In the mid-19th century, not that long after the Belgian war of independence, an experiment was taking place in fencing in the Netherlands. The main proponent of this experiment was Christiaan Siebenhaar (1824-1885), fencing master in the Dutch army.[1] In his own words, the purpose of his experiment was to “introduce the Dutch language in the Art of Fencing” so that “soon nobody is found in the Netherlands anymore who teaches this art in a foreign language”.[2] However, the real purpose of this experiment appears to have been more ambitious than that: to create a Dutch School of Fencing – to be known as de Hollandsche Methode.

Only two years after Siebenhaar’s death, in 1887, G. Hesse[3] describes the efforts of Siebenhaar and his collaborators. In the introduction to his treatise, Hesse writes that while Dutch fencers had been winning medals, this only happened when they fenced at tournaments in the Netherlands, or at international tournaments if they were allowed a separate tournament by their own rules. These rules were:

  1. They fight in turns.
  2. Because of this clause, when the opponent threatens longer or shorter, they must accept the deviation, écart, of the point of the sword.
  3. During the fight they are not allowed to go either forwards or backwards.
  4. That a thrust is only valid when brought on the high line (in the heart).
  5. That they must always first parry the thrust of the opponent, and may then make use of the riposte. In other words, that they must apply the beat-parry, while the clean opposing parry, a parry that, when executed well, turns away the thrust of the opponent and hits him at the same time that he thinks to achieve success with a hit on his opponent, is not allowed.
  6. Finally, that a thrust 1 millimeter below or above the heart (a small area to hit, indicated on the high line on the plastron), or a strike applied 1 millimeter above or below the fragile object (potato or carrot that is placed on the head, belly and thigh), is considered to not have hit, while a hitting riposte in the heart or strike on the object, on the other hand is [considered to have hit], and even negates the first.

Hesse wanted to return fencing in the Netherlands to the “current French method” which he stated was “celebrated in all of Europe”, and while in his writing he does express polite admiration for Siebenhaar’s efforts, he also shows derision towards Siebenhaar’s Hollandsche Methode. , especially when quoting the Belgian fencing master Eugène Desmedt: “La méthode hollandaise est ridicule, sans base, et semble inventée pour paralyser les meilleurs tireurs.” (The Dutch method is ridiculous, baseless, and seems to have been invented for paralyzing the best fencers.)

Strange as they may seem, Hesse’s claims about Siebenhaar’s Hollandsche Methode are, however, supported by the work of M. Regoor, another Dutch fencing master who was contemporary to and associated with Siebenhaar. In his 1866 treatise De schermkunst voor het volksonderwijs geschikt gemaakt,[4] Regoor describes a set of rules for competitions, that he says were decided upon at a congress of 80 fencing masters from 5 Provinces that took place in The Hague on 24 December 1864. These rules were immediately used in a competition held at the same gathering. On pages 76-78, Regoor gives the following (main) rules:

  1. Opponents must attack in turns.
  2. Who is hit is not allowed to hit back.
  3. Part of the time that is spent in combat, one must work from the position of the 1st section, part of the time from the position of the 2nd section, and the last part from the the position of the 3rd section. (This also applies to the sabre and the short stick.)
  4. Standing still is to be accepted as method with the sword and rifle, to which there are, however, some exceptions. With the sabre the left foot (with right) and the right foot (with left) is not to be moved during combat, and only the front foot is to be pulled back at the proper time.
  5. It is demanded that hits are reported.
  6. Smoking and other hindrances, such as loud speech by the spectators as well as whistling are to be avoided.
  7. At the beginning of combat the front foot, and at the end the back foot must be pulled to. (This applies to the salute.)
  8. All necessities for the security of the body are to be used.
  9. After use in combat and in the lessons, the weapons must be stored in their intended place.
  10. If the opponents is disarmed, one must ask for a pardon. Do not hit him and declare the strike a hit then. The non-disarmed also takes up the weapon of his opponent and gives this back to him, unless there is a second who tasks himself with that.

Furthermore, on pages 83-84, he adds:

To prevent a lot of discussion and differences of opinion, I would propose that those who participate in a match with the sabre (or short or long stick), are provided with apples or potatoes, one placed on the head, one on the belly, and one on the right side. This is sufficient, and thus all matches in The Hague on the weapons I mentioned were run in good order, without any dispute having arisen. One could also place an apple on the arm, but this has not yet happened to me.

He who three times harms or bruises the apple of his opponent is the winner. (If the apple is knocked completely off without being bruised this does not count as a hit.) Each apple that has been hit and bruised must be replaced by another. With this, accurate notes are kept of whose apple has first been hit three times, and in this said way the competitors go through the competition, until it has been decided.

