Pugilism analysis, "A Treatise upon the useful Science of Defence." 1747
This is a cross post from /r/martialarts. I was trying to generate some discussion on Classical Pugilism by doing a break down and review of historic manuals. I claim no expertise on the subject but thought it was still a valid thought experiment. My goal was to get people of diverse martial arts backgrounds looking at these texts from a technical stand point and discussing the development of Boxing as an art. Naturally I started with the first text I am aware of Captain Godfreys 1747 "A Treatise on the useful Science of Defence." Anyway here it is and I apologize in advance if the writing is sub-par.
The most easily read version is found here, it is also available on google books.http://www.sirwilliamhope.org/Library/Godfrey/Godfrey.php There website is cool and has a good selection of historical texts on WMA.So to start off we will go over Captain John Godfreys 1747 text "A Treatise upon the useful Science of Defence." There is scant information I can find about Godfrey himself. He appears to have learned cudgel and boxing from James Figg, the man recognized as the first Champion of the sport.
Boxing contests of this era had no formal rule set other than what was agreed to by the combatants. Often Boxing was the last event of a contest that involved Sword, Cudgel, and were closed by the Boxing. Figg was apparently a renowned swordsman and cudgilist (is that a word?) before he was known as a pugilist.
Anyway, onward to the text!
Godfrey opens with the statement that Boxing as an art is more dependent on strength than swordsmanship. He does however state his belief that a "a less degree of art will tell for more than a considerably greater strength." He then moves on to describing the proper position of the body, however he prefaces the rest of his text by apologizing if he makes a mess of it. More martial arts authors should do this.
Godfrey opens the portion of his text on body positioning by likening the muscles to springs and levers. He explained that Art in Boxing allows a man to get the most out of his natural force. Well put I think. Godfrey advocates putting your left foot forward, relaxing that same knee, positioning the right leg in "a slanting line", and positioning the head so that it is on a straight line with the left knee. He describes the muscles of the left side of the body as being contracted. I suppose he means somewhat tensed, and the right side as being partly relaxed. Godfrey makes no mention where the hands should be positioned, so I suppose he means to leave that up to his reader. He compares elements of this stance to that of a man pushing a weight with violence or forcing a door.
Next he moves on to generating power for punching. His wording here is not exactly the most clear to me. Godfrey instructs the reader that when a blow is given the muscles of the left side should be brought forward by a strong contraction. At the same instant, he says to dart the arm forward on a straight line with the movement of the body. As best I can tell he is advocating driving the arm forward behind a lead step. It could also be interpreted as having a bit of upper body turn into it but that would be a bit tenuous.
In the next portion of the text Godfrey goes on to list what he believes to be the most effective locations to strike. The first he lists is targeted below an ear between the angle of the lower jaw and neck. The second blow is targeted between the eyebrows as he believes it likely to cause swelling that will impede the opponents sight. The third blow he lists is aimed at the stomach, here he believes it likely that the shot will produce either vomiting nausea.
Godfrey next goes on give some advice on diet for the day of a bout. Basically he recommends eating nothing and having a bit of water to drink. He believed that a blow to a full stomach could produce vomiting. He then sort of doubled back to describe the effects of a blow on the diaphragm. He stated that such a blow will rob an opponent of his wind. A peculiar stop for the blow to the diaphragm is described by Godfrey by recommending drawing in the stomach, holding the breath, and leaning in over your belly.
Oddly enough Godfrey does not describe any footwork other than stepping in with a blow. He gives no instruction in the manner of defending blows either, save for when describing stance, here he compared the left arm to a buckler used for defense so that a man may step in with the right hand in return.he rest of the section on Boxing of this work covers a bit of biographical detail of famous pugilists of this era and offers nothing of substance from a technique standpoint. In light of this we will not be covering it here.
Now onto my general impressions and some thoughts on the work. It seems to me that Captain Godfrey was more likely interested in swordsmanship considering that the greater part of this work is devoted to it. This is not a mark against him but may explain why the instruction on boxing is scant in comparison. His wording could be clearer in parts, though it is not so bad as to be unmanageable and may simply be a product of the time.
As to the technical aspects, I have mixed feelings. The stance feels just a bit strange to me. It almost seems like he has frozen the stance in the midst of a lunge. Playing around with it the position does seem to give a bit of spring to a forward step but that could just be me. Given that there is not instruction on hand placement, I feel comfortable putting them wherever so that is not really any issue. The mechanics described for punching seem to be mostly powered by a lunging step and a bit of body turn. It’s not the worst and playing around on the bag I got a reasonable shot but nothing too impressive. Since he describes using the left arm as a buckler, it makes me wonder if he is advocating a sort of one handed hitting where the aim is to defend with the left and wait for a big shot with the right. Again I may be reading too much into that and he doesn't explicitly say that the left is used only in defense.
