Interpreting Silver’s times

The interpretation of Silver’s true and false times has been a subject of debate for as long as I have watched HEMA discussions, twelve years at least as of now. While Silver’s text in itself has never been a passion of mine, it is often cited in support of certain interpretations for mechanical details, and so naturally if one is serious about investigating these, at some point one has to delve into Silver.

My first look through this source made me quite dissatisfied with the most common interpretation and its claims of universality. However, in this case criticising is easy but proposing a better explanation is hard. What good does it do if you can say something is wrong, but cannot propose something better? It is only very recently that I have come up with a view that I find consistent, and this post contains my current explanation of Silver’s concepts of true and false times. I will start with elements from the source, then briefly look at the main current interpretations, and finally detail mine.

I hold the possibly controversial opinion that this is not a matter that can be settled by experimentation sword in hand. Indeed this is fundamentally a vocabulary problem: what we think George Silver would have called true or false. I am fully prepared to accept that the same move could be called a true time by someone, a false time by another, a succession of two true times by a third, and score anyway. My criteria for a good interpretation is that it must fit everything in the text, first and foremost, while being economical in assumptions and internally consistent, second. Being a proper pedagogical tool to teach fencing to modern people is a very distant third.

The source

Part of the difficulty in interpreting Silver’s times stems from the fact that it is a description rooted in Aristotle physics and the layers of commentaries written about it. In terms of their power of explanation and accuracy of modelling, these physics are pretty poor. There is no concept of acceleration, for example, nor any quantified theory linking force to motion. It is not surprising that their application to the complex movements of the human body would leave much to be desired in consistency and completeness. The extremely motivated reader might want to to study for example this Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics by Thomas Aquinas to get a better idea of how all the concepts were presented and interplayed (and possibly a headache as well).

Perhaps the best definition to keep in mind with respect to this approach is that in these physics, time is motion, or rather a measure of motion. A “time” for them is something that a modern would more naturally call a motion, or an action. You could go through Silver’s text and replace “time of the hand” by “motion of the hand” for example, and it would make exactly as much sense, and perhaps more.

Silver further separates times into true and false times, strongly indicating through this vocabulary that false times are undesirable. I have written before about the properties of the times. The summary of the characteristics apparent from the text is as follow:

  • true times are faster than false times1
  • the hand is faster than the foot, or the (true) time of the hand is shorter than the (false) time of the foot2
  • the hand is so fast that it deceives the eyes3

The second point above is precisely where the troubles start. Motions of hands and feet are not independent, rather they are of course linked together and all the limbs are possibly moving within one action. In the Aristotelian framework the analysis of multiple parts moving simultaneously and the relationship between their times or rates of motion is difficult.

The only specific explanation that Silver gives is the following:

The true fights be these: whatsoever is done with the hand before the foot or feet is true fight. The false fights are these: whatsoever is done with the foot or feet before the hand, is false, because the hand is swifter than the foot, the foot or feet being the slower mover than the hand, the hand in that manner of fight is tied to the time of the foot or feet, and being tied thereto, has lost his freedom, and is made thereby as slow in his motions as the foot or feet, and therefore that fight is false.

Georges Silver, Paradox 14

Accompanied by his whole lists of true and false times:

There are eight times, whereof four are true, and four are false.

The true times are these:

  • The time of the hand. [TH]
  • The time of the hand and body. [THB]
  • The time of the hand, body, and foot. [THBF]
  • The time of the hand, body, and feet. [THBFF]

The false times are these:

  • The time of the foot. [TF]
  • The time of the foot and body. [TFB]
  • The time of the foot, body, and hand. [TFBH]
  • The time of the feet, body, and hand. [TFFBH]
Georges Silver, Paradox 18

Any worthwhile interpretation must therefore establish:

  • What is the meaning of the word ‘before’ in Paradox 14, and why does moving the foot before the hand make the hand slow
  • What is the necessity and construction method of the lists of four true and false times

While respecting the three key characteristics pointed out above.

Previous interpretations

Perhaps the most widespread interpretation of Silver’s times is as follow4:

  • ‘Before’ means ‘has started its motion before’
  • The lists give all the possible motions depending on the body parts involved, the parts appear in the order in which they move
  • Order matters more than speed: as long as the hand moves first, it is a true time even if its action takes as long as that of the foot. The classical lunge, for example, starting with hand extension and thrusting over a whole step, is a true time.