On page 85 he further states:

In competition, I further propose that, whether hit or not, one is always allowed to make an after-strike (if the strike that was delivered first by him who attacked was a hit, both would be hit, but that supposes that attack and after-strike were hits). After all, a strike may have hit 1, 2 to 3 inches besides the apple – then the target is missed. Therefore, one must be able to make an after-strike. If on both [combatants] an apple was hit, the [strike] of the initial attacker is declared a hit.

Finally, for thrust-fencing with the sword Regoor describes the use of chalk on the tip of the blade to determine whether a hit was scored (page 167):

Now, when I continue onto the description of the rules of competition with the sword, then I must remark that all rules that have been established for the competition with the sabre are also observed here, with the exception of the apples or potatoes, that are replaced by finely stamped chalk, which is used in the following manner:

Each competitor is equipped with a white plastron of cotton or linen with a black heart on it. The size of the plastrons and hearts can be adapted according to existing plastrons, in use for the purpose of foil fencing. It goes without saying that the swords must be provided with strong riveted plates at the tips, wound with chamois leather that is dipped into the said chalk.

It is not only possible that the competition with the sword takes place with foils, but it is commonly done so.

What has further be said of the sabre is also valid here, except that that which is not positive, which means things that are decidedly and specifically of the sabre, must not be confused with that of the sword.

He, now, who receives three thrusts on the black of the plastron is no longer a competitor for the prize. Concerning after-thrusts the same as with the sabre fencing remains said here. What has been said of the arrêt also remains applicable here.

Regoor further suggests that a metal rim around the heart could be used to ensure a hit on the heart is a proper direct thrust, and grazing hits do not register.

Indeed, then, Regoor, in his writings confirms the claims made by Hesse about the way fencing matches following the Hollandsche Methode were organised, and the rules according which they were fought. Furthermore, Regoor, in his treatise, presents the exact same sabre lessons as Siebenhaar gave before, further showing the close agreement between their teachings. It thus seems very likely that Siebenhaar also agreed with the competition rules presented by Regoor and derided by Hesse. Therefore, to properly study and understand Siebenhaar’s Hollandsche Methode, one should fence according to the rules that Siebenhaar and his students and collaborators fenced by, which significantly means attacking in turns, and remaining fixed in place (with the hind leg).

Interesting as it may have been, it would appear that the Dutch experiment did not last long. Soon after the deaths of Regoor and Siebenhaar, in 1887, Hesse re-introduced fencing according to the French school, and it would seem that, even if some of the Dutch terminology devised by Siebenhaar may have remained in use for some time, the French method now stuck, while the Hollandsche Methode was soon reduced to an amusing footnote.

[1] As an interesting aside, Christiaan Siebenhaar rented out rooms in his house as studios to artists, and is mentioned by Vincent van Gogh in two letters he wrote to his brother Theo (#204, 13 February 1882, and #361, 11 July 1883 - http://vangoghletters.org/vg).

[2] As stated in the preface to the third edition (Siebenhaar, C. Handleiding voor het onderwijs in de schermkunst, The Hague, De Erven Doorman,1861). The preface to the second edition (The Hague, De Erven Doorman, 1858) clarifies that the foreign language Siebenhaar would prefer not to hear during the instruction in fencing was French.

[3] Hesse, G. Handboek ten gebruike bij het schermonderwijs op den degen en de sabel, Apeldoorn, Laurens Hansma, 1887.

[4] Regoor, M. De schermkunst voor het volksonderwijs geschikt gemaakt, The Hague, J. K. de Liefde, 1866.

Reinier van Noort

Reinier van Noort is the main instructor and founder of the School for Historical Fencing Arts. He started modern (foil) fencing in 2003, but he in the summer of 2005 he was introduced to Medieval European Martial Arts, which changed his life forever. From 2005 until 2010, Reinier has trained in longsword and other Medieval European Martial Arts with groups in the Netherlands, and since 2007 he has been increasingly active as a trainer with one of these groups. From 2008 until 2011 Reinier has also trained Kadochnikov Systema with Maxim Pipotja in Amersfoort.

After making the first English translation of Bruchius’ “Scherm- ofte Wapen-konste” (Fencing- or Weapon-Art”) in October 2009, Reinier got very interested in rapier fencing, and since January 2010 he has been researching, training and teaching the Fencing Art described by Bruchius in practice.

In 2011, Reinier won the “best fighting technique” award in the HEMAC Dijon Rapier tournament.