Swordplay & Swashbucklers

Latest Work

"There remained the sea, which is free to all, and particularly alluring to those who feel themselves at war with humanity." 鈥擱afael Sabatini, Captain Blood: His Odyssey, 1922

Follow Swordplay & Swashbucklers on WordPress.com

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Capt. Peter Blood reading Horace: "levius fit patientia quicquid corrigere est nefas." (Illustration from a Russian edition of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini.)

The Women in Red: The Evolution of a Pirate Trope

Disney’s newest pirate (2018) in its Pirates of the Caribbean attraction: Redd the Pirate. (From the Orange County Register, photo by Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort).

With news that Disney is planning a new standalone pirate film starring a female pirate, it’s time review what has become a pirate trope: the woman in red, specifically, or at least often, a redhead. Why this trope in regard to a new Disney film? Because speculation has it that the film will be tied to Redd the Pirate above.

While we do this, we’ll also take a quick look at some of the myths and realities of female pirates during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy in the Americas from roughly 1655 to 1730.

Getty Image from the BBC article on Margot Robbie and a new Disney pirate film.

The seemingly obvious origin of the woman in red (a “scarlet woman”?), at least in terms of pirate fiction and film, is the Redhead in line in the bride auction–“Take a Wench for a Bride”–in the original version of the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in which drunken pirates shouted, “We wants the redhead!” Forced marriage, in other words.

The bride auction at Walt Disney World when it first opened. Walt Disney Productions publicity still.

Notably, text on the back of the publicity still describes the scene as an auction: “Gold-hungry pirate captain puts the town’s fair maidens–and the ones not so fair–on the auction block for his rowdy crewmen.” Thankfully, things have somewhat changed since then, tongue-in-cheek humor or not.

Early concept art. Walt Disney Productions.
Concept art. Walt Disney Productions.
The original animatronic Redhead from the Disney attraction, now on display at the Walt Disney archives. Disney photograph. The Redhead is far more akin to a stereotypical 19th century Western “saloon girl” than a 17th century Spanish woman.

The Disney auction scene may have been inspired by scenes in The Black Swan (1942), Anne of the Indies (1951), and Against All Flags (1952), in which captured women are portrayed as captives to be sold or given away as plunder. Both Against All Flags and Anne of the Indies have auction scenes of female captives.

When it first opened in 1967, the Disney attraction was intended–and in fact was–as a tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted, swashbuckling film-based version of buccaneers sacking a hapless Spanish town in the Caribbean. Marketing text associated with early publicity stills noted that the ride was a “thoroughly realistic re-creation of buccaneer days.”

The Wicked Wench engaged with the Spanish fort, one of the most famous and enjoyable scenes in the attraction. The ship here is commanded by a red-coated buccaneer captain rather than by his modern film-inspired replacement, Captain Barbossa. 1968 Walt Disney Productions publicity still.

To enjoy it–which I did and still do–required viewing it as a fantasy rather than a depiction of reality, for the reality of buccaneer attacks in the seventeenth century was anything but romantic to the victims: torture, rape, murder, and the enslavement of free men, women, and children were common. Documentary evidence of what today would likely be defined as resulting PTSD, among both victim and perpetrator, exists.

Like most of our fictional and cinematic adventure, we tend to sanitize or ignore facts in order to help create a fantasy more amenable to entertainment. Humans have done this for millennia. And there’s often nothing wrong with this unless we confuse the fantasy with the reality, which unfortunately happens all too often.

The Marc Davis painting of a redheaded pirate which hangs in the captain’s bar in the early part of the Disney attraction. A hint that the auctioned redhead might become a pirate? The portrait is entitled, “A Portrait of Things to Come,” after all. She bears several common pirate tropes too, as might be expected: eye patch, skull and bones on her hat, bandana, and tattoos aka gunpowder spots. Disney image.

Today, the ride has been modified somewhat to both fit with the Disney pirate films, which are only loosely inspired by the attraction, and to bring the attraction up-to-date with current social mores. And this has generally been a good thing, I think, even if the changes are not historical. The attraction is a swashbuckling fantasy, after all, not an accurate animatronic documentary.

The most significant of these changes was the conversion of the pirates-chasing-women scene into one of pirates-chasing-food, and the conversion in 2018 of the bride auction scene into one of conquered residents bearing possessions, perhaps as ransom, and of the famous red-dressed redhead showing a leg into a red-dressed redheaded female pirate standing guard (and still, after a fashion, showing a leg).

The new scene. Disney photograph.

Personally, I much prefer the new scene and new redhead, ancient passing pre-adolescent fantasies notwithstanding.

In general, as in the original trope-setting (and great fun to watch) pirate swashbuckler, The Black Pirate (1926), leading women in pirate films are usually depicted as the “tavern wench” or “exotic wench,” or other saucy secondary love interest; the “swooning heroine;” or the “pirate woman.”

The “pirate woman” is usually by far the most interesting, although too often she, Hollywood-style, gives up piracy at the end of the film in exchange for true love. Or she dies in battle, her true love unrequited, her true love interest running off with the “good girl”–often the swooning heroine.

Sometimes the tropes are combined: Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl goes from a nod at the literally swooning–via an over-tightened corset–heroine to pirate woman.

She also wears a red dress in the first film of the series, in scenes which combine multiple tropes: woman in peril, woman tied-up, woman with (airbrushed, reportedly) cleavage. The dress is a likely homage to the Disney attraction.

Kieira Knightly as Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, just before being forced to walk the plank (another pirate trope).
Elizabeth Swann as a pirate.
Scarlett, a “Tortuga wench,” on the right in a mostly red dress. Disney publicity still.

The red dress shows up in other pirate films as well, and as apparent copies or homages in Halloween costumes and video games.

Geena Davis as Morgan Adams in Cutthroat Island.

Geena Davis stars in Cutthroat Island (1995, Carolco), and in one scene swashbuckles her way tolerably well in a red dress borrowed from a prostitute. The dress is clearly a nod, perhaps more than a bit humorous, at the Disney ride. In fact, Cutthroat Island often seems like one long string of pirate tropes, homages, and stolen scenes. Great soundtrack, though, and Davis does well as a pirate captain.

Now is a good time to briefly point out the reality of women pirates during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy 1655 to 1730. Strictly speaking, we know of only two: Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the former of whom gets all the cinematic glory while the latter was the real swashbuckling bad-ass of the twain.

Read had been a soldier in disguise, then a pirate in disguise, and reportedly fought at least one duel against a male crew member. But it’s redheaded Anne Bonny–or at least she’s assumed to be redheaded because she was Irish and reportedly had a hot temper–who gets all the glory, even though she may have been merely the girlfriend along for a joyride with her bad boy pirate boyfriend. Or not–we simply don’t know enough about her. It’s also entirely possible that she was as bold as Charles Johnson described her.

But it’s Read, in my opinion, who deserves a movie.

Jean Peters in Anne of the Indies (1951, 20th Century Fox), perhaps the best depiction to date of a female pirate captain. Notwithstanding her name, she’s really playing Mary Read. Publicity still.

Perhaps Anne Bonny, the assumed redhead, has also given us the redheaded part of the redhead in the red dress trope.

There are no other known women pirates of the Golden Age but for one who was technically a pirate only under the law, having participated in an utterly inept attempt at petty piracy. Notably, two of the most commonly cited women pirates of the era were not: Jacquotte de la Haye is entirely fictional, and Anne Dieu-le-Veult was married to former buccaneer Laurens de Graff, not a member of his crew nor is there any evidence that she was a member of any other crews.

Redheaded Maureen O’Hara in Against All Flags playing Prudence ‘Spitfire’ Stevens based on Anne Bonny in part, but still far more Mary Read in character. Publicity still.

Likely though, there were real buccaneer and pirate women we’ll never know about because they remained in disguise. The common sexism of the day prevented women from becoming obvious members of a pirate crew. In fact, it’s probable that Anne Bonny and Mary Read (in Read’s case, after she revealed her sex) were part of John “Calico Jack” Rackham’s crew only because it was very small.

Pirates by majority vote could override their captains anytime but in action, and a larger crew would doubtless never have permitted women aboard as equals. In general, women were forbidden among early eighteenth century pirates except as prisoners, and even then pirates preferred to keep them away out of fear of indiscipline among the crew.

The Princess Bride starring Robin Wright and Cary Elwes. Some swooning involved. Publicity still.

Red dresses pop up in other pirate or pirate-associated films as well, but it’s hard to tell if they qualify as tropes. Red is a popular dress color, after all.

Tara Fitzgerald in the 1998 television version of Frenchman’s Creek, in which she briefly sails as a privateer commanded by the man with whom she is having an affair. In the novel and original film version (1944, starring Joan Fontaine), Lady Dona St. Columb sails briefly as a pirate. The lady does not swoon.

Nonetheless, there is a possible origin for the redhead in red dress trope prior to the Disney attraction–in fact, its inspiration perhaps, or part of it.

In 1952 Columbia Pictures released The Golden Hawk, a pirate film, albeit one technically about French and Spanish privateers in the Caribbean in the late seventeenth century.

The male lead was Sterling Hayden playing Captain Kit Gerardo. His acting appears a bit wooden by Hollywood pirate captain standards until you read his biography: a true tall ship captain in his youth, later a Silver Star recipient and US Marine Corps officer assigned to the OSS behind enemy lines in World War Two. In other words, he was playing himself as a privateer captain. Even so, Variety magazine wrote that Hayden was “out of his element as the gallant French privateer…” Hollywood goes for (melo)drama, but most real captains are far more quiet and self-assured. They have to be. But I digress.

Movie poster, The Golden Hawk, 1952, a banner year for middle-of-the-road pirate films.

The female lead was red-haired Rhonda Fleming, one of the “queens of technicolor,” the most famous of whom was Maureen O’Hara who starred in several swashbucklers and whom some critics suggested would have been better in the role–and better for its box office.

Fleming’s character in the film is “fiery,” to be expected of the popular genre, including the Frank Yerby novel on which the film was based. In one scene–SPOILER ALERT!–she shoots Kit Gerardo when he makes “romantic overtures” to her, then leaps out a stern window and swims ashore. No swooning heroine she, thankfully, nor one to put up with harassment.

In a few scenes, Fleming, whose character’s real name is Lady Jane Golfin, wears a luxurious green dress. But in most lobby cards, tinted publicity stills, and movie posters, it’s red.

Rhonda Fleming in a publicity still for The Golden Hawk (Columbia Pictures, 1952).
Sterling Hayden and Rhonda Fleming in a tinted (hand-colored) publicity still for The Golden Hawk (Columbia Pictures, 1952).

More importantly, Rhonda Fleming plays a buccaneer, Captain Rouge (that is, Captain Red)–she was also a pirate!

Hand-colored publicity still for The Golden Hawk.
Rhonda Fleming in a publicity still for The Golden Hawk (Columbia Pictures, 1952).

We may have simultaneously moved forward while also coming full circle. 馃檪

Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First posted July 8, 2020. Last updated July 12, 2020.

Of Sacrifices Great and Small

Some reflections for those who have been unable to return to fencing, or to any passionate pursuit for that matter, or are disappointed that things are not the same.

Put plainly, this is not the time to bemoan any temporary loss or abatement in fencing practice, however passionate you feel about swordplay.

From Un Ma卯tre d鈥檃rmes Sous la Restauration: Petit Essai Historique by Ars猫ne Vigeant, 1883.

Worldwide, we’re living amidst an obvious historical moment that affects everyone. In the US, we’re amidst an even greater one: a pandemic combined with great social change and political consequence. It is a time of great personal, moral, and political danger.

This isn’t the first such moment in modern history, nor for many of us not the first in our lifetimes. And for many of us it probably won’t be the last.

For fencers who are missing the sport, or have had their participation reduced, it’s a time to remember that swordplay is not going away, no matter that its principles have long been under siege by a sports mentality. If you haven’t already returned to it to some degree, you will be able to one day.

Further, you should remember that no matter how much swordplay means to you, there are more importantly things in life–and what’s most important about fencing is its connection to these important things.

From Un Ma卯tre d鈥檃rmes Sous la Restauration: Petit Essai Historique by Ars猫ne Vigeant, 1883.

I came of fencing age in an era in which, for many of us, swordplay was still strongly associated with a sense of honor and associated duty, unlike today in which many competitors and their coaches regard it as pure sport where winning at almost any cost is expected. (Happily, though, many “average” competitors still prefer to view it traditionally.)

It was this traditional sense that drew me when I first started fencing more than forty years ago. Many of our fencing masters back then, not to mention many of the veterans we fenced with, were true swashbucklers who, although they competed in fencing, saw swordplay as something beyond mere sport.

A few had actually fought duels, while others had trained duelists. Some had served in the military in the final days of the sword on the battlefield. Many had lived through the trauma of two world wars. Some had fought in them. Others had escaped or fought against repressive regimes in the manner of adventures as might be found in a novel by Dumas or Sabatini.

At the very least, most had been trained by those who had come of age in an era where the sword was still a weapon both of the military and of the duel. Many were true adventurers with a powerful sense of duty and honor, of moral, rather than legal, right and wrong.

Many had proved themselves of great moral and physical courage, though none ever mentioned this. You had to learn it from those who had long known them.

All understood that fencing competition was ultimately a mere substitute, not an end in itself. Medals, although fun to compete for, were in many ways secondary, and their value ultimately illusory. A drawer filled with dusty old fencing medals is in its essence exactly that, nothing more. It is only the acts that earned them, and the context in which they were earned, that matter.

My first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, pointed this out to me more than forty years ago when he noted that most people only remember who came in first place, and then usually only in regard to the Olympics and World Championships, and then often not for long. Aladar Gerevich was one of the world’s greatest athletes, yet most sports fans have no idea who he was. Nor, sadly, do most fencers.

Aladar Gerevich, center, with the Hungarian saber team.

In other words, not only were we expected to fence honorably and regard medals as the ultimate illusions they are–mementos of transient fortunate, often happy, moments–but we were expected to carry this expectation of honor and duty far beyond the strip. Camaraderie, derived from mutual respect and shared experience, bolstered this.

Even today one can easily judge a fencer’s character off the strip by their behavior on the strip. If a fencer, coach, or referee will game the system or cheat on the strip, they’re likely do so everywhere else they think they can get away with it. Those you can trust on the strip under pressure can probably be trusted off the strip.

In practice, this associated sense of honor and duty meant that some of us, as I did, gave up promising competitive potential for military service, or the Foreign Service, Peace Corps, medical volunteerism, or even simply to provide for a family or care for loved ones.

Several fencers I know had to give up significant competitive potential due to injuries received in the line of duty. Others had their participation upended by war, revolution, natural disaster, economic failure, accident, or disease. Similarly for aspiring fencers: I’ve had many beginning students in their sixties and seventies whose delay in learning to fence was commonly due to decades of circumstances beyond their control.

Some fencers fared even worse for their open embrace of service. I still recall a poignant story my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, a Hungarian, told me forty or more years ago, about an American epeeist he knew well. When war was declared, the American fencer was commissioned as a naval officer. He was killed in action aboard a destroyer in the Pacific. He was not the only such fencer.

Dr. Zold, who was no stranger to dueling and its associated sense of honor, himself put aside active swordplay for an even more dangerous, and far more noble, practice, which was to assist Raoul Wallenberg in helping Jews escape Hungary after the country was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1944. To have been caught doing so would have resulted in torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo. Wallenberg himself was abducted by the Soviet Secret Police at the end of the war and, two years later, reportedly murdered in custody.

Dr. Francis Zold in the 1970s.

Today, right now, some fencers are taking leave of their beloved sport, and even of family, to risk their well-being, possibly their lives, in support of others in peril from disease or injustice.

Again, we all need to remember that fencing will not be diminished forever. Our passion and practice will return in full measure. Many of us have often had to miss fencing for months or even years at a time for a variety of reasons. We always came back to it, and it to us.

In the meantime, if it’s not yet safe or practical for you to return to fencing, there’s still much you can do. You can read and study, stay fit, do footwork, practice if you have a partner at home.

One of the great lessons I’ve learned both from fencing and from particularly hazardous naval service was to be prepared for change. You may have expectations, you may have a plan, but in a fencing bout as in life our expectations and plans are often thwarted. We must always be prepared to adapt, and especially to carry our experience forward with us as life changes.

Fencing, is you pay attention, has many lessons useful in life’s trials.

Thus there is always more we can do. Simultaneously, as fencers past have done and some at present are already doing, we can seize upon fencing’s great virtues–honor and duty, camaraderie and respect, risk-taking, the courage to stand and fight alone–and via them try to make this world in danger a better place.

We need heroes today and everyday, and fencing, at its best, helps make them.

Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published July 2, 2020.

Captain Hook’s Hook: Its Most Likely Inspiration–And His Nemesis Crocodile’s Too!

Here’s a brief look at what I consider the mostly likely origin, or more correctly, inspiration, for J. M. Barrie’s eponymous villain’s most notable feature–his hook, not to mention the reason he had one. Although the novel, for both children and adults, was published in 1911, it was based on Barrie’s 1904 play. Curiously, annotators and Peter Pan scholars seem to have missed the likely origin of hook and crocodile, although I could be mistaken–there is a lot of published work on Peter and Wendy aka Peter Pan.

From Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1911). Illustration by F. D. Bedford.

Barrie’s inspiration for Captain Hook is commonly ascribed to a combination of the painted images of King Charles II, plus various references to various historical Captain Cooks. There are several of the latter captains, in fact, including a couple who were buccaneers in the 1680s. Cook, Hook, right? And a dashing pirate captain might look like a dashing rakish king, correct?

King Charles II by Samuel Cooper, 1665. Rijksmuseum.

For more detail, here’s Barrie’s perfectly written description of Captain Hook, from Chapter V, The Island Come True:

“In the midst of them, the blackest and largest jewel in that dark setting, reclined James Hook, or as he wrote himself, Jas. Hook, of whom it is said he was the only man that the Sea-Cook feared. He lay at his ease in a rough chariot drawn and propelled by his men, and instead of a right hand he had the iron hook with which ever and anon he encouraged them to increase their pace. As dogs this terrible man treated and addressed them, and as dogs they obeyed him. In person he was cadaverous and blackavized, and his hair was dressed in long curls, which at a little distance looked like black candles, and gave a singularly threatening expression to his handsome countenance. His eyes were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly. In manner, something of the grand seigneur still clung to him, so that he even ripped you up with an air, and I have been told that he was a raconteur of repute. He was never more sinister than when he was most polite, which is probably the truest test of breeding; and the elegance of his diction, even when he was swearing, no less than the distinction of his demeanour, showed him one of a different caste from his crew. A man of indomitable courage, it was said of him that the only thing he shied at was the sight of his own blood, which was thick and of an unusual colour. In dress he somewhat aped the attire associated with the name of Charles II, having heard it said in some earlier period of his career that he bore a strange resemblance to the ill-fated Stuarts; and in his mouth he had a holder of his own contrivance which enabled him to smoke two cigars at once. But undoubtedly the grimmest part of him was his iron claw.”

So presents the man in all his glory, a Captain Peter Blood might-have-been, or a Captain Blood had he truly turned ruthless pirate, although the character of Captain Blood wasn’t created until eighteen years later by Rafael Sabatini.

Captain Hook as depicted on the title page of the first US edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911. Illustration by F. D. Bedford.

A quick digression by way of annotation: the Sea-Cook is Long John Silver from Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and yes, many men and women in the 17th and 18th century Caribbean, including English buccaneers and pirates at times, smoked cigars. For more information on the latter, see my blog post Of Buccaneer Christmas, Dog as Dinner, & Cigar Smoking Women.

Iron Hooks & Hands in the Seventeenth Century

But first, before I reveal the answer most obvious once you’ve read it, we’ll make a very brief examination of seventeenth century hooks and iron hands. Notably, there are few if any historical references to pirates with them during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy from circa 1655 to 1730. Offhand, without doing a detailed review of my notes (only half of which are digitized or well-organized), I can’t think of any.

Typically, we see only stumps, not hooks or other prostheses in most seventeenth and eighteenth century images. One sixteenth century barber-surgeon, Ambroise Par茅, designed and built various sophisticated prostheses, but these were fairly rare, in part due to their obvious expense. Far more commonly, a simple hook or wooden hand was used as a prosthesis.

At the bottom, an artificial hand to be made from boiled leather or paper mache. From Les Oeuvres d鈥橝mbroise Par茅, 1633. Image from the New York Academy of Medicine.
A pair of sophisticated artificial hands from Les Oeuvres d鈥橝mbroise Par茅, 1633. Image from the New York Academy of Medicine.

