Two Words I Couldn’t Use When Writing My Swashbuckling Book

By , March 17, 2013

Writing The Book of Seven Hands could have been a simple matter: Heroes go on quest to translate an ancient tome owned by their beloved teacher; Heroes run into three successive problems; Heroes thrust and parry their way to victory! Amen. That’s all readers really want, right?

But as an enthusiast of Mexican and Spanish history, and of Zorro, too, I wanted a swashbuckling story with deep historical accuracy.

I initially began writing The Book of Seven Hands with novelist Will Alexander, and he had the great idea of the character’s needing the famous alchemist Paracelsus to translate their ancient tome. So after deciding that history places Paracelsus in Spain in 1524, our work was cut out for us to make that world come alive.

Well, I had my work cut out for me. Unfortunately, Will had a book deadline that interfered with our swashbuckling, so he had to hit eject on this project (tough luck for him: he went on to win the national Book Award last fall). So it fell to me make early modern Spain come alive.

But the choice of 1524 set-up some interesting parameters for the writing of a swashbuckler because the fashion of carrying a rapier wasn’t happening in Spain yet. People did carry swords like that, and certainly there were training schools popping up all across Europe, especially in Germany and Italy before 1524. But the genre trope of the dashing Spaniard who carries a rapier for dueling and fencing with lots of cool thrusts and parries? That’s not a fashion for another 50-75 years or so (Jeronimo de Carranza, the father of the Spanish fencing style “la destreza,” published his definitive training manual in 1569).

As a result, I quickly realized certain words couldn’t be used, words that made writing a story about swashbuckling . . . well, problematic.

The two words that I told myself not to use: RAPIER and DUEL.

Here’s why:

RAPIER

Don Diego without a rapier? Inigo Montoya without his father’s sword? Why refuse  the word rapier, if a swashbuckling adventure is what you want to write?

Scroll hilt rapier

Pretty Scroll-hilt Rapier

It might sound like a picky thing, but the word rapier wasn’t used in 1524 and in Spain that word doesn’t come along until the late 16th Century. The need for carrying long, thin swords for personal security was present in 1524 Spain (see DUEL below for more on that) and in one of the earliest appearances of the English word, a rapier is referred to as “the Spanische sword” (1530), suggesting that Spain might have even given birth to the first rapiers.

But scroll-hilted swords with a sharpened edge? Those pretty swords so prevalent in a readers’ mind aren’t common for a few more decades.

In the late 1490s, the term used for a rapier-like sword was espada ropera, that is, dress sword (indeed, ropera may be the origin of the word rapier), and another was espada corta (short sword), a term used for the simple stabbing swords that had been common in Europe since the Roman legion. Espada ropera just sounded odd to me, so I used the terms espada corta and espada, or sometimes just “sword,” and did my best to give a taste of this murky moment in the rapier’s history when I could:

“His widening eyes seeming to swallow the insanity of the situation – a French-looking woman dressed all in gray with a savagely broken nose and an espada so long and thin with such a deadly edge right down to the hilt that it looked like a weapon from the future.”

DUEL

In the end, I used this word once or twice, but I cringed inside when I did. Because when I began writing The Book of Seven Hands, I wanted to avoid using it altogether.

Why? Because dueling didn’t mean sword fighting until much later in the Sixteenth Century. It would be like writing about travel in 1905 and using the word “driving” for riding a horse.

To be clear, what we think of sword dueling was a nobleman’s martial art, the means to defend one’s class and reputation. In 1524, if you said two guys were “dueling,” it meant they were aristocrats settling a judicial dispute, not whipping out swords a la Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.

Sword fighting did become that, of course, but only after half a century of the lower classes hashing things in the rougher quarters of Europe. My thinking is that sword fighting initially became popular not by aristocrats defending their honor but by Spain sending Christopher Columbus on his voyage of discovery.

Think about it.

From 1492 onward, gold, tobacco, and lucrative new commodities from the New World came pouring into Spain’s port towns. The volume of wealth sailing across the Atlantic would be enough to finance wars in Italy, Holland, and France, and it would make Spain the preeminent European superpower for the next two centuries. We’re talking about a ransacking of Roman proportions and it was just toddling down the docks of Seville, day after day.

