Rapier Fencing: A Scottish-Italian Duel in Elizabethan London

The old Hammerterz Forum approach to filling quarterly issues with rare and novel accounts of historical swordplay  can be compared to a drag net:

We’d read hundreds of books we suspected of containing worthwhile material, often coming up with a pertinent sentence or a paragraph for every 300 pages perused. Some snippets were academic and boring, others boring and academic, but all seemed catalytical to the progress of research. There also were some that were downright entertaining.

Among the material we mined was this story of a young Highland Scot making a nuisance of himself in Elizabethan London…

Italian fencing masters who plied their trade in Elizabethan London accepted considerable risk. The local Maisters of Defence, into whose market they pushed uninvited and un-privileged, looked at the interloppers with a jaundiced eye. And to prove that their ancient trade was superior to the Italiante rapier taught by the likes of Rocco Bonnetti  and Vincentio Saviolo, they liked to call out the newcomers to public trials of skill.

Some Italians, like Saviolo, deftly sidestepped the challenges. Some were pushed to engage—and often paid with life or limb. But other Italians may actually have sought out public fights. In Legends of Northeast Scotland, Wynness recounts the apocryphal London adventures of a young Scot by the name of Donald Oig. No date is given for the story, but the setting would place it in the late 1500’s.

Donald Oig is somewhat of a country bumpkin. We have no inkling of his expertise with the sword, not even what kind of sword he favored. Indeed, the account of the mortal wound he inflicts on the Italian would indicate that they both engaged with rapiers.

“On his way to the palace, Donald encountered the Italian surrounded by his retinue and heard the drummer issue his master’s challenge. Donald immediately drew his sword and ran both drum and drummer through, crying as he did ‘hae deen wi’ yer din’.

“The Italian was very annoyed because a crowd had gathered and were wildly applauding Donald for his prompt action. He challenged Donald himself, and arrangements were made for the duel to take place the following day. (…)

“That night Donald searched through all the taverns in London until he found the Italian’s serving-man from whom he learned that his master bore a charmed life. (…) If the Italian’s body was pierced by a sword and the sword withdrawn the wound would close immediately and the Italian would remain unharmed. This was the secret of his charmed life.

“Early next morning a great crowd assembled to witness the duel between the Italian swordsman and Donald Oig. The duel was fast and furious, but Donald managed to pierce the Italian’s body with his sword. ‘Withdraw thy sword,’ cried the Italian, knowing of course that if Donald did so he would immediately recover and fight on. But Donald, remembering what the serving man had told him, let loose the hold on his sword, left it in the Italian’s body and exclaimed ‘Lat the spit gang wi’ the roast.’

“The Italian fell to the ground and died.”

SourceWyness, Fenton   Legends of Northeast Scotland, New York: Gramercy Publishing Company, 1970;  p.46f


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