I’m back and I’m exploring the development of the French school between Henry de Sainct-Didier (1573), the first native fencing manual, and Charles Besnard (1653), the cementing of the French school in fencing with the foil.
To start, I’m trying to figure out the very influential translation by Villamont from Italian to French of Cavalcabo’s Treatise or Instruction on Fighting with Weapons (1597) and a similar essay by Patenostrier. This text is available in English translation by Rob Runacres of the Renaissance Sword Club.
The text is fairly straightforward but there are occasional sections which seem very dense and need some unpacking to understand what is being said. Here’s the first example I came across and what I did with it.
To understand how one must attack for the best
When you want to attack the enemy, you must strike the nearest part, awaiting his riposte. Further, wanting to attack him, place yourself in quarte guard then, passing with the left foot, strike him with an estocade straight to the face, and put yourself swiftly back in seconde guard, so that by counter passing with the right foot you can give him an estocade , returning to quarte guard where, awaiting the response and from there [your enemy] going to strike you, you will parry him with your sword by passing the left foot to his right side, securing the enemy’s sword with your dagger, in order to give him a seconde. And if he does not strike you, you can begin the aforesaid bottes.
Breaking it out
Strategy: When you want to attack the enemy, you must strike the nearest part, awaiting his riposte. […] And if he does not strike you, you can begin the aforesaid bottes.
Provocation Technique: Further, wanting to attack him, …
- … place yourself in quarte guard then, passing with the left foot, strike him with an estocade straight to the face, and …
- … put yourself swiftly back in seconde guard, so that by counter passing with the right foot you can give him an estocade , returning to quarte guard where, …
… awaiting the response and …
Counter-attack Technique: … from there [your enemy] going to strike you, you will parry him with your sword by passing the left foot to his right side, securing the enemy’s sword with your dagger, in order to give him a seconde.
Strategy: Provoke the opponent to attack you by feinting at him. In attacking he abandons a secure guard position and opens himself for an effective counter-attack. If he doesn’t respond, change off in front of him as described below.
This is the strategy common throughout the treatise: provoke your opponent by either feints or invitations, parry his response and counter-attack heavily.
Provocation Technique: I can see two possible interpretations of this.
From quarte guard on right foot forward, feint a thrust in fourth while stepping to the left and return to guard in second with the left foot forward. From second guard (looking suspiciously like Sainct-Didier’s middle guard), feint a thrust in second while stepping to the right and return to guard in fourth with the right foot forward. All feints are to the opponent’s face.
Alternatively, the stepping may maintain your body in the same orientation and simply expand and contract your stance in a circle on or just out of distance from you opponent, moving first in one direction and then in the reverse. To me, this is makes a little more sense of the original French in which idea of passing strongly implies “remove often, ever be shifting of abode, always be gadding up and downe” (Cotgrave, R. A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611) and counter-passing which implies moving in the reverse or opposite direction.
Note that the orientation of the blade is always in the direction you are travelling, eg: feint in quarte with the true edge to the left when travelling to the left, feint in second with the true edge to the right when travelling to the right.
Note also that the guard position adopted after the feint keeps the blade between you and the opponent. After moving to the left, the opponent is towards your right and therefore the guard position is in second. After moving to the right, the opponent in on your left and therefore the guard position to adopt after the feint is quarte.
It is interesting that that Cavalcabo says to return to second guard rather than third. This is reminiscent of Dall’Agocchie who suggests in his “how to survive a duel in 30 days” transitioning from porta di ferro stretta (equivalent to fourth guard) and guardia d’alicorno (probably closer to first guard than second).
Counter-attack Technique: Parry in second position, that is to your right side, while passing forward and strongly to the left. Control the opponent’s weapon with your dagger. Counter-thrust in second.
This technique relies on the leftwards motion – or if not passing to the left then leaning strongly to the left – to void or evade the opponent’s attack. Parrying with the sword and then controlling the opponent’s blade with you dagger ensures your safety. It appears to be a more left-mobile version of the standard passata sotto which Camillo Agrippa is said to have invented.
1.Although I do recognise that Cavalcabo devotes an earlier paragraph to using the word passagier to describe the passing forward, backwards and laterally, I think here the combination of passagier and contrepassagier argues for the definitions given here.