L’Ecole d’ Escrime Français

– The School of French Fencing

By Roman Hliva

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The world of Parisian fencing halls “salles de armes” has a fascinating history. Fencing/fighting in a mondain atmosphere of big and beautiful training  salles with paintings of old masters and historical weapons hanging on the walls, with modern changing rooms and hydrotherapeuticprocessing attracted young men of all social classes. Some of them came to the fencing schools because it was fashionable, some  came to combat their own obesity, but for  most young men the primary motive was the opportunity to gain experience in the useof arms. Not only for deployment of defensive and offensive tactics in duelling, but also for self-defense. The learning to handle a sword steeled one’s nerves, provided courage and taught judgement under fire.

One of the oldest institutions of the kind was the Parisian based fencing/ savate school “l’Ecoled’escrimeFrançais”  located at rue Saint-Marc no.14. This school played an important role in the development of ” La Defense dans la Rue” during the last quarter of the 19 century.

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The school existed as  “salle Robert (aine)”, at the same address rue Saint-Marc no.14, until the death of the former professor Robert (elder) in 1876. After that ” L’Ecole d’escrime  Français”  continued in its activities under the presidency of general Ney (duke d’ Elchingen). Robert’s son Georges Robert, and also Jacob, Merignac, Prevost and Lecour as a result of the schools major development , were appointed as professors.

“L’Ecole d’escrime  Français” , was one of the most frequented Parisian schools- the scene at this “cercle” was very animated between the afternoon hours of four and seven. Aristocrats, politicians, and other Parisian personalities could be seen in the salons, like businessman Roulez, the son of actress Sarah Bernhardt- Maurice, along with journalist and well-known duellist Paul de Cassagnac, a good friend and student of Jules Jacob.

The famous Jules Jacob, master-at-arms at the prestigious “L’Ecole d’escrime  Français”  was best known for adapting the classical “jeu de fleuret” (foil) to the regime of the duelling ground “jeu de epee” or “jeu deterrain”.  The triangular military epee had become the conventional weapon of the French duel. In the late 1870s, with the popularity of duelling on the rise, several  masters -at- arms started to teach “jeu de epee” on a regular basis. They put forward the revolutionary argument that fencing should represent, as closely as possible a real fight. Jacob was the first who started a war of the words between traditional foilists and the new followers of epee, practical fencing, that was to last more than 30 years before epee was finally accepted as a weapon of its own right. Jacob’s “lecon de epee” provided him fame and grouped many students around him. His given titles, “Eleve de Jacob” displayed the respect he gained in the Parisian fencing community.

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Jacob’s students were so seldom defeated in duels that the word circulated  among duellists that Jacob knew certain secret thrusts ” les bottes secretes” that never failed to find their mark.  He was also well known as a master-consultant in duels and often provided emergency lessons to those men inexperienced in duelling who found themselves embroiled in an affair of honour. Such an emergency training session consisted of teaching some elementary thrusts and ripostes while giving the man a feel for the heavier epee. Jacob’s “methode duterrain” would influence and assist in establishing the system of Defense dans la Rue especially its traditional weaponry component.  His minimalist approach  provided the use of simple, easy to learn but  highly efficient techniques while developing the best qualities of both the street fighter and duellist mentality. The techniques, tactics and footwork found in epee, along with sabre, formed the basis for canne, canne a epee and a number of related weapons. Attacks on the weapon hand or arm” coup de manchette, l’enleve” along with stop thrusts at the enemy’s  head are clear examples of the Jacob’s influence.

“Method of Jules  Jacob was excellent at the time. His system, very intelligent, was primarily intended to combat pure foil fencers. Unskilled Jacob’s students were able to inflict damage to  well-known foilist in a duel” so wrote Jean Joseph- Renuad  in his treatise ” Traite d’EscrimeModern” ( 1928). Renaud was influenced by masters of epee Jules Jacob and Ambroise Baudry. Jacob’s method was born at the end of the Second Empire in a tasteful Parisian ” Salle Jacob” ( located at 17, rue Faubourg Montmarte), where Jacob, at the time young, almost  unknown professor, began in 1865 to teach. Other reputable fencers Baudry, Spinnewyn, Jean Ayat, professor at the aristocratic ” Cercle d’ Anjou, and Renaud soon followed his  “methode du terrain”. Unfortunately his son Albert Jacob never achieved the popularity of the father,  however he was a skilled fencer, a member of the “Salle d Arme Leconte & Cherbouquet”.

“l ‘Ecole d’escrime Français” had one  room fitted for French boxing  and included leather punching dummies which could be adjusted to serve for kicking and boxing. Here Professor Charles Lecour, a man with lively, inquiring temperament or “un homme de genie” as Alexander Dumas once wrote, taught his pupils together with his brilliant assistant and successor Julien Leclerc.

