Henri de Sainct Didier – At First Glance

Henri de Sainct-Didier

This post marks the start of my investigation into A Tract on the Single Sword of Henri de Sainct Didier (1573), another member of Club 1570. Like my look at Joachim Meyer’s rapier technique, there is likely to be a bunch of posts working through different aspects of his swordplay style culminating in a PDF which presents my interpretation of them. I’ll be relying on the facsimilie text of the treatise available at the Raymond J. Lord Collection of Historical Combat Manuals and Fencing Treatises rather than the translation by Preston and Wilson which I’m not at all keen on. Other copies are available at Les Biblioteques Virtualles Humanistes or on Google Books.

At first glance, it’s evident to me that Sainct Didier’s book is a teaching manual rather than a list of combat techniques. This idea is reinforced by the Provost, the instructor, only attacking the student rarely. Generally, he ends his manoeuvres with “presenting” a thrust at the student, never actually carrying it out.

Each of the six basic strikes and the more advanced exercises is organized in a similar way and look very much like classroom exercises. First, an action is presented then it’s counter. Next, there’s a counter to the first counter, and so on. Later in the text, there are more advanced exercises on footwork and disarming an opponent. At the end of the work is a master class on “subtleties,” particular things to be aware of and to look out for in order to trigger certain techniques. I’m eager to see what concept of the fight develops from the techniques he displays.

Much has been made of the positions in which the sword hand is held and attempts to map the descriptions of them in the text with the classical Italian positions of first, second, third, fourth. He explicitly describes second (“quote”) and fourth (“quote”) when talking about attacking and defending. No other hand positions are described in the text and consequently should not appear in any interpretation of it without strenuous argument.

The stances, however, are a similar matter. The low guard position uses a hand position which is described in the same way as the Italian third position but which has variants held on the left and the right. The middle and high guard stances are explicitly called out in the Italian second position. The Italian first position is never mentioned.

Attempts to impose on the text a form of first position or third position outside the use outlined above says more about the interpreter’s pre-conceived ideas than it does about Sainct Didier’s technique.

The tediously long prologue is useful in that it compares fencing to tennis and handball. To me, it describes not the similarity of the two activities but that a similar degree of physicality is required by them. I expect this section to be a source of wisdom but it’s too early to say whether this will be the case or not.

One aspect of the text strongly strikes a chord with me. Sainct Didier appears to describe a small number of manoeuvres which are useful in a range of circumstances as opposed to other maestri who list vast catalogues of techniques which never seems to occur when bouting. However, this may say more about me than it does about Sainct Didier’s text.

Stay tuned for more in coming weeks.