George Silver – The Hand is Quicker than the Eye

My club has recently started looking at the works of George Silver, as interpreted by Stephen Hand. Right now the class is focused heavily the theory and philosophy of fencing rather than the mechanical aspects. Here are my personal notes from the first of several discussions we had.

Silver argues that the hand is faster than the eye. By this he means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be sure of your parries when being attacked within distance (i.e. narrow measure). This gives the attacker the advantage.

This is analogous to the German concept of the Vor, where is preferable to be on the offensive rather than using parries with the hope of a counter-attack.

But Silver doesn’t stop there. Note that he said you must be within distance for this advantage. If you are without distance (i.e. wide measure), then by definition you need to take a step in order to attack. This limits you the speed of the foot, which is slower than the speed of the hand. Which in turn gives the advantage to the defender.

Returning to the German, we have the concept of the Vorschlag (Before Strike) from MS 3227a. The text doesn’t define the term, but it speaks highly of the need to win the Vorschlag.

And then, if he manages to get to him, and he knows the measure and thinks the adversary can and will reach him now, so he should hurry to him without fear, quickly and nimbly, going for the head or body, not caring if he hits or misses. So he should win the Vorschlag and not let the adversary come to his own fencing. About this you will learn more in the general teachings.

By winning the Vorschlag, that difficult first strike from wide measure, you can place yourself in Silver’s True Place (where you can strike without being struck). From there you can then execute a series of attacks in the Vor or “time of the hand”. But how do you win the Vorschlag? 3227a offers some advice in the preceding passage,

That what one intends to execute for fun or in earnest, should be made strange and confusing to the eyes, so that the adversary will not notice what is going on.

For more information, we can look to dall’Agocchie. He spends quite a lot of time talking about the defender’s advantage and how to overcome it using what he calls “provocations”. These are plays designed to confront and unsettle an opponent who is resting in a guard.

Meyer has a similar term; his “provoker” refers to a cut or thrust meant to cause a specific reaction in his opponent (as opposed or in addition to wound or parry). Essentially Meyer’s provoker is the first action in dall’Agocchie’s provocation.

Wrapping this up, essentially what Silver is saying is that we need to be wary of attacking without distance (wide measure), but if we are successful in closing to narrow measure we will have a significant advantage so long as we remain on the offensive.

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