin again. Come! The ward of tierce…Make the coupé, and then the quinte par dessus les armes…O, mais allongez! Allongez! Allez au fond!’ the voice cried in expostulation. ‘Come, that was better.” The blades ceased.”
And with the fencing salle come a few rules for honorable deportment, as suitable today as they were in the past. And, as the lessons of fencing are apt for the world beyond, so too are the core of its courtesies and other appropriate behaviors.
Many have been recently eroded, at least to a greater degree than in the past, among modern or “Olympic” fencers, largely due to the Federation Internationale d’Escrime’s rather abject submission to the International Olympic Committee’s desire to have Olympic sports present [melo]dramatic “spectacles” designed solely to increase viewership and therefore income from advertising. National fencing bodies typically willing to go along with almost anything as long as it means that fencing will remain an Olympic sport, no matter in what form, play a significant role as well.
Even so, all styles of swordplay are seeing rules of fencing etiquette debased by the competing egos of many fencing masters, teachers, coaches, and fencers themselves, in addition to the general degeneration of civility, including the practices of honor and humility, these days.
N.B. I am by definition a “modern” fencer, although I also practice classical and historical fencing. Any criticisms therefore are not those of an outsider attempting to disparage modern fencing or other forms of swordplay.
Here therefore are a few rules and guidelines of recommended behavior in the salle, from recent years to past centuries, with some of my own thrown in near the end of the post. I am intentionally avoiding excessively in-depth commentary on the behavior of many fencers today, for it would probably quickly turn into a near-rant. Thankfully, the majority of fencers today, in all forms of legitimate swordplay, still behave with excellent deportment on the strip–but it doesn’t take too many bad apples to spoil the reputation of a sport or other organized skill.
I’ll make two important points up front. First, the best way to teach good behavior in the fencing salle, and everywhere, is by example. Younger fencers are far more likely to behave with courtesy and dignity if they have the good examples and associated expectations of their fencing teachers, veteran fencers, and experienced peers. It starts at the top. Unfortunately, some of the most egregious violations are often found here.
Second, I don’t want this to turn into an “Olympic” or sport fencers versus classical and historical fencers. I’m ecumenical when it comes to fencing. I’ve practiced many forms of swordplay over the past forty or so years, and I’ve seen plenty of poor behavior in the form of various violations of the following rules and guidelines among members of all three groups, and among others as well. But to repeat, most fencers, no matter their preferred form of swordplay, still manage to behave well on the strip.
Muriel Witte in American Fencing magazine, 1966
Regarding number 6, some fencers past fencers would ask for or accept odds, and some today do so as well, either by having the weaker fencer’s touches count for more, or by setting a goal the weaker fencer much reach in a five, ten, or fifteen touch bout. For example, the weaker fencer wins if he gets to five touches before the stronger gets to ten. This was never a practice in the salles where I learned to fence, and I have never engaged in it. The odds are rarely well-balanced, usually favoring one or the other of the fencers.
A better practice is to avoid setting odds or a handicap, and instead set a goal of touches against your opponent, averaging them over time and working to score above this level if you’re the weaker fencer, or to improve the distance if you’re the stronger (and if you’re significantly stronger, just fence and don’t worry about the distance between scores). Too often the more experienced fencer suggests odds that will push him or her, but such odds often don’t push the weaker fencer enough. For example, a balance of 15 to 5 strong to weak may be good for the stronger fencer, but a better balance might be 15 to 8 in order to push the weaker fencer more. Further, the setting of odds by the stronger fencer can often come across as patronizing, even arrogant, at times.
Number 7 dates to the days of gyms which made much use of natural light through high windows, and which some poor sports among fencers would take the side of the strip with better light (although in bouts for touches with dry weapons, fencers swapped sides after one fencer scored three touches or half the time expired). In fact, an old dueling tactic was to place your adversary on disadvantageous ground, for example with the sun or wind in his (or at times her) face. Dueling practice in the late 19th and 20th centuries tried to minimize any advantage one adversary might have over the other by way of terrain or weather.
Outdoor fencing is not done often enough these days, although some of us still enjoy it. Unfortunately, it’s no longer permitted as a format for earning ratings in epee by the USFA. And with the addition of relatively new ratings (D’s and E’s) plus a direct elimination format that vastly increases the likelihood of earning a rating as compared to the old pool system (which unfortunately produced a large percentage of under-rated fencers), we find a flood of rated fencers these days. As such, modern fencing has unfortunately become for many fencers “all about the rating,” with the result that there are far fewer “fun” tournaments than in the past. Nonetheless, there’s no reason not to hold outdoor epee tournaments on occasion, ideally set in picturesque or historic venues. I have fond memories of an outdoor epee event held on the grounds of a Florida beach hotel, for example.
“Decalogo Dello Schermidore” by Aldo Cerchiari and Edoardo Mangiarotti
From their book La Vera Scherma (Milan: Longanesi & Co, 1966). The commandments are also posted on the website of the famous Milanese Mangiarotti Fencing School. Edoardo Mangiarotti was easily one of the few truly great epeeists of the past century. All fencers should strictly abide by these precepts of fencing honor and fair play:
1. Remember that you are the representative of the noblest of all sports. It unites fencers from around the world in the same ideal.
2. Practice your sport unselfishly and with absolute loyalty.
3. Be a gentleman or lady on the strip and off, from sport to social events.
4. Do not discuss fencing if you have not learned fencing and its rules.
5. Learn how to lose with dignity and win with honor.
6. Respect your opponent at all times, whoever he or she is, but try to overcome him or her in combat with all of your energy.
7. Remember that until the last thrust your opponent has not yet won.
8. Serenely accept a defeat rather than take advantage of a victory obtained by deception.
9. Do not step onto the fencing strip with defective weapons or with the white uniform in disarray.
10. Honor, respect and defend your name, the prestige of your master, the colors of your club, the flag of your country.
“No boast, threat, trick, or stratagem, which may wound the feelings, or lessen the equality of the combatants, should ever enter into the contemplation of a gentleman.”
—Joseph Hamilton, The Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829
“Never lose on purpose, you must always fence to win for your honor!”
—Lajos Csiszar, quoted by student Roger Jones, former member of the US 1955 and 1957 epee teams, alternate to the 1956 US Olympic epee team, in an article dating to 2000, and in later conversation with me. The quote itself dates to the 1950s, and probably earlier. Csiszar was one of Italo Santelli’s three protégés (assistant fencing masters).
Roger himself best describes how Csiszar came to tell him this:
“The first time I fenced in Europe, I learned that cheating was part of the sport, unlike in the U.S. It was common for countrymen to throw bouts to the favorite during the early rounds, in order to improve his seeding for subsequent rounds. Csiszar hated this, as did I. He told me, “Never lose on purpose, you must always fence to win for your honor!” In the 1957 World Championships, an Austrian approached me just before our bout, which was the last one in the round. He pointed out that I would be eliminated even if I won, but that if he won, he would go on into the next round. He asked me to lose, saying “You speak German, therefore, we must stick together.” I refused, and then defeated him 5-2. Afterwards, I told Maestro about the incident, and he hugged me, saying “I knew you would always fight for your honor.” He made me feel so proud.”
—Roger Jones, “Fencing Generations,” manuscript, November 2000. Roger was an outstanding swordsman, business executive, writer, former naval officer, and gentleman who deplored the notion of gamesmanship and cheating in fencing. He passed away a few years ago.
