… Published in 1573, by George Dubois, Master-of-Arms.
Examining the nature of the works by ancient masters of fencing always surprises me. They are often criticised as being baser than modern works which are the apogee of the art and that the ancients are little but rungs on the ladder towards a pinnacle. By tradition among fencing salles Saint Didier and his works are portrayed as pale imitations of Italian techniques of the era, and his work has a certain childishness. This is not my opinion.
The perfection of paintings and sculptures of the Renaissance exceed the sad quality of the majority of modern works which led me to consider without prejudice that the teaching methods and vocabulary used of yore and the art of arms of the XVIth century must have equal superiority and value as modern methods (called “epee”) which certain professors dare cite as the definitive form of the French School.
By making an in-depth study of a series of masters, before publishing, from Saint-Didier (1573) up to Gomard (1845), Grisier, (1847, Corbelais (1862) &c. going through all the authors of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries I am convinced that the French School has not changed since the XVIIIth century.
Only at the start of the XIXth century did Lafaugere, confirmed by the magic of his unequalled virtuosity, provide the possibility of certain formulas that, despite his own admirable work being re-edited several times (1820, 1825, 1865), was subject to irreducible condemnation, due to his superiority as a fencer over his contemporaries, such that nobody ever wanted to study it, nobody that is except his students, either long gone or the rare modern ones, of which I am one. It is curious to note that the resentment of the fencers he defeated and its disastrous consequences are still transmitted, by tradition, to this day.
On the contrary, it is with the respectful belief in the value of my elders that I have examined the work of Saint-Didier.
First of all, one must get rid of all precursors of the modern notion that Saint-Didier did not name his actions in the way that we do today as he both knew and performed them often. His “croissement” is our “opposition”. One also finds notes on the execution of contre-tierce and contre-quarte as another indication.
The weight of weapons required “steps” which, in the following centuries, were called “passes”. Has anyone ever written that the pass went away due to the lightness of modern weapons? I think not. They disappeared towards the end of the XVIIth century as a consequence of the lighter and shorter swords of Louis XIV yet long, heavy weapons require the pass.
Fig. 15 and 16; the lieutenant threatens the low line, the provost responds with a stop-hit to the arm.
Contres are often at the completion of or following a maindroit or revers and a nearly exclusive use of croissements (modern opposition). Saint-Didier performed them in all lines of seconde, tierce, quarte, quinte, septime (as will be seen later). These oppositions, which are called croissements, are taken in mezzo tempo, extending the arm making up one action, taken upon an earnest attack.
Clarity and simplicity are the two qualities governing Saint-Didier. He based his attacks upon logic, considered the weight of swords of his era and then reduced all of his techniques to three attacks; the maindroit, the revers and the estoc. Because of this, he says, due to size, which he specifies in his lessons, you strike from right to left (the maindroit) or left to right (the revers), while the estoc is a way to hit straight out in front of you.
A discussion with Fabrice (without a doubt he means Salvatore Fabris) on this matter appears successful. We know that Fabris added the Fendante and the Imbroncade to the three blows which, as they were not derived from the previous attacks, were not admitted by the French authors as fundamental attacks. From there, very cleverly, he used the term maindroit to define those attacks inside the weapon, from head to hock, and the revers for those outside, with the same intent (between two right-handers, of course).
However the parades he shows, of which he provides accurate drawings in his book, are nothing more than seconde, tierce, quarte, quinte and septime (modern).
Fig 17 & 18; the lieutenant deceives the threatened stophit to the arm, disengages in the line of sixte (modern style). The provost opposes tierce.
On the matter of the estoc (use of the point) he shows it at a height where it must strike in one of two lines. He says, “Strike or deliver a maindroit thrust (inside) or revers (outside) to the head, or arm, or body, to the leg”, that is to say inside or outside, from high to low, where he specifies (page 5 shows six principle lines).
To define a strike with the point seems to me, for example, to be the definition of modern: the octave riposte strikes where it can to the body or the legs. Saint- Didier, I repeat, stated another example: estoc maindroit to the thigh, such as is known today as “septime to the thigh”. I speak as it is terms in epee, by God’s mercy. Foilists, as the last refuge of the French School, would deliver it as “septime to the body”.
The work is very complete and I defy a modern virtuoso to do better if handed a heavy thrusting sword of the end of the XVIth century. When considering the heaviness of this weapon one can deduce those who are ignorant of it from those who have trained in fencing with it, as is the case with Saint-Didier.