The main issue with that interpretation is that it makes some true times as long as false times. Additionally, other concepts have to be brought up in order to justify that moving the hand after the foot makes it slow: for example lack of threat posed to the opponent, lack of cover afforded by an advanced position of the hand, etc. With the criteria for a true time being so lax, it is relatively easy to turn any false time into a true time by just moving the hand a bit in advance, although this comes sometimes at the cost of mechanical efficiency. The justification that the order of starting the motion would be relevant to the speed of the hand in true vs. false times is at best convoluted.

The problems with the common interpretation has led others to propose a different one, which basically restricts true times to motions where the hand acts as fast as it can5. Considering that “done with the hand after the foot” means that the hand finishes after the foot makes it more obvious how its speed is tied to that of the foot, making a longer time. Although it fits the text better, it does not explain well how the lists are built, in particular the lists of false times.

A tempting way to interpret Silver’s times, that includes most of my early attempts, is to take a layering view. The idea is to define three building blocks:

  • The time of the hand, short
  • The time of the body, a bit longer
  • The time of the foot, the longest

And then to build motions by layering the bricks in certain orders. It is natural for us to do so, because we are used to describing motions as independent entities that are layered over a common scale, much as is done in video editing software time-lines for example. In this view it is obvious and easy to consider the order of motions, which part starts moving first or completes its motion before the others, etc.

However, layering times like this is not a very Aristotelian operation. Indeed, the various beginnings and ends of motion should then break the time into many times. I do not actually believe now that it was what Silver had in mind, although it might be a better description of what is physically happening. Again, a “time” is a motion between two rests, not a way to layer different motions over one another.

An indication that this layering view is unfounded is that the lists are not exhaustive in the possible permutations of body parts. Why not have a time of the body, hand and foot for example? This would seem an absolutely natural thought if the approach was correct, as well as one that would make sense kinematically, and yet there is no such reference in the text as far as I am aware. Nor is there any about a time of the body either, although it should be present logically. The body is always associated to hand or foot or both in the lists, and never found in isolation.

My interpretation

Silver had observed that the hand was fast and that the foot was slow. His problem then was that times, motions, could be made that involved both hand and foot, and that some of these were true, i.e. as fast and surprising as the hand motion, and other false, slow and predictable like the foot motion.

An important concern for philosophers following Aristotle’s ideas was the order of motions in terms of cause and effect: something that moves must either contain the principle of its own motion, or be moved by something else. To lift an example from this article, as you walk across the room your person could be described as both the mover and the moved, but you can also split between the legs and the rest of the body, and say that the legs are the mover while the body is only moved. Enlarging the ideas to include not just motion, but all forms of change, this let them go back to the very first mover, the entity that set the universe running, so to speak. In a slightly less ambitious view, this also worked in the human body, tracing the movers to the first, which would be the soul. So in the example, your soul moves your legs which move your body.

As you can see there is not necessarily an identifiable part that moves first in time. The first mover theories are rather about causality and the transfer of the property of “being in motion” in a chain of bodies that are, or have been, in contact. My current take on Silver’s list is that they are using this first mover theory and expand upon it. True times and false times lists contain for every possible motion the body parts that are moving, sorted according to a “first mover” theory.

If the hand is the first mover, then it transfers the qualities of its motion (swiftness) to the next part in the chain, which has to be the body if it is in motion, and then to the last which is the foot. Conversely, if the foot is the first mover, then it can only transfers slowness to the body, and finally to the hand. This explains why the body is always present between foot and hand: how could motion transfer between hand and foot, if not through the body which is their point of connection?

Of course, none of this makes sense in our current understanding of forces and motions, but it precisely explains why the lists are structured the way they are. What we are looking at is motion spreading across the fencer’s body, or rather from hands to feet and reciprocally, through the fencer’s body. Now the important question is: given a certain action involving foot and hand, how do you determine the first mover in the Aristotelian sense?

Silver gives us an important clue: forcing someone to step is a good way to take the advantage, because then he is using a (false) time of the foot2. The criteria seems therefore to have been necessity. A good litmus test is that you cannot dispense from the first movers in a chain: if the action involving movers A and B is impossible to do without moving A, then the order of movers is A then B. Foot motion is necessary in all of the false times, but is only an adjunct in some true times.

Practically speaking the true and false times are therefore determined exactly as they are in the newest interpretation: a true time is done with the hand, inclining the body or stepping if you want to, whereas a false time is when you must step. But the first mover view gives a more complete understanding of how the false times are described and why Silver did it in this specific way. It is not particularly in order of starting, or ending the motion, but in an order of necessity.

