Sainct Didier’s Drawing the Sword

This is a translation of the section concerning how to draw the sword in Henri de Sainct Didier‘s Secrets of the Single Sword (1573). More sections of the text will be translated as time allows.

The translation is based on the transcription of the copy in the Library of the city of Blois (available at Bibliotheque Virtuelles Humanistes) made in 2010 by Olivier Depuis for l’Association pour la Recherche et le Développement des Arts Martiaux Historiques Européens. All amendments to the text made in the transcription have been assumed and are not noted here.

Translating Sainct Didier is heavy going. Not only am I not a professional (or even really an amateur) French interpreter, making sense of a text more than 400 years old in a language which I understand well enough but in which I’m not particular fluent is very difficult. Add to this Sainct Didier’s writing style, which can be charitably described as excruciating. I’m used to reading in Middle English and Early Modern English and was once quite well read in Latin (although I’ve forgotten plenty of it). However, Sainct Dider often defeated me. I’m sure that he was trying hard to sound more educated than he actually was.

The importance that Sainct Didier gives to drawing the sword is a puzzle that I believe is only resolved when the illustrations are considered literally. All the draws start with the opponents facing each other, feet together and hands on hilts. This does not suggest to me a military application but a civilian and social setting, whether a judicial duel, duel of honour of friendly competition.

I do not mean by this to devalue Sainct Didier’s swordsmanship but merely to follow where the evidence leads. Sainct Didier was (to use an anachronism) a career soldier fighting for Francis II and Charles IX in Piedmont and elsewhere.

Sainct Didier introduces several novel concepts to his text, the numbered footprints used to show the student how to step and counting the actions for each draw to facilitate proper timing and sequencing of actions. I have not seen another fencing treatise which uses such simple techniques to convey oft-times very complex information. Whether he was the first to do this, I cannot say. But, he may be considered the Arthur Murray of sixteenth century French fencing.