“Your complete swordsman must be one who can place his hits with a gallant good grace, but one also who will not allow a clumsy opponent to prevail himself on any hap-hazard thrust.”
—Egerton Castle, “Swordsmanship Considered Historically and as a Sport,” 1903
“Gallant good grace” is too often forgotten today.
“Don’t flatter yourself in your Lessons, and still less in Assaults.”
“Be not angry at receiving a Thrust, but take care to avoid it.”
“Be not vain at the Thrusts you give, nor shew Contempt when you receive them.”
—Jean de Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes, 1692, as translate by Andrew Mahon, 1730
Labat has lots of good advice still relevant today.
“‘I have never,’ says M. [Ernest] Legouvé, ‘met a single fencer who would not–say once a year–deny that he had been touched when the hit was palpable. It is so easy to say ‘I did not feel it,’ and a hit not recognised does not count.'”
—H. Sutherland Edwards, “Fencing Schools,” Old & New Paris, vol. 2, 1894.
To summarize the quote above: You should always declare all touches against you when are fencing ‘dry’ in the salle!
That said, some masters will suggest that in the case of a competitive bout you leave it to the director and jury. I in turn leave this to your discretion and sense of honor. Personally, I would declare an obviously good touch unremarked by the judges.
Of course, not all touches are always obvious to giver or receiver, and allowance must be made for the possibility that the adversary did not feel a particular touch. In epee it is common for many of us to let our practice partner know that he or she hit, but that the touch was either late or flat.
There remains a vestige of the practice of declaring touches, or not declaring them, today in modern electrical epee fencing. In competitions on non-electric strips, I believe a fencer should declare a solid obvious touch on his foot in the case where the referee or floor judges have no opinion or state that no such touch was made. If, however, the fencer is unsure whether the touch was valid—when it might be just a scrape along the floor, a light touch, and so on—he or she should not declare it and leave the determination to the referee (who may overrule the floor judges). Even so, many coaches direct their fencers to never admit to a foot touch, or to any possible error that may favor the adversary, often justifying this on the premise that “It all evens out in the end.” I will always inform my adversary if, for example, I think his or her weapon is not working, and so forth. No victory in art or sport is worth anything if it is obtained through active or passive chicanery.
It is also a too-common practice, this not declaring of touches on occasion, among some classical and historical fencers today, and would be among modern fencers as well were it not for the electrical scoring apparatus. Certainly it was in the past when both saber practice and competitions were dry, and foil practice was typically conducted dry in order to suppress the “pig sticking” tendency induced by the electrical scoring apparatus. Over the past forty-one years I’ve met a number of fencers who were notorious for not declaring valid hits, over and above the possibility that they simply didn’t feel them. Of course, in saber there was a remedy: slowly escalate your hits, making them harder and harder until your adversary has choice but to declare them, if only by rubbing his arm… This was, and is, also the solution to saber fencers who consistently hit too hard.
And More Variety
“It is a polite custom to salute your opponent with your blade before the bout, and to offer him your hand at the end.”
“Once the fencer has taken the guard position, he must be considerate of his opponent. Neither fencer must talk during the bout. Fencing requires the greatest possible attention, and this may not be diverted in any way or for any reason except by fencing tactics.”
“In fencing against an opponent who acknowledges your superiority, sportsmanship demands that you do not make the most of your advantages; rather should you assist his swordplay as much as possible, and avoid placing him in a painful or ridiculous position by over-emphasizing your superiority.”
—Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Foil, 1932
Regarding Barbasetti’s third statement, it’s unfortunately far less common today to see fencers practicing this: many are unwilling, often solely for the sake of ego, to forgo even a few touches in the name of good sportsmanship. Another practice less often seen today is that of subtly “throwing” your opponent a touch to make up for a touch awarded against him or her due to a bad call by the director (known today as the “referee” in a bid to make fencing more “audience friendly”—I kid you not). Technically an illegal practice, its honorable intentions more than compensate for the breaking of the rule that the fencer must always fence to win.
Barbasetti’s first statement is now written into the rules due to the unsportsmanlike behavior in the past of a few fencers. See also Félix Gravé below.
“No Scholar nor Spectator without a licence from the Master, should offer to direct or give advice to any of the Scholars, who are either taking a Lesson or Assaulting… First, because without permission they take upon them to play the Master; And secondly, because they reprove oft-times their Commerads for the same very fault they themselves are most guilty of, although perhaps not sensible of, which when By-standers perceive, they smile at them (and with just reason) as being both ignorant and impertinent; therefore it would be a great deal more commendable in them, to be more careful in rectifying their own faults, and less strict in censuring others.”
—Sir William Hope, The Fencing Master’s Advice to His Scholar, 1692
More proof that not much has changed over the centuries.
“Though there are People of bad Taste in every Art or Science, there are more in that of Fencing than in others…”
—Jean de Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes, 1692, as translated by Andrew Mahon, 1730.
This is a sentiment I’ve heard more than once from much-experienced fencers over the last four or so decades, often expressed more narrowly: “There are more charlatans among fencing teachers than among any other sort of teachers.” Again, it’s more proof that not much has changed. The answer is simple: be of good taste, of good behavior, and of good knowledge, and let your behavior in the salle demonstrate this, whether you’re teaching or fencing. Or whatever, whenever.
“Don’t show any sign of bad temper if you are the loser.”
“Don’t get conceited, or be haughty, if you are the winner.”
“Don’t forget always to be modest and courteous.”
“If your adversary should prove far superior to you, do not show discontent or bad temper; do not be disheartened, keep up your style and do your best, no matter how badly you may be beaten. Take your defeat in the right spirit, it will help to improve you; take it as a lesson you needed. Remain always the “correct gentleman.”
“The use of the unarmed hand to parry an attack would be an incorrect movement; the use of the unarmed hand to make signs or attract the adversary’s attention would also be incorrect, whilst talking or conversing during the fight would be unruly.”
“[R]efuting a decision or arguing about the verdict of the judges would be considered bad form and ill-mannered.”
“Not shaking hands with an adversary after a match or a rencontre is a great lack of courtesy, and should be reprimanded. Saluting an adversary previously to the beginning of a bout should be done before placing the mask on the head.”
—Félix Gravé, Fencing Comprehensive, 1934
You may, of course, politely challenge the referee on the misapplication of a rule or the failure to apply a rule. Both occur far more often than they should, by the way, perhaps due in part to the modern “guild of referees” that values simple examination (and testing fees!) over experience in the practice and spirit of swordplay (and hasn’t improved refereeing at all). So know the rules, follow them, and be prepared to see them properly applied.
Even so, the best solution to bad refereeing/directing/judging is often the classic one: become good enough that the referee’s incompetence, bias, or, rarely, cheating, is irrelevant. In foil the old electrical scoring solution, and still a valid one today in foil and now saber too, was to make single-light touches, stripping the referee of the act of determining right-of-way.
As for shaking hands and saluting, the requirement has been written into the FIE and USFA rules due to repeated violations by a small number of fencers.
A Few of My Own
These aren’t quite as eloquent or pithy as those above, but to quote Horace from his Ars Poetica in my defense, when I’m brief I’m often misunderstood.
