|The C16th was the heyday of professional teachers of European martial arts, then known as “The Science of Defence”. The practice of martial arts was a popular hobby, in much the same way as it is today, but with a somewhat greater likelihood of proving relevant. While there is little information available on the schools and masters operating in Scotland (The surviving records of C16th schools and their procedures currently available for reference relate to those in London and the earliest Scottish school we have record of being late C17th), we know they existed in broadly similar form across Europe and it is likely that “Scholes of Fence” existed in every Scottish town, and itinerant teachers travelled around holding classes where they could. Roger Ascham wrote about England in 1545 “For of fence in everie towne there is not only Maisters to teache it, with his Provosts, Usshers, Scholers...” Schools varied in their level of respectability, from rowdy establishments often associated with inns and bawdy houses, to more gentlemanly establishments favoured by the middle classes. The emergence of an upwardly mobile middle class in the C16th corresponded with an attempt by the Masters to become more respectable and distance themselves from the rowdier elements. The syllabus focussed on single combat and what would now be termed self defence, as these were private civilian schools rather than military establishments.
Within the schools students were ranked or graded, as they are in modern oriental martial arts schools, and promotion to the next level was by competitive examination. These took the form of a challenge to all comers issued by the student seeking promotion, who would obtain a public venue (usually an inn yard or theatre) and advertise when he would be there and which weapon forms he would be using. On the appointed day the challenger would lead a procession of students and Masters, with drums and other pomp, from his school to the venue. This would attract a large audience who would follow to watch the combats. Students of the schools in the area were expected to turn up and answer the challenge in one, some or all of the weapon forms advertised and the challenger would have to fight all of them. The masters of the local schools would attend to observe how he did. Once all the duels had been completed the masters would consult and decide together whether the student had proved himself worthy of promotion. This was known as “Playing your Prize” and later developed into “Prize Fighting” and ultimately boxing. Since this is a historical example of a public display of combat skill, using blunted weapons, it provides us with an excellent opportunity to present a fully accurate re-enactment, focussing on dramatic single combats and avoiding the need for pretended injury or death.
A range of weapon forms were studied. The foundation of all is the Longsword (also known as Bastard Sword, Hand and a Half Sword, or Two-Handed Sword – the swords used primarily with both hands). Besides that styles studied were the Single Sword (a Broadsword, Backsword or any equivalent single handed sword which could cut or thrust with equal facility), Halberd (which includes other polearms - anything which has a head which can both thrust and strike), Spear, Dagger and Quarterstaff. The Rapier (which at this time was a sword optimised for thrusting, but still capable of cutting, and on average slightly heavier than the more common styles of single handed sword) was comparatively rare until the late C16th, when it became popular with those who aspired to be fashionable. Swords were used single (with the other hand empty), as a case (a pair of matched swords – difficult to use effectively and so not often seen), with a shield of some form (a small buckler most commonly, or sometimes the slightly larger targe) or with a dagger. All techniques include closing and “grips” or wrestling techniques.
I can recommend some further reading if you wish to delve deeper into the background to these schools. A good introduction is Terry Brown’s book “English Martial Arts” which has an excellent overview of the history of the London Schools of Defence. “Master of Defense: The Works of George Silver” by Paul Wagner also includes much very useful background material, as well as the full text of George Silver’s 1599 publication “Paradoxes of Defence” and his subsequent “Brief Notes” which was not published in his lifetime. (alternatively see George Silver on Wikipedia which includes links to free online versions of his work) – the only British C16th work to have survived. Sydney Anglo’s “The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe” is a wonderfully detailed study of the topic while “The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe 1520 -1630”, by Tobias Capwell, published by the Wallace Collection to support their exhibition of the same title, also has some useful essays.