Book Review: “Brief Instructions Upon my Paradoxes of Defence – Scholler’s Edition” by Eaton (ed)


Wes Rapier backsword
Two English Civil War Swords

The work that George Silver was best known for was his 1599 Paradoxes of Defence, in which he conducts a vehement denunciation of the Italian teaching of the civilian dueling rapier within his England and its subsequent use by a heretofore doughty race of backsword wielders. Paradoxes was not so much a fight book as it was a call to arms to return to the first principles of what made Englishmen unique (in his mind) within renaissance Europe.  His subsequent Brief Instructions Upon my Paradoxes of Defence a half-decade later was actually closer to being a fight book in that it explained Silver’s concept of the “noble science” of swordplay.

Eaton’s reprint of Brief Instructions is done with the intent of making this lesser-known work more available to the general swordplay public with “accessibility as its primary concern”.  To wit; the language is slightly modernised, the pages themselves typeset without cramping, useful footnotes have been added, and the inevitable marginalia found within the original source deleted.

Physically, the book is unimposing; it is slender, and laid out much like a thesis paper without any diagrams.  However, at the price it is going for at the moment, you are getting good value for your money.  Eaton offers a brief interesting assessment of Silver’s work and his times… and then fills the rest of the folio with Silver’s work.

This Scholler’s Edition is a welcome and useful addition to our panoply of pamphlets. However, it is the editor’s final thought that really stood out for me:

“The page layout has been designed … with enough room for the reader’s own notes.  It is the editor’s hope that this book will be covered in copious pencilled notes and highlighter pen, page corners will be creased to mark particular passages… and well thumbed and much abused….” [1]

Wes Mark a book
From ‘Montymyman’

This is one of those rare fight books that both invites and encourages you to mark it up — all without “destroying” the book (the use of, utility and resale value of margin notes on a book are one of the most hotly contested topics within bibliophile debate).

For the fencing Masters among us, you can mark a copy, leave it out for your students, and they’ll have the benefit of your words at hand anytime to guide them as to your interpretation of Silver’s words.

Given the modest outlay for Eaton’s work, one could easily purchase one copy for personal use, and donate another to your sword school library… annotated with your own notes!

And maybe, just maybe — a junior sword scholar researching an obscure topic on the art will quote you as an authority.

Sources and Further Reading

1. Eaton, Bruce (ed). “Silver, George.” Brief Instructions on My Paradoxes of Defence. Scholer’s Edition. Medieval Martial Arts, UK, 2014. Brief Notes page 5 and 6.

2. Two English Civil War Swords
A) An English Civil War “Mortuary” hilted Rapier C. 1630.
B) English Colonial America (Jamestown) Back Sword C. 1610
Culloden House Antiques 2008
Proprietor: Robert Docherty
Vancouver, BC

And, related to books, for those interested in the role of the duel in literature, I recommend you to the recent publication of Touché: The Duel in Literature by John Leigh. You can find reviews of it within the The New Yorker, The Spectator (UK), New Statesman (UK), Washington Post, and Tulsa World (Oklahoma).