Dig into the Folger’s vault for #MuseumWeek

Painting of actor John Philip Kemble, as a surprised-looking Richard III.
John Philip Kemble, as Richard III, is surprised.”Ah! It’s Museum Week! I’ve got to go write some tweets!”

June 19 – 25 is Museum Week! Around the world, museums, libraries, archives, galleries, and other cultural institutions are engaging with their followers and with each other, sharing objects from their collections, swapping stories, and more. Here at the Folger, we’ve offered up recipes from Shakespeare’s time, stories of swords and duels, and a little bit of tennis.

Each day of Museum Week has its own theme. On Monday, we shared recipes from our collection for #FoodMW. We kicked things off with our popular Grenville Potato Pudding:

… shared some exciting work from Cooking in the Archives and Shakespeare’s World:

… and celebrated our beloved Folger tea:

Today’s theme, #SportsMW, gave us a chance to look at some of our collection’s fencing manuals and to tell the amusing story of an aborted duel between English and Italian fencing masters. The action took place just across the Thames River from Shakespeare’s Globe, in the neighborhood where the King’s Men would later perform in the indoor Blackfriars Theater.

English “master of Defence” George Silver tells the tale of drinking, dueling, and deceit in his 1599 book, Paradoxes of Defence. It starts when George his brother Toby challenge Italian master Vincentio Saviolo to a dangerous duel:

Then came in Vincentio and Jeronimo, they taught Rapier-fight at the Court, at London, and in the country, by the space of seven or either years or thereabouts. These two Italian fencers, especially Vincentio, said that Englishmen were strong men, but had no cunning, and they would go back too much in their fight, which was great disgrace unto them. Upon these words of disgrace against Englishmen, my brother Toby Silver and myself, made challenge against them both, to play with them at the single Rapier, Rapier and Dagger, the single Dagger, the single Sword, the Sword and Target, the Sword and Buckler, & two hand Sword, the Staff, battle Axe, and Morris Pike, to be played at the Belle Savage upon the Scaffold, where he that went in his fight faster back than he ought, of Englishman or Italian, should be in danger to break his neck off the Scaffold.

According to the Silver Brothers, the Italian fencers never showed:

We were at the place with all these weapons at the time appointed, within a bow shot of their Fence school: many gentlemen of good accompt, carried many of the bills of challenge unto them, telling them that now the Silvers were at the place appointed, with all their weapons, looking for them, and a multitude of people there to behold the fight, saying unto them, now come and go with us (you shall take no wrong) or else you are shamed forever. Do the gentlemen what they could, these gallants would not come to the place of trial.

This might have been a problem for the Italians’ reputation, if it weren’t for an ale-fueled misunderstanding a few days later:

I verily think their cowardly fear to answer this challenge, had utterly shamed them indeed, had not the masters of Defence in London, within two or three days after, been drinking of bottle Ale hard by Vincentio’s school, in a Hall where the Italians must of necessity pass through to go to their school: and as they were coming by, the masters of Defence did pray them to drink with them, but the Italians being very cowardly, were afraid, and presently drew their Rapiers: there was a pretty wench standing by, that loved the Italians,  she ran with outcry into the street, help, help, the Italians are like to be slain: the people with all speed came running into the house, and with their Cappes and such things as they could get, parted the fray, for the English masters of Defence, meant nothing less then to soil their hands upon these two faint-hearted fellows. The next morning after, all the court was filled that the Italian teachers of Fence had beaten all the masters of Defence in London, who set upon them in a house together. This won the Italian Fencers their credit again, and thereby got much, still continuing their false teaching to the end of their lives.

Of course, that’s just George Silver’s side of the story. Vincentio Saviolo died before Silver published his account; the Italian master probably would have seen things differently.

Don’t follow fencing? How about tennis? The sport of Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry V, when a French messenger presents King Henry with a chest full of tennis balls in response to Henry’s claim to “some certain dukedoms” in France. But tennis also makes a metaphorical appearance in this 1640 poem, “Fortune’s tennis-ball.”

Follow the Folger on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for more Museum Week posts. Tomorrow, Wednesday, June 21, we’ll share some tunes with you for #MusicMW. After that, keep an eye out for #StoriesMW on Thursday, #BooksMW on Friday, #TravelMW on Saturday, and #HeritageMW on Sunday. Happy #MuseumWeek!

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)