Last Saturday I taught a singlestick seminar. Singlestick is an odd system for me because it’s the one area of swordsmanship where I am not tied hand and foot to a single source. Having been thoroughly pasted by Terry Brown and his students, I am under no illusions about my current competence with this weapon. It is a part of the syllabus that is left over from a time 10 years ago or more when it was one of my best weapons to fence and teach.
It is unique in that it is the only system I teach where we use wooden weapons and allow a sporting approach. Historically, the singlestick (a yard long ash stick with a leather basket covering the hand) was a training tool for the military broadsword, and a separate sporting system in which bouts were ended with a bleeding head wound. (There is a lovely description of this in chapter two of Tom Brown’s School Days, which you can download free from Project Gutenberg. I have copied and pasted the relevant section below this post.)
By the last hour of the seminar all the students seemed pretty exhausted. We had covered the basics of the system, in static drills and more lively “make it work” exercises, and had used some freeplay to expose what needed practice. So it was clearly time for a change of pace. To me, that means lots of running about and push-ups.
To start with, I had the benches brought out (long, low school-gym type things) and placed end to end, and the students freeplayed on them- it made for some very conservative footwork!
We then used the benches as a barrier. One student at each end, on opposite sides. The rules are- keep moving forwards, don’t get hit. The idea is to make it similar to two cavalrymen attacking each other. This lead to a LOT of double hits (and hence a lot of push-ups). This in no way accurately simulates mounted combat, but it gives a small insight into the problem of fighting people who are moving past you.
Then I added a second mask, held in the left hand, in about the position of the imaginary horse’s head. Strikes could be done to either the man or the mask. Very silly, but again a window onto a problem. If your horse gets his eyes cut out, what do you do?
Then everyone spread out fight to one hit, last man standing. The last man of course got to choose how many push-ups everyone else did. Precious little teamwork, lots of backstabbing.
To this we added blackpowder pistols. Sort of. Everyone got one rubber dagger, which they could throw. No reloading (i.e. Picking up a spent dagger and throwing it again). Again lots of backstabbing, shooting from behind, missing, and general hilarity. And the question was raised- when to shoot, if you only have one shot?
The role of singlestick within the school syllabus is to provide a low barrier to entry weapon, where beginners can freeplay safely with minimum kit and maximum fun. It goes against the grain a bit to be so cavalier with a historical system, but there is no doubt of the usefulness of the occasional descent into silliness.
From Tom Brown’s School Days, by Thomas Hughes
And now, while they are climbing the pole in another part of the field, and muzzling in a flour-tub in another, the old farmer whose house, as has been said, overlooks the field, and who is master of the revels, gets up the steps on to the stage, and announces to all whom it may concern that a half-sovereign in money will be forthcoming to the old gamester who breaks most heads; to which the Squire and he have added a new hat.
The amount of the prize is sufficient to stimulate the men of the immediate neighbourhood, but not enough to bring any very high talent from a distance; so, after a glance or two round, a tall fellow, who is a down shepherd, chucks his hat on to the stage and climbs up the steps, looking rather sheepish. The crowd, of course, first cheer, and then chaff as usual, as he picks up his hat and begins handling the sticks to see which will suit him.
“Wooy, Willum Smith, thee canst plaay wi' he arra daay,” says his companion to the blacksmith's apprentice, a stout young fellow of nineteen or twenty. Willum's sweetheart is in the “veast” somewhere, and has strictly enjoined him not to get his head broke at back-swording, on pain of her highest displeasure; but as she is not to be seen (the women pretend not to like to see the backsword play, and keep away from the stage), and as his hat is decidedly getting old, he chucks it on to the stage, and follows himself, hoping that he will only have to break other people's heads, or that, after all, Rachel won't really mind.