Who was guarding it? There was no Spanish Armada at first – not until 1588. Spain itself didn’t even have a national army until 1495 or so and whole regions of Spain were unconnected except by ancient Roman and Carthaginian roads. So for the 20-30 years after the plundering of the Americas began, Spain’s ports were nothing more than big juicy ducks waiting to be shot. The age of piracy was inevitable: Get a ship, hire some sailors with loose morals, a gross of espadas cortas from the local smithy, and grab yourself a piece of the action in short order.

But forget about pirates. That’s another story (he said with an eager grin).  Why go to the trouble of commandeering a ship when all the gold has to come ashore eventually? Just imagine what the docks of Seville and Cadiz must have been like before Spain started policing its cities aggressively. The seaside public houses and alleyways must have been bristling with weapons. The fights among mercenaries, privateers, thugs, and the occasional nobleman getting dragged down into the muck would have been lethal. And brief.

In my mind, these are the conditions in which the “Spanische sword” became common as prayer in Spain.

Because mastering the sword would have been an immediate necessity (and not a martial “art,” per se). One of my sources discussed the poor quality of espadas cortas used by Spanish sailors in the 1490s, saying their blades broke frequently. To me that suggests the quality of weapon-forging hadn’t caught up with the new and widespread demand yet. A simple parry of blade on blade, the kind that anyone would perform out of reflex, might leave a young tough with no weapon. And dead in the street.

Playing that out, if you spent the money on a sturdier espada corta, well-forged by a cunning weapons-smith (and there were plenty of those guys in the ancient metal town of Toledo), you were more likely to win fights by being aggressive and letting your opponent parry, if he dare. If you were lucky to survive a fight or two beyond that, you might realize that your espada corta is actually a decent piece of armor, too. You don’t need a massive sword and thick helmet or grieves, if you can parry once and counter thrust effectively. That would be enough, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Mercutio.

So sword fighting did exist in Spain, and it would have been a finely honed skill, har har, but a skill developed out of fear of death and sheer necessity for most. My Spaniards almost certainly would not have called it “dueling,” a martial art, or anything other than luchar — fighting — and without aristocratic honor to muss things up yet, fighting would have been its own tough reward.

To quote Don Manuel, the teacher of my heroes Basilio and Alejo, “Luchamos por la derecha luchar luchas más.” 

We fight for the right to fight more fights.

4 Responses to “Two Words I Couldn’t Use When Writing My Swashbuckling Book”

  1. Actually the first use of the word rapier comes form an inventory of Henry VIII’s belongings from 1490, where there is listed a ‘Rappyer’ sword. The term for unschooled fighters of the stories period (1524) it is probable that the term for a civilian sword was ‘Espada Ropiera’ (robe sword) as the author notes, but most people would simple have referred to such a blade as a espada or sword. The fact that it was a ‘robe sword’ would have been considered self evident from the context, IE the fact that it was worn with civilian clothing.

    Unchooled fighters at this time were reerred to as ‘Vulgari’ or vulgar fighters by their educated counterparts, and the bulk of armed men would have been ‘vulgar.’ But they would not think of themselves or refer to themselves as such. Mind you there were spaniards educated in ‘the italian school’ of fence, but these would have been of the upper class, and the exception rather than the rule. For you swashbuckling fans these rare, educated swordsman are a treat; it is quite possible for a well-trained swordsman to take on up to three vulgar, perhaps even four in the right terrain, and defeat them. Epic!

    • Barth Anderson says:

      I hadn’t heard that claim, Tinker Pierce. But since Henry VIII was born in 1491 and didn’t take his royal name till 1509…

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_VIII_of_England

      I’m skeptical about that one.

      That aside, yes, the words “espada ropera” and “rapier” might have been used concurrently in the 1490s in numerous places across Europe. I’m guessing that “rapier” (which means “scratcher”) was an insult, as others have suggested, though I have my own take on it. I plan on addressing this is in a prequel to The Book of Seven Hands, assuming the Powers That Be at Subatai would like me to write it for them, he said, leadingly…

      • Whuups- not Henry, obviously. I’ll have to look it up- the original reference is in AVB Normann’s ‘Rapier’s and Smallswords.” Read it about 15 years ago… Anyway I have to say that I appreciate that you have done your research, and I wasn’t disagreeing with you, just trying to add more information… starting with a bad citation! How embarrassing…

  2. Damn the spell-corrector! It keeps missing my actual typos and respelling ‘Vulgari’ as ‘vulgar!’ Foul software, why dost thou mock me?

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