Martial arts

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Martial Arts in Seventeenth Century England

Reproduced by kind permission of Nigel Plum of Rawdon's

Great Representation of the Art and Use of Fencing by Ridolfo Capo Ferro (1610). No look at C17th swordplay would be complete without a mention of this influential rapier manual, beloved by Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.

When it comes to open hand combat we have less choice. I am unaware of any English manuals of the period although two continental examples do exist. These were written a little later and show a continuity of technique from medieval manuscripts to more modern ones from across Western Europe. So we are probably safe to assume this is very much what Englishmen used as a practical means of self defence.

Magnificent Art of Wrestling by Nicolaes Petter,, (1674). This magnificently illustrated manual was published in Amsterdam shortly after the author’s death. It contains a great number of locks, arm breaks & throws. The introduction includes a cheeky advert for the school of Robert Cors, one of Petter’s former pupils.

Vollstandiges Ring-Buchohann by Johann Georg Passchen, , (1659). This manual spends a lot of time in boring repetition, however the techniques are very effective and some are downright vicious. In this they have much in common with what is taught today in self defence and combatives. They include edge of hand strikes, fish hooks to the mouth, elbow strikes and headbutts. And if you are left in any doubt about whether he is talking about pub fights he helpfully shows what to do if someone throws a jug at you.

There is a distinct similarity between these two texts and the teachings of Capt. W. E. Fairbairn during WW2. The main difference is that both seventeenth century manuals have sections on hair pulling. Fairbairn and Captain E A Sykes, both instructors with SOE, drew upon their experiences within the Shanghai Police forces to develop the ‘Fairbairn-Sykes’ commando knife just before WW2.

As you can see there is a huge depth of primary sources available to show the existence of martial arts in 17th century England. People lived in times a great deal more violent than ours. Analysis of Gough’s The History of Myddle has put the murder rate at at least 20 times than that of today – and in fact someone in Myddle could have done with a copy of Passchen’s book as they were killed by being hit with a jug. And that’s just the background level in a nondescript Shropshire parish. Living in the cities, and with the coming of the Civil War, life would be even more dangerous. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that people learned to defend themselves in a systematic and intelligent way. Without doubt these skills will have been taken onto the battlefields and sieges of the English Civil War.


History of Myddle, Richard Gough

Wikipedia article on Joseph Swetnam -

An introduction to George Hale’s The Private School of Defence (1614), John Clements

DiGrassi: His True Art of Defence (1594), adapted by William Elder

Nicolaes Petter: Clear Instructions to the Excellent Art of Wrestling (1674), translated by Eli Steenput.