Meyer1560

Historical European Martial Art quotes: Strength or Skill?

This list is an ongoing project so if you have anything you’d like to submit for inclusion please email me at jared@jaredkirby.com.

My thanks to Ben Miller for getting this thread started by asking for quotes which warn against fencing in a rash, reckless, or brutal manner. I have expanded that to include what the masters said about brute strength vs actually training to obtain skill.

I want to thank Bob Brooks, Cecil Longino,  David Black Mastro, Piermarco Terminiello and [you?] for contributions in this list.

HEMA Quotes

Between 1389 – 1494
“That is why Liechtenauer’s swordsmanship is a true art that the weaker wins more easily by use of his art than the stronger by using his strength. Otherwise what use would the art be?”
-Ms.3227a

1409
Coming soon
-Fiore de’i Liberi

c.1480
“cunning wins any strength” (Ingegno ogni possanza sforza)
-Vadi

1560/1570
“It is no use to be overly aggressive with striking, or to cut in at the same time against his strokes recklessly as if with closed eyes, for this resembles not combat but rather a mindless peasants’ brawl.”
-Joachim Meÿer’s Longsword section

Meyer addresses those who strike too hard and are disdainfully referred to as a ‘buffalo’:

“The Squinter (Schielhau) breaks into whatever a buffalo strikes or thrusts.”

“And this strike breaks all strikes of a Buffalo – which means peasant – that come downwards from above, as most peasants usually do.”

“Note here that the squinter is a cut which breaks-in the cuts and thrusts of the buffalo (one who acquires victory with power) …”

1569
“The vulgate, although he professes knowledge of swordsmanship, is easy to discover when in times of anger and conflict he forgets his professed skill and commits vulgarity in his manner and actions.”
-Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza: Of the Philosophy of the arms, of its art and the Christian offense and defense

1594
“Luke.
I know not certainly, whether it hath been my earnest desire to encounter you, that raised me earlier this morning than my accustomed hour, or to be ascertained of some doubtful questions, which yester-night* [current: yesternight] were proposed by some gentleman and myself, in discourse of arms: for they held, that although a man learn perfectly the dritto, riverso, the stoccata, the imbroccata, the punta riversa, with each several motion of the body, yet when they hap to come to single fight, where the trial of true valor must end the quarrel, they utterly forget all their former practices. Therefore would I request of you, (if you so please) to know your opinion, whether in single fight a man can forget his usual wards, or use them then with as much dexterity and courage as he [is] accustomed in play.

V. It is very likely, that many are of this opinion, for there are few or none that in cause of quarrel when they come as we term it to buckling, but suffer themselves to be overcome with fury, and so never remember their art: such effect choler worketh*. And it may be some being timorous* and full of pusillanimity*, (which is ever father to fear) are so scared out of their wits, that they seem men amazed and void of fence. Or some may be taken in the humor of drink, or with divers other occasions, that may enfeeble their understanding. And by these reasons well may they forget in fight, what they learned in play: but in them in whom no such effects are predominant, neither are assailed with such accidents, they behave themselves discretely, and are not distempered with any such perturbations: and besides this, I have seen many that being fearful by nature, through daily practice have become courageous, and always so continued. Neither is it possible, but in practice he should obtain courage and increase his valor more than before.”
-Vincentio Saviolo: Third Day Discourse, of Rapier and Dagger

c.1605
“When your enemy shall press upon you, he will be open in one place or other, both at single & double weapon, or at least he will be too weak in his ward upon such pressing, then strike or thrust at such open or weakest part that you shall find nearest.”
-George Silver: Brief Instructions

1610
“METHODS THAT ONE MUST HOLD AGAINST A BRUTAL MAN
4. If you have to encounter a brutal man that, without misura and tempo, hurls many blows at you with great impetus, you will be able to do two things. First, adopt the interplay of mezzo tempo, as I will teach you in its place, you will strike him in his hurling of the point, either by cut in the hand or in the sword arm. Otherwise, you can leave him to proceed at emptiness with somewhat voiding the vita backwards, and then you instantly drive a point into the face or chest.”
-Ridolfo Capo Ferro

1640
“Some rely upon the spirit alone, which is a very dangerous concept, saying that courage and strength is all that is needed and that in duels and altercations there is no place for the observance of tempo and measure, which are merely subtleties and worthless outside of the salle. In order to prove this charming viewpoint they quickly cite the example of some master of arms who was killed by a simpleton. These people, who have such strange ideas inside their heads, deserve to be pitied more than they merit a response.