1. My more modern take on Sir William Hope above: Do not give unsolicited fencing advice unless you’re an instructor giving it to one of your students, in which case it is by definition solicited. The principal exception is that of an experienced fencer politely suggesting a correction to an egregious error committed by a beginner. The fact that fencers often appear to accept such advice can be deceiving: it may simply be politeness or mere uncertainly as to whether the novice should tell the advanced fencer to please just be quiet and fence.
2. Given that many beginners are avidly seeking fencing knowledge, and can thus be easily misled, it is incumbent upon fencers giving advice to ensure that such advice is not only solicited and correct, but useful and appropriate to the recipient. Provide only what you know for certain from experience, never what you think you know. Importantly, make sure your advice is suitable the fencer you’re giving it to. Too often, fencers assume that what is good for them is good everyone. Further, many fencers have not yet reached the level at which all good advice may be of use. In other words, don’t provide advice that’s over the fencer’s head or inaccessible due to the level of technique required. And if you’re giving advice to show off: Don’t! In sum, don’t be a know-it-all. (See also Cerchiari & Mangiarotti #4 above).
3. For a stronger fencer to constantly shout “I missed!” when fencing a weaker fencer, or any fencer for that matter, is not only rude and patronizing, but ignores the fact that his or her adversary is probably missing often too.
At the very least it can be an annoying distraction.
“I missed!” is often shouted by some advanced fencers when hit by weaker fencers, as if to excuse the touch as an accident. In fact, advanced fencers often rely on the fact that weaker fencers often do miss–thus making an advanced fencer who shouts “I missed!” a double hypocrite.
Is it OK to occasionally shout “I missed!” when in spite of setting almost everything up perfectly you, your point control is sloppy? Sure, but don’t overdo it. Is it OK do do so when fencing a friend who understands your frustration? Of course. But it’s never OK to do so in order to [arrogantly] dismiss a weaker’s fencer’s touch.
The fact is, if you get hit, you did something wrong and the other fencer something right.
More simply and more broadly: keep quiet when fencing so your adversary can concentrate.
4. Related to number 3: Don’t be the fencer who is insufferable both in victory and defeat. Or in either. Or ever.
5. Avoid “showboating” and “grandstanding.” A particularly egregious example is that of a more experienced fencer moving close and opening the line widely, as if to say, “I’m wide open and even then you probably can’t hit me!” It’s an insulting practice, one that indicates insecurity on the part of the fencer doing it, and one the experienced fencer would never attempt with another fencer of the same or greater ability. It’s OK to move closer to a weaker fencer and open the line a bit more in order to work on developing one’s speed while simultaneously giving the weaker fencer the opportunity to score more in practice. It’s not acceptable to do so in a grandstanding or patronizing manner.
6. If you’re waiting alone on the only empty strip for someone to fence and a pair of fencers comes up to use the strip, you must turn it over to them. Most fencers waiting alone on a strip for someone to fence understand this and will automatically yield the strip to a pair of fencers who need it. Occasionally though, there are strip hogs. Fencers new to the sport are often uncomfortable asking a solitary fencer, waiting for no one in particular, to yield the strip. If you notice this, invite them both onto the strip immediately. And don’t be afraid to ask, even politely demand, a strip hog to yield the strip!
7. For coaches and parents, and especially, fencers: No cheating!
In particular, neither give nor, for fencers on strip, accept advice during a competition bout except during the one minute breaks in direct elimination. Strictly speaking, these breaks are the only time coaching or other tactical assistance is permitted during a bout. All other tactical aid during a bout is in fact cheating, including hand signs, “secret language,” and so on, not mention overt coaching. Don’t tolerate it! If you do, you have a personality flaw, plain and simple.
N. B. Before I continue, I must note that the USFA, or as it now terms itself, “USA Fencing” (marketing, marketing), permits coaching from the side of the strip by coaches or spectators as long as it doesn’t interfere with the bout. This is a US rule: try it in many places internationally and you’ll still get in trouble, as you should. Of course, the USFA now complains that such coaching is getting out of hand (surprise, surprise), so violators should be disciplined. In other words, the USFA is complaining about a problem it created, but won’t take up the appropriate solution, that of eliminating strip-coaching.
So, to continue, and operating under the assumption that strip-coaching is and should be illegal…
Over the past two decades I’ve seen a new practice by a certain type of fencer in competition: the “whiplash,” that is, the head snapping around to look at the coach whenever the fencer is unsure about a touch or the progress of the bout, even in epee. Some fencers do this after each touch awarded to their adversaries. Should I challenge the call? Should I change my tactics? Should I do this again?
Sorry, but your coach is not permitted to respond in any way, notwithstanding that some coaches have trained their fencers to seek such advice during a bout. The sad fact is that many competitive fencers today are uncomfortable, some even to the point of near panic, if their coaches are not at the piste during their bouts.
A fair number of fencing coaches will “test the waters” during a competition by coaching during an early bout to see if the referee or bout committee will put a stop to it. If not, they’ll continue. Others will only try this during a challenging bout (that is, one in which one of their students is losing) during the direct elimination.
One of the most egregious violators I’ve seen was a coach who constantly decried the “cheating” by other coaches and clubs, including the giving of advice from the side of the strip during a bout, yet he was one of the most active practitioners I’ve ever seen, both as a coach on the sidelines and as a referee, although he “wisely”—if a cheater can be said to be acting wisely—limited it to critical bouts if experienced fencers and referees were present. However, he engaged in it nearly always if only inexperienced or easily intimidated fencers and referees were present—at least until someone showed up who would call him out on it.
And, on a related issue: No, the modern era of gamesmanship and cheating in fencing was not started by the Soviet Union’s entry into competitive fencing, some commentators notwithstanding, nor did this begin the general debasement in deportment on the strip. I’ll save this conversation for another day, but will note two things now: (1) there are plenty of early examples of these bad behaviors long prior to the Soviet Union entering sport fencing, and (2) it was notable how quickly nations other than France and Italy began regularly winning medals in epee and foil after the introduction of the electrical scoring apparatus–French and Italian judges could no longer pretend not to see touches.
In sum, if your child’s coach or teacher engages in any of these behaviors, tell him or her it’s unacceptable and that you’ll remove your child from the club if it continues. Many, perhaps most fencing coaches these days unfortunately follow a business model, which inevitably requires an emphasis on youth fencing: they’ll change their attitudes if a significant number of parents quit writing checks.
I’m a bit cynical about progress in this area, though, having watched for decades how often many parents, living a vicarious second life via their children, will accept or turn a blind eye to all sorts of egregious, even outrageous, behavior from coaches and teachers in sports and performing arts on the remote chance that their child will win nothing more than a local title or become a briefly notable local performer. And when greater rewards are at stake, far too many parents will turn a blind eye to almost anything.
Put plainly, a fencing bout should be a contest between two fencers and no one else.
Fencing’s best lesson is independent decision-making under stress.
Fencing & Wine
Or, how fencing shows character and why this matters. Again I quote from H. Sutherland Edwards (1894) who is quoting dramatic author, not mention fencer and promoter of women’s rights and child education (and whose name was given to a perhaps phantasmagoric reef in the South Sea), Ernest Legouvé:
“Fencing has, moreover, its utilitarian value. It teaches you to judge men. With the foil in hand no dissimulation is possible. After five minutes of foil-play the false varnish of mundane hypocrisy falls and trickles away with the perspiration: instead of the polished man of the world, with yellow gloves and conventional phrases, you have before you the actual man, a calculator or a blunderer, weak or firm, wily or ingenious, sincere or treacherous… One day I derived a great advantage. I was crossing foils with a large broker in brandies, rums, and champagnes. Before the passage of arms he had offered me his services in regard to a supply of liquors, and I had almost accepted… The fencing at an end, I went to the proprietor [of the fencing salle] and said: ‘I shall buy no champagne of that man.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘His wine must be adulterated–he denies every hit.'”