Overall it seems obvious that boxing at this point was as a science, in its infancy. I can only imagine that straight hitting, coupled with at least a nod to proper balance, coordinated defense and power generation, if practiced would have provided some edge over an untrained brawler.
Thoughts ladies and gentlemen?[H][/H]
The "left arm for defense/right arm for attack" dynamic is interesting that Godfrey was a student of Figg's, and there's a persuasive theory that Figg was largely instrumental in introducing the Italian style of fist-fighting to England.
Basically, the argument goes that there were numerous regional forms of more-or-less codified pugilism practiced in Italy at a time when recreational fist-fighting was sport essentially unknown in other part of Europe. Unfortunately, there still isn't much scholarship on traditional Italian pugilism available in English, but it's been quite thoroughly documented by Italian scholars in their own language.
The tactic of using the left arm predominantly for defense and the right for attack seems to have been a characteristic of these styles, or at least some of them, possibly even indicating a linear development from ancient Roman boxing.
I was vaguely aware of some of the Italian stuff going on in the period but like you said there really isn't much in the way of sources in English.
When I posted this on Reddit several people pointed out that Godfrey used the term Buckler in specific instead of shield. They speculated that perhaps he meant specifically that, as apparently bucklers were used in a more active fashion and often used to strike with as well. Interesting idea but I had though bucklers were out by that time period, apparently there are still a few contemporary sources mentioning them so I suppose the idea is worth entertaining.
However I seem to recall a writer of a the early 1800's saying something to the affect of fighters in the prior generation being one handed hitters.
I think it's likely that Godfrey meant to imply "defense" in broad terms, but very unlikely that he would have been aware of the finer points of buckler play as recorded in the Tower Manuscript, etc.
That was my suspicion as well. My understanding was that buckler play was all but done by that time. I had wondered how large a stretch it would be to try and port some the guards and parries from the sword part of Godfrey over to his boxing? It would at least be something you could be certain he knew and it would round out his system enough to make it a bit more practicable. Of course doing something if the sort would be getting into very speculative territory but to my mind much less of a stretch than trying to incorporate techniques and concepts from buckler work.
That's pretty interesting, I didn't know that an Italian boxing style existed in that time-period. The contrast is interesting too, regarding the use of the left. The Anglo-Saxon method(s) seemed to focus on using the straight left as the dagger (metaphorically) to bring down your opponent and using the right for defense, despite the right being acknowledged as throwing the most violent punches.
Originally Posted by DdlR
There's actually evidence of multiple regional (or just municipal) fist fighting styles in Italy, over a period of roughly 200-300 years before Figg's time. Even before I learned about the Italian styles, it always seemed odd that histories of boxing in English discussed ancient Greek and Roman pugilism and then suddenly flashed forward to Figg in Georgian England.
Originally Posted by Mordschlag
My wild guess is that the cultivation of the left lead-off was one of England's first and most influential technical contributions to boxing.
Originally Posted by DdlR
That's awesome; I was unaware of such Italian styles. It certainly seems reasonable though. If the left shoulder is forward, it will surely be able to block an incoming blow very quickly due to the time of the arm and its forward positioning. Is there any text surviving on these Italian styles?
The position he describes doesn't seem too different from other boxing texts of period, no? The left shoulder and left knee are forward, producing a forward inclination of the torso and head, with the right leg at a "slanting" angle. This just means that the left and right knees are at a 90 degree angle to each other. Since the left side is a bit more tensed than the right, the left side is already quick to act and the right is relaxed (and ready to throw a big blow), which certainly would aid the production of power and naturally foster a turning of the body with the blow.
Originally Posted by Arkansan
If we see here:
We can see Mendoza on the left with a slightly more centered, upright version of what is described in the text. We see: left foot forward, head over the left knee, and right leg like a beam supporting a wall. Unlike a static lunge, the knees can be bent to produce a shift in body weight and the benefits of balance and movement that go along with that. Recall the Waage in longsword fencing to see the same principle applied.
Huh, I was afraid I was over thinking the stance. I hadn't thought of it but I suppose it is fairly similar to the stance Mendoza advocated. It does seem to support the use of the left as a sort of shield and primarily hitting with the right.
I find the idea of the primarily one handed hitting interesting, particularly since it seems to advocate doing so mostly with the right. This seems odd because just a few decades later most of the hitting seems to be focused on using the left, and supporting it with the right when the moment arises. I wonder what spurred the shift.
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