The VFS recently participated in the Dallas Museum of Art’s Jane Austen themed Late Night program on March 22. While looking for Victorian and Regency reference material, I came across an interesting article written by H.A. Colmore Dunn in the October 1894 issue of Outing magazine. It compared fencing from the time of Angelo to the period of the late nineteenth century. Outing was an American Illustrated Monthly Magazine of sport travel and recreation that was published in the late nineteenth century. The article was titled Fencing Old and New as Typified by Angelo and Prevost.
Dunn, Angelo and Prevost
H.A. Colmore Dunn was a Barrister-at-Law and fencer in London. He published several books on fencing, including Fencing in 1889 and Dunn’s Fencing Instructor in 1891.
Dominico Angelo Malevolti Tremamondo came to England in 1755, having studied fencing in Paris under Monsieur Teillagory. Shortly after arriving he opened up his fencing academy and quickly gained fame as a fencing master. His school remained popular under several generations of Angelos.
Camille Prevost, born in London in 1853, 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.
Camille Prevost took on the task of creating a comprehensive manual of foil instruction Theorie pratique de l’Escrime, presenting the principles of the French classical school according to the method of his father and Bertrand. This fencing volume was the foundation for the text of the British publication for the Badminton Library.
Dunn’s article attempts to look at how contemporary fencing, as typified by Camille Prevost, has changed since the time of Angelo. Dunn chose Angelo to illustrate the change because Angelo taught in England, and can therefor be compared to the methods taught contemporaneously. He notes that Prevost is similar to Angelo in that he, like Henry Angelo, was born in London and his father taught there for many years.
Dunn claims that “Although there have been numerous changes and innovations between Angelo and Prévost, these have taken in great measure the shape of rejecting superfluous movements and of developing that which already existed in the germ.”
While he stipulates that changes have occurred, the foundations of Angelo are “secure and have lasted, though much of the ornament of the superstructure has been cut away.” Dunn recognizes that Angelo’s influence kept fencing alive in England, instructing a “faithful few who ‘bent the knee’ and kept up the cult of arms.”
The basis of fencing that Angelo writes, and Dunn agrees, is that:
“Chaque botte a sa parade et chaque parade sa riposte. La parade est la principale partie des armes. Pour étre bon tireur, il ne suffit pas de se présenter de bonne grace, de tirer avec vivacité et justesse. Le grand point est de savoir se défendre et parer les coups que l'adversaire tire."
"Every thrust has its parry and each parry its riposte. The parry is the main weapon. To be a good fencer, it is not just a show of good grace, vivacity and to thrust with accuracy. The great point is to know how to defend and ward off the blows that the enemy gives."
Dunn suggests that in a serious assault between two good fencers and on the dueling field, the parry and riposte is the fundamental tool. Dunn also notes that “Before tilting incontinently at the breast of an opponent armed with a sharp weapon, it is wise to take the preliminary course of getting his point out of the way.”
The Jump and the Pass
Dunn then goes on to point out the important changes from Angelo to Prevost.
He begins with the footwork, describing a method of breaking the measure by Angelo, “en sautant de deux pieds en arriére ;" or jumping with two feet to the rear. Dunn actually believes this is useful. “This much is evident, that in advancing or retiring on uneven ground one might likely enough stumble against an obstacle by grazing the sole of the shoe which one might have cleared by using the “saut."
However, the old-fashioned action of passing Dunn sees no use for, describing it as awkward and risky. He goes on to say of the image of the fencer performing a pass from Angelo’s book “and if they had been drawn by a later artist might have been thought to convey the pain and disgust of the one at being hit, and the surprise of the other at hitting.”
The Position of the Guard
Perhaps Dunn’s most insistent objection is the position of the guard. Angelo taught a perfectly effaced body, to lessen the target by exposing as little surface to the opponent as possible. Dunn states that Prevost teaches that the guard should offer more of a three-quarter view “as the body is thus placed in an easy, unstrained position, ready alike to attack or defend, to advance or retire.” His objections to withdrawing the left side of the body too far are that the balance is imperiled, which causes the parries to be made too wide, and also that the speed of the lunge is impaired.
Dunn also notes other key differences to the modern position. The body is thrown back so that the balance is not centered, the hand is kept too high, and the arm extended too far from the body. This places the foible of the blade at the disposal of the forte of his adversary.
|The Guard according to Angelo|
Voltes and the use of the left hand
Voltes and the use of the left hand to parry are no longer taught. Voltes, or the turning of the body to evade an attack, is pointed out as quite hazardous and impractical by Dunn since you are relying on pure timing to escape the point. “It is difficult to decide whether to admire most the complete control of the limbs necessary to carry out such a maneuver, or the courage which would not hesitate to adventure all on so hazardous a chance.”
To use the left hand to parry is also dangerous, according to Dunn. By turning the left side to your opponent you expose vital parts of your body and make awkward any movements to attack.
The Universal Parry
Angelo also sets forth the idea of a Universal Parry, which he calls “le cercle”. The hand is at the level of the shoulder and the point passes through all the lines. “This parry is, unfortunately but all too truly, quite as capable of being deceived as the master who frames it.”
Finally, Dunn says that the distinction between Angelo and the modern school is “The rigid simplicity of movement that has taken the place of the extravagant action of former times.” Fencing in the late nineteenth century has tried to reclaim some of the simple and practical aspects of swordplay.
“M. Prévost, the elder, boldly asked what was the good of eight parries to protect four lines; and for practical work in a serious assault it may readily be admitted that it is wiser to restrict one’s self to the best simple parries supplemented by their counters.”
With a respectful nod to Angelo, though, Dunn concludes with “It is not without a slight touch of regret that one closes Angelo's fascinating book.”