Courage and strength are natural gifts but it is easy to be equal to them. Whoever has a sense of honour will never be timid with shame and it is not necessary to have the arm of Rodomonte to reach your enemy’s vital organs.

If two people have to fight and one of them is weaker, according to these people he would not have any chance, a completely false idea. If a rough, strong man with no imaginable notion of how to conduct himself in attack were to arrive and fight with a sword and dagger against someone weaker but experienced in fencing, you would see who would be left dead in the field.

Understanding tempo and measure and knowing how to apply them is no mere subtlety. They are precise, dependable principles; nor do they have to be promoted with fine discourses and mellifluous words, they can be demonstrated with actions.

The example of a fencer killed by a simpleton is ridiculous. Since it happens only rarely, as if by a miracle, it is always recounted, whereas no-one speaks of those killed by fencers because it is an ordinary, unsurprising occurrence.”
-Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri (translation by Piermarco Terminiello)

1691
“And the Reason of the first (which is, any Artist receiving one Thrust for another from an Ignorant) is that when People Assault, it is commonly with Blunts, and when an Ignorant, who undervalueth the Art of the Sword, and trusteth all to his own Forewardness is desired by an Artist to shew his Natural Play, he very well considering that he can receive no prejudice by his being hitt with a blunt Fleuret, Rusheth and Rambleth still forewards (let him receive never so many Thrusts) until he either hitteth the Artist with one of his Rambling Thrusts, or other wayes cometh so closs, that the Artist must inclose with him, and he thinketh, if he hath given the Artist but one Thrust (although he himself should receive three or four in the time they are playing) that he hath carried the Day, and quiterun down the Art of Fencing, whereas if they were either to play with Real Sharps, or with Fleurets having a quarter of an Inch of a point beyond the button, I make not the least doubt, but their rambling would be a little slower, and they would take better notice to what they did, it being Natural even for the most Foreward and Boldest of Men, to endeavour to save themselves by putting a little stop to their Pursute, when they perceive a Sharp point opposite to, and ready to wound, them, and without which stop or pause, they are sensible they might run the Risk, if not of losing their Life; yet at least of being hurt, and so smarting for their rash Forewardness; so this is the Reason why Artists may receive one Thrust for another from Ignorants, to wit, Their Assaulting commonly with Blunts; Therefore to prevent this inconbeniency, if I were to play with an Ignorant for a Wager, I would play alwayes with pointed Fleurets, and then in GOD’s Name let him Ramble his Belly full; For in that case I would know a way to come at him, which might perhaps cause him repent his Forewardness.”

Rule VI.If your Adversary be Hasty, Passionate, and pursue Furiously, and Irregularly, then with Calmness, Vigour, and Judgement, Cross, Stop, and Oppose his Fury: but upon the contrary if Careless, Lash, Slow, or perhaps Timorous, then also Calmly, Vigorously, and with Judgement pursue him.”
-William Hope’s The Sword Man’s Vade Mecum

1702
But be sure, whenever you fight, that you are free from passion; for if a man be the best swords-man in the kingdom, and fights when in passion, he disorders himself to that degree, that he cannot make use of all his judgment. If a man comes to fence with sharps or blunts, let him have presence of mind, and be always thinking how to hit him; and no man that understands fencing can have a greater advantage of his adversary, tho’ he fences never so well, than when he is guilty of that foolish thing call’d passion.”
-Henry Blackwell: The English fencing-master, pg 37V

“I shall omit giving you any more lessons, for those I have showed you are sufficient to make you a complete sword’s-man, if you will but practice them very neat; for no man can fence well without he fences gentile, and with a great deal of air and life in his body; that is, every thrust must come free from him with a great deal of ease, without bustling or passion, and these are the signs of a great command in fencing.”
-Henry Blackwell: The English fencing-master, pg 38V

1711
“7th. Patience is defined thus, Let not Passion, Fury, nor Choler, which are absolute Enemies to skill, in no Case prevail, if you do, it will destroy your Judgement.”
-Zachary Wylde: The English Master of Defence

1728
“By Avolting, Slipping and Retireing, and giving the Point, in these cases, a Weak Man is a match for a much Stronger, and it is certainly best to do these if your Adversary be Fool Hardy and press forward, whether he understand the Sword or not, for he may run himself upon your Point; or when he has tired himself, you may then play with him, and do what you please; commonly those People who are unskill’d do thus, the think (and indeed with Reason) that they must not let you Attack, because they do not know how to Defend as they ought, for the Defencive part is the most difficult, therefore they drive on you with great Fury, (whils’t they have Strength) to put you out of your Play, but once that is over they are at your Mercy.

