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THE REVIVAL OF THE SMALL-SWORD
The international tournament for épée and foil, held at the Crystal Palace last June, marked the successful issue of a real revolution in English fencing. This meeting of many nations with mimic arms, arranged by a quite representative committee, under the rules of the Amateur Fencing Association, implied the tacit but none the less official recognition of the small-sword, or épée de combat, as entitled to at least an equal place in classic fencing, with the foil. To many fencers of the older school this bare statement of fact will be a surprise, but the real wonder is that the revival of the small-sword has been delayed so long.
It should be explained, for the imperfectly initiated, that the épée de combat--which is the modern French duelling-sword, having a point but no cutting edge--is, so far as the blade is concerned, identical with the small-sword of our ancestors, which still remains a part of English court dress. The épée has undergone much alteration in the guard and hilt, but the blade is the blade of old. Note also that, although the two are often confounded together, the épée, a purely French invention, is not at all the same thing as the long Italian rapier, which it superseded about two centuries ago.
Most people are familiar with the appearance of the foil, or fleuret; but a good many experienced fencers have scarcely realised that the foil is not in itself an arm, but only the simulacrum of a weapon used for practice in the fencing-room. Although the sharpened foil has on occasion been used in duels with dangerous effect, yet it is far too weak and flexible to be relied on for a man's life. It is, besides, so light in hand that many movements can be made with it which would be either impossible or extremely unsafe in the duel with real swords. And yet, so strong is the force of habit, that the French, whose duels (still pretty frequent) are almost invariably fought with the épée, were for nearly a hundred years accustomed to do all their practice with the foil. One might as well try to learn rifle-shooting with a shot-gun.
The causes which led to this curious result are simple enough when one looks into fencing history. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, while the épée still hung at every gentleman's side, the handling
of it in the fencing school was brought to great technical perfection, within certain conventional limits. This is notably proved by the famous treatise on fencing by Angelo, published in London in 1763, and again by the still more important and complete work of Danet, which appeared in Paris a few years later. These books relate to the small-sword exclusively, and have nothing whatever to do with the modern foil. Although the word fleuret was familiar in the French language at that time, it certainly did not possess its exact present meaning. The blades known to Angelo and Danet, and the eighteenthcentury writers who followed them, were either vidées or plates ; that is, three-edged in cross-section, or flat. The former were épée blades pure and simple; the latter, being the more flexible, were chiefly used for training boys and beginners, but were ill-balanced and heavy at the point.
All this time fencing was carried on without masks, and many conventions were patiently borne with in order to diminish the everpresent risk of losing an eye. The plates in the old books show the fencers elevating their sword-hands so that the point might always be lowered towards the adversary's breast, while the sword-arm shielded the face. So very old is the convention that hits on the breast alone should count, that the eighteenth-century treatises barely allude to it, and it certainly was not instituted, as many fencers have surmised, in order to add to the difficulty and neatness of foilplay, but solely for the protection of the face during practice.
About 1780 wire masks were invented by a celebrated fencingmaster, the elder La Boëssière ;? but they were slow to come into general use, in spite of their obvious advantages. And it never seems to have occurred to the fencers of this period that as soon as masks were adopted all the conventions might be safely dispensed with at once, and a rational and practical method of sword-play might be resorted to which would have the incidental recommendation of affording a real course of instruction for the duel. Naturally, fencing-masters, whose means of livelihood is the teaching of a special art, laboriously learned by them, have a tendency to stick in a groove, and are very slow to accept innovations. Still
, if the custom of
This is on the authority of his son, who probably refers to masks of modern pattern; for Nicholas Demense, in his Nouveau Traité des Armes, published at Liége in 1778, already mentions a sort of mask which used to be tied on at the back of the head. But he remarks, that although of inestimable advantage, masks were not only neglected but unknown in many fencing academies of his day. He writes also of the fleuret, that it has four sides. This points to an evolution from the lame plate in the direction of the genuine foil. And, indeed, Demense's excellent treatise has throughout far closer relationship to modern foil-play than those of his predecessors, Angelo and Danet. It is probable that he used masks of some kind for several years before his book appeared. Without masks anything like modern foil-play is impossibly dangerous, and the genesis of the foil evidently follows that of the mask. The mezzotint portrait of the Chevalier de St. George, by Ward, after Brown, dated, 1788, represents this famous fencer holding a foil of comparatively modern type.
wearing swords had survived the Revolution, and if the French aristocracy had not been scattered to the ends of the earth, it seems probable that some fundamental changes in fencing practice would have been evolved. But, as it was, when fencing was again actively taken up in Paris in the early years of the nineteenth century, it was less as a preparation for the duel than as a means of exercise.
Now came the need of a cheap substitute for the expensive épée blade, and it was found in the modern foil, which had probably been first invented some years earlier. La Boëssière the younger, in his admirable treatise published in 1818, says 'nowadays the learner must have the lame carrée,' that is, the blade of quadrangular cross-section, such as the foil has. He goes on to deplore the obsolescence of the épée properly so called, and the absurd manner in which the épées of his day were mounted and balanced. It is thus evident that somewhere about the beginning of the nineteenth century the épée, as a fencing-room weapon, was giving place to the foil, though this latter was far from being the light and well-equilibrated article which we now know as a 'fleuret No. 4.' Indeed, the specimens of early foils that remain are very heavy in the faible, and their grip is usually of an awkward shape.
However, in the course of the century just elapsed, a brilliant succession of French fencing-masters developed modern foil-play to its highest expression. Little concerned with practical swordsmanship, they made the perfected foil the instrument of a most graceful exercise, always provided that the adversaries loyally play the conventional game. And it would be indeed a pity if this charming invention, elaborated and specialised during a hundred years, were now to be assimilated to the sterner practice of the épée, as some have mistakenly advocated.
