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Henry de Sainct-Didier’s “Desrober”

The most difficult aspect of interpreting Henry de Sainct-Didier’s Secrets of the Sword Alone (1573) is not so much finding a translation for his rather vague and nebulous term desrober but understanding how he applies it to his system of swordsmanship. His meaning is made clear not by understanding the word itself but through simple contextual analysis of the strikes before and after the action he calls desrober. I will show here that Sainct-Didier has a clear and consistent meaning for the term which serves to underscore the basic principles of his text.

The term itself is easily understood. Period dictionaries agree that it means acting furtively or “in the manner of a thief.” Modern French, while not strictly relevant, carries some additional and illustrative connotations such as:

  • escaping or slipping through one’s fingers “la anguille dérobe mes doigts” or “un coupable a dérobé la justice
  • the ground collapsing beneath one’s feet “le sol a dérobé sous mes pieds” [Is there an echo in this of the “cade sub gladium” (fall under the sword) in I.33 (ca. 1295)?]
  • a hidden passage “une passage dérobé” – hidden not so much as in being actively concealed but unobtrusive and easily escaping casual observation

In my translation of the text, I’ve used the English “steal” as I reckon it carries both the period and modern definitions.

The question remains, however, what action at the sword does Henry de Sainct-Didier want his audience to understand by the term. This is where a simple contextual analysis comes to the rescue. I won’t go into all the gory details but here’s the results.

At it’s simplest, the text puts forward a number of statements in a general format which can be tabulated and analysed.

  • [Lieutenant’s strike] is countered by the [Provost’s parry]. The Lieutenant then performs a desrober action and follows up with [Lieutenant’s counter-strike].

The results are summarised in the table.

Image Lieutenant’s Strike Provost’s Parry Lieutenant’s Counter-Strike
19 Renvers (Vertical) Cross in 2nd Maindroit (High)
27 Maindroit (Vertical) Cross in 4th Renvers
27 Maindroit (Vertical) Cross in 4th Thrust
33 Maindroit Cross in 2nd Maindroit (Vertical)
35 Maindroit (Vertical) Cross in 2nd Maindroit (High)
41 Renvers Cross in 2nd Maindroit (High)
43 Maindroit Cross or beat down Renvers (High)
47 Thrust Cross in 2nd Maindroit
47 Thrust Cross in 2nd Thrust
49 Thrust in 3rd Cross in 2nd Thrust in 4th
51 Thrust in 4th Cross in 4th Thrust
51 Thrust in 4th Cross in 4th Maindroit
55 Thrust in 2nd Cross in 2nd Thrust in 3rd
57 Thrust in 3rd Cross in 4th Thrust in 4th
59 Thrust in 4th Cross in 4th Thrust in 2nd
65 Thrust Cross in 4th Thrust in 2nd
67 Thrust Cross in 2nd Renvers
73 Thrust Cross in 4th Maindroit
75 Maindroit Cross in 2nd Maindroit

 

Some observations and tallies can be made against this data.

When the Provost parries in second position (back of the hand upwards and fingers downwards; to the Lieutenant’s inside line), the Lieutenant follows his desrober with a cut 7/10 times and a thrust 3/10 times. When the Provost parries in fourth position (back of the hand downwards and fingers upwards; to the Lieutenant’s outside line), the Lieutenant follows his desrober action with a cut only 4/11 times and a thrust 7/11 times.

Similarly, when the Lieutenant’s initial strike is a cut, his counter-strike after the desrober action is a cut 7/8 times (and a maindroit cut six times out of those seven) and a thrust one time in eight. When the Lieutenant’s strike is a thrust, his counter-strike is a thrust 7/11 times and a cut 4/ 11 times.

Using Bolognese/Italian sidesword/rapier terms as equivalents, these actions can be summarised like this:

  • When the Lieutenant’s initial strike is a thrust or when the Provost parries the Lieutenant’s strike in fourth position, the Lieutenant’s desrober is a Bolognese cavazione underneath the Provost’s sword and counter-thrust.
  • When the Lieutenant’s initial strike is a cut or when the Provost parries the Lieutenant’s strike in second position, the Lieutenant’s desrober is a Bolognese tramazzone/molinetto to cut at his opponent.

This sounds also very much like durwechseln (changing through) in the German tradition of Joachim Meyer and Johannes Leckuechner.

These rules and their prevalence in the text suggest to me that Sainct-Didier is very concerned with what happens after the initial strike. His training program appears to focus on using an initial strike as little more than something to draw the opponent out of his or her guard position so that the resulting opening(s) may be exploited. This, in turn, provides additional re-enforcement of the furtive and thief-like characterisation of desrober.

So, what does Henry de Sainct-Didier mean by desrober? It is the furtive, thief-like action of dropping one’s sword under that of the opponent in order to attack on the other side of the blade. It can be used simply as a way of countering a parry or block or more subtly to draw the opponent out of guard in a known manner in order to create and then exploit an opening. In this, Sainct-Didier shows his training methods to be more complex and sophisticated than they at first appear to be.

Finally, to re-state desrober as general rules for the fencer:

  • When parried to the outside line, desrober (cavazione) then thrust.
  • When parried to the inside line, desrober (tramazzone/molinetto) then
    • cut, if your strike was a cut, or
    • thrust, if your strike was a thrust.