Masters of Defence

In England at the end of the Middle Ages and beginning of the Renaissance, certain influential masters of personal combat became famous as the "Masters of Defence." Of common birth, they apprenticed themselves to skilled martial artists and studied all of the period's military and civilian weapons, truly earning the title "master." At times they even had a royal charter for their activities. They acted as fight instructors for noble and commoner alike, and were occasionally stand-ins during legal duels - a practice sometimes legal, often not.

During the Elizabethan period, instructors from overseas began to challenge the Masters indirectly. In particular, Italian rapier masters taught their skills to the wealthy and noble. Masters of Defence such as George Silver issued challenges to these newcomers and wrote pamphlets and even books denigrating their teachings, but their rivals dismissed them as social inferiors - the Masters weren't nobility. The fencing masters likely saw no reason to accept: defeating a commoner in a no-holds-barred competition would do little to impress patrons and students, and failure (or less than total success) could mean ignominy or even death.

Regardless of the relative efficacy of the competing styles, it was fashion that undid the Masters' dominance over English martial arts. Broadswords, polearms, and staves were not stylish accessories, while rapiers became such. Much as in Japan during the Tokugawa era, the decline of real combat tests meant that instructors of questionable skill - making dubious claims - could flourish and surpass those with true ability.

For more on the Masters' skills, see Masters of Defence Weapon Training (p. 182).

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