Some Men care not (at least don’t think of it, being only intent upon Hitting their Adversary) if they Receive a thrust, if it be not immediately Mortal, so that they can but give one, but this may properly be called Rashness, or Fool Hardiness.

Command your Temper and you will do much better, than if you give way to your Passion; and if you do Command it, and are Engaged with a Person who can not, you will have very much the Advantage of him, for his Passion will make him Play wild and wide, and consequently exposes himself to be Hit very often, wheras your thoughts not being in Hurry and Confusion, you may Defend your self with ease and judgement, and take an Advantage readily when ever you have a mind, you are the more capable of doing this, because your Strength, Mind and Spirit are not Spent or Exhausted.”
-Donald McBane: The Expert Swordsman’s Companion

1734
“The nicest Part of Fencing consists in the Defensive, and particularly against the Bold Ignorant…No Person ought ever to make any other Use of his Skill in Fencing, than in his own Defence; and then in such a cool and temperate Manner, as neither to be exasperated by Passion, or afraid to exert his judgment; then a Gentleman will reap the benefit of his instruction.”
Edward Blackwell

1747
But there is a kind of Suppleness in the Joints, and Spring in the Wrist, partly natural in Mankind, and partly acquired by Use and Exercise. This you do not always find in proportion to Man’s Strength; and it is what some Men, with all their Practice, will never attain to. I have seen some, and doubt not, but it has been observed by several others, who with a Body and Arm almost strong enough to fling another over a Wall, with a Stick in the Hand could not hit a Blow half so hard and smart, as another could with half their Strength; they always striking down like a Woman with a straight Arm, without raising or jerking the Wrist. Now I say, that a weak Man, either by Nature or more Practice than a strong Man, may be swifter, and in course stronger in his Thrusts, and his Parades, by that natural Suppleness, or acquired Spring. He therefore may set up for a Candidate in the Art, and make a proportionable Interest in it. But he stands a wretched Chance in attempting the Flanconade upon a stronger Man, and runs little risk, if superior Strength dares it upon him. That Thrust can never be compassed, but by main Force upon the most feeble, and at the same Time the most ignorant Patient. Nothing less is required, to give any Hope of Success in it, but the Strength of a Giant against a Pygmy. And even that vast Superiority of Strength must fail, if the weak Man is industrious in his Parade; for I will venture to say, that there is not the tenth Part of the Strength required in the Parade, that there is in the Thrust; and if the Parade be duly timed (upon which everything of the Sword depends, and yet distinct from Strength) no Strength will carry it, and the very Parry, is a certain unsought-for Thrust, which must go surer into your Adversary’s Body, than any other Thrust you can make, and never can deceive you, because his sword colleagues against him, and by the twisted Lock his binding File has formed, carries you unerringly in.”
-Captain John Godfrey: A TREATISE Upon the Useful Science of Defence.

 

1862
“May I ask one more question?” said one of my friends. “I have often heard it said that if you don’t know much about fencing the best thing to do is, as soon as you come on guard, to make a sudden rush at the other man before he has time to collect himself.”
“Well,” I replied, “if you wish to make sure of being incurably spitted, that is the most infallible way to set about it.”
– Baron Cesar de Bazancourt: Secrets of the Sword, The Tenth Evening XII.

1888
“Gen. Boulanger . . . from what I learn by the papers, brought about his defeat by his lack of coolness and consequent fury of attack. He rushed blindly on his foe, losing all sight of prudence and skill in the desire to inflict injury. For an expert swordsman to overcome such an attack is an easy matter. He has only to wait coolly for his antagonist to leave an opening and then sail in . . . Between you and me, I think Boulanger was in great luck. A man who employs the tactics he did in the presence of a skillful swordsman will be killed in nine cases out of ten.”
-Col. Monstery