On Silver’s times

George Silver is the author of one of the first printed work about fencing in English. His book Paradoxes of Defence was published in 1599 and has become a very common reference in HEMA. One of the reasons of this fame is undoubtedly that it was readable for many people without translation. Also, it is written as a defence of a traditional, more war-like fencing than the mostly dueling forms that took over since its publication. This had a big appeal in the early stage of HEMA, with pionneers struggling to distance themselves from sport fencing and kindle interest in the older traditions and weapons.

Unfortunately, Silver’s text is not easy to fully understand, as he uses some terms without really defining them and interlaces heavy criticism of Italian fencing with some few pointers to what he considered good fencing. He intended to fill that gap; we have a later manuscript from him, Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence, which details the fencing style he favoured. Sadly that work remained unpublished, and is not quite finished in some sections. These shortcomings have led to a situation where a lot of people refer to George Silver, but very few people have an actual consistent interpretation of the whole work. In the discussions over the last few years, the researchers that appeared most knowledgeable and careful to me have been Jon Pellet and Martin Austwick. The latter has a dedicated website, has made some very good posts, and is now shooting videos to demonstrate his interpretation. Please get in touch with them if you want a more in-depth analysis of Silver as a whole!

One aspect that is routinely misunderstood is Silver’s times. He is drawing a distinction between true times and false times, and describes the use of the true times as one of the distinctive traits of a good swordsman.

At the date Silver is writing, the understanding of time is still firmly rooted in Aristotle physics, and whole books have been written about this. Aristotle defines time as ‘a number of change in respect of the before and after’. It relates to motion; time is what changes while something moves from one place to another. In fencing application, time was motion, in the sense that every distinct motion of a fencer defines a time, a window of opportunity in which the opponent can act1. By defining true (desirable) and false (undesirable) times, Silver points out good and bad patterns of motion, which seems to be something very valuable.

This is original to Silver as far as I know. Plenty of other contemporary authors discuss time and its application in fencing, but Silver builds a hierarchy of true and false times according to the body parts involved. He is effectively pointing out what you should move and even gives an ordering of the body parts. Most people only consider the two following quotes:

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 […]
Georges Silver, Paradox 14

There are eight times, whereof four are true, and four are false.
The true times are these.
The time of the hand.
The time of the hand and body.
The time of the hand, body, and foot.
The time of the hand, body, and feet.
The false times are these.
The time of the foot.
the time of the foot and body.
the time of the foot, body, and hand.
the time of the feet, body, and hand.

Georges Silver, Paradox 18

Then they follow an interpretation where true times are distinguished from false times purely by the order in which the motion starts. Note that there is nothing here pointing to the start of motion specifically as opposed to the end, for example, or even that the order is indeed temporal and not simply a sort of precedence of one body part before another.

Extrapolations from this widespread interpretation can unfortunately be in contradiction with other parts of Silver’s text, less widely known, that detail the properties of true and false times. As I have written above, I shall leave it to other people to propose a consistent interpretation of Silver; instead, in the rest of this post, I just want to point out the properties and causes of true and false times that a good interpretation has to match. These properties and causes are one of the most valuable tools Silver gives us in my opinion.

The foundation: speed

The key difference between true and false times, as exposed in Silver’s text, is speed. A move performed in true time is faster than one performed in false time, and also just plain fast. The swiftness of true times is described as early as Paradox 2:

Again, rapiers longer than is convenient to accord with the true statures of men, are always too long or too heavy to keep their bodies in due time from the cross of the light short sword of perfect length, the which being made by the skillful out of any of the four true times, upon any of the four chief actions, by reason of the uncertainty & great swiftness in any of these times, they are in great danger of a blow, or of a thrust in the hand, arm, head, or face, […]

Georges Silver, Paradox 2

And that swiftness is recalled in Paradox 7, with the mention that false times are too long, so that a fighter using true times can strike at the same time as his opponent using false times even if the latter acts first:

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

Any interpretation of Silver’s timings that uses slow true times, or has some of the true times slower than false times, is therefore deeply flawed in as much as it does not fit the text, no matter how martially sound it might otherwise seem. For the same reason, interpretations that are not working primarily due to swiftness are probably suspicious too.