A lost and useless science, elsewhere (except in certain cases such as the duel) for weapons and the rules of current combat, is that of Saint-Didier’s passing (his “stepping”). We must however note that Saint- Didier used them with a rare intelligence, because the placement of the left foot depended upon the length of the radius of attack (arm and sword). In his work of 1606 the Italian Fabris proved all this.
Fig 19-20; the provost, having opposed in tierce, contre-ripostes direct with his hand in sixte (modern style). The lieutenant parries contre-quarte (modern style) but his contre-riposte is annulled by the provost maintaining a threat. This third figure ends the fencing phrase and a series of mutual contre-ripostes. Thus Saint-Didier taught all this a century before Le Perche.
It is obvious that when the left foot of an adversary is in front and the weapon arm stays to the rear the line or radius of attack is shortened, it is then that Saint-Didier, who often provokes this stepping, thrusts with a lightning-strike estoc, aided by stepping forward with the right foot, thus he increases the length of his own radius of action (a pass used often again in the XVIIIth century however it was then called the “development”).
Before the great Thibault d’Anvers (1628), who, if not understood or only skim read, is classed as a fool by those today, Saint-Didier thought to use the shape of a triangle and rectangle to define the nature of foot movements on the ground, in straight or lateral directions.
This master also clearly studied measure as a base for his personal safety and the usefulness of his attacks and ripostes.
Saint Didier before all other French masters, since he is the oldest author of all of us, knew to parry and riposte in one action.
The precision with which he shows the position of the fingers in opposition alternating between tierce and quarte (modern style) (see the figures) prove that he employed a conversion of the hand similar to that the celebrated Jean-Louis established, from sixte to quarte, two centuries later.
Primarily, and with an insistence that we encounter from any other author, he reviews at all times the technical modifications which a left-handed adversary requires. Already he insists on the uselessness of parrying an attack in the low line but on the contrary to slip the leg and stop-thrust in the high line or the end of the arm.
Fig 17 & 18; one finds an indication of contre-tierce (modern style).
Fig 32; one sees a riposte with contre-quarte (modern style).
Page 50 and 60; he gives geometrical indications for understand stepping.
Page 68; he makes our modern quinte turning into seconde with the weight of the sword.
Page 80; the provost clearly parries a maindroit in the low line with a septime (modern)
Page 82; Saint Didier takes the tempo while slipping the threatened leg (the modern rassemblement of epeeists) and what a resource for the despisers of the old masters &c. And this author of 1573 had not said everything thus he had to issue a revised edition which he announced on page 74. Saint-Didier taught the contre-riposte a century before Le Perche (1676).
Gomard, though definitive and a little indulgent in his declaration on the subject of Saint-Didier committed a gross error. In effect:
Fig 15-16; the lieutenant threatens the low line. The provost responds with a stop-thrust to the arm.
Fig 17-18; the lieutenant deceives this threat and feints in turn in the high line
Fig 19-20; the provost responds to this new danger while making a riposte of tierce-riposte, upon which the lieutenant contre-ripostes with maindroit of contre-quarte, which must not be made uselessly as the provost will continue this threatened thrust.
By declaring that tennis and fencing are second cousins and that one prepares one for the other Saint-Didier made sound judgement, if one considers that fencing of the era comprises various steps and an intensive use of maindroit and revers blows.
On the matter of the text and the precious figures which illustrate Saint-Didier’s work Gromard wrote, as a conclusion to his ironic examination, “The action continues in this way, with a succession of blows either delivered or avoided or blocked until the last plate.”
How can we complain about the nature caught up in the illustrations, peculiar to the ancient authors, a nature which makes them clear and which we have not ourselves adopted- all for the sake of economy?
Conclusion- The science and the love of their higher art of the ancient masters of the Renaissance was also as profound as that of great number of those of the modern era. They were far away from the modern craft which allows us lightness in our foils, a craft which is an illusion of the reality of arms. Regarding Saint-Didier, I think that even today reading him is beneficial not only to the amateur and the researcher but also to the fencing professional.
[Translator’s note- page references are retained out of completeness but refer to Dubois’ copy of Saint-Didier’s treatise]
[Editor’s note: Images have been added by the chief editor of HROARR, not the translator himself. Also, to make online reading easier some extra separation into paragraphs have been made that aren’t present in the original.]