In this view, an attack over a whole step forward, as commonly found in many living and historical styles, like this attack in Thibault, is definitely a false time (TFBH). However, blade actions accompanied by a form of stance switch with a triangle step would be classified as a true time (THBFF). Voiding actions such as sidesteps are interesting cases to analyze. The same void could be a true time if accompanied by a defensive blade action, or a false time in isolation or with a purely offensive action. The void provides additional safety in the first case, but cannot be entirely relied upon, which is quite accurate in my experience.

An interesting side-effect of this interpretation is that it generalizes to fencers in constant motion – although I doubt Silver intended it as there are no such indications. When everything is permanently moving, there is no sense in discussing the exact order of motions in a Newtonian sense. However, you can see that foot motions tend to define a certain beat, while hand motions define another faster beat. Arguably, in a true fight, the hand being the prime mover should give the beat of all the actions. On the contrary, in a false fight the overall beat would be that of feet motions.

Silver’s approach was interesting but not the most concise and helpful, even with Aristotelian tools. In my opinion you get much further by linking back to distance and space, observing that moving further generally takes more time. Distance ultimately forces the steps for example, but this also generalizes neatly to blade motions. The finding of the sword in Italian rapier, or the atajo in la Verdadera Destreza, all contain elements of forcing the opponent to take a longer path, therefore time, to complete his action. Of course this approach also finds its exceptions, but is more robust because it makes fewer assumptions. It lets you freely define fast foot motions or slow hand motions. This probably explains why Silver’s view ended up as an orphan in fencing literature.

In summary

Silver’s use of ‘before’ in his discussion of times and ordering of body parts is not to be taken in the literal temporal or spatial sense, but in a causal sense adhering to Aristotle’s discussion of prime movers. It is to be understood as a justification that two actions both involving hand and foot can be fast or slow, depending on the prime mover for each action.

True times are all primarily hand motions, with the body and feet providing additional safety or advantage. False times are primarily foot or feet motions, which put constraints on the motions of the hand. As long as your hand is free to act at the moment you decide or need to act, you are probably acting in true times. If you decide on an action but need footwork to make it viable, you are probably acting in false times.

Although this description can be universally applied, examples of false times can be found in other martial art treatises, in which they are not systematically called out as inappropriate. Therefore Silver’s concepts should be handled with care when polishing interpretations of other treatises.


  1. But the skillful man can most certainly strike and thrust just with the unskillful, because the unskillful fights upon false times, which being too long to answer the true times, the skillful fighting upon the true times, although the unskillful is the first mover, & entered into his action, whether it is blow or thrust, yet the shortness of the true times make at the pleasure of the skillful a just meeting together.

    Georges Silver, Paradox 7
  2. Now here is again to be noted, that when the cross is made, if he that has the long rapier stands fast, he is wounded presently in the uncrossing of the short sword, if he steps or leaps back to save himself, yet the time of the hand being swifter than the time of the foot, overtakes him, with blow or thrust in the arm, hand, head, face and body.

    Georges Silver, Paradox 38
  3. But let the warder with his dagger say, that it is not true which I have said, for the eyes to behold the blow or thrust coming, so has he as good time to defend himself. Herein he shall find himself deceived to, this is the reason: the hand is the swiftest motion, the foot is the slowest, without distance the hand is tied to the motion of the feet, whereby the time of the hand is made as slow as the foot, because whereby we redeem every time lost upon his coming in by the slow motion of the foot & have time thereby to judge, when & how he can perform any action whatsoever, and so have we the time of the hand to the time of the feet. Now is the hand in his own course more swift than the foot or eye, therefore within distance the eye is deceived, & judgement is lost, and that is another cause that the warder with the dagger, although he has perfect eyes, is still within distance deceived. For proof that the hand is swifter than the eye & therefore deceives the eyes: let two stand within distance, & let one of them stand still to defend himself, & let the other flourish & false with his hand, and he shall continually with the swift motions of his hand, deceive the eyes of him that stands watching to defend himself, & shall continually strike him in diverse places with his hand. […] He that will not believe that the swift motion of the hand in fight will deceive the eye, shall stare abroad with his eyes, & feel himself soundly hurt, before he shall perfectly see how to defend himself.

    Georges Silver, Paradox 24
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