Famous explorer Henri de Tonti, an Italian-born French citizen, wore an iron hook. One of the lieutenants of Ren茅-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, de Tonti explored much of the Mississippi Valley, fought against the English alongside France’s Iroquois allies, wrote an account of some of his exploits with La Salle, and died in 1704 in Old Mobile, Alabama of yellow fever. He had lost his hand in action in Sicily in 1677 when a grenade exploded. An epic swashbuckling figure, his likeness could have been taken as a model for Captain Hook, although this is unlikely.

Even so, Tonti’s written account of his fascinating adventures with La Salle was published in both French and English in the late nineteenth century. In fact, Tonti even had a run-in with alligators on the Mississippi near the villages known as the Akancas (Arkansas): “The first day we began to see and to kill alligators, which are numerous, and from 15 to 20 feet long.” (From Tonti’s 1693 Memoir.)

Henri de Tonti. The hook on his left hand is covered with a glove–he easily could be Captain Hook (or Captain Peter Blood, or Charles de Bernis, or a number of other Rafael Sabatini heroes). Painting by Nicolaes Maes, a pupil of Rembrandt, prior to 1694. It is currently on display in the History Museum of Mobile in Mobile, Alabama. (Thanks, Rita Thompson, for inadvertently making me aware of this painting!)

So, historical digression aside, where might J. M. Barrie had had his inspiration? Almost certainly from the following passage in Alexandre Exquemelin’s 1684/85 edition of The Buccaneers of America. For centuries a bestseller, there is little if any doubt that Barrie read the book. If you had any interest in pirates or maritime history in general, you probably read it. It’s been decades since I first read the passage below, but it immediately struck me as the inspiration for Hook’s hook and crocodile…

Title page from the 1684 Crooke edition of Bucaniers of America. Numerous editions were available in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego.

“Yea, we ourselves, desirous to revenge the disaster of our companion, went in troops the next day to the woods, with design to find out crocodiles to kill. These animals would usually come every night to the sides of our ship, and make resemblance of climbing up into the vessel. One of these, on a certain night, we seized with an iron hook, but he instead of flying to the bottom, began to mount the ladder of the ship, till we killed him with other instruments.”

Detail from an illustration of a buccaneer attacked by a crocodile, in Historie der Boecaniers, of Vrybuyters van America (Amsterdam: Nicolaas ten Hoorn, 1700). John Carter Brown Library.
Native Americans attacking or defending against a crocodile. From Erasmi Francisci Guineischer und americanischer Blumen-Pusch, 1669, after a late sixteenth century image by Theodor DeBry. John Carter Brown Library.

So there we have it: crocodiles eating pirates, a buccaneer ship with a crocodile climbing it, and an iron hook used to defend against it! It’s but a small leap from here to Captain Hook and the crocodile who took his hand…

Halloween 2019, sans hook… (Photograph by Courtney Little.)

Copyright Benerson Little 2020, first published April 10, 2020, last updated April 11, 2020.

The Virtues of Handwritten Letters in Peace, War, & Pestilence

“Woman Reading a Letter,” Johannes Vermeer, c. 1663, Rijksmuseum.

If I may make one simple proposal during this time of grave danger and accompanying uncertainty and change, it is to write letters to your family friends.

By this I mean write them by hand, on real paper, and send them even to those who are only a mile or two distant. You can’t–or shouldn’t, barring emergency or other in extremis–visit them in person. But you can send a memento, a physicality, a material example of your own nature, even of your soul if you’re up to it.

The joy of opening a personal letter remains unmatched even in this day of high technology in communication. Inevitably there is a shallow patina of something somehow impersonal laid over even the most sensitive, evocative missive when sent via an email, text, or message.

Not so with a handwritten letter.

The slower pace of the pen permits more reflection–and thereby more honest emotion.

Writing a letter by hand creates a material artifact, a memento that can opened, read, put away, to be later read and re-read.

A physical object creates a physical, and therefore emotional, attachment, in both the writer and, especially, the recipient.

The Love Letter, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1669 – c. 1670, Rijksmuseum.

Any paper and pen will serve. For decades I鈥檝e used an antique laid 24 lb. watermarked business paper, and lately I鈥檓 attached to a simple fountain pen with a stub nib and sepia ink, with a sepia signature icon printed on the top of the page, an image borrowed from a late nineteenth century book on fencing.

But letters need not be so formal or involved. Again, any paper and ink will serve: plain paper, legal pads, used paper with a blank side, note pads, even brown paper bag–all are perfect. In fact, the more quaint, the more character.

And to write with: ball point or gel pens, fountain pens or Sharpies, even cut quills or calligraphy nibs with a variety of inks, including the classic iron gall ink so favored by our ancestors of prior centuries.

Your handwriting is illegible? Don’t worry, your letter will have an infuriating charm. You can’t write in cursive? Print your letter by hand. Soon enough the letters will flow one to the next. Voil脿! You’re writing cursive.

Make corrections, write additions in the margins, write postscripts and post postscripts. Doodle in blank areas. Write a line in secret code. Illustrate what you have difficultly putting in words. Put messages on the back of the envelope.

Refuse to write by hand? Do you have a typewriter? Many of us still do, or have access to one, they’re even a small fad these days. If you have one, use it. I have a collection of old letters from my first fencing master, most of them written on his old typewriter, many of the individual letters of uneven height and ranging from light to dark depending on which finger struck the key, with corrections to his Hungarian-English made with white-out and ball point pen.

They are as charming as any handwritten letter.

If you don’t want to wait the days, even weeks, for an international letter to reach your correspondent, then scan or photograph it, and email it. Drop the original in the mail as a backup, and also so its physicality–its material evocation–will reach its intended.

Man Handing a Letter to a Woman in the Entrance Hall of a House, Pieter de Hooch, 1670, Rijksmuseum.

I’ve more than half a century of letters sent to me, all stowed in shoe boxes and bins, all half-organized at best. They’re on all sorts of paper and matching and mismatching envelopes: formal embossed letterhead, white notepaper with my father’s scrawl, thin airmail stationary written finely on both sides to eek out as many words as possible, heavy antique stationary, even common typing paper.

My mother has kept my father’s letters written when he was in Vietnam during the war, and two years later when he was off the coast aboard the USS Constellation. I wrote many letters during my overseas deployments in the US Navy in the 1980s. They are physical, material mementos of difficult days–and often they were the primary means of long distance communication, making them even more precious.

Re-reading them is a physical and psychological insight into the past: mine and my friends’ and my loved ones’ pasts, and the connected world we lived in–and still do.

To open one is briefly bring the past present again.

They are no less precious today as this great pestilence rages. And with profound sadness, for some may be the last physical memory left in the hands of friends and loved ones.

You’ve got pen and paper. Start writing.

The Letter Writer, Frans van Mieris (I), 1680, Rijksmuseum.

Copyright Benerson Little, 2020. First posted April 1, 2020.

Fortune’s Fool: Swordplay in the Time of Pestilence

Dust jacket from the first American edition. I much prefer the swordplay illustration below.

Set amidst the 1665 London plague, Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini spins the tale of an English officer too often abandoned by the goddess Fortune.

It’s not Sabatini’s best work, but it’s an enjoyable read and, in particular, it clearly show’s his worldview: one romantically cynical, in that he understood well the foolishness and fecklessness, even the depravity and cowardice, of much of humankind, while simultaneously asserting that good can, and often does, triumph in the end.

Sabatini understood that to succeed honorably, even nobly in such a world, one needed not only courage, but wit as well. And it never hurt to have a sharp sword too.

Early 17th century image of the plague in London.

In particular, the novel, whose details are almost certainly drawn from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) and the Diary of Samuel Pepys, shows numerous parallels with today’s Covid-19 pestilence. After all, people don’t change. They lie, they deny, they seek supernatural counsel, they indulge in quackery, they hoard, they exploit, they scapegoat, they profit from the death of the members of some groups over others.

And yet, many rise above the baser nature of humanity, and behave nobly, with great courage and sacrifice.

From the Riverside Press leather-bound edition.

And, romance though it is, Fortune’s Favorite shows this hopeful, uplifting side of humanity amidst death and the panicked fear of it.

And it has an excellent description of swordplay in action too!

From the Riverside Press leather-bound edition.

Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published March 30, 2020.

Captain Blood: His Odyssey–A Near-Century of Dust Jackets

First edition cover, Houghton Mifflin, 1922. Illustration, also used in the frontispiece, by famous illustrator and Howard Pyle student N. C. Wyeth, father of famous painter Andrew Wyeth. Price for the book? $2.00! Highly collectible.

Associated with our announcement of the creation of Treasure Light Press and the forthcoming publication of its first title, Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, The 100th Anniversary Annotated Edition, here’s a look at Captain Blood dust jackets over the years!

In a future post I’ll cover trade and mass market paperback covers.

The dust jacket of the first hardcover edition above is iconic, if not entirely historically accurate, but then, fiction book cover illustrations almost never are. Artist and illustrator N. C. Wyeth–a student of Howard Pyle–does, however, well-conveys the color and swashbuckling adventure of the novel.

Notably, as in many of the dust jackets below, Captain Peter Blood is sporting a mustache. However, only in the magazine serial, “Brethren of the Main,” published prior to the release of the novel, does he wear one. In the novel he does not. The Wyeth illustration has been used in numerous subsequent editions.

Also notably: according to authors Jesse F. Knight and Stephen Darley (see below), Captain Blood did not reach the bestseller list the year it was published. (See the end of the blog for a few notes on identifying true first editions.)

Vitagraph photoplay cover, with scenes from the film on the back of the dust jacket cover as well as within the book. Grosset & Dunlap, [1925]. Collectible, reasonable common with dust jacket.

In 1924, Vitagraph motion picture studio released a silent version of Captain Blood, of which only thirty minutes unfortunately still survive. Starring J. Warren Kerrigan–a poor choice if his personal character were to be compared to that of the fictional hero of the book, for he was no Peter Blood nor even an Errol Flynn–the film did much to further promote the novel. In fact, the novel was printed in full or in part in hundreds of newspapers as part of the studio campaign.

Program cover, Astor Theatre for Captain Blood, November 1924.

The illustration above is not a dust jacket, but the cover of the Astor Theatre program for the 1924 version of Captain Blood, starring J. Warren Kerrigan. The program art is based on the design of the novel’s 1922 US edition.

Dust jacket of the Hutchinson photoplay for the Vitagraph film, this one of the “Cheap Edition…Handsomely bound in cloth.” London: Hutchinson & Co., [1924?]. Fourteenth edition. Collectible.

A UK photoplay edition associated with the 1924 Vitagraph film. Again, Peter Blood sports a mustache he doesn’t have in the book. His costume, however, maintains a fair degree of historical accuracy. The cover illustration is the same one used in the original UK (Hutchinson) first edition. As with the Wyeth illustration, this one has been used in full or in part for numerous subsequent UK editions.

Riverside Press dust jacket, this one of the eighteenth printing (1950?).

In 1927 a Riverside Press edition (Houghton Mifflin) was published with the dust jacket above, and remained in print for at least twenty-five years. Both the dust jacket and the four illustrations inside are by Clyde O. Deland, the most impressive being that of the cover and perhaps of Col. Bishop being forced to walk the plank, and the least being that of the famous duel on the beach–it looks rather stilted and lacks the dynamism of Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth duel impressions. The illustrations are above average for historical detail. I’ve seen a simple drawing in black, based on the illustration, on the front hardcover of some library editions.

Dust jacket for Peter Bluts Odyssee, translated by Marguerite Thesing und Curt Thesing (Leipzig and Zurich: Grethlein & Co., 1929).

In 1929 a German edition was published. Mine has small notes in pencil regarding historical personages and such–Rafael Sabatini’s books have a knack for inspiring the study of history. I’ve often wondered how this reader, assuming he or she read it prior to WWII, regarded the rise of German authoritarianism and dictatorship–and the rise of the Nazi party–in light of the very opposing values of the novel.

Grosset & Dunlap, 1935(?).

A quasi-photoplay edition was published in 1935, timed with the release that December of the famous film that also made Errol Flynn a star. By quasi I mean that its end papers are illustrated with scenes from the film. There are no images placed within the pages, however. The cover is copied from a hard-to-find publicity still from the film, shown below.

Vitagraph (that is, Warner Bros.) publicity still, 1935.
Grosset & Dunlap, 1935(?).

An identical dust jacket, lacking only the film information, was also released around 1935 or soon after. I’ve seen this dust jacket on Grosset & Dunlap editions with and without the end papers from the film. Notably, all Grosset & Dunlap editions with this jacket have a statement on the front flap or back cover that it is a reduced price edition, made possible by using the original plates and the author accepting a reduced royalty. I’ve also seen library editions (no dust jackets) with a simple drawing in color, based on the image above, on the hardcover, and I’ve seen the full image itself also used.

Chicago Herald, November 6, 1936.

Newspaper ad for the 1935 film, showing a US edition dust jacket with Errol Flynn. This jacket was never actually produced.

Hutchinson & Co., 1935? From Hutchinson’s New Shilling Library. Scarce, if not entirely collectible.

Hutchinson in the UK also published an edition timed with the release of the “new talkie film.” It has no images from the film in the book itself.

Caift铆n Blood, translated by S茅amus 脫 Grianna (Baile 脕tha Cliath: Oifig D铆olta Foillseach谩in Rialtais [Dublin: Government Publications Sales Office], 1937). My thanks to Shelly Barber of the Burns Library at Boston College for bringing this Irish edition to my attention some years ago. Scarce and collectible.

Appropriately, given that Peter Blood was half Irish and considered himself an Irishman, an Irish language edition was published in 1937. The text font is beautiful. Sabatini, as did and do many writers, put his pirate hero in boots. In fact, mariners in this era did not wear riding boots–which is what the myth has pirates wearing–aboard ship, or even ashore–unless mounted on a horse.

Hutchinson Library Services Ltd, 1973.

A rather youngish-looking (definitely not in his thirties) Captain Peter Blood on the dust jacket of the 1973 edition published by Hutchinson Library Services Ltd in the UK. Purists will note the incorrect grip on the smallsword.

Russian, 1982.

There are numerous Russian editions of the novel, many of them well-illustrated. This is not a dust jacket per se, but the printed cover of a hardcover dual edition: Captain Blood: His Odyssey and The Chronicles of Captain Blood (aka Captain Blood Returns in the US).

Easton Press, 2005.

The cover of the Easton Press leather edition. The ship is of a later period and Peter Blood is wearing boots, as in the novel but not as he would have in real life–again, unless he were about to mount a horse or had just dismounted…

Capit谩n Blood dust jacket, illustrated by Imma Mestieri Malaspina, translated by Guillermo de Boladeres. Barcelona: Edhasa, 2005.

Last, my favorite recent hardcover edition. In Spanish, it’s well-illustrated with line drawings, and its design does justice to the story.

Dust jacket illustrations, collectible and evocative as they are, are there for a reason: to induce the potential reader to buy the book. And no matter how appealing they are, they pale when compared to the actual text. A battered old library copy sold for a buck at a yard or library sale is still a great read.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from collecting a variety of editions with dustjackets!

Captain Blood First Editions

A quick word of warning to those of you who collect books, especially those looking for first editions. Later editions or printings of Captain Blood are often listed, sometimes mistakenly, sometimes purposefully to deceive, as true first editions. It is easy to mistake later editions for firsts, given that many editions list the original publication year–1922–but not the year of the later edition or impression. For example, both the 1922 first and the 1924 US photoplay state 1922 as the year, but I’ve often seen the 1924 listed as a true first, as I have later editions. Editions published in the 1930s typically list only 1922 as the year of publication.

Notably, true firsts have the first dust jacket shown above, and list both the year 1922 AND the month and the year of all impressions, except for the first impression, up to the date of the published edition. For example, the eleventh impression of the first edition lists the dates of the second through eleventh impressions, the last given as “ELEVENTH IMPRESSION, OCTOBER 1924.” The dust jacket spine lists the printing, for example, “Twelfth Printing” for the eleventh impression.

For more information on identifying firsts, see The Last of the Great Swashbucklers: A Bio-Bibliography of Rafael Sabatini by Jesse F. Knight and Stephen Darley (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2020), and also “Collecting Rafael Sabatini” in Firsts: The Book Collector’s Magazine (March 2001, Vol. 11, No. 3).

True firsts in fine or near fine book and dust jacket conditions (very rare!) command large prices, so if you’re looking to buy one, make sure that’s what you’re actually getting. Especially beware of firsts whose dust jacket is actually a modern–and usually so noted–reprint. They’re typically much over-priced. For example, I’ve seen a near-fine original first without dust jacket, which can often be found for $25 or less, combined with a $25 reprint dust jacket–and listed for a few hundred dollars. It’s a ripoff. It’s the original dust jacket, or author signature, or both, that command the great prices.

Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published February 12, 2020. Last updated May 12, 2020.

Holiday Greetings!

Errol Flynn as Captain Peter Blood commanding the Arabella in her final action. (Warner Bros., 1935.)

With the floor beneath the tree still looking like the decks of the Arabella just before she sank in her final swashbuckling action, here are a few lines in sweet memory of past Christmas mornings and in happy anticipation of future ones, at least for anyone who has ever pretended to be the pirates of fiction and film–or who inspires such fantasy in their children:

“Bars of gold and pieces of eight,
Spanish galleons of goodly freight;
Buried treasure to seek and gain:
Lads [and Lasses]! what ho, for the Spanish Main!”

–A. E. Bosner, The Buccaneers: A Tale of the Spanish Main

The Iconic “Spanish” Fort: Only a Spanish Galleon Says “Pirates” Better!

View of El Morro and the Caribbean at Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Author’s photo, 1987.

Recently, while searching for Spanish colonial Caribbean buildings and fortifications for a game table on which to play Blood & Plunder by Firelock Games–a project that will likely take me years but should be ready when my third and fourth children are old enough to play–I came across a truly iconic 28mm version of the classic Spanish fort by King’s 3D Prints, and I had to have it.

Caribbean fort and pier church by Kings 3D Prints in the UK.

Why? Well, as I’ll explain in more detail shortly, because… Captain Blood. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Classic Hollywood swashbucklers starring Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara and others. The intelligent buccaneer romances of Rafael Sabatini. And most especially, childhood memories.

Not to mention that I’m working on a fully-annotated version of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, and it would make a great inspirational prop.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say up front that I do historical consulting for Blood & Plunder (and Oak & Iron too). It’s a great game created by great people, with an emphasis on both enjoyable game play and historical accuracy. In fact, the creators of South Park love the game, and even featured it in episode 7, season 23 this past November 13 (2019).

But Firelock, which has a wonderful, beautiful, broad line of ships, vessels, figures, &c, doesn’t make a Spanish fort with the particularly iconic sentry box (I’m not trying to put you on the spot, Mike!), and this is what really makes “Spanish” Caribbean forts stand out to me. And not just Spanish forts, but European forts in general, even though pirate movies make us think that all such forts are Spanish Caribbean, or in some minds, “pirate” forts.

Single section of the 28mm Caribbean fort by King’s 3D Prints. Vessel and figures by Blood & Plunder.

So, again, when I found this 3-D printed Spanish fort, I had to have it. More full disclosure: the seller recognized my name, knew I had written books on the subject of piracy and consulted for Blood & Plunder, and said he loved the game, it’s what got him interested in the period. And he sent me more than I had purchased, with a tongue-in-cheek piratical request that, if I didn’t mind, I’d put a small plug in for his product.

I decided therefore that this was a good excuse for a blog on Spanish Caribbean forts, so here we are, plug included, and I’m happy to do so. The 3-D printed fort is a very nice piece of work, perfect for evoking pirates of the Caribbean, not to mention the brave men and women who tried to defend their lives and property against these often brutal sea thieves.

Corner section of the 3D printed fort, with the sentry box prominent.

Most people are probably familiar with this iconic fort from the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Originally meant to be a comic depiction of a the sack of a Spanish Caribbean town by not-too-rapacious buccaneers–although in reality there was nothing comical about these attacks–it has been somewhat altered to bring it in line with the film series. But no matter, we’re all familiar with the pirate ship Wicked Wench bombarding the Spanish fort, its sentry box in plain view, even though no pirate ship would ever have survived such a cannonade. Buccaneers attacked Spanish forts from the shore, not from the sea, and for good reason.

Model of the Wicked Wench and the Spanish fort for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Disney photograph.
The Castillo and the Wicked Wench depicted in Disney art.

So iconic is the image of the sentry box that it’s displayed prominently at the entry to the ride at Walt Disney World, and even more prominently at the nearby Pirates of the Caribbean lodging, in which there are several at the pool.

The “Castillo del Morro” at Walt Disney World. There is in fact such a castillo at Havana, Cuba, and a Castillo San Felipe del Morro at Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo from the Pure Imagineering Blog.