It is entirely logical that times are primarily about speed. Other concepts such as cover or distance are associated to other terms used by Silver (space and place, for example). Times are not the only single criteria to judge a movement even in Silver’s text, although it is an important one.

Relative speed of body parts

Georges Silver is going further than differentiating between quick and not-so-quick motions. He is also pointing out that different body parts tend to have different speed. There are several instances in the text where he points out that the time of the hand is swifter than that of the foot, for example here:

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

This observation is true enough; a foot movement is generally done to carry the body somewhere, and therefore the whole body mass has to be moved. A hand movement moves just the arm. Even though the muscles in the legs are very powerful the hand remains fastest. Considering typical movements of a step for the foot, and a swing for the arm (either lifting it to strike or striking down), it is possible to work out the ratio: it seems to be about 2:1 in favour of the hand (i.e. you can lift your arm and strike over the course of a single step).

Note that it is wrong for some cases. For example simply switching stance without actually moving from where you are can be done much quicker than a step, and of course a very small foot movement can be very fast. Similarly, a very wide swing of the hand can be as slow as a step. When interpreting Silver’s times, it is necessary to consider movements that fit with his premise that the hand is faster than the foot. In particular, if the interpretation has the hand slowed down to sync with a full foot movement, it is a false time. This is pointed out in the Paradox 14 that I have already quoted the first part of:

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 therefor that fight is false.

Georges Silver, Paradox 14

If the hand moves quickly at the start, then stops, but the effect is only carried out when the foot completes its motion (as in a full-length classical lunge), it is also a false time. The action is performed in time of the foot although the hand moved as fast as it should.

Deceiving the eye

In Paradox 24 there is a lengthy but interesting discussion about the speed of the hand, the speed of the foot and the consequences on the ability to parry a blow:

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

Two main new points are being made here:

  • There is a matter of distance. Further than a certain point (‘without distance’) you are forced to step to attack, thereby using the slow time of the foot
  • The time of the hand is so quick that it also deceives the eye, making it difficult to parry the attack

The time of the hand deceives the eye, but you have to be close enough to use it. If you are too far, you will have to use the slow time of the foot, which cannot deceive the eye. Given the emphasis on swiftness, I consider this to be applicable to all true times. An interpretation that defines true times that you can see coming, or that can be used from any distance, does not fit the text. You need to be close in order to act fast.

This is also why I’ve written in the first section that true times are fast in absolute, not just relative to false times. While you can move in such a way that you minimize the forewarnings of your actions, a time of the foot is still to long to fall below that threshold of reaction time. A time of the hand can be short enough once you have trained it.


The most valuable aspect of Silver’s text is not the hierarchy of true and false times in my opinion. There are a lot of actions that can fall in a grey area, and when you start linking actions together seamlessly it becomes fairly hard to point out true and false times, whatever the interpretation you are following. The common interpretation that it is all about moving the weapon first does not fit the text: you can move the weapon first and still move in false times. This does not mean that your movement is wrong and does not fit other sources; plenty of living arts use these false times as their basic attacks. You should just avoid using Silver as a justification for it.

Rather than focusing on the hierarchy, the observations that caused Silver to forge it should be carefully considered. The three main components are:

  • Speed is important; you cannot afford to rely on a slow motion to beat a fast motion
  • The hand is faster than the foot
  • The time of the hand is so quick that it also deceives the eye; or to express it in modern terms, outpaces our reaction time

From these three premises you can analyze many techniques and pinpoint why they succeed or fail. You can also question them, of course, and isolate actions that will not fit in this model. You can add your own constraints to them and further narrow the techniques that you consider sound. It is a pretty rich exercise, and I might get around to doing more posts analysing techniques like that.

At any rate it avoids the pitfall of misusing the terms from an important, though unclear, historical text.

