Henri de Sainct Didier – Fencing and Tennis

Unlike Joachim Meyer, Henri de Sainct Didier says little about his concept of the fight and how to approach or conduct it. There is rarely anything that appears to be explicit tactical advice in his text. However, there are several oblique references from which we can deduce something of the fight he envisioned.

Swordplay is compared to sport. In Sainct Didier’s view, a good jeu de paulme (the handball forerunner of tennis) player has the physicality necessary and general concept of movement (fore-hand and back-hand) to make a decent fencer. Is this only a comment on the degree of athleticism needed to become a skilled fencer or is there a more general equivalence suggested?

“Faut noter que les armes, & la paulme sont are cousins germains,& qui scaura bien iouer a la paulme, facilement & tost (sic) scaura bien tirer des armes.” (it should be noted that arms and tennis are first cousins and whoever knows well how to play tennis will know well how to throw arms about.)

He speaks at length in the supplementary material in the text about the similarity between handball and swordplay making these points:

  • The maindroit and renvers are the same action. There’s no estoc in handball.
  • Movement is the key. Standing still during a bout or a volley is a sure road to defeat.
  • The fencing equivalent of keeping one’s eye on the ball is to watch the point of the sword rather than watching the eyes or gaze of the opponent. (I’m not sure I agree with him here; it goes against most modern martial training.)

Sainct Didier also makes the claim that the similarity between fencing and handball is plainly evident to practitioners. The enormous effort he goes to in the text to point this out, he says, is to encourage beginners and students to cross-train.

In the text, all encounters start with the opponents standing facing each other with their swords in their scabbards. The first action in all sequences is to draw and pass backward with the right foot. This serves not only to put one in guard but to put one out of striking distance. (The first action of all sequences is to attack by passing forward into distance.) To my mind, this is either the start of a sporting bout or indicates that all fights in Sainct Didier’s world start in polite company in the court. I can’t see in the text a concept of a street fight or a fight against unequal weapons or numbers of opponents. Combat in the text comes across as quite a mannered and genteel affair, regardless of the level of potential lethality.

I suggest that Henri de Sainct Didier is writing lessons plans to teach his students how to be accomplished young gentlemen rather than masters of combat. This is swordplay for courtiers, not warriors.