The opening scene at the Disney ride, at least once you’re past the scenes of the dead or undead pirates, in which ship battles fort, was without doubt inspired by the similar scene in the 1935 version of Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. In it, following the plot of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, a Spanish pirate making a reprisal against English buccaneers launches an attack against Port Royal (although in the book it’s Barbados–screenwriter Casey Robinson streamlined the plot). But in reality, not even the most famous of all admirals, Michiel de Ruyter of the Netherlands, with a battle fleet at hand, could defeat the fortifications of Barbados, much less would he have been able to at Port Royal. It’s a fiction, albeit a fun one, which has been carried on by numerous swashbuckling novels, pirate films, and, especially, pirate video games, their arcade nature making such battles a natural fit.

The Cinco Llagas attacking the fort at Port Royal, Jamaica, in Captain Blood. DVD screen capture from the Warner Bros. 1935 film. (And when will this film be available on Blu-ray?)
A model, of course, there was no CGI. DVD screen capture from the Warner Bros. 1935 film.
A close-up view of the fort and sentry box.
Spanish captain and officers in anachronistic but Hollywood-iconic armor overseeing the assault. DVD screen capture from the Warner Bros. 1935 film.

The iconic Spanish fort made its way into other pirate films as well, such as The Spanish Main (RKO, 1945) starring Maureen O’Hara, Paul Henreid, Binnie Barnes (doing some excellent swordplay, by the way), and John Emery (also doing some excellent swordplay, much better than Henreid’s, notwithstanding that Emery had to lose to him in the finale).

Over-the-top (as most Hollywood forts are) Spanish fort imagined for Cartagena de Indias in The Spanish Main. In fact, much of the several original forts at Cartagena still exist. DVD screen capture from the RKO film.
A pair of images (YouTube screen captures) from Il Corsaro Nero (The Black Corsair, 1976) starring Kabir Bedi and, in a supporting role, Mel Ferrer. The Italian film was shot on location at the fortifications at Cartagena de Indias where in 1697 a privateer force of French ships, seamen, and soldiers on loan from the French navy and army, combined with French flibustiers (buccaneers) and Caribbean militia, sacked the town. My thanks to Ant贸n Viejo Alonso for bringing this film to my attention!

Period depictions of the sentry box, used on forts across Europe actually, are more difficult to find.

Title page of a book on fortification, 1654. The sentry box appears rather phallic, probably a joke on the part of the artist. Rijksmuseum.

In spite of a review of the plans of numerous seventeenth century Spanish Caribbean and other Spanish Main fortifications, the sentry box seldom shows up, although here it does in a somewhat inaccurate vista of Nombre de Dios.

Vista of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama. French National Library.
Detail from the previous image, showing the sentry boxes at the corners of the bastions.

And here’s a fort at Cumana, Venezuela, in 1704:

Cumana, 1704. Archives of the Indies (AGI).

There are in fact three Spanish forts with the iconic sentry box–all very “piratey”–in the US, all worth visiting. Most impressive is the Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The image at the head of this blog post was taken there in 1987.

Another view of one of the parapets and sentry box at the Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Author’s photo, 1987.
National Park Service photograph.
In fact, so iconic is the sentry tower, that it was used in the 1971 US Postal Service stamp commemorating the tricentennial of the settlement of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

In St. Augustine, Florida, is the Castillo de San Marcos, a classic Spanish fort, one attacked both by buccaneers and by Carolinians in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

The castillo from the air. National Park Service photograph.
Mid-eighteenth century view of the Castillo de San Marcos after the British captured it. Library of Congress.
Author’s photograph, 2011.
Author’s photograph, 2011.
The large sentry tower at the Castillo. Author’s photograph, 2011.

And nearby, at Matanzas, where the Spanish slaughtered an entire French colony in its early stages (in many ways a reprisal for French slaughter of Spaniards), is the Fuerte Matanzas, probably the coolest little fort in the world, evoking buccaneers and the Spanish Main close up. Every kid should have one!

Seen from the ferry. Author’s photograph, 2011.
Author’s photograph, 2011.
My wife at the sentry box. Author’s photograph, 2011.

There’s also a similar fort section, albeit a reproduction, at Fort Cond茅, or Fort Louis de la Mobile as it was originally known before it was relocated  in Mobile, Alabama–French this time.

Author’s photograph, a long long time ago…

I know the Disney ride is fun and the Flynn film is outstanding entertainment, but I can’t recommend enough that you visit these forts in the US, and even better, visit those in the Caribbean and Latin America as well. For additional information, there are several good books on the subject of Spanish forts in the Americas, and I recommend starting with Fortificaciones en IberoAmerica by Ram贸n Guti茅rrez, available as a print book and pdf as well.

And if you need a Spanish fort to set on your desk, well, you know where to find one!

Copyright Benerson Little, 2019. First published November 23, 2019, last updated April 26, 2020.

Swordplay Aloft: A Fictional But Entirely Enjoyable Pirate Trope

Cutthroat Island 01

Cutthroat Island finale, Morgan Adams (Geena Davis, right) versus Dawg Brown (Frank Langella). Carolco, 1995.

In advance of my forthcoming series on “The Duel on the Beach,” a fun look at the Hollywood trope of swordplay in the rigging.

We can probably blame Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island for the trope’s ultimate inspiration. In the novel [Spoiler Alert!], Jim Hawkins climbs aloft aboard the schoonerHispaniola to escape the murderous pirate Israel Hands, ultimately burning the salty thug’s brains with a brace of pistols.聽Why the hungover, perhaps even still-besotted, sea-thief didn’t simply use a musket to murder the lad is unknown. Perhaps he was too fogged by rum to think of it, or he didn’t have a musket at hand, or knew he wouldn’t be able to hit the bold lad. More likely, it’s simply a much better scene to have a murderous pirate armed with a knife slowly climb aloft while his victim waits at the extreme point of retreat.

One_More_Step,_Mr._Hands

“One Step More, Mr. Hands” by N. C. Wyeth for the 1911 Charles Scribner’s Sons edition of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Doubtless inspired by Treasure Island, Charles Boardman Hawes includes a scene of fighting aloft in his Newberry award-winnning novel, The Dark Frigate.

Dark Frigate

Illustration by Anton Otto Fischer from the 1936 Little, Brown, and Company “Beacon Hill Bookshelf” edition.

But the primary origin of the trope, whether for Mr. Stevenson or Hollywood in general, is almost certainly the simple fact that the masts and rigging are too enticing not be used: a vast network or “jungle gym” overhead with boundless possibilities. It’s聽simply impossible to ignore the setting towering aloft above a vessel’s decks. It’s a nautical gymnasium begging to be used! And so it often has.

Before going further, we should quickly examine what sailors did, and still do, aloft. They set, take in, and furl sail. They hoist spars and masts aloft, and strike the same as necessary. They stand lookout. They man the tops in battle, enabling armed seamen to fire on the enemy below. They make repairs. They skylark.

Rigging

Seamen climbing aloft. Detail from “Shipping in a Calm” by Peter Monamy, early 18th century. Yale Center for British Art.

Dutch Seamen Aloft

Dutch seamen on the lowered main-topmast yard, with another seamen climbing the main shrouds. Detail from “Dutch Ships in a Calm Sea” by Willem van de Velde the Younger, c. 1665. Rijksmuseum.

Spanish detail

Activity at sea, including a lookout in the maintop. Note also the boatswain using his “call” as he directs seamen hauling on a line. Detail from “Fragata ‘La Pur铆sima Concepci贸n’ 1754. Archivo Hist贸rico Nacional, Spain.

Detail

Getting a better view at anchor of the Doge’s barge of state in Venice. Detail from “The Bucintoro Departing from the Bacino di San Marco” by Luca Carlevarijs, 1710. J. Paul Getty Museum.

IMG_3419

My middle daughter (second from right) helping furl the mainsail aboard the Flagship Niagara one recent summer. Author’s photo.

Although fighting aloft was routine–men firing from above at men below–there’s no evidence of anything other than with firearms, grenades, and sometimes swivel guns occasionally fired at the enemy also aloft. No swordplay on yards, in other words. Note that in the painting below, no one aloft is wielding a sword, nor are there lines rigged from which to slide down or swing across (another popular but false Hollywood pirate trope).

Actual fighting aloft would look something like this:

num-9-OA-17-D-a-0311-H

“Combat de la Bayonnaise contre l’Embuscade, 1798.” The twenty-gun French corvette defeated the larger English frigate by boarding, a tactic at which the French were quite adept and well-known for. Mus茅e national de la Marine, Paris.

num-9-OA-17-D-f-0314-H

Detail from the painting above, showing fighting aloft, composed entirely of firearms. Mus茅e national de la Marine, Paris.

But when it comes to film, The Black Pirate (Vitagraph, 1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks set the standard for action aloft–but not for swordplay aloft, of which it alas had none. The film included circus-like aerial stunts and a famous scene in which Fairbanks slips a sword or dagger into a sail and slides down its face, cutting the canvas as he does.

Black Pirate Aloft 04

Black Pirate Aloft 03

Black Pirate Aloft 02

In Captain Blood (Warner Bros., 1935) starring Errol Flynn, the action aloft is more mundane, although it does include some brief swordplay, and includes a lesser trope: pirates sliding down on ropes during boarding actions, swinging from ship to ship, and occasionally from yard to yard, none of which actually occurred to ship to ship combat. Still, it’s fun.

CB Aloft 01

CB Aloft 02

CB Aloft 03

CB Aloft 04

In Against All Flags (Universal International, 1952) Errol Flynn as Brian Hawke climbs aloft via the lubber’s hole (for shame!) to cut down the main-yard. He’s lucky the pirates were lazy, otherwise the yard would’ve been slung with chain in time of battle and his rapier of little use in cutting through. When he sees pirates coming at him from aloft and alow, rather than fight them he escapes instead, using Douglas Fairbanks’s famous technique. The film was remade, almost scene for scene, as The King’s Pirate (Universal, 1967), but an acrobatic escape was substituted for the sword-in-sail trick. Against All Flags was one of Flynn’s last films, certainly one of his last good ones (arguably a tie among these last films with Crossed Swords, The Master of Ballantrae, and a more serious film, The Warriors). Against All Flags also starred Maureen O’Hara in her last swashbuckler. She’s as dashing as Flynn in the film, and as good if not better with a sword.

Script LR

Excerpt from an original聽Against All Flags script.

AAF 01

AAF 02

The lubber’s hole… Again, for shame, Flynn!

AAF 03

AAF 04

AAF 05

The Crimson Pirate (Warner Bros., 1952) showcased Burt Lancaster’s acrobatic skills aloft, but lacked swordplay:

Crimson Pirate

Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) had plenty of action aloft, including an homage to Treasure Island:

Peter Pan 02

But the real action was between Pan and Hook on the main-topsail yard:

Peter Pan 01

And also in Return to Neverland (Disney, 2002):

Return to Neverland

The action is included on the Disney theme park attraction:

Peter Pan Flight

And even in the Disney theme parks Fantasmic! show:

2014-02-15_0098

Photo by Albert Lam.

The trope also made it into a series of Dominica Peter Pan postage stamps in 1980, shown below as a Disney pin:

s-l1600

But it was Cutthroat Island (Carolco, 1995) that did it’s best to include a sword fight in earnest on a yard aloft. The film was a box office bomb. Even so, Geena Davis did a creditable job, and the soundtrack is excellent.

Cutthroat Island 02

Cutthroat 06

Publicity still, UK release.

Not to be beat, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End included swordplay between Davy Jones and Jack Sparrow on a yard aloft during a storm while dueling ships were whipped around at the edge of a giant maelstrom:

At World's End

The Adventures of Tintin (Columbia Pictures et al, 2011) featured animated if improbable-but-exciting swordplay aloft:

vlcsnap-2019-12-19-10h39m25s561

vlcsnap-2019-12-19-10h39m31s066

vlcsnap-2019-12-19-10h39m36s320

vlcsnap-2019-12-19-10h39m38s666

Swordplay, or at least swords, aloft has continued in recent pirate films. Below is Son Ye-jin as Captain Yeo-wol in The Pirates (Harimao Pictures, 2014), engaging in aerial swashbuckling.

The Pirates Aloft 01

The trope made its way even into the recent Thugs of Hindostan (Latina Pictures, et al, 2018), a pirate-ish, Bollywood, stick-it-to-the-English Indian film:

Thugs of Hindostan

Action aloft also made its way onto television in the form of the final episode in season four of Black Sails, in a scene in which I as historical consultant had some input.

But the trope has found its way into more than just film. A significant but largely unstudied contribution to pirate culture is that of various collector’s cards: tobacco, bubble gun, and arcade. Typically inspired by popular illustration, film, and general clich茅, the cards often include images of swordplay and other fighting aloft, invariably via contrived circumstances often involving pirates or merchant seamen attempting to escape aloft. In the 1930s card just below, failed mutineer-pirates retreat aloft to little avail.

Fighting Aloft 2A

Fighting Aloft 2B

Below, in a 1930s Holloway Pirate Treasure trading card, merchant seamen flee aloft to make their last stand, again to no avail.

Fighting Aloft 1A

Fighting Aloft !B

Below, a Swedish/French bubble gum card dating to the 1930s. This time it’s not a merchant seaman retreating aloft, but a duel over the plunder on a night “full of stars, the air calm, the sea tranquil.” One of the pirates, Mulrooney, has hidden a brace of pistols in the rigging. He drops his cutlass and climbs aloft, followed by his armed adversary Hawkins. Mulrooney, in most dishonorable fashion–even for a pirate–arms himself with his hidden pistols and shoots Hawkins dead.

s-l500 (1)

s-l1600 (2)

Comic books are another significant source of modern pirate culture, and like the cards above they typically reinforce existing tropes. Here the sword fight is on the bowsprit, one man armed with an anachronistic rapier (unless he’s an Iberian or perhaps an Italian under Spanish rule) with quillons in the wrong place, the other armed with an anachronistic “soup ladle” cutlass.

Piracy EC Comics

But just how easy would it be to fence aloft on spars? It wouldn’t be. By way of experiment I’ve attempted footwork on a balance beam, much as in the photograph below but with much less danger. At first it’s not easy to maintain balance and any “fencing” done is best done by way of slow choreographed movements. Put simply, I fell often, more even than the time a friend and I fenced with sabers at midnight in New Orleans under live oaks on a carpet of acorns (it was a mast year). Still, after a bit of practice one can move conditionally well on a flat beam–but still not sufficiently to prevent a likely fall. A rounded spar would be much more difficult to fence upon.

Aerial fencing, usually on rooftops or on beams or scaffolding attached to them, and usually as stunts or photo opportunities, is not uncommon:

Times Square Saber

Star and Isabelle Jones stunt fencing atop the Times Square Hotel circa 1925. The Jones’s were members of a famous theatrical family. Getty Images, Hulton Archive.

a86d8909-91b4-479f-aa25-7f8a540bee06

NYU fencing team practicing on a rooftop, or, given the lack of masks on several fencers, pretending to for the sake of a photograph. NYU Archives, 1923.

60526061_2309646342609693_6809468585191855972_n

A safe thrill: fencing aloft with harness. Photo borrowed from the Dunwoody Fencing Club page, no attribution given.

72171593_2465446570445542_4292757853153787904_n

Balloon fencing prior to skydiving–and maybe fencing in freefall too? Source of images unknown, I copied them from the Facebook page of French fencing master Gerard Six.

IMG_20200327_175059219

My wife and son practicing balance–or for starring roles in a pirate film. (Photo by Marguerite BreeAnne Little.)

Any real fencing on a beam or spar would obviously quickly result in a fall. Many years ago I saw a fencing high wire act performed at the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus: it was composed of simple choreographed movements, as expected.

In similar fashion, the modern aerial troupe Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean performs a tightrope fencing act on tour, including this past summer at the Miami Seaquarium:

5254749_orig

Members of the Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean performing.

58efe14475666.image

Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean.

But could swordplay aloft have happened in reality? Even rarely? The answer is akin to that of the myth of buried pirate treasure. Did pirates bury treasure? No, although it’s possible to find a rare instance of a couple of shipwrecked pirates burying their plundered shares to keep other pirates from stealing it. Further, it’s possible to imagine a rare similar but more significant exception, for example the shipwreck of pursued pirates who bury their plunder to prevent a pirate hunting landing party from finding it. But there’s no evidence anything like this ever happened. Similarly, there’s no evidence of swordplay aloft among pirates or anyone else at sea, as thrilling and pregnant with possibility the prospect is. Even so, it’s possible to imagine a rather contrived, but still possible, circumstance. Hollywood does it all the time.

SAAM-1992.116.10_1

Quite possibly my favorite swordplay image, and if not my most favorite, then surely one of my top three. The swashbuckling adventure of youth, exactly what fencing should be–and might that not be imagined a ship’s yard they’re fencing on? “Aaron Siskind,聽Untitled, from the project The Most Crowded Block,聽1939-1940, printed later, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1992.116.10, 漏 1940, Aaron Siskind Foundation.”

IMG_20190809_143405752

The trope has traveled far–even to a wine or rum holder!

Copyright Benerson Little, 2019-2020. Last updated 28 March 2020.

The Myth of Sharp’s Buccaneers, the Wreck of the Santa Maria de la Consolaci贸n, and Isla de Muerto

e9643

Buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp’s course through the South Sea, from one of several copies made by William Hack of the Spanish South Sea derrotero captured by Sharp. This one was presented to King James II. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 1685.)

 

The account of events is easy to find on the Internet: while on her two thousand mile voyage along the Pacific coast of South America in the spring of 1681, the Spanish merchantman–possibly a galleon, but likely only in the sense that any Spanish treasure ship might be known as a galleon–Santa Maria de la Consolaci贸n was sighted by one or more pirate ships under the command of the notorious buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp.

The Consolaci贸n only barely escaped by slipping into Guayaquil Harbor, but in her haste she wrecked on Isla Santa Clara. The buccaneers came ashore and, furious that the treasure was lost, tortured several of the crew and beheaded two of them.

So notorious were the acts of the buccaneers, or so one version of the story goes, that the island became known as Isla de Muerto.

The story has almost everything Hollywood has led us to expect in a pirate story.

But there’s a problem with this tale, as is there is with much that evokes Hollywood expectations.

Almost none of it is true.

 

03618-5

Buccaneers torturing inhabitants. From De Americaensche zee-roovers by A. O. Exquemelin, 1678. (John Carter Brown Library.)

 

The Buccaneers & the Santa Maria de la Consolaci贸n

Yes, there was a shipwreck.

The Santa Maria de la Consolaci贸n did run aground and sink.

And yes, the Consolaci贸n’s captain, crew, and passengers had been concerned about the pirates in the region, and yes, the pirates were commanded by the famous Bartholomew Sharp, at least most of the time.

But that’s all the truth there is.

Neither Sharp nor any other pirates chased the ship, nor did they come ashore after the wreck, nor did they torture or behead any of the crew or passengers.

In fact, the captain, crew, and passengers of the Consolaci贸n never saw any pirates at all, much led fled from any unless you consider the definition to include their haste to complete their voyage in case they might see them.

Bartholomew Sharp and his ship the Trinity were far to windward at the time. Only two or three months later did he and his buccaneers even learn that the Consolaci贸n had been at sea, and conditions made it impossible to search for her even though the sea rovers were in the area of Guayaquil.

Time, distance, and other circumstances–Fortune–ensured that the Trinity would never cross paths with the Consolaci贸n. Nor would the buccaneers even learn of the shipwreck until long after she had wrecked.

 

e9641

Guayaquil, from ‘The South Sea Waggoner shewing the making & bearing of all the coasts from California to the Streights of Le Maire done from the Spanish originall by Basil Ringrose derrotero captured by Bartholomew Sharp and his buccaneers in the South Sea.’ (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 1682.)

 

According to buccaneer and author Basil Ringrose (1684):

“August 19 [1681]. This day our pilot [captured July 29, 1681 aboard the Spanish ship El Santo Rosario] told us that, since were to windward, a certain ship that was coming from Lima bound for Guayaquil ran ashore on Santa Clara, losing there in money to the value of 100,000 pieces-of-eight; which otherwise, peradventure, we might very fortunately have met with.”

In fact, the buccaneers had no great guns (cannon) aboard their flagship, the Trinity, while the Consolaci贸n had more than twenty of brass and iron. Unless the buccaneers could have boarded the treasure ship, the battle might easily gone to the Spanish.

Sharp’s voyage is by far the most well-documented of any buccaneer or pirate voyage in history, with some seven members writing full or partial accounts. Further, Spanish records quite thoroughly corroborate the buccaneer accounts, including dates and locations. There is no possibility of mistake: Sharp and his buccaneers never sighted the Consolaci贸n, much less chased her, much less abused her crew. Having written several books on the subject of piracy, including extensive research on the subject of Bartholomew Sharp, I’m in a pretty good position to know.