But delightful as good foil-play is, both to performers and lookerson, it is neither the real sword-fight nor even a reasonably complete preparation for it. This began to be generally perceived by French fencers only within the last ten or fifteen years.? One or two intelligent professors, struck by the inadequacy of foil practice as an introduction to the duel, began to study the true principles of the unconventional sword-fight, in which every hit counts, on whatever part of the body it is fixed. Jacob first, and then Baudry, formed schools for the épée, and by and by, in face of a storm of ridicule, it was revealed (not least in certain duels) that their best pupils, even when comparatively new to arms, were more than a match in the duel for some of the most distinguished amateurs of the foil. These early pioneers
2 But about the middle of the last century, the Baron de Bazancourt had written Les Secrets de l'Epée, a fascinating and prophetic book for the fencer, which has been recently translated by Mr. C. Felix Clay, and illustrated by Mr. F. H. Townsend. Some few of the most noted duellists have always given more attention to the épée than to the foil.
were soon followed by others, and professors like the elder Ayat and Spinnewyn established themselves in flourishing schools, where a foil is hardly ever to be seen. The movement continued to gather force, until now it is a moot question whether the épée is not in more general use than the foil in the fencing-rooms of Paris.
Of course the original amateurs of the épée, with few professors to guide them, and those few learners themselves, could not all at once discover a complete and unassailable system. A new method had to be cautiously elaborated. The old books did not help them much, being written for conventional sword-play without the use of masks. Some who had had little or no preliminary training with the foil were uncouth in position and cramped and monotonous in style at the épée. But time and practice cured these defects, and it has long been possible for the neatest exponents of the épée, such for instance as Albert Ayat among professors, and MM. Joseph Renaud, Edmond Wallace, and Holzchuch, to mention only a few examples, among the amateurs, to make an épée assault with a degree of classical correctness that is painfully lacking in the scratchy efforts of even accomplished foilplayers who have not found out for themselves the essential differences between the two methods. Indeed, in the assault-at-arms a good épée fight is now fully as attractive and interesting as a bout with the foils, and those who think the opposite usually form their opinion from watching fencers who are only indifferent performers.
In some ways, the poule à l'épée, which has been Englished into our word 'pool,' so familiar at billiards, has even greater interest than the assault, whether public or in the comparative privacy of the fencing-room. The épée pool is a gathering usually of from five to eleven competitors, in the open air if possible. Each fencer engaged has as many lives' as there are other competitors. He fights with each in turn, for one hit only, and the one who is least often hit, or not at all, in these successive duels, becomes the winner of the pool. A'tournament' is usually composed of a number of pools of six or eight, from each of which the best three or four fencers are taken to form a second series of pools, out of which again the winners are combined into a final pool of manageable proportions. The first in the final is the winner of the tournament.
It is these pleasant open-air meetings which have greatly decided the rapid popularity of the épée. Foil-practice is essentially and most usefully an indoor exercise, while the épée fight, which is the image of the duel, is primarily an outdoor one. And the épée lends itself to the spirit of competition so much better than the foil. When once the idea of a judged contest is admitted, with the counting of hits , the best foil amateurs
, and professionals too, for the matter of that, have the greatest difficulty in maintaining the pretty and correct form without which foil-play is nothing worth, except as a violent and hygienic exercise. At the épée, on the contrary, though over
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caution or inexperience may sometimes make the play seem either too tame or too boisterous, there is not the same temptation for good performers to wander outside the bounds of correct form. The few who occasionally succeed in important tournaments by sheer force or activity, with no style to speak of, are those who have never been able to attain to fine form ; it is not competition which deprives them of it.
The gradual recognition of these facts has, I think, assured the new position of the épée in England. For though our good amateur fencers have always been a very small and select band, ever since the duel finally died out on this side of the Channel, yet at no time has the art of fencing been completely lost. Though generally born fighters, our best swordsmen have always been sticklers for good form, and if it had not been proved to them by brilliant foreign examples, that the more masculine épée can be handled with the same mastery of style which is typical of the right foil-play, there would be little justification for the claim that the épée has come, seen, and conquered us.
Nor could it have become popular without the recent and conspicuous extension of fencing in England, which had been quietly prepared for years, first and foremost by Captain Hutton, and then by such sterling swordsmen of a newer generation as Mr. Egerton Castle and Mr. C. Felix Clay-all three as active with the pen as with the blade. It was, I think, the wonderfully successful gathering of leading foreign professors of the foil, organised by Mr. Sieveking at the Portman Rooms in 1899, which first attracted to fencing the attention of a considerable new section of the public. Lord Methuen presided, and hundreds paid a guinea apiece to see Camille Prévost, Kirchoffer, Georges Rouleau, Lucien Merignac, and Conte represent the most brilliant fencing skill of France and Italy, while Selderslagh stood for Belgium, and the young British professor Macpherson also wielded the foil in their company, and in that of several excellent French professors domiciled in London-Vital Lebailly, Volland, Fontaine, Bourgeois, and Danguy.
About this same time the épée had suddenly come into great prominence in Paris, while still all but unknown here. It is true a stray pair of rusty weapons of indifferent make could be found in several of our fencing-rooms. But except a very small number of such amateurs as Sir Charles Dilke, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, Mr. Staveley, Mr. Theodore Cook, and a few others, who had seen something of the épée abroad, scarcely any one here knew it, even by name. When used it was generally treated as a kind of heavy and clumsy foil. However, in the spring of 1899 that accomplished swordsman, Mr. H. T. Law, who with the late Mr. Colmore Dunn used to keep up a tradition of good foil-fencing at Lincoln's Inn, brought the practice of the épée from Brussels, where it had already