The Pamphlet Wars
Swetnam is best known for his misogynistic authorship as part of the Pamphlet Wars in Renaissance England. These so-called "wars" were fought in writing, by common and unknown writers. The printing press led to an increase in the availability of printed materials, and literate people with the time and means to do so could publish pamphlets for public dissemination. Along with the ease of publishing, the intensity of social and political tensions in 17th-century England cultivated an environment conducive to spirited debates about religion and the "worth of women". Swetnam's pamphlet attacking women was one of the most influential of the era.
The Arraignment of Women (1615)
The arraignment of lewd, idle, froward, and unconstant women was published in 1615 under the pseudonym Thomas Tell-Troth. Despite this attempt at anonymity, Swetnam was quickly known as the true author. (The full title of the original pamphlet was: The araignment of leuud, idle, froward, and vnconstant women : or the vanitie of them, choose you whether : with a commendation of wise, vertuous and honest women : pleasant for married men, profitable for young men, and hurtfull to none.)
Swetnam describes in this document what he views as the sinful, deceiving, worthless nature of women. He addresses his remarks to young men of the world, as if warning them about the dangers of womankind. He cites personal experiences as well as those of well-known biblical and classical figures to authenticate his claims. Obviously intended for a male audience, much of the pamphlet takes the comical form of what we might today call sexist jokes. For example, Swetnam writes, "A gentleman on a time said to his friend, 'I can help you to a good marriage for your son.' His friend made him this answer: 'My son,' said he, 'shall stay till he have more wit.' The Gentleman replied again, saying, 'If you marry him not before he has wit, he will never marry so long as he lives.'"
His borrowing of authority from Biblical figures was far more powerful and inflammatory, especially in Protestant England. Most material in attacks on women and in their defense was taken from the Bible, by all writers engaged in the debate. An important part of any author's attack or defense of women (as well as other subjects of debate) was interpretation and counter-interpretation of the Bible to support his or her perspective. Swetnam draws somewhat from the much-debated scene of the Garden of Eden, saying that woman "was no sooner made but straightway...procured man's fall", but he spends more time naming various victims of seduction, including David, Solomon, and Samson, blaming their falls from Godly grace on the wiles of the women with whom they sinned. He even makes use of a number of legendary figures in classical antiquity, including Hercules, Agamemnon, and Ulysses, citing the travails they suffered at the hands of women. While citing scriptural examples lends religious authority to his claims, using classical examples, even those from a mythology deemed false by Christian beliefs, appeals to the sense of antiquity and cultural superiority associated with Rome.
The Arraignment of Women was extremely popular—there were thirteen "known reprints" in the 17th century and another five in the early 18th century; it was even translated into Dutch as Recht-Banck tegen de Luye, Korzelighe, en Wispeltuyrighe Vrouwen in 1641 (to be reprinted four times in the 17th century, with two further editions in the early 18th). Some scholars propose that this popularity was due to its heavy drawing from previous works, including and especially John Lyly's Euphues, and its consequent sense of inclusiveness. Others suppose it could have been its decisively middle-class emphasis and humor. It is also possible that it became popular because of the reaction it sparked from other writers, which seems to be its most distinguishing characteristic.
Three female writers responded independently to Swetnam's work, in defense of their gender and in criticism of their critic. The first response was by Rachel Speght, writing under her own name. "A Mouzell for Melastomus" focuses on biblical material, interpreting scripture to counter Swetnam's attacks, while criticizing Swetnam's grammar and style. She writes, "Whoso makes the fruit of his cogitations extant to the view of all men should have his work to be as a well-tuned instrument, in all places according and agreeing, the which I am sure yours doth not" (p. 36). She also responds briefly to his tract in her second publication, "Mortalities Memorandum".
The second response came in 1617 from a writer under the pseudonym Esther Sowernam ("Sour"nam, as opposed to "Sweet"nam). "Ester Hath Hang'd Haman" is most notable for its reasoned and well-ordered argument.
Next, also in 1617, was "Worming of a Mad Dogge", by a writer under the pseudonym Constantia Munda. This tract was more notable for its impassioned invective and impressive learning.
Perhaps the most dramatic response to Swetnam was the comic play, Swetnam the Woman-Hater Arraigned by Women (1620), anonymously written. In the play, Swetnam, under the alias "Misogynos", is made uncomfortable at the hands of the women he so despises as a comic figure. The play's existence is indicative of the enormous popularity of Swetnam's tract amongst the "common people" (it was performed at London's Red Bull Theatre, which had a reputation for catering towards "the man in the street").
In his 1617 fencing treatise, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence, Joseph Swetnam represents himself as the fencing instructor for the then-deceased Prince Henry, who, after having read the treatise, urged Swetnam to print it—according to Swetnam. There is no record of his employment in Henry's service. The treatise itself is a manual detailing the use of the rapier, rapier and dagger, backsword, sword and dagger, and quarterstaff, prefaced with eleven chapters of moral and social advice relating to fencing, self-defense, and honor. Swetnam claims that his is the first complete fencing treatise authored by an Englishman.
Swetnam is known for teaching a unique series of special guards (such as the fore-hand guard, broadwarde, lazie guard, and crosse guard), though his primary position is a "true guard", which varies slightly for each weapon. He advocates the use of thrusts over cuts and makes heavy use of feints. Swetnam favored fencing from a long distance, using the lunge, and not engaging weapons. His defenses are mostly simple parries, together with slips (evasive movements backward).
Swetnam's fencing system has been linked both to contemporary Italian systems as well as the traditional sword arts of England; his guard positions resemble those of contemporary Italian instructors, but his fencing system appears structurally different, and more closely related to a lineage of English fencing. He is also distinctive in his advice to wound rather than kill an opponent.
Nothing is known about his ancestral origins or other family life other than the fact that he had a daughter named Elizabeth, who married in the church of St Augustine the Less Church on 4 November 1613 and died in 1626. In a letter of administration drawn up after her death, Swetnam is referred to as "nuper de civit[ate] Bristoll" ("late of the city of Bristol"). According to a letter of administration, Swetnam died abroad in 1621.
- Cis van Heertum, ‘Swetnam, Joseph (d. 1621)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, January 2008, accessed 25 December 2013.
- London: Printed by George Purslowe for Thomas Archer, and are to be solde at his shop in Popes-head Pallace, neere the Royall Exchange.
- Pamphlet, The Arraignment of Women
- Book, Half Humankind
- Lee, Sidney, ed. (1898). "Swetnam, Joseph". Dictionary of National Biography 55. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 200.
- L'Herrou, Bradley: Fencing in Seventeenth-Century England : A Visual Study of Joseph Swetnam's Treatise, pages 6-7. University of South Florida, 2009.
- Swetnam, Joseph: "The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence", Chapter XII: thou must marke which is the nearest part of thine enemie towards thee, and which lieth most unregarded, whether it be his dagger hand, his knee, or his leg, or where thous maist best hurt him at a large distance without danger to thy selfe, or without killing of thine enemy. [emphasis added]
- Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England 1540-1640- Half Humankind, a book about the Pamphlet Wars in England, among other things.
- The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence - Abridged, HTML- a transcription of the practical sections of Swetnam's fencing manual.
- The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence - Complete, PDF- a complete facsimile scan of the fencing manual.
- A short video introduction to Swetnam's rapier fencing system