Of course, there may, however, have been a small number of buccaneers who might have been briefly in the area, but they never saw the Consolaci贸n either and in any case were in no shape to have chased or attacked her. They were sneaking their way back to the Isthmus of Darien after having “mutinied” and parted from Bartholomew Sharp, finding his behavior as a commander less than acceptable.

 

La Isla de Muerto

One of these “mutineers” (they really weren’t mutineers, for buccaneer articles permitted crew members to leave the crew, provided that they paid for their provisions) was William Dampier, soon to become famous for his travels and books. He did write about the wreck when, as a member of a buccaneer crew three years later, they hovered around Guayaquil.

 

66-304-5

The Bay of Guayaquil from a waggoner by William Hack, based on the Spanish derrotero captured by Bartholomew Sharp. (John Carter Brown Library, post 1698.)

 

According to Dampier, writing of 28 November 1684 in his A New Voyage Round the World, “It is reported by the Spaniards, that there is a very rich Wreck lies on the North-side of that Island [Santa Clara], not far from it; and that some of the Plate hath been taken up by one who came from Old-Spain, with a Patent from the King to fish in those Seas for Wrecks; but he dying, the Project ceased, and the Wreck still remains as he left it; only the Indians by stealth do sometimes take up some of it; and they might have taken up much more, if it were not the Cat-fish which swarms hereabouts.”

If we look at several of the Basil Ringrose and William Hack (or Hacke) charts of the Bay of Guayaquil, based on a captured Spanish derrotero, we learn that Isla Santa Clara was known as Isla de la Muerto not because there was a massacre there, but because it is shaped like 鈥渢he corps of a man in a shroud.鈥 Dampier also notes that “it appears like a dead Man stretched out in a Shroud.”

 

Hack Detail

Detail from the Hack chart above.

 

From this would derive not only the island鈥檚 nickname, but also the myth. An additional suggestion toward the myth may come from a line in a copy of another of Hack’s South Sea waggoners, shown in the image below. Sharp, however, never actually gave chase as attested by numerous buccaneer accounts and Spanish records.

 

Guayaquil Isla Sta Clara Hack

Detail from another Hack chart, providing the likely other source of the myth, implying that Sharp gave chase to the ship–but nothing more.

 

In other words, the coins aren’t cursed Aztec treasure (wrong region anyway), or cursed by direct association with pirates who tortured the crew, or cursed at all unless you consider the coca chewing slave labor used in extracting the Potos铆 silver from the mines or in refining it with poisonous quicksilver.

 

Guayaquil Massertie BNF b

Another view of Guayaquil showing the corpse-like shape of Santa Clara Island. From the French flibustier Massertie MS, late 17th century, in the French National Library.

 

Salvage Coins

And if there were no massacre, any marketing done to sell coins salvaged from the wreck is misleading. I own a few coins from the wreck and as I recall there were references to the massacre in the associated descriptions and apparently still are. Why does this matter? Because people buying the coins might want to know that, although there is a buccaneer association, it’s not as close as often advertised.

Yet the purported association lures buyers. In fact, some several or more years ago I purchased one of these wreck-salvaged pieces-of-eight from a reportedly reliable coin vendor on ebay as a memento. I鈥檓 not a big coin collector, and generally don鈥檛 care for salvage coins. Perhaps as few as two or three wrecks whose coins are available on the market have an indirect relationship to actual pirates or sea rovers, and most salvage coins are in poor shape as compared to many 鈥渓and hoard鈥 coins. I prefer coins that have been handled and used, not those that have lain for centuries at the bottom of the sea soon after being minted. In other words, I prefer coins with a long active history.

However, having written several times of Bartholomew Sharp and his South Sea buccaneers, I thought a coin or two from the wreck of the Santa Maria de la Consolaci贸n off Santa Clara Island in the Bay of Guayaquil would be in order, given its association with the South Sea buccaneers. I found a third one reasonably priced, from a reliable coin vendor with high ratings and thousands of transactions. The coin was not expensive, as eight reale pieces-of-eight go, and was priced in the lower end of the range. I did not examine it too closely before buying it, although I ran it past the images of forged pieces-of-eight on the Daniel Sedwick website. But when I received the coin I was perplexed. It appeared genuine, but there was no sea damage at all, nor did the coin match any description of any New World coin.

Eventually I appealed to Mr. Sedwick to evaluate the coin for me. The coin was genuine, as I thought, but was a common piece-of-eight minted in Spain, “Seville” as it was called by the English in America, and not one from the wreck of the Santa Maria. Further, as Mr. Sedwick pointed out to me in an email, upon close examination it was apparent that the certificate of authenticity had been forged. I hesitate to accuse the vendor I purchased it from of this, although as a professional he should have spotted it.

 

Coins A

An authentic piece-of-eight from the wreck of the Santa Maria de la Consolaci贸n on the left, and the authentic “Seville” piece-of-eight fobbed off as a coin from the wreck.

 

More curious, though, is what the certificate forger, not to mention criminal jackass, whoever he or she was, expected to get away with. Perhaps he or she intended to capitalize on the inexplicable (to me at least) preference for sea salvage coins over land hoard and circulated coins which are typically in much better shape, although not always. Whatever he or she intended, the coin’s pretended shipwreck status did nothing to increase its value. Comparable Spain-minted coins often go for more money than I paid for it. I lost nothing on the transaction except the coin as memento.

Ebay is often criticized for failing to scrutinize its coin vendors enough, and buyers need to be careful when buying from anyone other than a highly reputable dealer who deals regularly in Spanish cobs. Mr. Sedwick鈥檚 book, The Practical Book of Cobs has good sections on buying coins and spotting fakes. Although an expensive book, readers should also review Sewall Menzel’s Cobs: Pieces of Eight and Treasure Coins–The Early Spanish American Mints and Their Coinages, 1536-1773. (However, I should note that as of the date of original publication of this post, even Mr. Sedwick’s page associated with this wreck incorrectly states that the pirates tortured some of the survivors &c.)

A bit of advice: don’t simply accept any claims made on the Internet. Double-check them. Start with books on the subject, and especially look for citations. If there are no citations in an Internet article, or even a book, be highly suspicious. For that matter, be a bit suspicious even if there are. Check the citations: you might be surprised to learn how often citations don’t actually support the claim. (This is unfortunately true even in some scholarship more often than it should be.)

In the case of these coins, you’ll find not only that there really aren’t citations given at all to support the claims, but also that the descriptions are all very similar, often identical. In other words, they all have the ultimate incorrect source. And when you go looking for books to support the claim you won’t find any. So why hasn’t the story been changed, even though I’ve challenged it on the Internet for some years now, and in books as well? Even though no scholarly work on Sharp’s voyage mentions it? Even though the written accounts of the buccaneers themselves not only don’t mention it but dispute it?

Money.

The purported pirate association makes the coins more likely to sell, or so the thinking goes, and in some cases permits a higher price.

Still, none of the foregoing should devalue the coins as 鈥減irate treasure,鈥 including the fact that the buccaneers never chased the ship. Sharp鈥檚 voyage was epic, and these coins are what he was after. The Santa Maria de la Consolaci贸n, sailing alone, struggled to make it safely to port, in fear all the while of Sharp鈥檚 buccaneers. These coins are the closest pieces-of-eight readily available–and affordable–to what we would describe as 鈥渂uccaneer treasure.鈥

 

 

Copyright Benerson Little 2019. First published February 13, 2019. Last updated April 5, 2019.

Fencing Quotations

Early Pass
“With advancing of the left foot the Sword of the offending party is put by and the Deffendant makes his point good in tierce.” From The Art of Fencing Represented in Proper Figures Exhibiting the Several Passes, Encloses, Disarms, &c. by Marcellus Laroon, various editions suggested to date from the 1680s to circa 1700. British Museum. Note the comb fashionably tucked in the fop’s wig. Note also the quotations below regarding the use of the unarmed hand.

Useful advice and commentary, by category, for swordsmen and swordswomen. I’ve collected these over almost fifty years from a variety of sources, ranging from books published over several centuries to fencing masters and even to my own observations.

Some of these quotations are repeated in my post, Fencing Salles & Fencing Commandments, along with other advice and commentary. Please note that the list below is not complete, and never can be. I will, however, update it as convenient.

Except where noted, the English translations from the original French are mine.

On the Virtues of Fencing

“And moreover, the exercifing of weapons putteth away aches, griefes, and difeafes, it increafeth ftrength, and fharpneth the wits, giuith a perfect iudgement, it expelleth melancholy, cholericke and euill conceits, it keepeth a man in breath, perfect health, and long life.  It is vnto him that hath the perfection thereof, a moft friendly and comfortable companion when he is alone, hauing but only his weapon about him, it putteth him out of all feare, & in the warres and places of moft danger it maketh him bold, hardie, and valiant.”

鈥擥eorge Silver, Paradoxes of Defence, 1599

“If you master the principles of sword-fencing, when you freely beat one man, you beat any man in the world. The spirit of defeating a man is the same as for ten million men.”

鈥擬usashi Miyamoto, Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings), 1645. Musashi, Japan鈥檚 kensei or 鈥渟word saint,鈥 fought and won more than sixty duels before retiring as a hermit to write his famous masterpiece on swordplay and strategy. Of course, what readers often miss is the implication: that you don鈥檛 have to have a brilliant understanding of the 鈥淲ay鈥 in order to fence well鈥擬usashi himself admits that he didn鈥檛 understand the true Way until after he had fought all of his duels鈥攂ut certainly it would help.

And in the West, a similar sentiment:

J’asseureray que celui qui est instruit dans les armes, ayant du c艙ur, r茅ussira contre cent mal adroits; j’entends l’un apr猫s l’autre, nullus Hercules contra duos.”

“I will assure that he who is instructed in arms, having a stout heart, will succeed against one hundred clumsy swordsmen; [yet] I hear often that there is no Hercules against two [other swordsmen].”

鈥擜ndr茅 Wernesson, sieur de Liancour, Le maistre d’armes: ou, L’exercice de l’ep茅e seule, dans sa perfection, 1686. My translation. The admonition that no one is a Hercules against two adversaries is often written as “No Hercules against the multitude.” Other commentators, especially those with experience in the field, note that it is difficult, if not impossible or at least highly unlikely, to succeed against multiple adversaries. Unlike in Hollywood, multiple adversaries tend to attack simultaneously. Sir William Hope suggested that the hanging guard might defend against two adversaries while a thick leather gauntlet in the non-dominant hand might defend against a third. But with offense comes at least one opening for the several adversaries…

“When you count all the benefits of swordsmanship, there are so many, encompassing the virtues of heaven and earth.”

鈥擸agyu Muneyoshi, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato.

“So doeth the Art of Fencing teach us to defend our Bodies, from the Assaults and Attaques of all Adversaries, whether Artists or not, who in respect of the cruel designe they have against our Bodies, may in some sense be accounted Devils, it also teacheth us not to be deceived by the fallacious Quirks and Tricks of Artists when we are engaged with the which do represent the cunning subtile Allurements of the World.”

“[Y]et all Gentlemen should practice it, & have an esteem for it, if it were for no other reason but this, that it is a most pleasant divertissement, and an Innocent, Healthful, and Manly Recreation and Exercise for the Body, and although a Man could reap no Advantage by it for the Defence of his Body; yet that its very keeping a Mans joynts and members nimble and cleaver [clever], and in a ready trime [trim], as it were, for any other Divertisement or Exercise, as Tenice, Dancing, Riding, &e. should make it Esteemed and Practised by all who are above the rank of Clowns.”

鈥擲ir William Hope, The Sword-Man鈥檚 Vade-Mecum, 1694

“Nothing can give a greater Lusture and Enoblement to the most Excellent and Bravest Persons, than an absolute and perfect Qualification in the true Knowledge and Skill in Weapons.”

鈥擹achary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, 1711

“Indeed I am perfectly of opinion, which is corroborated by numberless persons who have experienced the utility of fencing, that for the navy it should be considered as one of the most essential branches of a nautical education, and ought to be encouraged by Captains and Commanders as much as possible. The ship鈥檚 company should, every one of them, be compelled to understand the use of the sword familiarly, previously to their going abroad, and should continue practising it at all times on board; for they have, if possible, even more occasion for fencing than the army, because, in general, they are more frequently at close quarters with the enemy than the military are.”

鈥擩oseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809

“Glancing fearfully about, I took up the weapon, finding it play very light in my grasp for all its size; and having wielded it, I held it that the moonbeams made a glitter on the long, broad blade. Now as I stood, watching this deadly sparkle, I trembled no longer, my side fears were forgotten, a new strength nerved me and I raised my head, teeth clenched in sudden purpose so desperate bold indeed as filled me with marvelous astonishment at myself; and all this (as I do think) by mere feel of this glittering sword.”

“There remains then always your sword, friend Adam; with this you may win the fame, the fortune鈥攐r the grave so honourable. Ha, it is true, when all other fails, there remains always鈥攖he sword!”

鈥擩effery Farnol, Over the Hills, 1930

36563429_1871039482946674_2341281235344556032_n
From a brief introduction to modern fencing history for a beginning class. Photograph by Amy Hitchcock.

Defining Fencing & Swordplay

“Fencing is neither art nor science. Fencing is fencing!”

鈥擠r. Francis Zold, personal communication, 1977

“Fencing鈥攊s speed!”

Eugenio Pini, quoted in L谩szl贸 Szab贸, Fencing and the Master, 1977

“The use of arms doth much differ in these times. I hear now the single rapier is altogether in use: when I was young, the rapier and dagger. And I cannot understand, seeing God hath given a man two hands, why he should not use them both for his defence.”

鈥擶illiam Higford, Institutions: Or, Advice to His Grandson, 1658

Mr. Higford makes an excellent point: the reality of real combat with thrusting swords is that the unarmed hand must come into play, if only to prevent angulations and other continuations of attacks and ripostes, not to mention to use in extremis to defend oneself. Only in highly regulated formal duels鈥攖hose of the 19th and early 20th century epee de combat, for example鈥攎ay this practice be proscribed (and, of course, in sport fencing). See also Sir Wm. Hope immediately below.

“That if a good and dexterous Sword-man have no other design but Defence of his own Person, and not the Destruction of his Adversary鈥檚 also, that then his Sword alone, assisted by a judicious Breaking of Measure [retreating], is鈥ufficient to defend him: But again, if he design to Offend [attack] as well as Defend, then there is an absolute Necessity to make use of his left Hand for his Assistance; otherwise his Adversary, continually redoubling his Thrusts irregularly and with Vigour upon him, he shall never almost have the Opportunity of Thrusting, his Sword being in a manner wholly take up with the Parade, by endeavoring to make good his own Defence鈥”

“There is a vast difference, betwixt assaulting in a School with Blunts, for a Man鈥檚 Diversion, and engaging in the Fields with Sharps, for a Man鈥檚 Life; and whatever latitude a Man may take in the one, to show his Address and Dexterity, yet he ought to go a little more warily, and securely to Work, when he is concerned in the other: For in assaulting with Fleurets [foils], a Man may venture upon many difficult and nice Lessons, wherein if he fail, he runs no great Risque, and if they take not at one time, they many succeed at another: But with Sharps, the more plain and simple his Lessons of Pursuit [attack] are, so much the more secure is his Person; whereas, by venturing upon variety of difficult Lessons, he very much exposes himself, even to the hazarding of his Life, by his Adversary鈥檚 taking of Time, and endeavouring to Contretemps [an attack into an attack or a simultaneous attack, often resulting in a double touch], which are not so easily effectuat [sic, 鈥渆ffectuated,鈥 i.e., 鈥渆xecuted鈥漖 against a plain and secure Pursuit [attack].”

“[T]hat it clearly appears, that what goes under the Name of Graceful Fencing, is for no other use, but only for such, as, for Divertisement, counterfit a Fight with Blunts, who only Assault in the Schools with Foils.”

鈥擲ir William Hope, A New, Short, and Easy Method, 1714

“And, though none might suspect it from his clumsy bearing, he is a noted swordsman.”

鈥擩ohn Dickson Carr, Most Secret, 1964. Many excellent fencers appear clumsy or ungraceful, or lack classical form.

“Briefly, our method could be expressed in this sentence: ‘The best parry is the blow.'”

鈥擫uigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and the 脡p茅e, 1936.

“The most efficacious means of fighting are offensive actions鈥攁bove all attacks. In all weapons the majority of fencers score the largest amount of hits by attacks…”

鈥擹bigniew Czajkowski, Understanding Fencing, 2005

However, according to many of the French and derivative schools, old and new….

“…but also procures to himself the advantage of playing from the Risposte, which of all Methods of Fencing is the most commendable, and safest, but then, as I have said, it is only to such as are Masters of the Parade; which is a quality rare enough to be found, even amongst the greatest Sword-men.”

鈥擲ir William Hope, A New, Short, and Easy Method of Fencing, 1714. In other words, the method of relying foremost on the riposte is ideal鈥攂ut only if you have the rare ability of mastering it. My own preference is for a patiently aggressive balance of offense and defense. See especially the quotes on patience below.

“L鈥檈scrime est une science exp茅rimentale, soumise 脿 des lois immuables comme las physique et la chemie. Chaque movement y a son importance, sa signification, et on peut en verifier les consequences, les avantages et les inconv茅nients. L鈥檈scrime est une art; certaines natures, particuli猫rement dou茅es, y sont parfois prepares, predestines; mais il faut s鈥檃ppliquer assid没ment pour atteindre 脿 la perfection.”

“Fencing is an experimental science, which operates under immutable laws just as do physics and chemistry. Each movement has its importance, its significance, and one can verify the consequences, advantages, and disadvantages. Fencing is an art; certain natures, particularly gifted, are sometimes prepared, predestined, but it is necessary to apply oneself diligently to achieve perfection.”

鈥擠r. Achille Edom, L鈥橢scrime, le Duel & l鈥櫭塸茅e, 1908. My translation.

“L’art des armes ne consiste pas, contrairement 脿 ce qu’a dit Moli猫re, “脿 donner et 脿 ne pas recevoir”; mais 脿 ne pas recevoir d’abord et 脿 donner ensuite, si l’on peut.”

“The art of arms consists not, contrary to what Moli猫re said, 鈥榯o give and not to receive,鈥 but at the outset to not receive and to give subsequently, if one can.”

“Il ne doit y avoir qu’une 茅cole d’escrime, celle qui prepare le tireur aussi bien pour l’assaut public que pour le terrain. En un mot, j’estime que l’escrime doit rester un art, mais il ne faut pas qu’elle demeure sans utilit茅 pratique.”

“There must not be but one school of fencing, that which prepares the swordsman as well for the public assault [sport] as for the terrain [duel]. In a word, I deem that fencing must remain as an art, but it must not remain without practical use.”

鈥 Anthime Spinnewyn, L鈥橢scrime 脿 l鈥櫭﹑茅e, 1898. My translation.

“[I]l y a deux escrimes, l’escrime du fleuret et l’escrime de l’茅p茅e, l’escrime de la salle et l’escrime du terrain.”

[T]here are two forms of fencing, foil fencing and epee fencing, the swordplay of the club [sport fencing] and the swordplay of the [dueling] ground.

“N’est-ce pas l脿 une indication de plus qu’il y a deux escrimes, l’escrime du fleuret, sport admirable, mais exercice de convention, et l’escrime 脿 l’茅p茅e, m茅thode de combat?”

“Isn鈥檛 this more of an indication that there are two forms of fencing [with thrusting weapons], foil fencing, an admirable sport, but an exercise of convention, and epee fencing, a method of combat?”

鈥擜rthur Ranc in the preface to Le Jeu de l’茅p茅e by Jules Jacob, 1887. My translation.

“Gallant bearing, disdainful valour, all that is very well in its way, ‘but the thing, Sir, is to hit your man without being hit yourself.’ That is the wisdom of ages.”

鈥擡gerton Castle, “Swordsmanship Considered Historically and as a Sport,” 1903.

“But delightful as good foil-play is, both to performers and lookers-on, it is neither the real sword-fight nor even a reasonably complete preparation for it.”

鈥擟harles Newton-Robinson in “The Revival of the Small-Sword,” 1905, in The Living Age.

“‘Henry Durie,’ said the Master, ‘Two words before I begin. You are a fencer, you can hold a foil; you little know what a change it makes to hold a sword!'”

鈥擱obert Louis Stevenson, The Master of Ballantrae, 1889

De Meuse. 鈥 “L鈥檃ssaut 脿 l鈥櫭﹑茅e de combat doit 锚tre l鈥檌mage la plus complete possible du duel. Or, dans un duel, on ne donne jamais qu鈥檜n seul coup d鈥櫭﹑茅e.”