Yes, character matters, then and now. And fencing reveals it better than anything other than the dire life-threatening circumstances of man and nature. A person who cannot be trusted on the strip should not be trusted off the strip.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First posted July 20, 2018, updated August 20, 2018.
A brief place-holder blog post (and at the bottom a not quite shameless plug for Blood & Plunder by Firelock Games) while I finish several more challenging posts in the queue.
Before the advent of CGI, many swashbuckler films used models of ship and shore, along with full-size ships built on sound stages, to both recreate environments no longer available and also to save money. To some degree the early miniatures may seem quaint today, as compared to CGI, although in my opinion bad CGI is worse–more jarring to the eye–by far than an obvious model.
These old sets and scenes evoke nostalgia for the entire spectacle of old Hollywood swashbucklers: the cinemas with their great screens and clicking film projectors, the lasting impressions left by thundering broadsides and clashing swords, and above all the image of pirate ships in tropical waters.
For fun, here are a few.
Above, the Albatross, commanded by Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) arrives in a secluded cove on the Isthmus of Panama in order to raid the silver trains. The film scenes set in the Old World are in black and white, while those in the Americas are in sepia.
Only the film title is actually based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, which tells the story of an English gentleman who turns Barbary corsair in an act of revenge. The 1940 film is a not even thinly-veiled wartime propaganda piece, albeit an enjoyable one. English sea dogs are renamed in the scrip as patriotic sea hawks suppressed by treasonous machinations until the doughty hero (Errol Flynn) reveals the treachery and England arms the sea hawks against
Nazi Germany Imperial Spain. For more information try The Sea Hawk, edited by Rudy Behlmer. It’s a fun read for anyone interested in the script and the film’s history.
Next, we have the models of Port Royal and the French flagship used in the finale. This image is not of an actual scene from the 1935 Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone, but of the set prior to shooting.
Of course, the real Port Royal looked nothing like this. It was actually crammed with English-style brick buildings of two and even three floors, unlike this Southern California Spanish colonial revival-influenced town. But it’s sets like these in Hollywood swashbucklers that have influenced our notions of what the seventeenth century Caribbean looked like. In fact, the region at the time had a wide variety or environments and architectures.
Above we have the battle in Port Royal harbor during the finale of Captain Blood: the Arabella on the left versus the French flagship on the right. N. B. Royal sails (the smallest on the ship on the right, the fourth sail from the bottom) were not used in this era. Their use here is an anachronism. In fact, only exceedingly rarely was the topgallant sail (the third sail from the bottom, used on “tall ships” on the fore and main masts) seen on the mizzenmast or sprit-mast on the bowsprit. I know of only two seventeenth century instances, each noted as being highly unusual. One was Kidd’s Adventure Galley in the very late seventeenth century, the other was a Spanish ship in 1673.
A pirate ship under full sail in action against ships at anchor and shore targets during the finale of The Black Swan starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara. The film is based on the somewhat similar novel by Rafael Sabatini.
Over-large pirate ship and treasure ship of the “Great Mogul” in Against All Flags. The ships are engaged under full sail, a practice generally not seen in reality except in the case of a running fight, but quite common in Hollywood because it looks good. Here, both ships would have stripped to “fighting sail” for a variety of reasons, including simplified ship-handling in action. The film stars Errol Flynn, as Brian Hawke, in one of his last swashbucklers (followed finally by The Master of Ballantrae in 1953 and Crossed Swords in 1954). It also stars Maureen O’Hara wielding a sword as Prudence ‘Spitfire’ Stevens, something I always enjoy.
And now, a not quite shameless plug for Firelock Games’s Blood & Plunder tabletop war game of piracy and much, much more–one need not take the side of pirates to play. A full spectrum of peoples and forces are available.
Full disclosure: I’m the game’s historical consultant, and I thought it would be fun to compare the Blood & Plunder models to the film models above.
So, above and coming soon: a small Spanish galleon. Historically accurate, the model also evokes the best of old Hollywood swashbucklers.
A small Spanish frigate engaged with a French brigantine.
Spanish and French brigantines engaged near shore. Which is the pirate? (Answer: either could be!)
A small fluyt (in English a pink, in French a flibot, in Spanish an urqueta, on the left; a galleon at center; a brigantine on the right.
Close up action!
Brigantine crewed by, I believe, French flibustiers.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First posted April 16, 2018.
A brief post on Hungarian Hussar swordplay on horseback, in honor of my Hungarian fencing masters: Dr. Francis Zold (1904 – 2004) and Dr. Eugene Hamori, both part of the extraordinary tradition and fame of the Hungarian fencing epoch of the past century and longer. Theirs was an era in which perhaps no more than three dozen fencers ruled saber fencing for half a century. It was a world in which swordplay and its associated honor were still entwined with world events. It was a time in which dueling was still practiced or had only recently seen its end. Many of these men were familiar with swordplay in both the duel and in sport. To learn fencing from my two masters and to hear the stories they told was like stepping into a novel by Rafael Sabatini or Alexandre Dumas.
Before I begin the discussion of hussar swordplay, here are two abridged biographies, given that this post is in honor of my fencing masters. One day I’ll post full biographies of these two fascinating men.
Dr. Zold, long a minor Hungarian celebrity and well-known fixture in Hungarian fencing, was easily recognized by the green glasses he always wore (Zold means green in Hungarian), as well as by the shout of “Hé, là! Pamela!” when a student did something well during a lesson. He was the 1948 Hungarian Olympic team captain, reportedly fought a duel (I have this from a very knowledgeable source), and was a student of the famous Italo Santelli. By the great master’s own admission, Dr. Zold was one of his four greatest students: “[Jeno] Fuchs the tactician, [Endres] Kabos the attacker, [Attila] Petschauer the jumper, and [Ferenc] Zold the fighter.” (From “Francis Zold’s Death” by Ko Andras, February 24, 2005.)
Regarding two of the Santelli’s fencers mentioned with Dr. Zold, Petschauer was an Olympian with two gold saber medals and also a high school classmate of Dr. Zold. He was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp at the instigation of a Hungarian officer who was also a former equestrian Olympian. Kabos was an Olympian with four gold saber medals, and was serving as forced labor in Budapest at the time of his death, when Margit (Margaret) Bridge (to Margit-sziget, or Margaret Island) blew up accidentally as the Nazis were rigging it with explosives to destroy in advance of the Soviet army. Dr. Zold had spoken with Kabos just moments before.
Dr. Zold also assisted Raoul Wallenberg in helping Jews escape from Hungary after Nazi Germany annexed the country and began shipping Jews to concentration camps, and was one of the last to see Wallenberg alive outside of Soviet custody. (Wallenberg appears to have been murdered by the Soviet secret police after being held for two years.)
I attended the party in honor of Dr. Zold’s 95th birthday (I was one of three there who did not speak Hungarian), and corresponded with him until his death, long after I had my last lesson from him in 1978. I always enjoyed his stories, as I still do Dr. Hamori’s. From Dr. Zold, for example, I learned how the Hungarian fencers were invited by swashbuckling actor Douglas Fairbanks to his famous home, Pickfair, after Piller won the saber gold in 1932. Fairbanks, an active supporter of the Los Angeles Games, and his entourage came to watch the saber finals.
