Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Poem of the Pell

Greetings, readers. I’d like to introduce the “Poem of the Pell.” Actually, what I’m giving you here is my modern English rendition (something I have not before seen, and actually quite difficult to do) of the most complete version of the poem that I am aware of.

This poem has been kicked about in varying circles since at least 1876, when it was published in The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, By Joseph Strutt & William Hone, which is still in print. Unfortunately, that book only contains a four-paragraph version. The oldest known version is from a medieval book entitled Knighthood and Battle, in the Cottonian library, of which my best efforts to find any available existing version of any sort have been completely futile. The only known public version of the entire poem of which I am aware was procured in unknown fashion and put on the ‘net by John Clements of the ARMA in the context of one of his articles (noted as coming from “Dyboski and Arend’s 1935 edition”). This is unfortunate, as it is deserving of far more knowledgeable and in-depth interpretation and contextual information from the document that contained it.

Alas, were things otherwise, we had hoped to include this complete poem, translation, and explanations of its teachings in our book, though circumstances proved unfortunately problematic. Perhaps in the future, if all goes well, we can do something of the sort.

So far as I have been able to tell, given what little information there is, the actual title that this poem goes by is a modern one, given in lieu of anything else (the original may very well have had no title). To tell the truth, I am not even sure where the exact term “pell” comes from. Though the device has had several names throughout history, I have found “pell” in no pre-modern literature, despite the ubiquity of the term now. In this poem, for example, they refer to it as a “pile,” which is still a term used and defined identically today: an upright beam or post in the ground.

This poem is one of the few true martial arts instructional works from England prior to the fifteen-hundreds. It is anonymous, and seems that it was written in the 15th century, probably the early half. Given its context, I think it to be a reasonable theory that it could very well be a contemporary transcription of an earlier poem added into the book it was found in.

It is actually an extremely valuable instructional text on the use of the sword and shield in training against the static pile. It gives very pertinent information on techniques, exercise, the value of cuts vs. thrusts, focus and mindset, footwork, and other training insights.

Anyway, I hope this rendition is a boon to our readership, and makes this poem more accessible to you. Given the language differences between this and the original, and the aims of its teachings, this is but one interpretation of many that could be.

The discipline and exercise of the fight was this: To have a pile upright
Of a man’s height, thus the old and wise do write
With this a bachelor, or a young knight
Shall first be taught to stand, and learn to fight
And with a fan of double weight he takes as his shield
And a double-weight mace of wood to wield.

This fan and mace, either of which are of double weight
Of shield, swayed in conflict or battle,
Shall exercise swordsmen, as well as knights,
And no man, as they say, will be seen to prevail,
In the field, or in castle, though he assail,
Without the pile, being his first great exercise,
Thus write warriors old and wise.

Have each his pile up-fixed fast
And, as it were, upon his mortal foe:
With mightiness the weapon must be cast
To fight strong, that none may escape
On him with shield, and sword advised so,
That you be close, and press your foe to strike
Lest your own death you bring about.

Impeach his head, his face, have at his gorge
Bear at the breast, or spurn him on the side,
With knightly might press on as Saint George
Leap to your foe; observe if he dare abide;
Will he not flee? Wound him; make wounds wide
Hew off his hand, his leg, his thighs, his arms,
It is the Turk! Though he is slain, there is no harm.

And to thrust is better than to strike;
The striker is deluded many ways,
The sword may not through steel and bones bite,
The entrails are covered in steel and bones,
But with a thrust, anon your foe is forlorn;
Two inches pierced harm more
Than cut of edge, though it wounds sore.

In the cut, the right arm is open,
As well as the side; in the thrust, covered
Is side and arm, and though you be supposed
Ready to fight, the thrust is at his heart
Or elsewhere, a thrust is ever smart;
Thus it is better to thrust than to carve;
Though in time and space, either is to be observed.


Copyright July 2010, Benjamin “Casper” Bradak


Michael Chidester said...

Cool. Where did you end up finding it? Or is this based on the one JC posted?

LL said...

I'm looking forward to the first printing so I can buy a copy. Please keep us all informed!

Lessons on the English Longsword said...

Thanks, guys!


: )

Mike, you'll have to ask Casper.

Lessons on the English Longsword said...

Mike: Well, the first four paragraphs I took from the still in-print book: The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (you can find it on or electronically on-line).

The last two paragraphs, I had to use JC's transcription. I can only speculate on how he acquired it, but the original book, and thus those two paragraphs, context, and any other information on the poem is seemingly unfindable. I think there's something underhanded about the whole thing.

I have searched all the antique and rare book sellers for the reprint he references, and anything else for the original or any transcription, but there is NOTHING out there. Even the reliable ones I regularly purchase from have nothing on it. You won't find a hint on the 'net.

Thanks guys!