Berger. 鈥 “Quelquefois deux et trois. Apr猫s une petite blessure on ne s鈥檃rr锚te pas.”

De Meuse. 鈥 “The dueling sword bout ought to be the closest image possible of the duel. However, in a duel, there is never only a single epee thrust [wound].”

Berger. 鈥 “Sometimes two and three. After a small wound one does not stop.”

鈥擣rom the Troisi猫me Congr猫s Internationale d鈥橢scrime, 1908. The Congress was called to determine rules for fencing as sport. Unfortunately, the argument of M. De Meuse failed due to the opposition of foilists who dominated the Congress. They believed epee鈥攖he “modern school”鈥攚as largely degenerate as a separate weapon and that no special preparation was necessary. These gentlemen had already long since accepted the argument for sport fencing, based on foil fencing as an exercise in technique (much of it useless in actual combat), as something beyond combat and unnecessary to emulate it. In fact, foil had long been proved inadequate for actual combat. See the next quotation.

Renard. 鈥 “Nous avons tort de nous mettre dans l鈥檌d茅e que l鈥檃ssaut est l鈥檌mage du combat. Je fais de l鈥檈scrime comme sport et non pour me batter (marques generals d鈥檃pprobation) et, autant que possible, pour faire quelque chose de bien. Il ne s鈥檃git pas seulement de toucher.”

Renard. 鈥 “We are wrong to put forth the idea that the assault is the image of combat. I fence for sport and not to get battered (general marks of approval [from others]) and, whenever possible, to do something to benefit myself. Fencing is not only about getting the touch.”

鈥擣rom the Troisi猫me Congr猫s Internationale d鈥橢scrime, 1908. M. Renard is correct that no bout or assault can be the image of actual combat; no training or practice can. However, from this point forward the idea of all fencing as entirely a sport pastime began to take root and was the death knell of sport fencing as the emulation of actual combat as opposed to sport fencing as pure sport. It鈥檚 only grown worse a century later, with foil and saber now entirely artificial. Epee too has it鈥檚 artificialities–all forms of swordplay do–but it remains far closer to actual combat than foil or saber. My translation.

“The answer is easy.  The great art of swordsmanship consists in laying successful snares, such as making your opponent expect the attack exactly where it is not intended.  To deceive his expectations, to break up what he combines, to disappoint his plans, and to narrow his action; to dominate his movements, to paralyse his thoughts, represent the art, the science, the skill, and the power of your perfect swordsman…”

鈥擲ir Richard Burton, The Sentiment of the Sword, 1911. Burton was a swordsman, explorer, linguist, scholar, spy, and translator of The Arabian Nights. He was the first non-Muslim to make the Hajj to Mecca, doing so in disguise. As a swordsman he was known as a fierce fighter, with numerous combats in the field.

“C’est une mine si f茅conde que cette lutte d’adresse, d’habilet茅, de science, de coup d’艙il, d’茅nergie, de jugement, o霉 toutes les facult茅s intellectuelles et physiques s’emploient 脿 la fois et se viennent mutuellement en aide.”

“And after all the art of fence does furnish a most interesting fund of conversation鈥攖he art of skillful fighting at close quarters, which implies a knowledge of theory combined with a trained power of execution, which taxes eye and hand, vigour and judgment, and brings into play every faculty of mind and body, each doing its part, and each in turn supplementing and reinforcing the other.”

鈥擝aron C茅sar de Bazancourt, Les Secrets de l鈥櫭塸茅e, 1862. The translation is from the English edition, Secrets of the Sword, 1900, translated by C. F. Clay.

“[Early epeeists] were realists who preferred the romantic to the classic.”

鈥擱. A. Lidstone in Fencing: A Practical Treatise on Foil, 脡p茅e, Sabre, 1952

“Not so, Anthony, my faith鈥攏o! Your murdering tool is cowardly pistol or blundering musketoon whereby Brutish Ignorance may slaughter Learned Valour and from safe distance. But, as Mind is greater than mere Body so is the rapier greater than any other weapon, and its manage an exact science calling not only for the strict accordance of hand, eye and foot, but for an alertness o’ the mind also.”

鈥擩effery Farnol, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, 1940. Farnol was a fencer and his descriptions of swordplay are accurate.

MA脦TRE D鈥橝RMES: …tous le secret des armes ne consiste qu鈥檈n deux choses: 脿 donner et 脿 ne point recevoir; et, comme je vous fis voir l鈥檃utre jour par raison demonstrative, il est impossible que vous receviez, si vous savez d茅tourner l鈥櫭﹑茅e de votre ennemi de la ligne de votre corps; ce qui ne d茅pend seulement que d鈥檜n petit mouvement de poignet, ou en dedans or dehors.

JOURDAIN: De cette fa莽on donc, un homme, sans avoir du coeur, est s没r de tuer son homme et de n鈥櫭猼re point tu茅?

MA脦TRE D鈥橝RMES: Sans doute.

MASTER OF ARMS: 鈥he entire secret of arms consists but in two things: to give and not to receive; and, as I demonstrated to you the other day, it is impossible that you will receive, if you have turned your enemy鈥檚 sword from the line of your body; and this depends only on a small movement of the wrist, either inside or outside.

JOURDAIN: In this fashion, then, a man, with no courage, is sure to kill his man and not be killed?

MASTER OF ARMS: Without doubt.

鈥擬oli猫re [Jean Baptiste Poquelin], Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, 1673. One of France鈥檚 most famous playwrights,  Moli猫re is poking fun at both the bourgeois and at anyone gullible enough to believe that swordplay is a simple matter.

“…because whoever will be but at the Trouble to visit the Fencing-schools, shall scarcely see one Assault of ten, made either be Artists against Artists, or Artists against Ignorants, but what is so Composed and made up of Contre-temps [double touches resulting from an attack into an attack, or from simultaneous attacks], that one would think the greatest Art they learn, and aime at, is to strive who shall Contre-temps oftnest…”

鈥擲ir William Hope, The Sword-Man鈥檚 Vade-Mecum, 1694. True then, true later, true today in all forms of swordplay. Notwithstanding modern idealistic classical and historical fencers who believe, via an imagined nostalgia, that the swordplay of past eras was more correct and useful for the encounters with real blades, Hope, not to mention close study, dashes this notion. Double hits are the bane of swordplay, and it is difficult to eradicate them entirely in both play and competition. And, given the large number of accounts of duels in which both antagonists were wounded in contre-temps or “exchanged thrusts,” it was clearly a problem in actual combat as well.

“It is a prejudice to think that swordsmanship is meant solely to slash an opponent. It is meant not to slash an opponent, but to kill evil. It is a way of allowing ten thousand men to live by killing a single evil man.”

鈥擣rom the Heiho Kaden Sho (Family-Transmitted Book on Swordsmanship), seventeenth century, translated by Hiroaki Sato, 1985.

“The accomplished man does not kill people by using his sword; he lets them live by using his sword.”

鈥擣rom Taia Ki (On the T’ai-a), seventeenth century, translated by Hiroaki Sato, 1985.

Ladies
The salute, illustrated in “Lady Fencers” by Myra Dane and Mary Howarth, in The Harmsworth Pictorial Magazine, July 1899.

Courtesies

Far more courtesies and expectations of behavior than are given below may be found here: Fencing Salles & Fencing Commandments.

“The salute is an usage established in all the fencing schools, in order to preserve the politeness that we owe to one another.”

鈥擩. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized /L鈥橝rt des Armes Simplifi茅, 1771. Note the phrase in all the fencing schools; the salute was generally not used in a duel or rencontre, at least not among the French and their disciples.

“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.”

鈥擫uigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Foil, 1932

“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.'”

“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.”

鈥擣茅lix Grav茅, Fencing Comprehensive, 1934

“Une simple observation pour terminer: 脿 l’茅p茅e comme au fleuret, le silence est de rigueur. La parole est aux armes, dit-on; c’est-脿-dire que, seules, la t锚te el la main doivent agir.”

“A simple observation to end with: at epee as at foil, silence is mandatory. One lets the weapons speak; that is to say, the head and hand must act alone.”

鈥擟laude La Marche [Georges-Marie F茅lizet], Trait茅 de l’茅p茅e, 1884.

“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鈥irst, 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.”

鈥擲ir William Hope, The Fencing Master鈥檚 Advice to His Scholar, 1692

pDSC_4191
Mary Crouch taking an epee lesson from Dr. Eugene Hamori, New Orleans, 2013. Photograph by the author.

On Becoming a Fencer

“The way is in training.”

“The essence of this book is that you must train day and night in order to make quick decisions. In strategy it is necessary to treat training as a part of normal life with your spirit unchanging.”

鈥擬usashi Miyamoto, Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings), 1645.

“For Fencing is an Art which depends mainly upon Practice, and who ever thinks to acquire it any other way, is I assure him mightily mistaken, and the more a man practice and with the more different humors, so much the better for him…”

“[S]o that let the greatest Artist in the World forbear but the Practice of it [fencing] for a twelve month, although I confess he can never loss [lose] the Judgement he hath acquired, yet he will certainly when he cometh to practice again, find his Body and Limbs stiffer, and his Hand and motions both for Defence and Offence, neither so exact, nor by far so swift, as if he had been in a continual Practice, I mean at least once a Week or Fortnight鈥”

“[T]here is as much difference betwixt taking a Lesson, or playing upon a Masters breast, and Assaulting or performing the same Lessons upon your Commerads, as there is betwixt the repeating of an eloquent Discourse already penned, and the composing of one.”

鈥擲ir William Hope, The Fencing Master鈥檚 Advice to His Scholar, 1692

“Finally, Practice is the Marrow and Quintessence of the Art, for without that, a Papist may soon forget his Pater-noster; but by frequent Practice, a Man gains much experience daily, and is continually improving his Skill. This being the last Observation, and one of the chief, no Opportunities of Practising ought to be neglected.”

鈥擹achary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, 1711

“This being done, place yourself on the position of the guard, with a graceful, but unaffected appearance, animated with a brave boldness; for nothing requires a man to exert himself more than sword-defence, and it is as difficult to attain such an air of intrepidity without much practice, as it is difficult to become perfectly expert in the art.”

鈥擩oseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809.

“Si vous voulez devenir un v茅ritable tireur, certainement il vous faudra de longues ann茅es de travaux, de m茅ditations s茅v猫res, d’exercices incessants.”

“If you would be an accomplished swordsman, you will certainly require years of hard work, close application, and incessant practice.”

鈥擟茅sar de Bazancourt, Les Secrets de l鈥櫭塸茅e, 1862. The translation is from the English edition, Secrets of the Sword, 1900, translated by C. F. Clay.

“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman鈥檚 practiced skill.”

鈥擱afael Sabatini, Captain Blood, 1922

“…and that, too confident of himself, he had neglected to preserve his speed in the only way in which a swordsman may preserve it.”

鈥擱afael Sabatini, The Black Swan, 1932

“[A] man can never be called a compleat Sword Man, untill he can Defend himself with all kindes of Swords, against all sorts his Adversary can choose against him.”

鈥擲ir William Hope, The Compleat Fencing-Master, 1710.

“L鈥檈scrime est une ma卯tresse capricious et frivole; elle r茅siste longtemps 脿 ses adorateurs, mais, 脿 ceux qui ont su la poss茅der, elle reserve des joies incomparables.”

“Fencing is a capricious and frivolous mistress; she long resists her suitors, but, to those are able to possess her, she reserves incomparable joys.”

鈥擠r. Achille Edom, L鈥橢scrime, le Duel & l鈥櫭塸茅e, 1908. My translation.

“Another advantage which single-stick possesses is that you may learn to play fairly well even if you take it up as late in life as at five and twenty; whereas I understand that, though many of my fencing friends were introduced to the foil almost as soon as to the corrective birch, and though their heads are now growing grey, they still consider themselves mere tyros in their art.”

鈥擱. G. Allanson-Winn, Broadsword and Singlestick, 1911

“Look at what a lot of things there are to learn鈥攑ure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics鈥攚hy, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

鈥擬erlin speaking to Wart, in T.H. White鈥檚 The Once and Future King, 1958

“The more you understand fencing, the more you will enjoy it. This particularly applies to the novice for, like all highly skilled games, it is easy to be put off by the chore of having to begin right at the beginning.”

鈥擝ob Anderson, All About Fencing, 1963. Mr. Anderson was a British Olympic fencer and Olympic coach who became Hollywood鈥檚 leading swordplay choreographer, following in the footsteps of Fred Cavens and Ralph Faulkner. The fencing in Star Wars, The Princess Bride, and Alatriste are but three of his many film works. He died in January, 2012, and was inexplicably and inexcusably left out of the In Memoriam tributes at the 2012 and 2013 Oscars.

“[G]enerally speaking, few persons, except those of liberal education, ever think of, much less learn, the Art of Fencing, and they, of course, are understood to be familiar with the French language.”

鈥擩oseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809

“To be in possession of what you know, you must be in possession of yourself.”

鈥攍e sieur Labat, L鈥檃rt en fait d鈥檃rmes, 1696, from Mahon鈥檚 translation entitled The Art of Fencing, 1734

“For, Anthony, he that would be a true sword-master must first be master of himself, then of his blade, so shall he be master of his adversary. You follow me, I hope?”

鈥擩effery Farnol, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, 1940

“Well, a man is as he is trained.”

鈥擲ir Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1894

“Fencing, like other sciences, cannot be degraded to a mechanical art, that may be infallibly practiced by a receipt; nor can it be thoroughly and completely acquired by only reading a book on the subject.”

“At the same time, I earnestly caution the intelligent young amateur, before he adopts any of these new methods of executing the different movements, &c. in Fencing, to submit them to the test of the strictest examination, and to determine, if possible, how far they appear to be consistent with reason and practicability.”

“[T]he pupil, who I wish at all times to make use, but not too hastily, and without partiality, of his own judgement, and not upon every occasion to take for certain evidence any proposition upon the authority alone of a master, merely because he is a master, or that the same may be found in print.”

“They are shown both methods, and after a proper demonstration of their respective merits, I always leave it to their own judgment, to practise that which they find by experience to succeed best. It is on this principle alone I wish all my observations to be weighed. I detest the maxim of acting upon mere authority, without any convincing proof.”

鈥擩oseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809

“This is what made him a great coach: he taught strategy and tactics, not just attacks and parries. He taught you how to analyze your opponents, get inside their heads, figure out what they would do, what were their strengths and weaknesses. He taught you to have confidence in yourself, to work hard, to settle for nothing less than the best you could do. He knew how to coax, insult, and inspire his students to achieve ever greater heights of success.”

鈥擱oger Jones, describing Lajos Csiszar in an article, 2000. Csiszar was one of Italo Santelli鈥檚 three prot茅g茅s, and coached Dr. Eugene Hamori after he defected to the US during the 1956 Olympic Games (and after the Hungarian saber team won gold). From an article by Roger Jones, 2000. Jones was one of Csiszar鈥檚 US students as well as a member of the 1955 and 1957 US epee teams, an alternate to the 1956 Olympic team, a longtime AFLA/USFA official, a strong opponent of gamesmanship and cheating, and, of course, like many male students of Santelli, Szabo, Csiszar, Zold, and Hamori, a gentleman and a swordsman.

“While training, the pupil should naturally practice and experiment ignoring for the time being the question of his powers of hitting, so that he can constantly enrich his knowledge and skills.”

“Fencing lessons built up systematically, practice under bout-like conditions, exercises 鈥au-mur鈥, conventional exercises, exercises designed to parry attacks, bouts, systematic free fencing, unlimited bouts, bouts fenced until 5 or 10 hits [and today, 15] and competitive fencing constitute the framework within which the fencer can grow to the stature of a competitor.”

鈥擨mre Vass, P谩rbajt枚rv铆v谩s, 1965, from the first English translation, Epee Fencing, 1976

“American fencers and coaches should understand and build their program on the fact that the coach鈥檚 role is only 10 percent of the total effort. Fencers must rely on themselves in training and in competition. Coaches should not try to 鈥榮ell鈥 themselves to the students. Students must become independent.”

“[Smaller competitions are] ‘practice competitions,’ where the fencer does not necessarily have to win, rather, he should use a wide variety of his moves while checking and following his progress. On major competitions, the fencer should always try to win, and go all out to win, ‘even if he only has one move鈥'”

鈥擪aj Czarnecki, American Fencing, Jan/Feb 1980. Mr. Czarnecki is a Finnish Olympic epee fencer and fifteen time Finnish and Scandinavian champion, winning in all three weapons. He was a leading coach in Sweden, helped train Johan Harmenberg, and eventually became one of the epee coaches at the US Modern Pentathlon Training Center at Fort Sam Houston. I heard him make similar remarks during an epee clinic at the Mardi Gras Fencing Tournament in New Orleans that spring. Too few coaches take these views today, with the result that many fencers are anything but independent on the strip or elsewhere.

“Always combine footwork with techniques being practiced.”

“Footwork and more footwork. Speed and more speed.”

Develop these qualities
1. Smoothness 2. Ease 3. Accuracy”

“To find stillness in movement, not stillness in stillness.”

鈥擝ruce Lee, from his notes on “Incorporating fencing principles,” quoted from Jeet Kune Do: Bruce Lee’s Commentaries on the Martial Way, compiled and edited by John Little, 1997. Bruce Lee studied both Western boxing and Western fencing, and incorporated some of their principles in Jeet Kune Do.

“[I]n the beginner鈥檚 mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert鈥檚 there are few.”

鈥擲hunryu Suzuki. Zen Mind, Beginner鈥檚 Mind, 1970. That is, keep your mind open and don’t fall victim to your knowledge or success.

“Bonus homo semper tiro.”

“A good person is always a novice.”

鈥擠erived from Martial XII.li.2. See Suzuki above.

1979 LR
New Orleans, 1978 or 1979. The author is directing;  he can still recognize the two fencers by their en gardes alone. Photograph by Diane Szegfu.

The En Garde: Three Not Incompatible Opinions

“The bravest gentlemen of arms, which I have seen, were Sir Charles Candis, and the now Marquis of Newcastle, his son, Sir Kenelm Digby, and Sir Lewis Dives, whom I have seen compose their whole bodies in such a posture, that they seemed to be a fort impregnable. They were the scholars of John de Nardes of Seville in Spain, who with the dagger alone, would encounter the single rapier and worst him. This exercise is most necessary for you, and also excellent for your health.”

鈥擶illiam Higford, Institutions: Or, Advice to His Grandson, 1658

“This being done, place yourself on the position of the guard, with a graceful, but unaffected appearance, animated with a brave boldness…”

“In whatever attitude you may think it necessary to present yourself facing your adversary, if your mind is prepared to attack and defend, you will be, properly speaking, ‘on guard.'”

鈥擩oseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809

“In your en garde you must lean forward slightly and thereby appear to be always in motion, as if you are always attacking. When your opponent looks at you, he or she must believe you are constantly attacking no matter what you are doing.”

鈥 Dr. Eugene Hamori, as best I recall, to me forty years ago, to my wife within the past five.

Vass
From Imre Vass, Epee Fencing: A Complete System, 1965 in Hungarian, 1976 1st English edition.

On Patience as a Fencing Virtue: Epeeists, Take Heed!

“鈥橮revail by patience,鈥 is the motto of my house, and I have taken it for the guiding maxim of my life.”

鈥攄e Bernis, in Rafael Sabatini鈥檚 The Black Swan, 1932. The novel builds to a duel at the climax.

Patientia vincit.

(Patience conquers, to conquer or prevail via patience.)

鈥擮ld motto and the likely Latin version of the motto of Charles de Bernis, Sabatini鈥檚 hero in The Black Swan. Used by the Huntsville Fencing Club until replaced with the motto below.

Patientia ferox vincit.

(To conquer or prevail via a fierce or warlike patience.)

鈥擬odification of patientia vincit based on my experience fencing and teaching fencing, for the Huntsville Fencing Club and Salle de Bernis, 2012

“Patience need not be passive!”

鈥擳o my fencing students, circa 2005 to the present.

“L’assaut en un coup demande de la prudence, mais non de l’inactivit茅.”

“An assault for one touch demands prudence, but not inactivity.”

鈥擩. Joseph Renaud  in L’Escrime: fleuret, par Kirchoffer; 茅p茅e, par J. Joseph Renaud; sabre, par L茅on L茅cuyer, 1913. Compare with Patientia Ferox Vincit and 鈥淧atience need not be passive!鈥 above. I discovered this quote in April 2013, proving, yet again, that there is little original in fencing, and none of us are as original as we think we might be.