I studied fencing afterward under Dr. Eugene Hamori in New Orleans. He was a member of the gold medal Olympic saber team in 1956, defecting to the US soon after; the Soviet military had ruthlessly crushed the brief Hungarian uprising that occurred that summer. He studied fencing under Alfred Tusnady-Tschurl, graduate of the famous Austrio-Hungarian fencing academy at Wiener-Neustadt; László Szabó, one of Santelli’s three proteges, author of Fencing and the Master, and a very close friend of Francis Zold; Gyorgi Piller, student of Laszlo Borsodi (one of the creators of modern Hungarian saber technique), 1932 Olympic saber gold medalist, later the Hungarian head coach; Lajos Csiszar, also one of Santelli’s three proteges; and not too long ago he even had some lessons from László Szepesi, famous as the Hungarian master who led France to international saber golds. No matter how good you are at fencing or at teaching fencing, you’re never too old or too experienced to profit from fencing lessons.
An accredited fencing master among his many accomplishments, Dr. Hamori remains a close friend and is my mentor in all issues regarding the teaching of swordplay. Dr. Zold gave me my classical foundation, but it was Dr. Hamori who really put everything together for me, even though even today he gives Dr. Zold the credit. We have corresponded for years and visit whenever we can. My wife Mary and I even attended a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of Hamlet, suitably sub-titled (or super-titled, in that the sub-titles were above rather than below?) in Hungarian on electronic boards, on Margit Island with him a few years ago, and afterward discussed both the difficulty for even a native English speaker to grasp Shakespearean dialogue, and, as expected, the swordplay as well. (We thought the final phrase d’armes was a bit too quick and lacked enough dramatic emphasis, for what it’s worth.)
Both of my fencing masters helped encourage my sense of literacy and broad learning (whose foundations were first encouraged by my parents and, perhaps not surprisingly to those who’ve read them, later by the novels of Rafael Sabatini). Fencing is simply one part of a broad education, not to mention a means of safely engaging in the martial competition natural to humans.
At Hamlet we also ran into outstanding HEMA longsword and modern saber fencer Krisztina Nagy. Not long before, she had escorted us around the famous Semmelweis University high school fencing salle, whose current fencing master is László Szepesi. The salle’s master from 1948 TO 1955 was Dr. László Emlékére Duronelli, the third of Italo Santelli’s proteges.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from both fencing masters is that mistakes are OK, that you learn from them, and that, as a fencing teacher, or any teacher, you don’t have to know everything, and more importantly, you must never pretend to. Neither of my fencing masters ever pretended to me that he knew everything about fencing. Dr. Zold often referred to sources, both books and people, who knew more about a given subject in swordplay than he did, in spite of his vast experience. Dr. Hamori, in one of many examples, often demurs on giving me his answer to an epee question. A few years back he would instead consult his close friend, famous fencer and fencing master József Sákovics. Since Sákovics’s passing, he has given me the recommendations of Hungarian head coach Gábor Udvarhelyi.
Too many “experts” today, or so it appears to me, would almost rather die than be seen as not having all the answers, even though it is impossible to have them all in any subject. A fulsome minority of fencing teachers (and similarly of certain personalities with PhDs, I must add) include some of the worst offenders in my experience, at times inventing empty answers and even pretending to experience they don’t have. Often this is the result of the cult of personality–excessive or insecure ego, or both, seeking adulation–far too many “experts” engage in. My own fencing masters entirely avoided this. Frankly, the honest, humble practice of the pointing out the truth wherever it may lie, with the obvious benefits of doing so, is too little seen today–all the more reason I have to thank my own fencing masters, my parents, and others like them for the lessons they’ve imparted to me.
And Now, Hussar Swordplay on Horseback!
Please note that this is just a brief introduction to Hussars and their swordplay as described in a small number of English sources, Andrew Lonergan for the most part (citation below), with a few minor observations of my own. There are some historical fencing organizations, Hungarian in particular, who are working admirably to restore Hussar saber technique both mounted and afoot in detail.
When it comes to recreating historical fencing technique, success, particularly as defined by historical accuracy, varies. In the case of the smallsword, for example, it’s relatively easy to obtain a likely high degree of historical accuracy, given the large number of available texts and its fundamental similarity to “modern classical” foil and epee, both of which are ultimately descended from it. On the other hand, some historical technique is poorly documented, Highland broadsword for example, and requires greater sifting through clues and the use of intelligent practical speculation. (There’s quite a bit of unintelligent practical speculation going on, unfortunately, in historical discussions, including those on the subject of the use of arms.)
So, who were the Hungarian Hussars? They were some of the best irregular light cavalry in the world, known for their flamboyant courage in battle and their use of the saber, a curved sword descended ultimately from the cutting swords of the Mongol invaders. The hussars were extreme swashbucklers, in other words. (My own Little ancestors were Border reivers from the Scottish West March, another famous group of light cavalry, not to mention cattle thieves.)
To give you a better idea of who the hussars were, I’ll quote from The Sea Rover’s Practice, itself quoting from the journal of naval officer Pattee Byng: “Sicilian partisans in 1719 sniped at German and Hungarian soldiers, and Hungarian Hussars ‘with their usual custom and dexterity, struck off their heads with their sabers.'” (Pattee Byng’s Journal, edited by J. L. Cranmer-Byng. Greenwich: Navy Records Society, 1950. Italics mine.)
The illustration above is sufficient corroboration.
In 1693 a regiment of Hungarian hussars was incorporated into the French army, although Hungarian cavalry had served Louis XIV prior to this. In the eighteenth century there were French-manned units modeled on them in place, and also other natively-manned units in other European armies as well. Hungarian hussars were in service past World War One.
According to a seventeenth century English dictionary, the word hussar was said to derive from the Hungarian light horsemen’s battle cry of “Husa!” However, both Dr. Hamori and a now former honorary Hungarian consul in New Orleans told me that this is not what they were taught in school in Hungary. Further, some modern etymologies, Merriam-Webster for example, suggest the word has its origins in the Serbian and Croatian word for pirate. The Hungarian word is huszár. (For a period definition and etymology, see New World of English Words, 2nd ed., edited by E. Phillips [London: E. Tyler for Nath. Brooke, 1662], s.v. “Husares.”)
Andrew Lonnergan’s practical book on swordplay, short-titled The Fencer’s Guide (London: for the Author, 1771) is one of those rare fencing texts discussion practical swordplay beyond the salle and the duel: for the battlefield, in other words.
Section VIII of his book, “Is a Lesson for and against a Party of Hussars, or Light Horse.”
He refers to Hussars as “scampering troops, who like not to attack in a body, nor to attack a body [a troop, company, or other ‘body’ of horse].”
Importantly regarding technique, he notes that they “may annoy you, in wheeling together, either by fire or sword, though even if ou were a grand division, wheeling upon its center; for they endeavour to attack all other troops behind, or sideways, as they run by them, with a Sawing-cut, and then turn to the rest of them again, that they may repeat this cut with their swords so arched, that when but an inch of the edge, near the point, catches a man’s neck, the middle, or belly of the blade, will sever a joint, and often leave the head hanging by a sinew, or a piece of skin.”