1. Note that some authors defined time more generally as motion between stilllness and stillness between motions. Back to text

10 thoughts on “On Silver’s times

  1. Very nice! That underlines my teachings! special thanks!
    I’m making professional movement-analysis with a checklist with different parameters. And you alwas have a different prioritization of these parameters (as speed, power etc.). The closer the distance between opponents the higher the prioritization of the swift of the hand ;-). Very similar to silver I think!

  2. The best and most consistent interpretation I came across is Stephen Hand’s here:
    It’s the only one I saw that does reconcile paradoxes 14, 18 and 24.

    Austwick’s interpretation (that is, unless I misunderstood, that true times are attacks made only from within a distance close enough that you can hit without moving the foot) contradicts paradox 18 and the first part of 14, in my opinion: they are just times of the hand, there aren’t any body, foot or feet involved.

    • Hello Erik and sorry for the late reply.

      I personally disagree with Stephen Hand’s interpretation. I do think the action he does can be useful, but I don’t think Silver would have called his slow hand a true time. It takes the same time as that of a foot motion.

      Martin Austwick says that in the time of the hand, body and foot for example, the strike takes place in time of the hand, and the body and foot are simply moving to facilitate any follow-up action. They end their motion after the hand has done its job. As far as I can see it does fit the text, and makes true times universally swifter than false times, which is not the case in Stephen Hand’s work.

      • I think you are right, Vincent. Oz’s interpretation is the only one I’ve seen that completely agrees with Silver’s text. Hand’s version violates paradoxe 14 at the least.

        I’ve spent the last few days pondering how you can be the Agent against someone who is in open fight, and still use a true time. Attacking in true time seems to only be possible if you can put by their weapon with the time of the hand, body, and foot/feet. Moving the foot/feet sets up a true time attack.

        But you can only cross their weapon to put it by of they are in variable fight or imperfect gaurdant fight.

        I’m convinced there is a way.

        • Against someone waiting, you cannot simply step to the place where you could use a true time strike, as he will probably see you coming and time an attack of his own, anticipating your movement. You have to close a line of attack as you come in, and then strike once you’re close enough.

          The point being, if you start from one step away, you cannot count on making one single action, because that would be a time of the foot. You have to split that time and adapt to the likely reaction of the opponent. Which is where I agree with Hand’s action, although not with his description. He is using a slow hand to split his time of the foot and allow a reaction in the middle of his action. Your description of a beat linked with an attack does the same thing: it splits your full step into a preparation and an attack.

          Against someone with a blade refused, you can’t really act except by closing a line, or by feinting. Which one of these is more ‘Silver’ is not something I have a real answer for. There is this bit in Brief Instructions which could indicate a preference for closing under cover:

          There is but 1 good way to gather upon your enemy, guardant. All other are dangerous & subject to the blows on the head or thrust on the body.

          But that is quite flimsy!

          • That has been my understanding so far, but it seems like there is something I’m missing. I’ve been telling people that is why Liechtenauer attacks Van Dach with a zwerchau. It closes off their line of attack as you are striking in. But this and Hand’s slowed hand seem to be false time actions. Maybe I’m thinking about it too hard. Here’s another interesting tidbit:

            “If he lies in open or true guardant fight, then you may upon your open or guardant fight safely bring yourself to the half sword, & then you may thrust him in the body.”

            So maybe it is as simple as that. Coming in while making your space narrow (or falsing) isn’t a false time action because the goal wasn’t to hit them. The goal was to win the place and your hand is free to do whatever action is needed to achieve that.

  3. Thank you for this interpretation! I watched Roland’s video and it was kinda confusing to me, I tried to apply that in my boxing and all what I got out of it was some extremely limp punches. Whenever it worked for me I was basically just thinking about hitting the target as fast as I can so the strike just shot out without me thinking about the order of anything, the order just happened naturally in order to give me speed and power.

    • You’re welcome! Indeed the need for power can make some things more obvious. Moving hand first over a too long distance robs the strike of much of its power, in my experience, which might not be a big deal for sword thrusts, but is more problematic for cuts or blunt force strikes.

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