Then follows the greasy cap lined with fur of a half-gipsy, poaching, loafing fellow, who travels the Vale not for much good, I fancy:
“For twenty times was Peter feared
For once that Peter was respected,”
in fact. And then three or four other hats, including the glossy castor of Joe Willis, the self-elected and would-be champion of the neighbourhood, a well-to-do young butcher of twenty-eight or thereabouts, and a great strapping fellow, with his full allowance of bluster. This is a capital show of gamesters, considering the amount of the prize; so, while they are picking their sticks and drawing their lots, I think I must tell you, as shortly as I can, how the noble old game of back-sword is played; for it is sadly gone out of late, even in the Vale, and maybe you have never seen it.
The weapon is a good stout ash stick with a large basket handle, heavier and somewhat shorter than a common single-stick. The players are called “old gamesters”—why, I can't tell you—and their object is simply to break one another's heads; for the moment that blood runs an inch anywhere above the eyebrow, the old gamester to whom it belongs is beaten, and has to stop. A very slight blow with the sticks will fetch blood, so that it is by no means a punishing pastime, if the men don't play on purpose and savagely at the body and arms of their adversaries. The old gamester going into action only takes off his hat and coat, and arms himself with a stick; he then loops the fingers of his left hand in a handkerchief or strap, which he fastens round his left leg, measuring the length, so that when he draws it tight with his left elbow in the air, that elbow shall just reach as high as his crown. Thus you see, so long as he chooses to keep his left elbow up, regardless of cuts, he has a perfect guard for the left side of his head. Then he advances his right hand above and in front of his head, holding his stick across, so that its point projects an inch or two over his left elbow; and thus his whole head is completely guarded, and he faces his man armed in like manner; and they stand some three feet apart, often nearer, and feint, and strike, and return at one another's heads, until one cries “hold,” or blood flows. In the first case they are allowed a minute's time; and go on again; in the latter another pair of gamesters are called on. If good men are playing, the quickness of the returns is marvellous: you hear the rattle like that a boy makes drawing his stick along palings, only heavier; and the closeness of the men in action to one another gives it a strange interest, and makes a spell at back-swording a very noble sight.
They are all suited now with sticks, and Joe Willis and the gipsy man have drawn the first lot. So the rest lean against the rails of the stage, and Joe and the dark man meet in the middle, the boards having been strewed with sawdust, Joe's white shirt and spotless drab breeches and boots contrasting with the gipsy's coarse blue shirt and dirty green velveteen breeches and leather gaiters. Joe is evidently turning up his nose at the other, and half insulted at having to break his head.
The gipsy is a tough, active fellow, but not very skilful with his weapon, so that Joe's weight and strength tell in a minute; he is too heavy metal for him. Whack, whack, whack, come his blows, breaking down the gipsy's guard, and threatening to reach his head every moment. There it is at last. “Blood, blood!” shout the spectators, as a thin stream oozes out slowly from the roots of his hair, and the umpire calls to them to stop. The gipsy scowls at Joe under his brows in no pleasant manner, while Master Joe swaggers about, and makes attitudes, and thinks himself, and shows that he thinks himself, the greatest man in the field.
Then follow several stout sets-to between the other candidates for the new hat, and at last come the shepherd and Willum Smith. This is the crack set-to of the day. They are both in famous wind, and there is no crying “hold.” The shepherd is an old hand, and up to all the dodges. He tries them one after another, and very nearly gets at Willum's head by coming in near, and playing over his guard at the half-stick; but somehow Willum blunders through, catching the stick on his shoulders, neck, sides, every now and then, anywhere but on his head, and his returns are heavy and straight, and he is the youngest gamester and a favourite in the parish, and his gallant stand brings down shouts and cheers, and the knowing ones think he'll win if he keeps steady; and Tom, on the groom's shoulder, holds his hands together, and can hardly breathe for excitement.
