French fencing guilds

of Paris, Lille, and Amiens in the 16th and 17th century
Translated by Pierre Pichon
Edited by Jean Chandler,
SDA NOLA, New Orleans & Roger Norling, GHFS/MFFG

Finally we have here English translations of French fencing guild documents from the 16th and 17th centuries. These documents contain a wealth of information concerning the practices of the fencing guilds and our hope is that the publishing of these will spur further research and sharing of material within the international HEMA community. Much more is to be found out there so keep digging and remember to spread it.

Background

These documents were provided to me by Roger Norling who got them from the French historical fencing website at http://jfgilles.perso.sfr.fr

Terminology

For convenience and ease of comprehension for an English-speaking reader I have substituted some English words for specific terms.

The term ‘Serment’ means sworn  (via the Latin word serere, which means 'to join together', similar to the English legal phrase ‘sworn-in’), and is used throughout these documents to refer to a group of people joined by an oath.  Frequently the term ‘sermon confrere’ is used to refer to a sworn guild.  I’m substituting the relatively familiar term confraternity though the more archaic term ‘conjuration’ is probably a closer match.

Confrérie (‘brotherhood’), seems to usually refer to the larger organization, and is translated as guild.  It could also mean sodality.

The French word bourgeois has a more specific political / social meaning today than it did when these documents were written, so I’m substituting the German term ‘burgher’ which is better known in our community for the specific meaning of just an urban dweller or a citizen of a town.

Milice has been translated as militia.

Échevin has been translated as alderman.  This is a rough translation, as it has a more specific meaning, closely related to the German schöffe, Czech šepmistr, Italian scabino etc.  The term refers to someone who is an elected or appointed political and social leader, and who also usually acts as a magistrate.  But while schöffe usually refers to an independent magistrate elected by the town or the guild (often also acting as town councilors) échevin can also refer to a seigniorial representative appointed by the King or Lord, more similar to the German vogt, the closest English translation for which is usually ‘advocate’. This may be an important distinction between Amiens and the other towns in particular.

Couleuvrinier can refer to either a hand-gunner (earlier on this would mean hook gun or arquebus, later musket) or a cannon crewman, where it seems more likely to refer to gunners I’ve translated it as such, where it appears to refer to an actual cannon I use the term ‘cannonier’.

Connetable souverain is some kind of commander, I translated as captain, sous connectable as lieutenant.

Jurez appears to be a position of rank within the guild, I was not able to determine its actual meaning beyond ‘sworn’ – I have translated it as ‘magistrate’.

I have left the term jeux d'armes rather than translating it to ‘fencing’ or ‘game of arms’ because it may have a specific meaning which should be preserved. However, I suspect it’s pretty close to the same meaning as fechtschule.

I was unable to determine precisely what the title Chef d'Oeuvre means in this context.

Currency

1 Livre / Franc  = 20 Sols
1 Sol Turnois = 12 Deniers
1 Denier

Livre is roughly equivalent to a pound sterling, i.e. a pound of silver, though a ‘pound’ could vary widely from 10 to 18 ounces from year to year and place to place.

Gros probably refers to groschen, value is roughly 7 denier

Denier is very roughly the same as a penny.

The name of a city after the type of currency (‘Livres-Tournai’ or ‘Deniers –Paris’) means a coin minted from that town, i.e. a pound of silver from Paris might be 12 ounces vs. 14 at Tournai, while an ounce of silver from Tournai might be 10% more or less pure than one from Paris, which  the reader during the period these were created would know to mean a specific value.

Commentary

These documents provide a great deal of interesting information, the most salient points are summarized below briefly.

Document 1 is an introduction by a modern or Victorian writer. Documents 2-5 are direct translations of records from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

In terms of equipment, some people will be delighted to learn that the “French” fencing guilds put great importance on wearing the proper shoes, and gloves are required for fencing, but these same people may be dismayed to learn that padded coats are banned.

There is a detailed description of how a Provost can become a Master.  From the description the Provost sounds like an apprentice (an apprenticeship contract is even mentioned). He must bring valuable gifts to the person that can “come closest to his heart” in a fencing match.

Rules on double-hits in these fights are mentioned, as are rules for losing or winning the special prize-play that a Provost fights to become a Master. If he can be hit with two clean cuts in this test he’s kicked out of the fencing guild.

For context it’s worth noting the different political situations of the three towns during the period these documents were written.   They could be summarized as ‘Franco-Belgian’ but that wouldn’t really be accurate in my opinion.  Amiens was a free city, considered part of Flanders from the Medieval period through most of the 16th Century, until captured first by the Spanish, and then by the French in 1597, after which it lost its autonomy.  Lille was also powerful, independent Flemish town and thrived under the rule of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy, but after their demise in 1477, came under the control of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and from 1556 was under the rule of the Spanish King Philip II.  Paris, of course was ruled by the King of France.

So the traditions in Lille and Amiens in particular can be said to be related to fencing culture in Spain, Burgundy, Flanders, and the Holy Roman Empire as well as France, but probably more Flemish than anything else.

Download the full pdf here: French fencing guilds of Paris, Lille, and Amiens in the 16th and 17th century 

Jean Chandler
Jean Henri Chandler has studied historical fencing for 15 years. He co-founded the fencing group SDA NOLA with Lenny Zimmermann in 2004 in New Orleans. Jean has taught longsword fencing in 2011 and 2012 and is active in the competition circuit, fencing in 7 tournaments since 2010. In 2012 Jean placed third in open longsword at the Fechtschule America tournament in Houston.

Jean is an amateur researcher with a special interest in the late medieval Baltic and the context of historical fencing. In 2012 he gave a lecture on free cities and fencing masters at the BSG event in Boston. In 2013 he gave a second lecture on informal duels in central European towns at the Higgins Armoury in Worcester, Ma. He published his first research paper in the Acta Periodica Duellatorum that same year on warfare and free cities.

In April 26 of 2014 Jean gave a lecture at the Tenth Annual Symposium on Historical European Swordsmanship, at the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies in the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In May 2014 Jean's second paper on the history of guilds in late Medieval Europe was published in the Acta Periodica Duellatorum, and released at the Dijon fencing tournament and event.