“Errors of distance, overeagerness, foolhardiness and impatience, are faults for which every 茅p茅eist of experience is on the look-out in his opponent’s game. More, they are faults which the 茅p茅eist will try to bring about in the unwary swordsman.”

鈥擱oger Crosnier, Fencing with the Epee, 1958. As or more important, in my opinion, than watching for or inducing these errors in the opponent, is preventing them in oneself.

“Patience is the first virtue of an 茅p茅e fencer.”

鈥擫uigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and the 脡p茅e, 1936

Notwithstanding the necessity of aggressive patience in epee, or in any dueling sword, with the introduction of a severe modern “non-combativity” rule that forces epeeists to fence aggressively–put simply, there must be a touch scored within a minute or there is a penalty–, the often foolish and feckless fencing powers-that-be are undermining the very essence of swordplay itself. Action in fencing is not composed of touches but of physical and intellectual maneuvering. Some of the most exciting bouts I’ve ever fenced or watched have had few touches scored. My wife and I often go eight or more minutes without a touch (eleven minutes once), and an old friend of mine, a truly classical epeeist, and I often go several minutes without a touch–and in both of these examples other fencers typically stop to watch. A lack of prodigious scoring doesn’t equate with spectator boredom. If it did, no one would watch baseball or soccer, or for that matter, golf. Why the rule change? It’s pressure from the IOC: if sports don’t draw enough spectators (i.e. advertising dollars), they’re out. Fencing officials, elite coaches, and elite fencers are abandoning fencing’s core values for the sake of the cachet of the Olympic Games, which in fact field only a small number of fencers as compared to the World Championships.

“A l’茅p茅e, il faut savoir attendre.”

“In epee, one must know how to wait.”

鈥擟laude La Marche [Georges-Marie F茅lizet], Trait茅 de l’茅p茅e, 1884. The translation is by Brian House from his excellent English version, The Dueling Sword, 2009

And yet…

“Never hesitate!”

鈥擠r. Francis Zold, personal communication during a lesson, 1978

A Forced Thrust in Carte
“A forced thrust in carte.” From The Art of Fencing Represented in Proper Figures Exhibiting the Several Passes, Encloses, Disarms, &c. by Marcellus Laroon, various editions suggested to date from the 1680s to circa 1700. British Museum.

Fencing Qualities, Techniques, & Tactics

“La fortune aidait souvent la valeur un peu t茅m茅raire.”

“Fortune often aids valor that is a bit reckless.”

鈥擟apt. Ren茅 Duguay-Trouin, M茅moires, 1741. Duguay-Trouin was a famous late 17th and early 18th century French privateer and naval officer who once captured a ship by boarding it, then engaging the enemy captain single-handedly, sword-in-hand, forcing him to surrender in the style of the great Hollywood swashbucklers. He was a duelist (bretteur) when young, and later brought at least one fencing teacher (a master’s assistant) aboard his ship in order to improve his crews鈥 fighting ability. He later had a rencontre in the street with the fencing teacher, a fight that was anything but academic. The quotation may derive from audentis fortuna iuvat, later written by Virgil as audaces Fortuna iuvat (Fortune aids the bold). Similar is the SAS motto, ‘Who Dares Wins.'” My translation.

“Dans le noble exercice des armes, ce n’est pas aux audacieux que sourit la fortune, mais aux pers茅v茅rants.”

“In the noble exercise of arms, it is not the audacious that Fortune smiles upon, but on those who persevere.”

鈥擜nthime Spinnewyn, L鈥橢scrime 脿 l鈥櫭﹑茅e, 1898. My translation. Compare with Duguay-Trouin above, and with the admonitions of Francis Zold and Nobuo Hayashi below.

“Joignez dans le combat, la valeur 脿 la prudence, la peau du Lion 脿 celle du Renard.”

“In battle let valour and prudence go together, the lyon鈥檚 courage with the fox鈥檚 craft.”

鈥攍e sieur Labat, L鈥檃rt des armes, 1696. The English is from Andrew Mahon鈥檚 translation, The Art of Fencing, 1734.

“The man in the periwig, whose every movement was as swift and light-footed as a cat’s, lowered the sword point.”

鈥擩ohn Dickson Carr, The Devil in Velvet, 1951

“Fencing without Judgement, is just like a Watch without a Spring, a Neat piece of Work with a great many fine Wheels, but without any Motion, the want of which maketh her useless.”

鈥擲ir William Hope, The Sword-Man鈥檚 Vade-Mecum, 1694

“[T]he true Art of Sword-defence depends, in great measure, on judgement in deceiving the adversary鈥檚 motions, and in not being deceived by his.”

鈥擩oseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing, 1809

“For what are all strategems, ambuscades, and outfalls but lying upon a large scale?”

鈥擲ir Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1894

“Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that the fencer’s skill in tactics is displayed to a large degree by the ability to mislead an opponent, to recognise the opponent’s intentions and to discern any attempts to be mislead.”

鈥擹bigniew Czajkowski, “Fencing Actions鈥擳erminology, Their Classification and Application in Competition,” n.d.

“Double-dealing is the basis of swordsmanship. By double-dealing, I mean the stratagem of obtaining truth through deception.”

鈥擣rom The Death-Dealing Blade, Yagyu Munenori, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato.

“A duel, whether regarded as a ceremony in the cult of honor, or even when reduced in its moral essence to a form of manly sport, demands a perfect singleness of intention, a homicidal austerity of mood.”

鈥擩oseph Conrad, The Duel, 1908. Conrad鈥檚 story was based on the actual tale of a long-running series of duels between two Napoleonic officers. It was later made into an excellent film, The Duellists, 1977.

“Be simple, be smart. Don鈥檛 move your weapon until you are ready to use it鈥 then SHOOT! Let the younger fencers become eager and make mistakes. Against the older ones, use your speed and strength. Remember, mano de ferro, braccio di gomma鈥攈ave a hand of iron and an arm of rubber.”

鈥擨talo Santelli, quoted by Lajos Csiszar quoted by Roger Jones, [1950s] 2000.

Rat贸n que se s谩be mas de un hor谩do, pr茅sto le cag茅 el g谩to.

The cat soon catches the rat that knows but one hole. [More literally: the mouse who knows more than one hole soon escapes the cat.]

鈥攑roverb quoted in John Stevens, A New Spanish Grammar, 1725

“Rouse me not.”

鈥擳he Conisby family motto, from Jeffery Farnol鈥檚 swashbuckler Martin Conisby鈥檚 Vengeance, 1921. Some fencers, myself included, fence well when 鈥渞oused鈥 or angered, at least for a while, although historical the usual advice has been to keep one’s anger and temper reined in. If one is to fence angry or in fury, let it be cold-blooded rather than hot-blooded. See also Dr. Eugene Hamori鈥檚 advice to me below.

“One last bit of advice for the strip:  Get MAD at your opponents, at the director, at the world, etc., when you fence and quit apologizing for yourself.”

“But if it works for you, then do it.”

鈥擠r. Eugene Hamori, personal correspondence, 1995

Anger is not recommended for hot-tempered fencers, but for cold-blooded ones who can focus their anger–and it won’t last forever, this focused anger. You’ll still have to rely on cool-headed technique most of the time.

“You’re opponent, when struck, is bound to transform himself. When struck, he thinks, ‘What’s this! I’ve been struck!’ and may get angry. If he gets angry, he becomes resolute. If you relax at that moment, your opponent will strike you down. Regard the opponent you’ve struck as a furious boar.'”

鈥擣rom The Life-Giving Sword, Yagyu Munenori, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato.

“And, remember, there is nothing bad in fencing, provided that it succeeds.”

鈥擲ir Richard Burton, The Sentiment of the Sword, 1911 See also Eugene Hamori above. It should be noted that Burton is, in the case of salle fencing and dueling, speaking only of honorable fencing, certainly not the gamesmanship and “cheating within the rules” far too many fencers, albeit a minority thankfully, consider fair play.

“[The epee or duelling sword] is a democratic weapon in that the less skillful fencer always has a chance to win; but it is an exacting task for a fencer consistently to achieve distinction in duelling sword unless he combines a fundamentally sound technique with the instinct of strategy.”

鈥擩ulio Martinez Castello, The Theory and Practice of Fencing, 1933

“脡p茅e fencing requires a special technique, courage, opportunism and concentration of effort in the highest degree.  It is the highest expression of the art of fencing, because it alone is based on the conception of hitting the opponent without oneself being hit…  Litheness, agility and speed, which are the essentials for the successful 茅p茅eist, are largely based on his footwork…  脡p茅e fencing is par excellence a game of timing, tactics and bluff…  Subtlety, bluff and courage are salient features of this game…  While caution is essential with the duelling weapon, the best devised moves will come to naught unless the 茅p茅eist possesses courage to risk everything when the right opportunity presents itself.”

鈥擟-L de Beaumont, OBE, in Fencing: Ancient Art and Modern Sport, 1960

“There is in steel a subtle magnetism which is the index of one鈥檚 antagonist.”

鈥擱afael Sabatini, The Suitors of Yvonne, 1902

“Here was a man whom much and constant practice had given extraordinary speed and a technique that was almost perfect. In addition, he enjoyed over Andr茅-Louis physical advantages of strength and length of reach, which rendered him altogether formidable. And he was cool, too; cool and self-contained; fearless and purposeful. Would anything shake that calm, wondered Andr茅-Louis.”

鈥擱afael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921

“NOVEL: Pshaw! Talking is like Fencing, the quicker the better; run 鈥榚m down, run 鈥榚m down; no matter for parrying; push on still, sa, sa, sa: no matter whether you argue in form, push in guard, or no.

MANLY: Or hit, or no; I think thou alwayes talk鈥檚t without thinking, Novel.”

鈥擶illiam Wycherley, The Plain-Dealer, 1674. The lines are satire. Captain Manly is an honest plain-speaking fighting seaman who serves 鈥渙ut of Honour, not Interest,鈥 while Novel is 鈥渁 pert railing Coxcomb,鈥 or in other words, an ass, and clearly no swordsman either.

“Be not over elated at the thrusts you hit with, nor despise those by which you are hit.”

“Never set any value upon any thrust you give, before you examine whether it was well given, without any danger attending it.”

“Study the danger and advantage of every thrust you make.”

鈥擜ndrew Lonnergan, The Fencer’s Guide, 1771.

“We consider being in tune bad, being out of tune good. When you and your opponent are in tune with each other, he can use his sword better; when you are not, he can’t. You must strike in such a way as to make it hard for your opponent to use his sword well… The point is to stay out of tune with your opponent. Out of tune, you can step in.”

鈥擣rom The Death-Dealing Blade, Yagyu Munenori, 17th century, translated by Hiroaki Sato. In other words, don’t match your opponent’s rhythm. And if you do, you must be prepared to strike just before your opponent intends to strike, breaking tempo in this manner. This principle–“Fence out of tune!” is one I constantly instill in students’ practice.

“C’est une chose si difficile 脿 prendre que lest temps, l’茅p茅e 脿 la main, que je ne conseille a personne de s’y trop hasarder.”

“Taking tempo is such a difficult thing to do, sword-in-hand [i.e. with a real sword], that I do not recommend anyone risk it too much.”

鈥擜ndr茅 Wernesson, sieur de Liancour, Le maistre d’armes: ou, L’exercice de l’ep茅e seule, dans sa perfection, 1686. My translation.

Such tempo actions, seldom recommended by duelists, make up much of modern epee. My first fencing master, who had fought at least one duel, once pointed out to me the dangers of tempo actions with real swords, particularly in counter-attacks: they will not stop fully developed attacks. Even a time thrust to body might stop the forward motion of an attack only if it strikes the breastbone, base of the ulna, or possibly forehead, targets to small to risk. The danger is even greater with counter-attacks to the arm when the adversary has launched a strong attack. Nonetheless, even in the 17th and 18th centuries, many swordsmen used time hits. See immediately below, and also all quotes by Sir Wm. Hope.

“I bound his Sword and made a half Thrust at his Breast, he Timed me and wounded me in the Mouth; we took another turn, I took a little better care, and gave him a Thrust in the Body…”

Donald McBane, Expert Sword-man’s Companion, 1728. Time thrusts, in this case a disengage from a bind, when used wisely in this era were made in opposition and typically with the unarmed hand closing the line as well, in order to ensure maximum safety. Mouth wound notwithstanding, McBane killed his adversary, a boastful Gascon.

“This last fault of drawing back the hand on the attack, or in plain terms, stabbing, deserves a word by itself. It is perfectly fatal to good fencing鈥efore delivering his point, the stabber checks the onward movement of the blade by drawing back the hand, and therefore loses all the space and time wasted in first withdrawing the hand from the starting-point and then returning to it. While this process is going on, all the opponent has to do is to straighten, which is clearly quicker, as it is all on the way. No sane man would dream of laying himself open in such a way if he were engaged in fighting for his life鈥”

鈥擧enry Arthur Colmore Dunn, Fencing, 1899. Unfortunately, this technique of 鈥渟tabbing鈥 (i.e. 鈥渂ent arm attacks鈥) and the dangers it holds to the user were swords real, is now considered an acceptable form of attack鈥攊n fact, it is the most common鈥攊n modern foil and saber fencing, to the point [pun half-intended] that neither weapon much resembles actual combat anymore, but are more akin to a game of tag with steel rods, all governed by a set of esoteric rules pandering to an imaginary audience.

“The flexibility of the foil will enable an expert fencer to produce effects that may dazzle the uninitiated, while they are well understood, and known to be mere sleight-of-hand tricks by those familiar with the exercise鈥 If an expert fencer makes a rapid pass over his opponent鈥檚 guard, striking his foil near its centre, with force, against that of his opponent, he can spring the point of his foil from ten to eighteen inches, according to the flexibility of his blade; whereas if he makes a cut with a sword, using equal force and striking with the edge of his blade, he can not spring the point of his weapon the hundredth part of an inch.”

鈥擬atthew J. O鈥橰ourke, A New System of Sword Exercise, 1872

In other words鈥攖ake note, those of you who belong to the significant sub-set of classical fencers whose understanding of fencing history is of the cherry-picked and ideologically pure variety鈥攖he flick has been around a long time. For good reason did foilists in the 19th century, and even into the early 20th, wear fat fencing gloves thickly padded with horsehair. In fact, it’s impossible to entirely get rid of the flick, given the need for practice weapons to have flexible blades. Many of the 19th century foil blades I’ve examined, including some in my collection, have ridiculously flexible blades.

I’m no fan of the flick, for it’s a purely sport technique that has no place in real combat or in swordplay intended to emulate it as much as possible. I’ve included the quote above primarily to note the failure in common knowledge of fencing history: the use of the flick in modern fencing (a bit less so in foil now but still common in epee) is often cited by “classical fencers” as a reason modern fencing is “impure.” Well, so then was 19th century foil…

“Never give up!”

鈥擠r. Francis Zold, personal communication, 1977-1978. This was one of his admonitions to all of his students.

“A man never gives up! A man dies first!”

鈥擭obuo Hayashi, my judo and jiujutsu teacher, 1979. Sensei Hayashi was brought up before and during WWII in the old jiujutsu, had trained to become a Kamikaze pilot, and won the Japanese university judo championship in the late 1950s. He made this comment after a student, attempting to escape him on the mat, gave up. He also, as I recall, ordered the student to leave the dojo/gym.

Duel Guillou versus Lacroix 1914
Duel between Guillou and Lacroix, 1914. French National Library.

Of Honor

“Ne tirez l’茅p茅e que pour servir le Prince , conserver v么tre honneur ou d茅fendre v么tre vie.”

“Draw not your sword, but to serve your king, preserve your honor, or defend your life.”

鈥攍e sieur Labat, L鈥檃rt des armes, 1696, from Andrew Mahon鈥檚 translation, The Art of Fencing, 1734

“Never lose on purpose, you must always fence to win for your honor!”

鈥擫ajos Csiszar, quoted by student Roger Jones, 2000. The quote dates to the 1950s, and probably earlier.

“To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, ‘the things that will destroy American fencing are victories at any price, prestige at any price, expenses first instead of honor first, and love of subsidies and the state-supported athlete theory of 鈥榓mateur sports.'”

鈥擱oger Jones, 鈥淧oor Technique?鈥 in American Fencing, March 1966

“It is happily true that in England we no longer curb the indiscreet utterance of undisciplined lips with cold steel, nor adopt the crude method of letting in light upon the mind through a hole in the body.”

鈥擧enry Arthur Colmore Dunn, Fencing, 1899

“So in their own sense Duelling cannot properly vindicat[e] any opprobrious epithet, but that of a Coward.”

鈥擶m. Anstruther, Essays, Moral and Divine, 1701

“I mention these to caution you on all occasions to be on your Guard, and not to trust any man whatever who is your adversary.  For many have been deceived by not taking care of themselves in these cases, tho鈥 their adversaries have been men of strict honour, as they thought, and that they would not be so base and villainous as to be guilty of any thing below the character of Brave Men and Gentlemen. Experienti忙 Docet.”

鈥擠onald McBane, Expert Sword-man鈥檚 Companion, 1728. McBane, a Scot, was a veteran soldier wounded several times in action, as well as a swordsman, duelist, fencing master, occasional pimp, and prize fighter. He is also the man for whom 鈥淪oldier鈥檚 Leap鈥 is named in Scotland. Good advice not only for a duel, but for life in general.

“The honor of some adversaries can never be relied on safely. In a selfish or revengeful spirit, many persons might be disposed to commit assassination, for which reason, friends and time are always indispensable.”

“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.”

鈥擩oseph Hamilton, The Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829.  The first quotation is in the vein of McBane, above. Many have honor in the mundane, when there is little risk to life, limb, property, money, or reputation; far fewer have honor where there is much risk or peril.

“Eh bien! les duellistes poitevins qui ont laiss茅 脿 bon titre le renom d’adversaires dangereux, Bourbeau (un cousin de l’ancien ministre), Lemaire, le fameux de Pindray 鈥 jen passe 鈥 n’茅taient pas class茅s parmi les forts tireurs. Je le tiens de mon vieux professeur, le p猫re Nerri猫re, un ma卯tre de l’茅cole de Lafaug猫re que M. Legouv茅 a peut-锚tre connu et qui m’a r茅p茅t茅 plus d’une fois que de Pindray, redoutable, terrible sur le terrain, n’avait travaill茅 s茅rieus猫ment 脿 la salle qu’apr猫s ses duels les plus retentissants.”

“Well! The duelists of Poitou who have left good title to being renowned as dangerous adversaries, Bourbeau (a cousin of the former minister), Lemaire, the famous de Pindray鈥擨 pass over others鈥攚ere not classified among the strongest fencers. I learned from my old professor, Nerri猫re the father, a master of the school of Lafaug猫re that Mr. Legouv茅 has perhaps known and who told me more than once that de Pindray, deadly, terrible on the field of honor, trained seriously in the salle only after he had fought his most sensational duels.”

鈥擜rthur Ranc, in the preface to Jules Jacob鈥檚 Le jeu de l鈥櫭﹑茅e, revised by 脡mile Andr茅, 1887.

In other words, the best sport fencers did not usually make the best duelists.

“I mention this affair to show that something more than skill is necessary when using a naked weapon or shotted pistol; and the most able fencer and the first-rate shot are not always the best men in the field.”

鈥擜ndrew Steinmetz, The Romance of Duelling, 1868.

“To avoid those Desperate Combats, my Advice is for all Gentlemen, to take a hearty Cup, and to Drink Friends to avoid Trouble.”

鈥擠onald McBane, The Expert Sword-Man鈥檚 Companion, 1728. Again, good advice in general.

Festina Lente
Festina Lente. (Rijksmuseum)

More From the Latin

Praemonitus praemunitus.

Forwarned is forearmed.

鈥攓uoted in Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini

Occasionem cognosce.

Recognize an opportunity.

Quaere verum.

Seek the truth.

Festina lente.

Make haste slowly.

Aut inveniam viam aut faciam.

Either I shall find a way or I shall make one.

Savinien_de_Cyrano_de_Bergerac
Cyrano de Bergerac, the real author and swordsman, after a painting by Zacharie Heince.

Pen & Sword

“Pour un oui, pour un non, se battre, 鈥攐u faire un vers!”

“For a yes, for a no, to fight, 鈥攐r write a verse!”

鈥擡dmund Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897.

“Tomando ora la espada, ora la pluma.”

“Now taking up the sword, now the pen.”

鈥擥arcilaso de la Vega, 脡gloga III (v.40), early 16th century. Garcilaso was a 16th century Spanish soldier-poet and true Renaissance man. He died in 1536 of wounds suffered in battle at Le Muy, France. Armas y lettras鈥攁rms and letters鈥攊s a common theme in 16th and 17th century Spanish literature.

