Yesterday I had the good fortune to witness a display of Elizabethan sword-fighting. The display, which took place outside in the sunshine, consisted of three very skilled (and very tall) men in protective (Elizabethan-style) clothing demonstrating a variety of Elizabethan swordplay techniques. I had imagined the spectacle would resemble the sword-fights I’ve seen in the theatre; all breathless energy and nimble footwork. The reality was very different, much more sedate, (although this was in part due to the fact it was a demonstration; in the video below it’s much faster). The combatants approached each other slowly, and with caution, which makes a great deal of sense since both are holding potentially lethal weapons. The footwork was steady, no sudden Errol Flynn leaps forward. Balance is very important, since in a serious sword-fight, tripping over a clump of grass is liable to offer an opponent an easy victory. Initially the group demonstrated some defensive practise exercises, which when combined together formed a sort of martial arts dance. Less like fighting, more like balletic fencing. The object is to defend at all possible times while looking for an opening in an opponent’s defence; a simple mistake can lead to a fatal wound. Much to my surprise hands formed a large part of the defence; thrusting at an opponent with the sword in one hand, using the other hand to block their blade. According to the lead swordsman, in Elizabethan England duelling often occurred without gloves or any protective clothing, and it is impossible to imagine any gentleman walking away unscathed after such an encounter.
From simple defensive exercises, the display moved on to double-weapon combat, in which each man fought with a sword and a dagger. The dagger, much larger than the one which usually dances before Macbeth’s eyes, serves much as the hand had done in the earlier exercises, to defend, but is naturally more robust, and can also be used to attack as well as block. The combination of the sword and the dagger together was compelling, and as the impressive display picked up pace, the air was filled with the authentic clink and whoosh as dagger met dagger and blades cut the air.
Finally came the spears. The most dangerous of the weapons on display; longer than a sword, but with the added advantage of maintaining considerable distance between opponents, which puts the man armed only with a sword or dagger at a distinct disadvantage. It wasn’t hard to understand why the many descriptions of atrocities and massacres which occurred in early modern Europe involved these deadly weapons; babies spiked on the ends of spears is a recurring image in texts concerned with religious and political bloodshed. Spears were almost certainly used in serious fights to the death and armed combat. The elegant swords meanwhile would often be used in duelling, which has a long and complex history and was used to settle disputes and recover honour. Surprisingly, losing a duel didn’t equate with loss of honour. In fact quite the opposite. The very fact a man elected to duel demonstrated his bravery. Duelling to the death was also surprisingly uncommon. The intention was to display virility and masculinity, not to butcher one’s opponent. In fact it was rare for a man to be killed in a duel, although several sensational duels did end in death.
After the display we were invited to handle (cautiously) the replica Elizabethan swords. Weighing a few kilos each, they were much heavier than they appeared; I was barely able to lift a sword off the ground, let alone wield it over my head. The dagger was easier to manage, shorter, obviously, and less heavy. It had a rounded end and a hefty hilt, and dangling it at my side I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have something of that weight permanently suspended from a belt. The larger sword would have been impossible to wear casually, and even in a hilt it would have been considerably dangerous and impractical. The display taught me much about the reality of swords and swordplay in Shakespeare’s England. Actors like Shakespeare would also have handled these weapons, whether on the stage, or to protect themselves on the mean streets of London. Ben Jonson killed the actor Gabriel Spenser in a duel, and perhaps Shakespeare walked along bankside to the Globe with a dagger clinking at his side.