The art and politics of Fence: Subtexts and ideologies of late 16th Century fencing manuals

Fencing manuals of the early modern period have undergone a resurgence of interest in recent decades thanks to the efforts of researchers and practitioners who have sought to recreate these fighting arts in a living context. Naturally, this can only be a hypothetical exercise as, in many cases, the lineage of these Western styles is extinct and so the recreationists must start from scratch, as it were. Yet beyond the sphere of recreation and what is, in effect, a very physical form of experimental archaeology, this paper seeks to demonstrate that these manuals and treatises are worthy of study not merely as historical documents but as works of both philosophy and literary merit, demonstrating, as they do, a clear ideological viewpoint as well as an engagement with the ideological and intellectual shifts of the Early Modern period. This, then, is also a study of a conflict between two very different approaches to controlled and systemic violence, as well as issues of national identity and a growing sense of what in the long term would become nascent modern nationhood, as well as a broader social, socio-economic and cultural context within early modern England. The intellectual underpinnings of these texts demonstrate two differing ethical models and an attempt in both cases to integrate them into the context of Early Modern England. The two texts chosen for this initial study, namely, George Silver’s Paradoxes of Defence (1599)and Vincentino Saviolo’s His Practise (1595), not only contrast with one another, which was Silver’s intention, but also demonstrate an engagement with humanistic and social concerns; we cannot detach these works from the literary and socio-political contexts in which they were written, nor would the authors have intended them to be.

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