The ‘sawing-cut’ is a cut pushed or carried forward, as opposed to the more common ‘drawing-cut’ pulled or drawn backwards toward the swordsman’s body. The strong curve of the Hussar saber makes thrusting with the point difficult (it must be hooked). But as described by Lonnergan, the thrust is effective because it is made with the first inch or so with the edge which cuts through soft tissue. This is probably best effected on horseback at speed. I have tested this cut afoot via simple extension as well as via a powerful lunge, and found that it does not appear to be as effective as Lonnergan describes. (I used a Cold Steel scimitar on a variety of test subject materials, ranging from a large beef brisket to bound straw to large banana trees being cut back for the winter.) However, the kinetic energy of a rider attacking at the hand-gallop would almost certainly make the sawing cut as effective as Lonnergan describes, cutting through clothing and flesh.
This is different from what Hollywood and swashbuckling novels have accustomed us to see: that is, large sweeping head- and limb-lopping cuts. A sawing cut, if less flashy, was probably more effective and, importantly, more difficult to recognize and defeat.
Regarding defense in Hussar swordplay, Lonnergan writes that, “If you strike at them as you meet them, they will avoid your blow, by stooping forward, leaning backward, or even by throwing themselves to the opposite sides of their horses, and will recover their saddles again.” Mounted esquive!
Lonnergan recommends cutting at Hussar sword arms because “it is naturally in a St. George [modern saber quinte, more or less]to save their heads.
To thrust at a Hussar, he recommends “a Segonde [seconde] darted forwarsds, for so the height of your horses, superior to theirs, will have it, and afford you greater power over them in a close attack, which they must avoid as much as possible.”
When fencing on horseback Hussar-to-Hussar, Lonnergan notes that “their best method is to parry any cut made at them with a Quarte, Tierce, or Prime, and repost with a Sawing-Cut, and thrust, and recover with a Drawing-cut.”
Most notably, he writes that the “bent [curve] of their swords will afford them an unavoidable Quarte-over-the-arm, or a Cavè [sic: the accent grave is used incorrectly on cavé in the original text].”
In other words, the Hussar saber with its curved blade has a natural cavé or angulation against quart, tierce, or prime parries (or any other parries, in fact). I’ve heard some historical fencers note that this is an advantage the curved saber has, but I must note here that Lonnergan is referring to actions on horseback with horses moving at speed! The rider, executing the natural angulation with the saber, can escape the riposte as he rides by, while simultaneously cutting or thrusting with cavé (the thrust described is actually a cut). This is not the case afoot: fencer A attacks with an inside cut, fencer B parries quarte and ripostes covered, fencer A makes a cavé around the quarte riposte–and receives his adversary’s riposte cut, having failed to protect himself against it. In other words, use this cavé afoot at your own peril. Fencing, after all, is supposed to be about hitting and not getting hit.
A cut not mentioned by Lonergan, and in fact one in which I’ve only ever seen in Hollywood films, is the low sweeping cut forward on horseback. Often in movies you see knights and so forth lopping off heads this way. However, we probably don’t see it in fencing texts or descriptions of mounted combat for a reason: it would be easily parried by an enemy on foot if were armed with sword, pike, halberd, or musket, and the parry might even dismount the attacking rider.
It would be similarly dangerous against a mounted adversary, leaving the attacker exposed in the high lines unless protected by head and body armor of some sort. Further, the cut might easily be stopped by the enemy’s mount, again with the possibility of disarmament. Hollywood typically does things for show, for drama, not necessarily for historical authenticity.
The closest I’ve seen in reality to this Hollywood low cut is a low thrust made with a straight sword (broad or back) against a mounted adversary, the hand held at the level of the rider’s hip and the point aimed at the enemy’s lower abdomen. The mounted attacker typically has breast and back, and probably a skull cap under his hat, and the thrust is intended for the lower abdomen just under the enemy’s armor.
Lonnergan’s advice for light horsemen being pursued by larger numbers of horsemen is swashbuckling at its best: “Otherwise you may, like the Prussian or Hungarian Hussars, fire under your arm backward, or over our shoulder, and kill at random when flying and closely pursued.”
Firing pistols over one’s shoulder or under one’s arm while fleeing at the gallop? Swashbucking indeed! And it’s clearly a technique clearly used long before the Hollywood cowboys I grew up watching did so on television and in film, inspired perhaps by a famous Frederic Remington painting.
Although this has been an incomplete description of Hussar swordplay, hopefully it has dashed a few Hollywood myths, and also demonstrated that the study of swordplay–inevitably lifelong if you really intend to grasp it–is as fascinating as any other subject, if not more so.
Coming soon: knife-fighting Dutch seamen, the fusil boucanier, rules of fencing etiquette (or at least what they should be), model ships and towns from Hollywood swashbucklers, a technical post on the arm extension in the fencing lunge past and present, and more. And eventually: the duel on the shore!
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published April 13, 2018. Last updated May 8, 2018.
A quick post on women and epee fencing, inspired by the photograph of Frances Drake above. She was a Hollywood actress (or actor, if you prefer more modern usage) from the 1930s. The photograph dates to 1934, although I’ve been unable so far to identify the film for which this and similar publicity stills were made. I’d like to, for the the photograph is unusual in that it shows her with epees, not foils.
Until the 1980s, women were not permitted to fence epee in competition due to a patronizing chauvinism (I suppose all chauvinism is patronizing, though) that decreed that women were (1) too weak to fence epee, or saber for that matter, and (2) shouldn’t be fencing epee or saber which were originally dueling arms, therefore “man’s weapons.”
The attitude persisted well into the 1980s and even beyond with some male fencers and fencing masters. Around 1980 I had some lessons from a famous epee master, and as I walked on the strip epee-in-hand for his first epee lesson of the day, and my first with him ever, he smiled and said, “Ah, finally a man’s weapon!” In part he meant it as a compliment in that I was fencing epee, not foil, and therefore as a bit of a dig at foil as well. Still, the comment is instructive and indicative of the attitude at the time. In his defense, most fencing masters would not teach epee or saber to women at the time, even if they believed them suitable to the weapons, for there were no competitions in them available to women, certainly not at the national level.
Of course, more than three decades of women fencing epee and saber have disproved any such absurd notions that women can’t manage these weapons. Just fence my wife sometime if you don’t believe me.
Recently, I obtained a copy of Fencing Comprehensive by Félix Gravé, published in 1934. In it he makes reference to women epee fencers, in particular to how they should dress when fencing epee, clearly indicating that some women did indeed fence epee in the 1930s, and not just Ms. Drake in a Hollywood photo shoot. The fact that there were women epeeists in the 1930s pleases me inordinately.
As for the epees Ms. Drake is holding, they’re probably Castello epees. The guards appear to be aluminum with steel reinforcements. In the 1930s, epee guards were usually made either of rolled steel or of aluminum, with either flat steel reinforcements, as with hers, or angled washers made of either steel or aluminum, as in the image above. The pommels are two-piece, of aluminum and brass, again as in the same image.
Drake’s fencing jacket is quilted, a type difficult to find anymore although once common. The last I saw for sale from major vendors was in the early 1990s. The glove is decorated and might not actually be a fencing glove–epee gloves at this time had leather palms and fingers with “sailcloth” backs and cuffs.