Lecour trained boxe/canne at ” l’ Ecoled’ escrime Francais” until his senior age and was still able, septuagenarian, to kick and punch with surprising forse. Among his students were Count de Lyonne ( Vice- President of the school), Viscount de Pully, Corthey ( skilled fencer in foil and epee), Gaillard ( President of  l’ Academie d’ escrime de Paris), Emile Andre and other prominent personalities.

Leclerc completed Lecour’s method after a comparative study of French and English boxing as it was practised by the major contemporary champions, especially from the point of evasions, stop hits and practical principles of real combat. Leclerc was grand, always smiling and having a good mood, he extended his fist in a training lesson with such great authority as the best French masters- at-arms extended their blades.

In 1884 Julien Leclerc would replace Lecour as the principle professor of the School of French fencing and later establish his own Savate school “Salle de Boxe” at 15 Rue de Richelieu. This school soon become very popular and as a result Leclerc suspended training activities at “l’Ecole d’escrime Français”.  Julien’ s son, Georges Leclerc, continued the family tradition of teaching his father’s method at the “Salle de Boxe.”

Emile Andre, a student of Jules Jacob, co-authored Jacob’s excellent book ” Le jeu de l’ epee” published in 1887. This book was praised by Alfred Hutton as “the most clear, concise and practical work I have yet met with.In A. Tavernier’s book “Amateurs et Salles d’Armes deParis”, which served as the ‘Who’s Who’ of Parisian high society and fencing circles, published in 1886, Andre is described as a gifted fencer with considerable  judgement and speed, who was awarded by “Societe d ‘encouragement de l’escrime” for his theoretical and practical study in the area of “jeu de fleuret” and “jeu de epee” .  “Societe d’encouragement de l’escrime”, the influential Parisian fencing society founded in 1882, gathered up professors, assistants and amatures. Its objective was the patronage of fencing, and by arranging public exhibitions it helped to spread and popularise the art of fencing.

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Andre listed in this group photo

Andre was also member of the prestigious Parisian fencing clubs “Salle Merignac” and “Salle d’armes du Figaro”. This provided him the opportunity to train with three of the best fencers of the 1870s and 1880s- Merignac, Vigeant and Jacob. In 1889, Andre founded, and spent several years “directing” the fencing magazine “La Revue l’Escrime Français.”

During this period, Andre brought fencing back to the street. In the self-defense manual “L’ art de se defendre dans la rue” he presented the use of fencing weaponry “escrime diverses” Canne, Canne a Epee, Canne-matraque, Baton, Couteau, etc. for personal defence in the street. This displayed fencing and its principles as an art of self defense, as opposed to duelling with a strict codex. Fencing without conventions , in “terrain”, boxing, kicking, all dirty tricks were advocated. In this style there was no distinction between fencing and fighting- fencing is fighting, fighting is fencing.

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Renaud the fencer

Experienced duellists, like Jean Joseph- Renaud who repelled several night attacks of Parisian Apaches, had no problems defending themselves in a streetfight. Renaud and play writer Maurice Bernhardt were passionate fencers and duellists. Bernhardt often fought duels to defend his mother’s personal honour. Renaud dedicated the manual “La Defense dans la Rue” to him – ” A Maurice Bernhardt En affectueux hommage.” Renaud belonged to the best Parisian fencers of the “fin de siecle.”  In 1891, a young Renaud , a student at Iyceum Condorcet, founded with his fencing professor Adolphe Ruze the association ” La Jeune Epee. He took part in many public assaults, national and even international competitions, including the 1900 Olympic games in Paris and London 1908. During 1903, in Buenos Aires, more than 4000 spectators gathered in the largest theatre in Argentina to watch the famous Sicilian master, Agesilao Greco, fence the French champion Renaud.

Renaud was a member of one of the best-equipped Parisian fencing club – “Cercle de la Rue Taitbout”, where Mimiague & Midelair, well-known and strict professors of the art, held the position of master -at- arms. Here fenced several others of Renaud contemporaries, the excellent fencers commander Bardet, brothers Breittmayer, and the young, talented Denel. Renaud together with Emile Andre were honorable members of the “I’ Academie d’ Escrime Franco-Italienne” founded in 1903 by professor Alexandre Berges.

The ideas of Jacob, Lecour, Leclerc, Andre and Renaud helped to create Defense dans la Rue. Theseideas are still alive and valid in today’s self defense environment. “l’Ecoled’escrimeFrançais ” was the centre of fencing , a place where new innovations of the Defense dans la Rue system were formed, and where  fencing “methode du terrain” was understood, not as a sport, but as an art or ritual of defense.

References:

Adolphe Tavernier ” Amateurs et Salles d’ Armes de Paris”

Emile Andre, Jules Jacob ” Le jeu de l’epee’

Emile Andre ” L’ art de se defendre dans la rue”

Emile Andre “Manuel de boxe et de canne”

Alfred Hutton ” Cold Steel”

Henry de Goudourville ” Escrimeurs contemporains”

Jean Joseph Renaud ” Traite d’ Escrime Modern”

Jean Joseph Renaud ” La Defense dans la Rue”

Robert A. Nye ” Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France”

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