Wednesday, April 2, 2014

An introduction to two late 19th century Fencing Manuals

Prevost and Rondelle

The Victorian Fencing Society uses two manuals published in the 19th century, focusing on the French method of fencing, as guidebooks for study.

The first is Fencing by Walter H. Pollock, F.C. Grove, and Camille Prevost, Maitre d’Armes with a complete bibliography of the art by Egerton Castle, M.A., F.S.A., published in London in 1889 as part of the Badminton Library.

The other book is Foil and Sabre a Grammar of Fencing in detailed lessons for professor and pupil by Louis Rondelle, published in 1892 in Boston. Rondelle at the time was the Maitre d’Armes at the Boston Athletic Association and the Harvard University Fencing Club.

An introduction to the Volume on Fencing in the Badminton Library

This text was issued in 1889 as part of the Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes under the volume for Fencing, Boxing and Wrestling. As the editor of The Badminton Library explains, the series was meant to offer a modern encyclopedia for the inexperienced man in the “Sports and Pastimes indulged in by Englishmen-and women”, and included everything from Big Game Shooting to Dancing. The series was dedicated to the Prince of Wales, who was an experienced sportsman and happened to be a member of the London Fencing Club.

The fencing portion of this volume includes an introduction by Englishmen C.F. Grove and Walter Pollock, and an additional Bibliotheca Artis Dimicatoriae (Library of the art of fencing)  by Egerton Castle. Prevost is responsible for the practical material for the instructional portion of the text, excerpted from the treatise he wrote in France in 1886.

Camille Prevost

Camille Prevost was the son of Pierre Prevost, who was himself a student of Baptiste Bertrand, considered one of the most influential French fencing masters of his time. Bertrand left nothing in writing of his methods, and Camille Prevost’s father would write only a small pamphlet. Camille Prevost took on the task of creating a more comprehensive manual of foil instruction according to the method of his father and Bertrand.

Pierre Prevost came to London in 1848, and Camille Prevost was born in London in 1853. He returned to Paris in 1869 after his father’s death where he was appointed a professor in the leading French School of Arms. In 1886 he published in France his Theorie pratique de l’Escrime, presenting the principles of the French classical school. This fencing volume was the foundation for the text for the Badminton Library, probably through an association with Sir Frederick Pollock when, according to Aylwards English Masters, they would have met in his youth at Waite’s School of Arms in London.

The Badminton treatise itself covers only the foil, with a short chapter on the singlestick (since it is a guide for Englishmen).

Of the Introduction to Fencing in the Badminton Library

Grove and Pollock were part of that society of fencing in England championed by Alfred Hutton and Egerton Castle. The introduction by F.C. Grove provides an interesting view of the English Victorian bias that fencing was at its pinnacle in their era after a long history of incorrect practices.

He refers to early fencers as “primitive” and noting that fencing had “remained in a terribly imperfect state, hindered and encumbered by infinite pedantry and nonsense, and taught by pragmatical and very foolish Masters of Fence to pupils who were content to follow egregiously wrong systems.”

And he adds that “the pressing need for the sword did not lead to anything like effective use of it, and though the early Italian fencers may have been formidable from constant practice, and may have mastered some dangerous tricks, their method remained, even after there had been ample time for developing it, a singularly bad one, altogether opposed in many respects to the true art of swordsmanship as now understood.”

Grove then exults in the current state of fencing as produced by Bertrand, called the Napoleon of fencing, and his protégé’s the Prevosts. Grove says of Bertrand that “he absolutely refused to be bound—in practice at least—by what was pedantic and artificial, or to consider anything as forbidden merely because the fencing-masters chose to forbid it.”

He finishes by stating that the following treatise uses the methods of fencing of the best French schools, from the system that is essentially that of Bertrand.

Finally, I will note that William Gaugler’s book on the History of fencing gives a good account of Prevost’s methods, and he considers Prevost’s treatise to be the most significant written in France toward the end of the 19th century.

And an overview of Foil and Sabre a Grammar of Fencing

The book is dedicated to the Amateur Fencers League of America, founded in 1891 and which eventually transitions in to the United States Fencing Association in 1981.

Louis Rondelle

Louis Rondelle was born in France in 1854. He studied at the fencing academy at Joinville-le Pont, from which fencing masters of the French Army must graduate. He came to New York in 1881 and was the instructor at the Knickerbocker Fencing Club, and then became fencing master of the Boston Athletic Association in 1889.

Rondelle’s book is extensive as a lesson book, meaning to cover all subjects pertaining to fencing. It includes chapters on assaults and professorships, and is meant as a textbook for American Fencers.

Rondelle explains the reasons for his book. “A life-long study of the art of fencing, and a passionate love of its practice; a careful observance of what seems to me the unfortunate methods of the self-entitled " Maîtres" and "Professors " who assume to teach the art; a full appreciation of the certain and deep interest so rapidly growing up in America, together with the sincere wish I have that in my adopted country this splendid art may reach the same high excellence which it has attained in my native land, — have beguiled me into this effort to transcribe in the English language a concise and exhaustive treatise on the science of fencing as taught in France.”

As Grove and his fellow Englishman did, Rondelle offers the opinion that the teaching of fencing has become mired in pedantry. "I have attempted in the following pages to show that there are, in this science, principles far deeper than mechanical movements, and to give those principles the intelligent expression to which they are entitled."

Of the Content in Foil and Sabre

Rondelle begins by giving a historical outline of fencing in France that includes information on the School of Joinville-le-Pont. "In 1872, the French Government, perceiving the need of uniformity in the instruction of fencing, founded a school for the benefit of the army. The military school of Joinville-le-Pont was established for this purpose, and placed under the direction of a captain and four adjutants. A staff of instructors and assistants was organized, and the department of fencing comprised six hundred strong."

Part I of the treatise contains definitions of fencing terms. Part II follows with lesson instructions for pupil and master. In Part III Rondelle gives more interesting observations about fencing and suggestions for its development in America, including a Normal School of Fencing (school to train teachers).

For the fencer, he says “To become expert in the art of fencing it is necessary to possess five essential faculties; namely, the judgment, the glance, the feel of the blade, quickness, and precision. Some are furnished by Nature, others are acquired.”

Part IV is the sabre instruction, including recommendations on the design and use of the cavalry saber for the military.

Much of the actions are recognizable in these treatises to the modern fencer, although it is Interesting to note that tierce and seconde are preferred as the primary parries to defend the outside lines. It was felt to be stronger for defense, when the idea was to touch and to not be touched.

Both theses treatise give a good foundation of the French method of fencing used by the British and Americans in the later period of the Victorian Era, and form the guide for learning fencing for the Victorian Fencing Society. Future articles will give a more detailed analysis and comparison of the two.

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