As for women epeeists today, of the five epeeists I consider to have been the greatest in the past century, two of them are women: Timea Nagy of Hungary and Laura Flessel-Colovic of France. Frankly, I prefer women’s epee, for it balances technique with tactics, with speed and strength in support. Too many male epeeists try to reverse this, putting technique and tactics as subordinate to speed and strength. Usually they would fence better if they’d follow the practice of most women epeeists.
In sum: long live women epeeists!
Copyright Benerson Little, 2018. First published February 16, 2018. Updated July 3, 2018.
Jack Sparrow, Perhaps? The Origin of an Early “Hollywood” Pirate, Plus the Authentic Image of a Real Buccaneer
The illustration above was created in late 1926 or early 1927, and published in April of the latter year. Among its several pirate clichés (skull and bones on the hat, tattoos, curved dagger, long threatening mustache) is one I had thought was entirely modern: a pirate hair braid with coins attached.
Quite possibly, this coin braid is the artist’s idea of a pirate “love lock.” The love lock was popular among some young English and French gentlemen in the first half of the seventeenth century. Usually worn on the left side, it was typically tied with a ribbon, a “silken twist” as one author called it. Occasionally two were worn, one on each side as in the image below.
This “pirate love lock” is a noteworthy characteristic of the very Hollywood, very fantasy pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, and I wonder if this image did not inspire much of his look. Historically-speaking, though, there is no historical basis for it among pirates of the “Golden Age” (circa 1655 to 1725), although it’s possible there may have been a gentleman rover or two who wore one during the first half of the seventeenth century–but not a braid or lock with coins.
Of course, much of The Mentor pirate image above was clearly inspired by famous illustrator and author Howard Pyle, as shown below.
There’s a hint of N. C. Wyeth too, not surprising given that he was a student of Howard Pyle. However, Captain Peter Blood was a gentleman pirate, and the pirate on The Mentor cover is clearly not.
And Wyeth’s Captain Blood cover is clearly influenced by this 1921 cover he painted for Life magazine. In fact, less the goatee, the two buccaneers might be one and the same:
The Pyle influence continued through the twentieth century in film, illustration, and mass market paperbacks about pirates…
The Mentor illustration is also clearly influenced by Douglas Fairbanks’s 1926 film The Black Pirate, which was, according to Fairbanks himself, heavily influenced by Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates and to a fair degree by Peter Pan.
Seriously, check out Fairbanks’s costume in the film, it’s obviously that of Peter Pan grown up. I have a soft spot for Douglas Fairbanks: my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, described him as a gentleman and a swordsman, and described how Fairbanks invited the Hungarian fencers to his mansion Picfair (named after Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford) after György Jekelfalussy-Piller won the gold saber medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
And here, finally, we have Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in the flesh, braids and such dangling from his hair, again for which there is no historical precedent among Golden Age pirates that we know of. It’s hard to see how Depp’s costume, in particular his hair, might not have been influenced by the illustration at the top of the page. If it weren’t, it’s quite a coincidence.
As noted, it’s entirely possible that the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl costume designers never saw the image at the top of the page. They may have imagined it themselves, or been influenced by something else. A very likely possibility is Donald O’Connor in the 1951 film Double Crossbones, a campy pirate comedy that makes fun of nearly all pirate clichés.
Although this may seem to be little more than coincidence, there are other similarities between the two films, strongly suggesting the writers and costume designers were familiar with it. In particular, O’Connor plays a shy, somewhat bumbling shopkeeper’s apprentice in love with the governor’s beautiful ward, and she with him. Due to difference in social class he’s unwilling to express his love openly until by accident he becomes a pirate. Sound familiar? Even the costumes of the governor’s ward (Lady Sylvia Copeland, played by Helena Carter) are similar (homage-fashion?) to those of Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley. If not the Pirates of the Caribbean costume designer, then perhaps the Double Crossbones costume designer was familiar with the image at the top of the page.
Of course, all this so far is “Hollywood,” for lack of a better term. There are a number of serious groups of reenactors, scholars, and others trying to correct the false historical image, all with varying degrees of accuracy, agreement and disagreement, and success.
Hollywood has yet to get aboard, no matter whether in pirate films and television series, or often any film or television set prior to the nineteenth century for that matter, probably because it’s easier to play to audience expectations (and, unfortunately, much of the audience doesn’t really care), not to mention that there’s a tendency or even a fad among costume designers to do something that “evokes” the image or era rather than depict it accurately, not to mention the time and other expense of researching, designing, and creating costumes from scratch when there are costumes “close enough,” so to speak, already in film wardrobes.
Here’s a hint, Hollywood: you can start by getting rid of the “pirate boots.” They didn’t exist. They’re actually based on riding boots, and a pirate would only be in riding boots if he were on a horse–and horses aren’t often ridden aboard ship. Further, you can get rid of the baldrics in most cases, exceptions being primarily for gentlemen pirates wearing smallswords into the 1680s, no later. (You can have some Spanish pirates with rapiers wear baldrics after this, though.) And for that matter, you can get rid of wide belts and large belt buckles too. But if nothing else, please, please get rid of the boots, which, if I recall correctly, a UK journalist once correctly described as nothing more than fetish-wear.
Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant to Black Sails, a great show with a great cast and crew, but I had nothing to do with the costuming, much of which is considered as near-blasphemy by advocates of historical accuracy in material culture in television and film. That said, the show is a fictional prequel to a work of fiction that variously created or expanded some of our biggest myths about pirates–buried treasure, the black spot, and so on. Looked at this way, if you can accept the story you can probably tolerate the costuming.
I’ve discussed what real pirates and buccaneers looked like several times, not without some occasional minor quibbling by other authorities. The Golden Age of Piracy has some details, as do two or three of my other books, but several of my blog posts also discuss some of the more egregious clichés, with more posts on the subject to come.
At any rate, here’s an image of a real buccaneer, a French flibustier in fact, from the 1680s. It’s an eyewitness image, one of only a handful of authentic eyewitness images of “Golden Age” sea rovers. It and the others prove that an image may evoke swashbuckling pirates while still being entirely accurate.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published January 23, 2018. Last updated April 4, 2018.
Following close upon the heels of my last post, here’s an excuse to riff a bit more on the use of click-bait, plus correct some recent misunderstandings about pirates and the books they might or might not have read, plus speculate on what they might have done with them, and why–and also learn a little bit about breech-loading swivel guns.
The inspiration for this post is, again, an exaggerated article title, in this case from the Associated Press via The Washington Post, but the material has been published in quite a few various media. The article itself is pretty straight forward. It’s the misconceptions the click-bait-ish title creates that I have some disagreement with, particularly when combined with superficial reading or analysis:
In short, archaeologists investigating the likely wreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, commanded by Edward Teach or Thatch, aka Blackbeard, discovered pages from a book, identified as A Voyage to the South Seas, and Round the World, Peform’d in the years 1708, 1709, 1710 and 1711 by Captain Edward Cooke, stuffed in the chamber from a breech-loading swivel gun. From this some possible conclusions have been drawn, and I’ve drawn a few in addition.
It will help to understand how a breech-loading swivel worked. Generally referred to as a paterero (with variant spellings), from the Spanish pedrero, or rock-shooting swivel gun (formerly they were often loaded with stone shot or bags of flint shards), it was occasionally also referred to as a chamber, given that it was loaded via removable chambers rather than have charges rammed down the barrel from the muzzle.
