The entry on fencing in René François’ 1621 encyclopedia is a rich source of terminology and practices common in the fencing salles of this period in which France was developing its own native fencing style as well as trying to rid itself of foreign cultural influences.
René François was the pseudonym of Etienne Binet, who held the position of Predicateur du roi [King’s Preacher] to Louis XIII. He published several other books, mainly works of hagiography and religious philosophy. His encyclopedia, Essay on Nature’s Marvels and the Most Noble Inventions,1 had considerable success as the raw material of conversation in a world where the currency of elite social discourse was stories of overseas wonders, natural marvels and ingenious inventions. This book is known to have been republished at least a dozen times.
In the article in it on fencing, “The Use of Weapons”,2 we get more than just a bland definition of fencing terms. We see some of the structure and rituals of the fencing hall. In points 3 and 4 for the basic organisation and etiquette of the fencing hall and the admonition to protect not only one’s own but everyone else’s eyes. Point 5 shows that only hits which land solidly on the point are considered worthwhile and that other hits are considered misses. Point 15 shows the emphasis on the thrust over cutting strikes in order, it appears, to differentiate French fencing from that of the Germanic style.
This last point is very characteristic of French culture of the period, not just fencing. It is a truism that French culture has Italian roots, deeply embedded in the artefacts of Italian Renaissance brought to France under François I and under the Médici queens, whether as consorts to Henry II or Henry IV or during their regencies. Towards the end of the 16th century and definitely by the beginning of the 17th century, there was a definite and defined reaction against the foreign, and especially Italian, in favour of the native French. Assigning the cut to germanic styles of fencing allows the French to concentrate on developing a point-centric style of fencing which eventually culminated in the smallsword a century or more later.
Where a key term has been called out in the text, it has been translated to an equivalent English term in common fencing use with the original term is noted in square brackets. Likewise words which are open to alternative translations are noted in square brackets and difficulties in translation have been end-noted. Parentheses are reproduced from the original text.
The Use of Weapons
1. One calls the foil [la fleuret], or brette, a rebated sword without a point. The button [le bouton] is the end of the sword drawn back and collected in a knot. The point [le bout] of the foil is a ball or padded leather that one puts on the end so that in giving one does not kill. Also, one says to a boy, “put a point on the foil.”
2. The guard [la garde] is that which is on the handle to cover the hand; the strong [le fort] is about a foot in length from the guard; the remainder up to the tip is called the weak [le foible] of the sword.
3. When one presents oneself in the salle, we ask “monsieur, do you want to do?” or “do you want to make an assault?”, that is to say, “do you want to fence?”. Then, taking up and uncrossing weapons, or even with honour kissing them, we say: “messieurs, protect the eyes,” that is to say, we forbid each other to strike to the face. If a mishap occurs, that the strike escapes and that one carries it to the face, we all put weapons down and go gather around him who received and pray him excuse the accident.
4. The Fencing Master almost never fights but there is a provost, that is to say, a lieutenant or sub-master who fights and who supports all combat. The Master sees, instructs, gives the stop [holà] when the blood is heated, marks the faults and judges the strikes.
5. The good strikes are called unimpeded thrusts [bottes franches] when the foil marks the assured strike and gives straight on and in full; if it is only half, perhaps in passing, they say it misses.
6. One should be in measure for giving and receiving a strike, that is to say, one should fix the right foot firmly in front and in a posture confident but nimble [isnelle] (promptly). To be out of measure is when one is either too advanced in danger of falling or to lean in and grab the enemy, or too withdrawn, or the foot in the air and the body wavering, or too fixed.
7. One is said to be in school, that is to say, to well adjust his body and carry it straight as he should as if one said “protect the button”; for to adjust and to be in school, one should give straight in the button.3 If one does it not, we say that one is not in school, that is to say that one has forgotten, or even that one has not yet learned the terms and the strikes of the school. We say also to adjust the strike or not to adjust.4
8. One should always have a wary eye, and on the enemy, above all on his eyes; for often he darts his glance to where he will direct the point of his sword. Thus one can put oneself on defence. When one raises the right foot in order to advance, one calls that the tempo; from there to take the tempo is about advancing, to gain the tempo is to anticipate your man and while he arranges himself to take his tempo you anticipate it. Thus to lose his tempo is when one knows not how to manage this advancing of the feet.
