Live by the sword…

There’s just something about a sword in the hand. I think Ridolfo Capo Ferro had it right when he said it was a perfect weapon for self defence. Shorter weapons lend themselves to nasty uses. Longer weapons are awkward, and best suited for war. He figured only the sword was really suited to “civil discourse.”

He had a point that is still applicable today, if not practical. We tend to focus on knives and handguns for self defense, and they sure do work. Rifles have replaced pikes and spears, and they work for self defense as well…and are a bit too awkward for daily use. Knives and handguns also lend themselves well to nefarious uses. But Capo Ferro’s idea of self defense was a little different than ours, and maybe we’ve missed out a little.

Working as a bouncer, you quickly develop a sense for trouble. You have to. Your job is to defuse a problem, or shuffle it outside before it erupts. After a while, you can tell trouble when it walks towards the door…which is why some people get told the bar is full on a half-empty night, or that they don’t meet the dress code, or whatever other excuse looks like it will do the job. And you walk around inside to look for people about to tip over the line. Sidelong looks, a certain tension in the body, a level of drunkenness that indicates volatility. I had no idea what volatility really meant until I was bouncing. People can go from best friends to frothing battle-apes in less than an eyeblink, for no goddamn reason at all.

It’s usually some perceived slight that sets off people in the right mood. Some little thing that makes them shed IQ and swell up. Sometimes it’s just thinking the other person isn’t being friendly enough, sometimes it’s girlfriends that think of boyfriends as rock-em, sock-em robots. Chests puff. They get upright as they can, and the yelling starts, and the shoving, and then the punching. Honestly, a few punches isn’t usually that bad a thing. Most people can’t throw a punch worth a damn, so the odds of injury are low. Some vicious bastards can cripple you for life if they want to, though. And the wrong kind of punch thrown at the right time will kill you stone dead. But it’s not usually the intention. The intention is to do the human version of the mating dance, the male posturing for position and dominance. They smash like bull elks, but never expect to actually, really injure someone else.

But sometimes they do. Sometimes it’s not posture, and a level of something a bit darker comes out. Punches aren’t swung anymore, they’re aimed. Knives come out. Guns. Sometimes it happens after the first punch lands, or the first contact…or it comes out of nowhere, fueled by something inside. The mind can go sideways at times, and a normal person can turn homicidal. You hope you are in a bar with good bouncers if that happens, otherwise regrets will ensue. If you’re lucky. This situation is one of the things that Capo Ferro meant by self-defense.

Back in his day, they had a mechanism to defuse the situation: a duel. A duel was sometimes just an excuse for a brief pause in the intended murder, but that pause can do a lot. Capo Ferro reasoned that a sword was a weapon of the perfect length. It was not only perfectly proportioned to the body, but the measure you used it at was also perfect. You and another guy pull swords on each other, and you are now at least six arm-lengths apart. Staring at a sharp piece of steel that has no emotion. Capo Ferro reckoned that the swords, used like that, would be like a kind of bouncer. The forced distance implied in the use of the sword was one more chance for your brain to kick in. One last opportunity to think “Wait a minute, what the hell am I doing?!? Am I really going to kill this guy because he wouldn’t let me buy him a friendly drink?!?”

It’s an ideal distance because if you do suddenly sober up and change your mind and the other guy doesn’t? You are still far enough away to have time to defend yourself. And as Capo Ferro says, once the other gets close enough to kill you, he’s given up his right to be considered reasonable. You can run him through and be legally and morally in the right. With knives that “ideal” distance doesn’t exist. The knives come out and go in the other person. And a gunfight is just a knifefight at ten feet. You cannot reasonably stop and change your mind when a gun is pointed at you. If you aren’t the kind of person to pull the trigger instantly, or more likely have been trained to do so, then you are a former person.

Like the rest of his book, Capo Ferro has made an ideal model of how things should work out, and it’s a nice idea. It even worked, to a certain extent. It’s a noble idea, giving people in the worst state of mind one last grasp at being human again. Maybe it’s something we’ve lost along with the sword. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but perhaps it’s a surprisingly realistic reason that we still revere the sword as a weapon of nobility to this day. Perhaps it’s not that it represents a romanticized past, but that it represents something in our own minds. A recognition that we can be creatures of reason and capability even our the darkest moments.

2 Comments

  1. I love the photo of you and Jason at the top of this post. That event was one of the most memorable ones I’ve been to.

    • Same for me. It was magic. I had a great time, learned that I had it in me to be an arrogant a-hole, but also learned just how great friends can be. And how bad. I miss that site.

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