“Nunca la lanza embot贸 la pluma ni la pluma la lanza.”

“The lance never blunted the pen nor the pen the lance.”

鈥擲ancho Panza in Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

“I鈥檒l make thee glorious by my pen,
and famous by my sword;”

鈥擩ames Graham, Marquis of Montrose, 鈥淚鈥檒l never love Thee more,鈥 1642 or 1643. Sir Walter Scott reversed glorious and famous, apparently not appreciating the attachment of glory to the pen. Montrose, a Scottish hero, led a guerrilla campaign through the Highlands against Cromwell鈥檚 forces. In the end he was hanged, instead of being beheaded as was due given his rank. His body was decapitated after his death, and his head was piked at the Tollbooth in Edinburgh.

“…the penny siller [silver] slew mair souls than the naked sword slew bodies.”

鈥擲ir Walter Scott, Rob Roy, 1818

“[H]ow much more cruel the pen may be than the sword.”

鈥擱obert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621

“Benbu itchi.”

“Pen and sword in accord.”

鈥擩apanese, 17th century or earlier.

Vigeant 3 book 2
From Un Ma卯tre d鈥檃rmes Sous la Restauration : Petit Essai Historique by Ars猫ne Vigeant, 1883.

Fencing Language

“H茅 l脿!”

鈥擫iterally, 鈥淗ey there!鈥 Often shouted during a vigorous exchange ending in a successful touch, or at least it once was until recently. More embarrassingly, it is sometimes shouted in expectation of a touch that ultimately fails. In Cyrano de Bergerac is the shout 鈥H茅! L脿 donc!鈥濃攖hat is, 鈥淗ey! There thus!鈥 Many old French masters and fencers believed in absolute silence during swordplay, while many Italians permitted some expressions. An occasional H茅 l脿! is acceptable in my opinion; anything else is boorish.

“H茅 l脿, Pamela!”

鈥擠r. Francis Zold, in lessons he gave throughout his life. I once asked Chaba Pallaghy, an elite Hungarian and US fencer and international official who knew Dr. Zold well, what it meant, he said it was simply something that the gentleman, scholar, and swordsman said. So many times I heard him say this in my lessons when I did something well. It is as imprinted upon my fencing soul in the same manner as, “One more, one more, yes, very nice,” as spoken by Dr. Eugene Hamori in his lessons to me.

“Mardieu, depuis le temps je me serois mis en garde, j’aurois gagn茅 la mesure, je l’aurois rompue, j’aurois surpris le fort, j’aurois pris le temps, j’aurois coup茅 sous le bras, j’aurois marqu茅 tous les batemens, j’aurois tir茅 la flanconade, j’aurois port茅 le coup de dessous, je me serois allong茅 de tierce sur les armes, j’aurois quart茅 du pied gauche, j’aurois marqu茅 feinte 脿 la pointe et dedans et dehors, j’aurois estrama莽on茅, 茅branl茅, empi茅t茅, engag茅, volt茅, port茅, par茅, ripost茅, cart茅, pass茅, d茅sarm茅 et tu茅 vingt hommes.”

“God鈥檚 Death, in the time it would take to put myself on guard, I would gain the measure, retreat a step, surprise the forte, take the tempo, make a coup茅 beneath the arm, make all the beats, make a flanconnade, make a thrust below, lunge in tierce in opposition, make an inquartata, feint with the point inside and outside, make a cut, concuss my enemy, invade, engage, volt, thrust, parry, riposte, chase, pass, disarm, and kill twenty men.”

鈥擟hasteauforte, in Cyrano de Bergerac鈥檚 Le Pedant Jou茅, 1654, written in 1645. Chasteauforte takes a beating while he talks about his prowess as a swordsman. The character probably derives from Plautus鈥 Miles Gloriosus, the boastful cowardly soldier, and from experience as well. As the Spanish might put it, He who boasts of it did not do it. If you want to be taken seriously, prove yourself with deeds, not words.

Mardieu is an exclamation deriving from mordieu or mort de Dieu = God鈥檚 death. Surpris le fort is to be found nowhere else in the literature of sword; it may be intended to indicate grasping the adversary鈥檚 blade at the forte with one鈥檚 hand, a common technique when grappling. It may also indicate a prise de fer or even simply a proper thrust, fort against foible. Or, it may be satire, suggesting that Chasteauforte is so foolish a fencer as to attempt with his own blade to seize the fort of his adversary’s, rather than the foible.

The real Cyrano de Bergerac was a redoubtable swordsman who fought literally dozens of duels and affrays, and reportedly once singlehandedly routed a mob of a hundred or more. He also had a large nose, and was a famous French writer whose work includes the story of a trip to the moon, arguably the first science fiction and fantasy novel. Rostand鈥檚 Cyrano is a Gascon, based on his name, de Bergerac. However, the real Cyrano was a Parisian. My translation.

“Enter Petro drest like a French Fencing Master.
Pet. Signior Barberacho has sent me to teach you de Art of Fencing.
Sir Signall Buffoon. Illustrissimo Signior Monsieur, I am the person who am to learn.
Tickletext. Stay Sir stay,鈥攍et me ask him some few questions first, for Sir I have play’d at Back-Sword and cou’d have handled ye a weapon as well as any man of my time in the University.
Sir Sig. Say you so Mr. Tickletext, and I‘faith you shall have about with him
[Tick. Gravely goes to Petro.
Tick. Hum鈥攈um鈥擬r. Monsieur鈥攑ray what are the Guards that you like best?
Pet. Monsieur, eder de Quart or de Terse, dey be both French and Itallian; den for your Parades, degaements, your advancements, your Eloynements, and Retierments: dey be de same;
Tick. Cart and Horse, what new found inventions and words have we here,鈥擲ir I wou’d know, whether you like St. Georges Guard or not.
Pet. Alon鈥Monsieur, Mette vous en Guard! take de Flurette.
Sir Sig. nay faith and troth Governor thou that have a Rubbers with him.
[Tick. Smiling refuses.
Tick. Nay certo Sir Signal,鈥攁nd yet you shall prevail;鈥攚ell Sir, come your ways?
[Takes the Fluret.
Pet. Set your right foot forward, turn up your hand so鈥攄at be de Quart鈥攏ow turn it dus鈥攁nd that be de Terse.
Tick. Hocus Pocus, Hicksius Doxius鈥攈ere be de Cart, and here be de Horse鈥攚hy, what鈥檚 all this for, hah, Sir鈥攁nd where鈥檚 your Guard all this while?
Sir Sig. Ay, Sir, where鈥檚 your Guard, Sir, as my Governour says, Sir, hah?
Tick. Come, come, Sir, I must instruct you, I see; Come your ways, Sir.鈥
Pet. Attende, attende une peu鈥攖rust de right hand and de right leg forward together.鈥
Tick. I marry Sir, that鈥檚 a good one indeed: What shall become of my Head then, Sir? what Guard have I left for that, good Mr. Monsieur, hah?
Pet. Ah, Morbleu, is not dis for everyting?
Tick. No, marry is not it, Sir; St. George鈥檚 Guard is best for the Head whilst you live鈥攁s thus, Sir.
Pet. Dat, Sir, ha, ha鈥攄at be de Guard for de Back-Sword.
Tick. Back-sword, Sir, yes, Back-sword, what shou鈥檇 it be else?
Pet. And dis be de Single Rapier.
Tick. Single-Rapier with a Vengeance, there鈥檚 a weapon for a Gentleman indeed; is all this stir about Single-Rapier?
Pet. Single-Rapier! What wou鈥檇 you have for de Gentleman, de Cudgel for de Gentleman?
Tick. No, Sir, but I wou鈥檇 have it for de Rascally Frenchman, who comes to abuse Persons of Quality with paltry single Rapier.鈥擲ingle Rapier! Come, Sir, come鈥攑ut your self in your Cart and your Horse as you call it, and I鈥檒l shew you the difference.”

鈥擜phra Behn, The Feign鈥檇 Curtizans; or, a Night鈥檚 Intrigue, 1679. Satire on a fencing lesson and fencing language, in other words, with sallies against French masters and backsword versus smallsword or, as it is called here, single rapier. Aphra Behn was the first professional woman writer in the UK. She was also briefly a spy.

“For at Broad-Sword, all the Blows, Chops, Strokes, Pitches, Thro’s, Flirts and Slips, are perform’d over the Point of the Sword, unless you fall to the Leg: But at Small-Sword, all Thrusts, Passes, Pushes, Assaults, Essays and Passages, are commonly made under the Shell, (unless it be Cart or Ters over Arm,) close to the Fort of your Opponents Weapon, with a Longe, or you cannot reach to do Execution.”

“The next thing I shall proceed to, is to the Terms of Art and Variety of Assaults, Pushes, Thrusts, Essays, Passes and Passages, all which are lodged under the Notion of True and False Play. True Play is a clean made Pass, Push, Assault or Thrust, directly perform’d, without change or alteration of the Point of your Weapon at any part or place of your Opponent you discover lies most open, or in answering your Opponent from his Assault. False Play or Falsifying, I call Quibles,  Dazzels, Feints, Fallacies, Shams, Decoi’s and Enganuo’s, all which I shall explain in their Order.”

鈥擹achary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, 1711. Much of Mr. Wylde’s charming fencing vocabulary is his, and his alone.

“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.  鈥淐oulez!  Mais, coulez donc!…So!  Now the flanconnade鈥攅n carte…And here is the riposte…Let us begin again.  Come!  The ward of tierce…Make the coup茅, and then the quinte par dessus les armes…O, mais allongez!  Allongez!  Allez au fond!鈥 the voice cried in expostulation.  鈥淐ome, that was better.鈥  The blades ceased.”

鈥擱afael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921

Montoya and Rugen low
Inigo Montoya taking his revenge on Count Rugen in The Princess Bride.

Revenge with a Sword

“Honor and revenge have no alliance; therefore, reparation for offence or injury, is all that can be fairly sought for, or conceded.”

鈥擩oseph Hamilton, The Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829. In other words, a duel must be fought for the sake of honor alone. A combat for the sake of revenge is a mere single combat, yet should, paradoxically, still be fought with honor, at least until the villain, Hollywood style, betrays his honor, which is probably why the rencontre is being fought in the first place.

“Oui, s’茅cria-t-il, voici la fille de Nevers!….Viens donc la chercher derri猫re mon 茅p茅e, assassin! toi qui as command茅 le meurtre, toi qui l’as achev茅 l芒chement par derri猫re!… Qui que tu sois, ta main gardera ma marque. Je te reconna卯trai. Et, quand il sera temps, si tu ne viens pas 脿 Lagard猫re, Lagard猫re ira 脿 toi!”

“Yes, cried he, here is the daughter of Nevers!….Come therefore and search for her behind my sword, assassin! You who have commanded murder, you who have achieved it by backstabbing cowardice! Whoever you are, your hand has my mark. I will recognize you. And when the time comes, if you will not come to Lagard猫re, Lagard猫re will come to you!”

鈥擫agard猫re, in Paul Feval鈥檚 Le Bossu, 1857. Feval, along with Dumas (who probably inspired him)  et al, helped establish the swashbuckling genre in literature. He also wrote a series each of vampire and crime detection novels. The phrase, 鈥淪i tu ne viens pas 脿 Lagard猫re, Lagard猫re ira 脿 toi!鈥 became proverbial in France. My translation.

“In both men the same grim determination prevailed. The opponent must be killed; there could be no half-measures here.”

鈥擱afael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921

“The next morning, Inigo began the track-down.  He had it all carefully planned in his mind.  He would find the six-fingered man.  He would go up to him.  He would say simply, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die,” and then, oh then, the duel.”

鈥擶illiam Goldman, The Princess Bride, 1973

“I shall write villain upon him with my rapier鈥檚 point.”

鈥擲ir Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1894

“Then I鈥檒l take her when you鈥檙e dead.”

鈥擯eter Blood, in Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, 1922. Captain Blood engages Captain Levasseur in a rencontre on the beach of Virgin Magra, Sabatini鈥檚 joke on the name of Virgin Gorda. In the novel the duel is but briefly described, but is one of the highlights of the 1935 film version with Errol Flynn. The film duel appropriates for its finale the trick of fence described in Sabatini鈥檚 The Black Swan. The duel was filmed at Three Arch Bay, just south of Laguna Beach. Naturally, the duel, only briefly described, is over a woman鈥檚 honor on the one hand, and over her possession on the other.

Annex - Rathbone, Basil (Romeo and Juliet)_01
Basil Rathbone (right) in Romeo and Juliet, 1936. Rathbone was a capable fencer, if not a competitor.

Some Shakespeare

“He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”

鈥擶m. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2.

“MERCUTIO     O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!
Alla stoccata carries it away.
[Draws]
Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?
TYBALT           What wouldst thou have with me?
MERCUTIO     Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine
lives; that I mean to make bold withal, and as you
shall use me hereafter, drybeat the rest of the
eight. Will you pluck your sword out of his pitcher
by the ears? make haste, lest mine be about your
ears ere it be out.
TYBALT           I am for you.
[Drawing]
ROMEO            Gentle Mercutio, put thy rapier up.
MERCUTIO     Come, sir, your passado.
[They fight]”

***

“MERCUTIO   Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a
cat, to scratch a man to death! a braggart, a
rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of
arithmetic!”

鈥擶m. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1. The 鈥渂ook of arithmetic鈥 reference is to forms of rapier play emphasizing geometry, the extreme form of which was the Spanish verdadera destreza mocked by poet and playwright Francisco de Quevedo.

“HAMLET        This likes me well.  These foils have all a length?

***

OSRIC             A hit, a very palpable hit.

***

LAERTES       A touch, a touch, I do confess 鈥榯.

***

HAMLET         Come, for the third, Laertes: you but dally;
I pray you, pass with your best violence;
I am afeard you make a wanton of me.”

鈥擶illiam Shakespeare, Hamlet

Captain Blood versus Captain Levasseur low res
Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. Publicity still from their famous film duel in Captain Blood, 1935, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini.

 More from Swashbuckling Literature & Film

“Villain, unhand the Lady, and defend thy self. [Draws
***
Have at thee—St. George for England.”

鈥擫ovewell in Love and a Bottle by George Farquhar, 1698

Un pour tous!  Tous pour un!”

“One for all!  All for one!”

鈥擜lexandre Dumas, Les Trois Mousquetaires, 1844. The lines are often misquoted or poorly translated as 鈥淎ll for one and one for all!鈥

“Les coquilles tintent, ding-don.
* * *
Prince, demande 谩 Dieu pardon!
Je quarte du pied, j鈥檈scarmouche,
Je coupe, je feinte…
(Se fendant.)
H茅! L脿 donc!
(Le vicomte chancelle; Cyrano salue.)
A la fin de l鈥檈nvoi, je touche.”

“The shells ring, ding dong.
* * *
Prince, ask God for pardon!
I thrust in fourth, I skirmish,
I cutover, I feint…
(Lunging.)
Hey! There thus!
The viscount staggers; Cyrano salutes.
At the end of the refrain, I touch.”

鈥擡dmund Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1897. My translation. The phrase 鈥Je quarte du pied鈥 is not found in fencing language, at least I haven’t so far. Translated directly, it might mean 鈥淚 put the foot more in fourth position鈥 which is meaningless, or 鈥淚 parry [or thrust] in quarte standing still鈥 (du pied [ferme]), which makes much more sense. A reasonable translation might also be that of making a quarter turn, or inquartata. The verb quarter is only found in French in late 19th century fencing language as far as I can tell, meaning to place the arm or sword more in the fourth position.

“He heard them, wheeled about, flung off his coat, and disengaged his sword, all with the speed of lightning and the address of the man who for ten years had walked amid perils, and learned to depend on his blade.”

“‘You fence skillfully,’ said he, sneering, ‘too skillfully for an honest man. Will you now tell me without any more of this, precisely what the Princess Sophia was doing here with you?'”

鈥擱afael Sabatini, 鈥淭he Tragedy of Herrenhausen鈥 in The Historical Nights Entertainment, 1917. The story concerns the Swedish Count of Konigsmark and his affair, physical or otherwise, with the Princess Sophia Dorothea, wife of the unfaithful and crude yet intellectually enlightened Georg Ludwig, ruler of Hanover in Germany and the future George I of Great Britain. Most historians believe the Count was murdered on the order of Georg Ludwig. His brother is credited with inventing the colichemarde blade although the form was around before him. If the brother had any part in its more modern invention and use, the inspiration may have come from some of the by light, well-balanced Spanish rapier blades thick at the forte, or even from some of the rapier-style colichemarde blades found in some Dutch or German transitional swords.

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

“Oh, you are surely mad! M. de La Tour d鈥橝zyr is reputed the most dangerous sword in France.”
“Have you never noticed that most reputations are undeserved?”

“The slender, wickedly delicate blades clashed together, and after a momentary glizade were whirling, swift and bright as lightnings, and almost as impossible to follow with the eye.”

鈥擱afael Sabatini, Scaramouche, 1921. The gift of laughter quote was added to a Yale dormitory during construction in the 1930s, then ordered covered over with ivy when it was discovered by Yale dons that the quote was from a 鈥渕ere鈥 popular novelist. It has since been restored.

“The light of guttering candles fell upon the two small-swords where they lay, the one glittering brightly, the other its murderous steel horribly bent and dimmed鈥”

鈥擩effery Farnol, Sir John Dering, 1923

“Clash and ring of vicious steel that flickered in close and deadly action; stamp of feet and hiss of quick-drawn breath; skill and scorn of death against murderous craft and imperious will. To and fro, up and down, back and forth, they fought with no stay or respite now, changing their ground with nimble volts and dexterous passes, while slowly yet surely, Adam compelled his enemy in the one direction.”

鈥淪ir,鈥 he sighed, 鈥渁s one swordsman and ma卯tre d’armes academique to another, I do here acknowledge a palpable hit and cry: 鈥楾ouch茅!鈥 Indeed, you have tongue nimble and unexpected as your sword. Sir, I can appreciate wit, I can admire swordcraft, but though you possess both, I regret to say you prove yourself so extreme detestable that I propose to rid myself of you once and for all.鈥

鈥擩effery Farnol, Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer, 1940

“Inigo Montoya: You are using Bonetti’s Defense against me, ah?
Man in Black: I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.
Inigo Montoya: Naturally, you must expect me to attack with Capo Ferro?
Man in Black: Naturally, but I find that Thibault cancels out Capo Ferro. Don’t you?
Inigo Montoya: Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa… which I have!
* * *
Inigo Montoya: You are wonderful.
Man in Black: Thank you; I’ve worked hard to become so.
Inigo Montoya: I admit it, you are better than I am.
Man in Black: Then why are you smiling?
Inigo Montoya: Because I know something you don’t know.
Man in Black: And what is that?
Inigo Montoya: I… am not left-handed.
Man in Black: You are amazing.
Inigo Montoya: I ought to be, after 20 years.
Man in Black: Oh, there’s something I ought to tell you.
Inigo Montoya: Tell me.
Man in Black: I’m not left-handed either.”

鈥擠ialogue from the film The Princess Bride, 1987. The fencing masters named are real, but the associated tactics are mere Hollywood, likely intended as homage or just mere color. The duel was choreographed by Bob Anderson. In the novel, this dialogue does not exist. Instead, the masters and tactics are part of the narrative description. Author and screenwriter William Goldman also mentions 鈥淢cBone,鈥 a likely deliberate alteration of, or error for, Scottish swordsman Donald McBane.

Truly ambidextrous fencers are rare. In more than forty years I鈥檝e met only one, Professor Ted Cotton, although my wife Mary Crouch could likely become one if she so chose, one of the founders of fencing in Huntsville, John Jordan, could also fence left-handed, two of our current members routinely switch hands, and I myself can fence tolerably well with my offhand and have begun to use it regularly. Professor Cotton would wear a back-zip jacket and had a body cord down each arm, and would fence his opponents left or right as he thought best. Italian epee great Edoardo Mangiarotti, a right-hander, was taught to fence left-handed by his father in order to give him a competitive advantage, but it is said that he could fence just as well right-handed.

Copyright Benerson Little, 1977-2020. First posted December 19, 2018. Last updated March 30, 2020.

Pirates & Puritans

Boston in 1694, by Cyprian Southack, legendary Massachusetts privateer during King William’s War and Queen Anne’s War. In the former he commanded the Mary and Province Galley privateers, and in the latter the old and new Province Galley. (Leventhal Map and Education Center.)

 

In recognition of the recent Thanksgiving Holiday, a few words from fictional and factual accounts about Puritans and their rather unsurprising early support of pirates and most especially–most because, in other words–their plunder.