9. One says to carry a thrust, to receive it, to parry, to give, to drive down his man, to retire the foot behind, to do a slip backwards, to loosen [lascher] the foot, to give a leap. After the strike, one should soon put oneself again in measure, that is to say, the right foot in front planted very firmly and the body settled otherwise one easily staggers.
10. There are several feints, the high, the level, the low, around the dagger, to the eyes. The simpleminded amuse themselves to make parries and some feints in the air and play the fool, but one should always take the feint for the strike for often one strikes without a feint and to do well the strike should follow immediately the feint. Also, the foot and the hand should also fly all in one tempo. Never should one withdraw the arm and the foot in order to better give and with the greater force. It is a popular error. Never should one retreat but always advance and push. For in retiring in order to give, the enemy sees the coming strike and while you retire, he anticipates you and gives to you.
11. Opening oneself and giving oneself in person is when either in order to draw out your enemy and deceive him or by carelessness you separate the weapons and show all of your stomach and all your person, making it easy for your enemy to pierce you fully through.5 To close up, on the contrary, is to join his weapons and to almost cover his person with the foil and sidesword6 or dagger.
12. The riposte is named when one gives and one receives almost in the same tempo. Also, one says this “at the prompt riposte” for he answers you and returns to you identically the strike that you have given him. Those who have weapons well in hand do not fear the riposte, inasmuch as the strong of their sword shields them.
13. He who knows well how to handle the sword has hardly anything to do with the dagger for parrying the strikes. For from the strong he takes the weak, that is to say, he receives the point of his enemy’s sword on the strong of his own and makes it pass by in the air and beats it away or at least avoids the strike. One of the great secrets is to know well how to best use the strong of one’s sword. It is an invention of a brave master of swordplay.
14. One says “pass” when one opens himself too much or, not being on his guard, the other gives him a strike full, straight and as if he wanted to pass him through the stomach and, after having given him the crosswise strike [le coup à travers], he wants to overturn him on the tiles. Yet, if he to whom one carries this strike turns himself sideways, throwing again the right foot behind, the strike passes by in the air and nonetheless carries to him directly to the heart the thrust that he wanted to give him and that is called the fourth [quarter], that is to say, in avoiding the strike of him who wants to pass by us, or we pass the sword across the body, we have turned away a little to sidestep [démarcher] and pierce him himself.
15. One do not use at this time cuts, estramaçons and similar strikes; all pass now in thrusts and giving the point rather than the edge of the sword. For they are the knocks and true strikes of the Swiss and Germans, [and] that these backhand strikes and [forehand] strikes draw back with force the arm in order to cleave a shoulder or cut the thighs clean through, etc.
[Editor’s note. The top illustration is taken from Monsieur La Touche’s ” Les Vrays principes de l’espée seul” of 1671, and was added by the editor. It shows French King Louis XIV watching a fencing display in the 2nd half of the 1600s, i.e. a fair amount of time after what the article describes, but likely still valid as evidenced by the 1657 print of Essay des Merveilles de Nature et de Plus Nobles Artifices, containing the same rules described in the article.]
- Essay des Merveilles de Nature et de Plus Nobles Artifices, 1621 [↩]
- “Le Tirages des Armes” [↩]
- On dit estre en eschole, c’est à dire, bien ajuster son corps, et le porter droit où il faut, comme si on dit garde le bouton; pour ajuster et estre en eschole, il faut donner droit dans le bouton. [↩]
- on dit aussi ajuster le coup, ou non ajuster [↩]
- faisant beau jeu a vostre ennemy pour vous percer [↩]
- l’espee blanche, like l’arme blanche or sidearm [↩]