Alas for Willum! His sweetheart, getting tired of female companionship, has been hunting the booths to see where he can have got to, and now catches sight of him on the stage in full combat. She flushes and turns pale; her old aunt catches hold of her, saying, “Bless ‘ee, child, doan't ‘ee go a'nigst it;” but she breaks away and runs towards the stage calling his name. Willum keeps up his guard stoutly, but glances for a moment towards the voice. No guard will do it, Willum, without the eye. The shepherd steps round and strikes, and the point of his stick just grazes Willum's forehead, fetching off the skin, and the blood flows, and the umpire cries, “Hold!” and poor Willum's chance is up for the day. But he takes it very well, and puts on his old hat and coat, and goes down to be scolded by his sweetheart, and led away out of mischief. Tom hears him say coaxingly, as he walks off,—
“Now doan't ‘ee, Rachel! I wouldn't ha' done it, only I wanted summut to buy ‘ee a fairing wi', and I be as vlush o' money as a twod o' feathers.”
“Thee mind what I tells ‘ee,” rejoins Rachel saucily, “and doan't ‘ee kep blethering about fairings.”
Tom resolves in his heart to give Willum the remainder of his two shillings after the back-swording.
Joe Willis has all the luck to-day. His next bout ends in an easy victory, while the shepherd has a tough job to break his second head; and when Joe and the shepherd meet, and the whole circle expect and hope to see him get a broken crown, the shepherd slips in the first round and falls against the rails, hurting himself so that the old farmer will not let him go on, much as he wishes to try; and that impostor Joe (for he is certainly not the best man) struts and swaggers about the stage the conquering gamester, though he hasn't had five minutes' really trying play.
Joe takes the new hat in his hand, and puts the money into it, and then, as if a thought strikes him, and he doesn't think his victory quite acknowledged down below, walks to each face of the stage, and looks down, shaking the money, and chaffing, as how he'll stake hat and money and another half-sovereign “agin any gamester as hasn't played already.” Cunning Joe! he thus gets rid of Willum and the shepherd, who is quite fresh again.
No one seems to like the offer, and the umpire is just coming down, when a queer old hat, something like a doctor of divinity's shovel, is chucked on to the stage and an elderly, quiet man steps out, who has been watching the play, saying he should like to cross a stick wi' the prodigalish young chap.
The crowd cheer, and begin to chaff Joe, who turns up his nose and swaggers across to the sticks. “Imp'dent old wosbird!” says he; “I'll break the bald head on un to the truth.”
The old boy is very bald, certainly, and the blood will show fast enough if you can touch him, Joe.
He takes off his long-flapped coat, and stands up in a long-flapped waistcoat, which Sir Roger de Coverley might have worn when it was new, picks out a stick, and is ready for Master Joe, who loses no time, but begins his old game, whack, whack, whack, trying to break down the old man's guard by sheer strength. But it won't do; he catches every blow close by the basket, and though he is rather stiff in his returns, after a minute walks Joe about the stage, and is clearly a stanch old gamester. Joe now comes in, and making the most of his height, tries to get over the old man's guard at half-stick, by which he takes a smart blow in the ribs and another on the elbow, and nothing more. And now he loses wind and begins to puff, and the crowd laugh. “Cry ‘hold,' Joe; thee'st met thy match!” Instead of taking good advice and getting his wind, Joe loses his temper, and strikes at the old man's body.
“Blood, blood!” shout the crowd; “Joe's head's broke!”
Who'd have thought it? How did it come? That body-blow left Joe's head unguarded for a moment; and with one turn of the wrist the old gentleman has picked a neat little bit of skin off the middle of his forehead; and though he won't believe it, and hammers on for three more blows despite of the shouts, is then convinced by the blood trickling into his eye. Poor Joe is sadly crestfallen, and fumbles in his pocket for the other half-sovereign, but the old gamester won't have it. “Keep thy money, man, and gi's thy hand,” says he; and they shake hands. But the old gamester gives the new hat to the shepherd, and, soon after, the half-sovereign to Willum, who thereout decorates his sweetheart with ribbons to his heart's content.
“Who can a be?” “Wur do a cum from?” ask the crowd. And it soon flies about that the old west-country champion, who played a tie with Shaw the Lifeguardsman at “Vizes” twenty years before, has broken Joe Willis's crown for him.