I’m well aware, as are most readers, that Thanksgiving’s origin lies with Pilgrims and Native Americans, and the Pilgrims were not Puritans, at least not as we generally think of them. Historians tell us the Pilgrims were Brownist Puritans, a separate sect. Even so, there’s a strong association with Puritans and the holiday, correct or not, doubtless due to the dominance of the “purifying” (the Church of England of so-called Catholic practices) faith soon after in seventeenth century New England. And some historians do date our modern Thanksgiving to a Puritan celebration of Thanksgiving in 1631. I’ll leave the hair-splitting to the specialists in this area.

 

In Fiction

Fiction offers surprisingly few accounts good of Puritans and pirates, at least relative to other peoples and places, and pirates. Of those that exist, the most famous is surely the brief but fact-based description in Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter :

“Not to speak of the clergyman’s health, so inadequate to sustain the hardships of a forest life, his native gifts, his culture, and his entire development, would secure him a home only in the midst of civilization and refinement; the higher the state, the more delicately adapted to it the man. In furtherance of this choice, it so happened that a ship lay in the harbor; one of those questionable cruisers, frequent at that day, which, without being absolutely outlaws of the deep, yet roamed over its surface with a remarkable irresponsibility of character. This vessel had recently arrived from the Spanish Main, and, within three days’ time, would sail for Bristol. Hester Prynne鈥攚hose vocation, as a self-enlisted Sister of Charity, had brought her acquainted with the captain and crew鈥攃ould take upon herself to secure the passage of two individuals and a child, with all the secrecy which circumstances rendered more than desirable…

 


“They Were Rough Looking Desperadoes.” Illustration by Hugh Thomson for The Scarlet Letter (New York: George H. Doran, 1915).

 

“The picture of human life in the market-place, though its general tint was the sad gray, brown, or black of the English emigrants, was yet enlivened by some diversity of hue. A party of Indians鈥攊n their savage finery of curiously embroidered deer-skin robes, wampum-belts, red and yellow ochre, and feathers, and armed with the bow and arrow and stone-headed spear鈥攕tood apart, with countenances of inflexible gravity, beyond what even the Puritan aspect could attain. Nor, wild as were these painted barbarians, were they the wildest feature of the scene. This distinction could more justly be claimed by some mariners,鈥攁 part of the crew of the vessel from the Spanish Main,鈥攚ho had come ashore to see the humors of Election Day. They were rough-looking desperadoes, with sun-blackened faces, and an immensity of beard; their wide, short trousers were confined about the waist by belts, often clasped with a rough plate of gold, and sustaining always a long knife, and, in some instances, a sword. From beneath their broad-brimmed hats of palm-leaf gleamed eyes which, even in good-nature and merriment, had a kind of animal ferocity. They transgressed, without fear or scruple, the rules of behavior that were binding on all others; smoking tobacco under the beadle’s very nose, although each whiff would have cost a townsman a shilling; and quaffing, at their pleasure, draughts of wine or aqua-vit忙 from pocket-flasks, which they freely tendered to the gaping crowd around them. It remarkably characterized the incomplete morality of the age, rigid as we call it, that a license was allowed the seafaring class, not merely for their freaks on shore, but for far more desperate deeds on their proper element. The sailor of that day would go near to be arraigned as a pirate in our own. There could be little doubt, for instance, that this very ship’s crew, though no unfavorable specimens of the nautical brotherhood, had been guilty, as we should phrase it, of depredations on the Spanish commerce, such as would have perilled all their necks in a modern court of justice.

“But the sea, in those old times, heaved, swelled, and foamed, very much at its own will, or subject only to the tempestuous wind, with hardly any attempts at regulation by human law. The buccaneer on the wave might relinquish his calling, and become at once, if he chose, a man of probity and piety on land; nor, even in the full career of his reckless life, was he regarded as a personage with whom it was disreputable to traffic, or casually associate. Thus, the Puritan elders, in their black cloaks, starched bands, and steeple-crowned hats, smiled not unbenignantly at the clamor and rude deportment of these jolly seafaring men; and it excited neither surprise nor animadversion, when so reputable a citizen as old Roger Chillingworth, the physician, was seen to enter the market-place, in close and familiar talk with the commander of the questionable vessel.

“The latter was by far the most showy and gallant figure, so far as apparel went, anywhere to be seen among the multitude. He wore a profusion of ribbons on his garment, and gold-lace on his hat, which was also encircled by a gold chain, and surmounted with a feather. There was a sword at his side, and a sword-cut on his forehead, which, by the arrangement of his hair, he seemed anxious rather to display than hide. A landsman could hardly have worn this garb and shown this face, and worn and shown them both with such a galliard air, without undergoing stern question before a magistrate, and probably incurring fine or imprisonment, or perhaps an exhibition in the stocks. As regarded the shipmaster, however, all was looked upon as pertaining to the character, as to a fish his glistening scales.”

English merchantman, drawn by seaman Edward Barlow in his famous journal, of the sort that traded to North America. Some buccaneers and pirates sailed ships this large, but not as many did as Hollywood had led us to believe. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.)

Hawthorne’s description is quite factual. Owing to the need to write this piece as efficiently as possible (I’m either busy or lazy, or both), I’ll quote here, and later several times, from The Buccaneer’s Realm (Potomac Books, 2007), or at least from the draft, this being easier than consulting the print version for which I have no digital copy, the book being edited on paper–old school, that is.

“Sailors [in New England] are almost certainly exempt anyway from much of this [religious] authority of the petty sort, or at least visiting pirates and privateers are, provided they keep to the 鈥渙rdinaries and publique houses enterteinment鈥 [James Duncan Phillips, Salem in the Seventeenth Century, 1933] on the waterfront where they commonly spend large sums drinking. There probably never has been, nor is there likely to ever be, a busy seapor t that lacks the taverns and women that [historically male] sailors seek when ashore, no matter the local moral culture. Mariners are tolerated in such places because they are a necessity–even tavern keepers may be precluded from arresting sailors for non-payment of their drinking debts, in order that ships can sail with their full crews. Nor can a sailor鈥檚 maritime character be much altered anyway, at sea or ashore. New England, after all, is not only a Puritan culture but a quintessentially maritime one, with a history of privateering, a major shipbuilding industry, seven hundred thirty or more vessels ranging from six to two hundred fifty tons in 1676, and a great trade to the English colonies,Europe, and even Guinea, Madagascar, and 鈥淪canderoon鈥 (陌skenderun, also called Alexandretta). It is impossible to imagine a Puritan selectman attempting to enforce a law against kissing in public, for example, against a filibuster or buccaneer whose hands are figuratively speaking still red with blood and whose plunder is aiding in the financial salvation of the colony. 


Buccaneers & Puritans

Again, an excerpt from The Buccaneers Realm:

In August 1678, privateer Bernard Lemoyne, fitted out in France, armed with a commission from Governor Pouan莽ay at Saint Domingue, commanding the Toison d鈥橭r (Golden Fleece) and in consort with Captain P茅rou and perhaps others as well, cruises the south Cuban coast. In Matanzas Bay these privateers capture three Dutch trading ships ranging from twenty-four to twenty-six guns, and a Spaniard of twenty guns. Sailing to Martinique, the seat of French government in the Caribbean, to have the prizes condemned, Lemoyne faces a strident objection from the majority of his crew. Being English(although recruited at Petit Goave), they prefer to carry the prizes into an English port. However, by sailing with the French they have obviously refused Governor Vaughan鈥檚 offer of amnesty at Jamaica, as well as violated the law against serving under a foreign commission, and so these English must carry their prizes elsewhere, and so they do, to Boston, where they and their French captain are received with open arms. The reception is not surprising: the total value of the prizes, including one lost on the coast but whose cargo of any significant value is saved, is estimated at three hundred thousand pieces-of-eight.

A pair of flibustiers or buccaneers at Petit Goave, 1688, from a chart by P. Cornuau. (Courtesy of the Archives Nationale d鈥橭utre-Mer.) More information on the dress and arms of these men can be found in several of my books, and also here:  The Authentic Image of the Real Buccaneers of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini

That various sea rovers find their way to New England should come as no surprise: the New World is full of them. That some Puritan merchants support piracy should come as no surprise, either: Puritans have been involved in piracy and privateering since the 1630s when they briefly colonized Providence (Santa Catalina) and Henrietta (San Andr茅s) in the Caribbean as bases from which to raid England鈥檚 great hated rival, Catholic Spain.[ii]Further, New England has just endured King Philip鈥檚 War, a bloody conflict that has left the economy in shambles and the Faithful wondering what this manner of鈥淕od鈥檚 Providence鈥 portends. The sudden influx of goods and silver is needed and surely welcomed, and any rationale is better than none. After all, the prizes were seized under a French commission and condemned in Martinique. Bostonians are merely providing a reasonable market.

New Englanders will continue such support throughout the period, with even less scruple, permitting the 鈥渞efitting at the dock at Boston鈥 in 1684 of the Spanish prize La Paz (Peace), renamed la Mutine and commanded by Captain Michel (Andrieszoon). She was captured near Cartagena by a French squadron commanded by Laurens, and whoseother captains included Michel, Yanky (Willems), Le Sage, Br茅ha (Bart), Blot, Grogniet,and an unidentified Englishman. With her is the Fran莽oise, originally captured by the Spanish from the French and called by her captors the Francesa, then re-captured by Laurens at the same time as La Paz, and which has now passed to Yanky鈥檚 command. The Spanish ship is rich with goods: 鈥淭he Bostoners no sooner heard of her [the Paz] off the coast than they despatched a messenger and pilot to convoy her into port in defiance of the King鈥檚 proclamation.鈥 The filibusters purchase much of the 鈥渃hoice goods鈥 in Boston,and thus 鈥渁re likely to leave the greatest part of their plate behind them.鈥 (CSPC 1681-1685, nos. 1845, 1851.)

In 1683 Captain Henley fits out a ship in Boston and sails for the Red Sea, seeking the Mogul鈥檚 rich ships. Associated with him are the pirate captains Thomas Woolery and Christopher Goff, and in 1685 both Henley and Goff are proclaimed pirates. The pirates Graham and Veale briefly visit in1685, but are recognized as pirates who have attacked an English vessel. In the same year the pirate Jean Hamlin returns to the sea in a ship named after his first and notorious vessel: 鈥淭he new Trompeuse was fitted and protected by the godly New England independents.鈥 Woolery returns to Boston in 1687 from 鈥渢he South Sea,鈥 after burning his ship at New Providence. New England is confirmed as a pirate 鈥渞etreat.鈥 (CSPC 1681-1685, nos. 2042, 1563; CSP 1685-1688,nos. 207, 210, 1405, 1449, 1449i, 1555.)

Puritans have a distinct reputation in both religion and trade, perhaps best described by the caustic Ned Ward: 鈥淭he Inhabitants seem very Religious, showing many outward and visible Signs of an inward and Spiritual Grace: But tho鈥 they wear in their Faces the Innocence of Doves,you will find them in their Dealings, as Subtile as Serpents. Interest is their Faith, Money their God, and Large Possessions the only Heaven they covet…And it is a Proverb with those that know them, Whosover believes a New-England Saint, shall be sure to be cheated: And he that knows how to deal with their Traders, may Deal with the Devil and fear no Craft.鈥 (Edward Ward, A Trip to New England, 1699.) Scholar Philip Ainsworth Means writes that for the Puritans, money was 鈥渢o be worked for enthusiastically, all to the Glory of God,鈥 and that, indeed, Puritans are 鈥渢he establishers of [the United States鈥橾 present attitude toward business affairs,鈥 although certainly the Dutch of New York influence it as well. (Means, The Spanish Main, 1935.)

However, New England is neither a single colony nor completely homogeneous. Rhode Island has a similar reputation as Massachusetts,at least in regard to support of pirates, or privateers of dubious commission,based some say on Rhode Island鈥檚 permissive coastline. Here John Coxon threatens to bring his cargo of indigo stolen in 1679 at the Bay of Honduras,if he is not permitted to unlade the cargo at Jamaica, paying duties on it, of course–the pirates would be 鈥渨ell entertained鈥 at Rhode Island. In 1683 two pirate vessels, one of them commanded by Thomas Paine, are also well-received at Rhode Island. Governor Cranfield of New Hampshire asks Rhode Island authorities to arrest them, but is rebuffed. New Hampshire and Connecticut are said to be clones of Massachusetts in government and religion, and which way the original Puritan colony goes, so they go, although the governors of New Hampshire do attempt to reign in the Assembly, a creature of the Puritan congregational ministers. The colony also gives aid and protection to Spanish prisoners who escape from a French pirate in Boston, for example, and Governor Cranfield informs the English government of Massachusetts鈥檚 pandering to pirates.

Common seventeenth century New England ensign. It is nothing more than a red English ensign with an oak tree in the canton. Today the flag is often depicted with a pine tree.

Puritan influence extends to some degree both to the Caribbean and to English buccaneers as well. Many of the early buccaneers are English soldiers recruited under Cromwell鈥檚 鈥淲estern Design鈥 with its failed Cromwell attempt against the Spanish at Hispaniola,followed by the conquest of Jamaica, and certainly some of them are either Puritans,or were, or have absorbed the Puritan ethos prevalent in Cromwell鈥檚 army. The courageous and famous Captain Richard Sawkins, a 鈥済enerous man鈥 who throws dice overboard in anger when he finds buccaneers using them on a Sunday, is almost certainly an heir to some degree of this Puritan tradition. Robert Clarke, 鈥淕overnor and Captain General of the Bahamas,鈥 independent preacher, and granter of piratical commissions 鈥渢o make war on the Spaniards of Cuba, St. Augustine, and others,鈥 is one of Oliver Cromwell鈥檚 former officers, and likewise heir to the Lord Protector鈥檚 Puritan and military traditions, as are many in the Caribbean.[

New England not only receives various pirates and 鈥減rivateers,鈥 but even has those who settle here. One of them, Samuel Moseley of Dorchester, Massachusetts, commands the Salisbury ketch, a coast guard with crew of forty-seven, along the New England coastlinefrom 1673 to 1674 in order to defend against Dutch incursions. Moseley is admirably suited to the job, for he reputedly has been a buccaneer or鈥減rivateer鈥 at Jamaica. In 1675 he is commissioned to seek Dutch 鈥減irates鈥 who have been attacking English traders along the coast of Acadia. Sailing in consort with a French vessel, he soon discovers the trio of Peter Roderigo commanding the Edward and Thomas, Cornelius Andreson commanding the hired boat Penobscot Shallop, and George Manning, an Englishman captured by the Dutch and who has taken up their cause, commanding the Phillip Shallop. However, the issue is not as simple as it seems.

Roderigo and Andreson are actually legitimate privateers. Roderigo, a 鈥淔landerkin,鈥 Andreson, a Dutchman, and JohnRhoades, an Englishman serving as pilot, were recently officers under HurriaenAernouts of the Dutch Flying Post-Horse privateer, attacking and driving off the Frenchalong the Acadian coast. Aernouts lawfully claimed Acadia for Holland, and before he departed for the Caribbean commissioned Roderigo, Andreson, and Rhoades to manage the trade along this territory of 鈥淣ew Holland.鈥 Aernouts subsequently sails with Reyning in an attack on Granada, but both are captured by the French. Unfortunately for the officers he leaves behind, English traders interlope on the Dutch-claimed territory. The officers steal sheep from ashore,and order traders at sea to strike 鈥淎 Mayne for the Prince of orainge,鈥 then rob them of 鈥淏eaver and Moose鈥 pelts and skins. (To 鈥渟trike amain鈥 is to lower topsails, or mainsails if topsails are not set, to indicate submission or surrender.[iii]At one point, Roderigo beats Edward Youring, one of his English crewmen who objects to the theft of English goods. He is left ashore for a day 鈥渢o be starved with could [cold].鈥

New England merchant jack, and possibly a flag flown at the masthead as well. A “St. George” with an oak tree in the canton.

In response, the English accuse them of piracy, and it is in this pretended capacity that Captain Moseley engages them. The battle is over quickly. The Dutch vessels are tiny, and Manning suddenly changes sidesand engages his Dutch consorts. Mosely bids the Dutch 鈥淎 Mayne for the King of England,鈥 and Youring lowers Roderigo鈥檚 mainsail three or four feet to indicate surrender, in spite of orders to the contrary. Now attacked three to two, and by vessels flying English, French, and Dutch colors, Aernouts鈥檚 officers strike for true. Roderigo is convicted of piracy, but pardoned. Andreson is found guilty after the judges direct the verdict, having been first acquitted. The eight remaining are soon tried. Three, including Rhoades, are to be banished.The five others are condemned, including John Williams who had once served under Captain Morris, the famous buccaneer who killed the famous pirate Manoel Pardal Rivera, a Portuguese in the service of Spain. In 1682 Williams will again be in trouble for piracy, this time in Hartford, Connecticut.[iv]

The story does not end here. King Philip鈥檚 War breaks out, and Captain Moseley soon leads a company of volunteers, old soldiers, prisoners, and others against the Wampanoag leader [in this early example of unjust war against Native Americans]. The privateer earns a reputation for both courage and cruelty; his hatred of all Native Americans, friend or foe, is implacable. He is a butcher of men. In this company sometimes called 鈥淢oseley鈥檚 Privateers鈥 are several condemned men condemned for piracy. Among these is Captain Andreson, who is soon commended for his bravery in the field in both Moseley鈥檚 and Wheeler鈥檚 companies, and pardoned. Captain Roderigo serves in Captain Scottow鈥檚 company, and similarly distinguishes himself and is likewise pardoned. King Philip鈥檚 War has everyone鈥檚 attention–none of the condemned are ever put to death.[


Pirates & Puritans

“The Town of Boston in New England” by Capt. John Bonner, 1722. 
(Leventhal Map and Education Center.)

Moving into the early eighteenth century, a period of fascination for many–the time of Blackbeard, Roberts, and their ilk–, I won’t add much on them for now. Their Puritan and Massachusetts contacts were largely associated with piracies in local waters, and, quite deservedly, hangings for such crimes. I’m much less interested in these pirates, considering them little more than thugs with armed ships. Largely composed of privateers angry at losing their traditional trade in a depressed economy when peace arrived, they made no significant attacks by land, ran from most fights with naval vessels and others armed against them, lost nearly all fights with the English navy, and succeeded largely because there wasn’t an adequate local naval presence.

Their entire reputation in the Anglo-American community is based largely on the fact that they had great early publicity (Charles Johnson) which Hollywood adopted and expanded; talked bigger and badder than they really were; captured a large number of vessels (but mostly by frightening poor merchant crews into submission); and, frankly, because their make-up was largely Anglo-American (none of those French or other foreigners to share the credit with). As for their purported colorblindness toward people of darker skins: it didn’t really exist. They were inveterate slavers, just like honest seamen were. For reasons of cognitive dissonance I think (we like pirates but need to rationalize much of their behavior so we don’t feel bad about liking them), these pirates have been variously turned into social and political rebels, “knights of the sea,” and persecuted “good guys.” In fact, although there is always some small kernel of truth to all of these imaginings, it is not enough to change the simple fact that these men were armed thieves at sea, willing to use violence against innocent seamen and passengers.

I’ve dealt thoroughly with these issues in The Golden Age of Piracy

For those interested, I highly recommend George Francis Dow and John Henry Edmonds, The Pirates of the New England Coast 1630-1730, 1923. It’s a fun read with plenty of excerpts from original accounts.

If I do have an interest in early eighteenth century piracy and Puritans, it’s with that grand old hypocrite and religious extremist, the Reverend Cotton Mather. An interesting and often despicable man, he celebrated the infamous witch trials, wrote an excellent but unpublished book on medical practice (including advice on getting fresh air and exercise, and not smoking), supported inoculation against smallpox in spite of strong opposition, and wrote and published books and pamphlets on a variety of subjects ranging from theology to history.

 

 

He also preached and published against pirates sentenced to hang in the early eighteenth century.

 

 

And hang them the devout New Englanders did. 

 


Regarding citations, I have only used them in the case of quotations. Additional citations may be found in The Buccaneer’s Realm


 

 

Copyright Benerson Little, 2007, 2018. 

Treasure Light Press

A new venture, to publish "Exceptional Annotated Editions of Classic Swashbuckling Adventure," beginning with the 100th Anniversary Annotated Edition of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini. See Treasure Light Press's news & blog posts below.

Treasure Light Press on Instagram

Pirate Hunting Et Al on Ezvid Wiki

"My hours of leisure I spent in reading the best authors, antient and modern, being always provided with a good number of books; and when I was ashore, in observing the manners and dispositions of the people, as well as learning their language, wherein I had a great facility by the strength of my memory." 鈥擩onathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 1726

Treasure Light Press: Treasure Light Press