Taken literally, the phrase could refer to using the cloak and dagger in historical European martial arts. The purpose of the cloak was to obscure the presence or movement of the dagger, to provide minor protection from slashes, to restrict the movement of the opponent's weapon, and to provide a distraction. Fencing master Achille Marozzo taught and wrote about this method of combat in his book, Opera Nova. Fighting this way was not necessarily seen as a first choice of weapons, but may have become a necessity in situations of self-defense if one were not carrying a sword, with the cloak being a common garment of the times that could be pressed into use as a defensive aid. Both Marozzo and other masters such as Di Grassi also taught the use of the cloak with the rapier.
The metaphorical meaning of the phrase dates from the early 19th century. It is a translation from the French de cape et d'épée and Spanish de capa y espada ("of cloak and sword"). These phrases referred to a genre of swashbuckler drama in which the main characters wore these items. In 1840, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, "In the afternoon read La Dama Duende of Calderón – a very good comedy of 'cloak and sword'." Charles Dickens subsequently used the phrase "cloak and dagger" in his work Barnaby Rudge a year later as a sarcastic reference to this style of drama. The imagery of these two items became associated with the archetypal spy or assassin: the cloak, worn to hide one's identity or remain hidden from view, and the dagger, a concealable and silent weapon.
In contemporary culture
- Geoffrey Chaucer,"The Knight's Tale" in Canterbury Tales c 1400.
- DiGrassi, His True Arte of Defence The entire Di Grassi manual translated into English.
- UNC.edu A version of "The Rapier and Cloake" that is easier to read and includes an illustration.
- Dickens, Charles (1841). Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty. London: Chapman & Hall. p. 203. ISBN 0-14-043728-2.
...his servant brought in a very small scrap of dirty paper, tightly sealed in two places, on the inside whereof was inscribed in pretty large text these words: A friend. Desiring of a conference. Immediate. Private. Burn it when you've read it. "Where in the name of the Gunpowder Plot did you pick up this?" said his master. "It was given him by a person then waiting at the door", the man replied. "With a cloak and dagger?" said Mr Chester.