Patereros were often of wrought iron, as in the photographs farther down, but could also be of “brass” (actually bronze, see the photo just below), which was much more expensive. Typically there were two chambers per gun (one in the gun, one to swap it with when fired), but this could vary. Given that the chamber volume was often larger than the required charge of powder, a wad or a wooden tompion of sorts, or both, was stuffed over the powder charge in order to keep it place, effectively tamping it down so that the burning powder (technically gunpowder deflagrates, it doesn’t burn fast enough to explode) had maximum effect, not to mention didn’t spill out.
The gunner first placed his shot, usually with an oakum wad in front and behind, into the barrel from the breech, then placed the chamber into the breech and hammered an iron or brass wedge in place behind it to keep the chamber in place and especially to prevent it from blowing back when the charge was fired. Patereros are noted in period writings, and also observed in modern practice (see image below), as having a lot of blow-back of embers and smoke into the gunner’s face, given the poor seal between the chamber and the gun itself.
A legible book fragment found in a swivel gun breech is in fact a fascinating find, like finding a bit of true pirate treasure, and full credit and congratulations go to the archaeologists who made and researched the discovery.
However, it’s important to note the following about the facts in this instance of pirates, books, and Blackbeard’s ship:
1. While the wreck is most likely that of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, this has not yet been proven beyond all doubt. Associated scholars and researchers have accepted it as the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship based on its characteristics and the fact that it probably could be no other. However, nothing recovered from the ship proves it belonged to Blackbeard and his crew. Notably, pronouncing it as Blackbeard’s ship gives it a cachet useful in fundraising and attracting tourists. In other words, it’s possible that the fragment had nothing to do with pirates. However, I think it likely that the ship was Blackbeard’s and thus the fragment therefore probably did have something to do with pirates.
2. Still, even if it is Blackbeard’s ship, we have no way of knowing who stuffed the chamber with pages from a book. Possibly it could have been the French gunner or one of his mates who did so before Blackbeard and his crew captured the ship, having no use for a book in English. Or the chamber could have been captured from another vessel and brought aboard just as it was eventually found at the bottom of the sea.
However, I think these are lesser possibilities. Chances are, even a lazy pirate gunner would probably have cleaned and inspected a captured swivel gun and its chambers at some point. Although it’s commonly believed that pirates captured most merchantmen after a fight, this was not the reality: nearly all merchantmen in the early eighteenth century surrendered to pirates without a fight. And that’s what pirates wanted.
So, while it’s possible, even very much so, that the swivel gun chamber was never fired in anger by a pirate, I think it still likely that a pirate gunner at least inspected and maintained it, lazy though the early eighteenth century pirates typically were, except in the case of maintaining their personal arms (which was, I suspect, probably as much of a fetish behavior as a practical one, given how seldom they actually used them in action).
3. If it were Blackbeard’s gunner or one of the gunner’s mates (note that aboard ships a cannon is called a gun) who stuffed the chamber with pages torn from a book, what does this tell us about pirate reading habits in general?
A bit of background. Some seamen, therefore some pirates, were illiterate. But the various officers responsible for navigation, gunnery, and so forth were all readers and to a fairly substantial degree, mathematically-inclined. They had to be. And any seamen hoping to advance from mate to master had to know how to read. Books were common aboard ships, and published accounts of voyages were common in seagoing libraries for the simple reason that they provided “intelligence” about places that might be visited. Remember, there was no Internet, there was no easy access to accurate (and just as often today, inaccurate) information.
In fact, some late seventeenth century buccaneers were published writers, describing their travels and adventures, often quite factually, occasionally with some apparent exaggeration: for example, Alexandre Exquemelin, William Dampier, Bartholomew Sharp, Basil Ringrose, William Dick, and Lionel Wafer.
What the pages of a book–and we’re assuming the book was not used because it had been damaged beyond all use, but was in readable condition–used in a swivel gun (technically, a paterero) chamber might tell us about pirate reading habits is that…
SOME PIRATES HAD NO RESPECT FOR BOOKS.
But we already know this. Often, when ransacking a captured vessel, early eighteenth century pirates would trash everything aboard, randomly and ruthlessly. At times this included books.
In the words of Captain William Snelgrave, master of a slaver captured by pirates on the Guinea Coast in 1719: “Moreover two large Chests that had Books in them were empty; and I was afterwards informed, they had been all thrown overboard; for one of the Pirates, upon opening them, swore, “there was Jaw-work enough (as he called it) to serve a Nation, and proposed they might be cast into the Sea; for he feared, there might be some Books amongst them, that might breed Mischief enough; and prevent some of their Comrades from going on in their Voyage to Hell, whither they were all bound. Upon which the Books were all flung out of the Cabin-windows into the River.” (William Snelgrave, A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea [London: James, John, and Paul Knapton, 1734].)
Piratical Fahrenheit 451 by any other name! The destruction of books for social or political purpose!
And the same with the pages in the swivel chamber, burned to hell, so to speak, when the gun would have eventually been fired.
And why wouldn’t these pirates want their brethren to read? In part, because many had been physically or psychologically abused into joining the crew. Unlike the late seventeenth century buccaneers, who never forced men to join (slaves and the occasional Spanish pilot excepted) and who let men leave the crew when the pleased (as long as they paid for their victuals), the early eighteenth century pirates operated more like gangs, intimidating seamen into joining and forcing them to stay for the duration. Other pirates, including some of those who had joined without coercion, may have been souring on the idea of piracy and were likely candidates for desertion. Reading material might have reminded them of what they had left behind, or of consequences, or both.
Chances are, the book used in the chamber was taken from a prize, as with Snelgrave’s library above. It’s possible that it may have been damaged during plundering then put to use as trash paper in a chamber. Or, it may first have been read by a pirate or by a few. Or, I think more likely, by none at all. But we have no way of knowing.
However, there is another intriguing possibility. Following the example Snelgrave gave of pirates and books, it’s quite possible that Blackbeard’s crew, if indeed the gun belonged to them, might not have cared much for the book from which the fragment came. It was written by the captain of the Duchess privateer, whose consort, the Duke, was commanded by Woodes Rogers, who would later go on to become Governor of New Providence–and chase pirates, Blackbeard included, from the island.
In sum, the point of all this is that the article title is a little bit misleading. And unfortunately, many readers these days seem to me to read the title, glance at the first paragraph, and that’s it. And this isn’t enough! Especially when too many readers don’t even read much past the title before “sharing” it. It’s vital that titles reflect the text as accurately as possible, and that the text avoid playing to expectations rather than serving the truth.
Even if we read the entire article, at best the facts about the book fragment can tell us nothing more than what we already knew: that published voyage journals were common reading, for a reason, among seafarers, and that some pirates had no respect for books. Anything beyond this, however intelligent, is speculation.
This is not to put a damper on the excitement of finding readable text from pages stuffed in a swivel chamber that has sat under the sea for three centuries. But we need to stick as much as possible to facts, not fancy, particularly in this age of misinformation amplified by modern technology. Even is a subject as colorful, popular, and full of misconceptions as piracy. Or rather, especially so.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published January 18, 2018.
Just for fun: Samurai underwater combat! Imagined underwater fighting, both via surface supplied air (“deep sea diving”) and free swimming descents, during the very real Battle of Yalu River in 1894. Japanese forces defeated a Chinese fleet in a very close battle during the First Sino-Japanese War. The underwater imagery is, of course, quite imaginary but also quite cool.