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A fencing handbook

Fencing terminology from this manual by Vincentio Saviolo, an Italian fencing master who settled in London around 1590, appears in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Page headed “THE THYRDE DAYES Discourse, of Rapier and Dagger.” Text and image on reverse page are visible. Woodcut is bordered by a single black line and depicts two similar European men holding swords and daggers facing one another while standing on a grid. Centered below is text headed “Luke.”

Vincentio Saviolo. Vincentio Saviolo his practise. London, [Thomas Scarlet for] John Wolfe, 1595. Folger call number STC 21788 copy 1.

As the business of printing took off in the 1500s, handbooks of all kinds became increasingly common. One popular subject was fencing—an important social skill for gentlemen, whether or not it was ever required in earnest. This manual is by Vincentio Saviolo, an Italian fencing master who settled in London around 1590. 

Saviolo’s Practise, written in 1558 but first translated into English in this 1595 edition, is in effect two books in one. The first part, from which this page is taken, is written as a dialogue, and deals with the use of the rapier and dagger. The second part, “Of Honor and Honorable Quarrels,” is adapted from an Italian work on dueling by Girolamo Muzio.

Such methods of quarreling and use of the dagger and rapier appear prominently in Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s earliest tragedies, which has been dated to the period 1595–96. Shakespeare also uses more of Saviolo’s Italian fencing terminology in Romeo and Juliet than in any other play.

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