Henry de Sainct-Didier – Introduction to the French Single Sword

Sainct-Didier is a French master who wrote his text in 1573. The publishers notes on Amazon say,

Written in 1573 by fencing master Henry de Sainct-Didier, this is believed to be the first French sword manual ever written. Noting that he “lived his whole life learning to fight with the single sword,” de Sainct-Didier says that his reason for writing this book was to “further serve his king.” During his 25-year career in the French army, de Sainct-Didier participated in the “Italian Wars,” and the influence of Italian swordplay is evident in this manual.
In addition to being the earliest surviving French sword-fighting manual, The Single Sword of Henry de Sainct-Didier is important in a couple of other ways. Its author was the first to institute geometrical ground plans and numbered footprints to indicate the correct sequence of movements. Also unique is the way de Sainct-Didier used his woodcut illustrations in a “coherent plan designed to elucidate, and not merely to illustrate, the text.” Both life-long sword enthusiasts, Robert Hyatt and Devin Wilson took on the onerous task of translating and interpreting this French classic so that modern swordsmen could adapt Renaissance singlesword fighting techniques to their current fighting systems. To make it easier for today’s fighting students and Renaissance scholars, they include an opening chapter explaining the general fighting principles espoused by Didier and others of that period.

I am using the Hyatt and Wilson translation. I don’t entirely agree with their presentation of the material, the introduction has been moved to an appendix and there is a new first chapter created as an amalgam of other passages on footwork. But once you get into the meat of the text they clearly distinguish between the raw translation and their interpretation of the same.

Sainct-Didier is a rather verbose writer, often repeating himself multiple times. He also has this strange habit of framing each passage with a description of that passage. It often looks like this:

Guard to do, and execute the said first stance, first and second sword draws, for the lieutenant and provost.

[a single paragraph on the topic]

This is the end of the first sword draw for said lieutenant.

Following is the second sword draw for the lieutenant.

[a single paragraph on the topic]

The end of the second sword draw for said lieutenant.

These are not long paragraphs either, including the plate itself we’ve only covered roughly a page and a half of the text.

The introduction starts with six points, which I will summarize:

Point 1: Stances

There are two: left foot forward and right foot forward.

Point 2: Guards

There are three primary guards:

  • Low Guard: Point aimed at breeches
  • Middle Guard: The point in front of the left eye. Appears to be shoulder high.
  • High Guard: The point is aimed at the face from above. Appears to be above shoulder high.

There are two secondary low guards, being on the left and right. These are used as baits against novice fencers who mistakenly believe they can attack with a hand strike or high thrust. This suggests to me that the low guard is still near shoulder height.

Point 3: Strikes

There are only three types of strikes:

  • Maindroit – Onside cut
  • Renvers – Offside cut
  • Estoc – Thrust

Point 4: Targets

This section confuses me a bit. The six targets seem somewhat arbitrary.

  1. Low Maindroit to the Left Shin
  2. Low Renvers to the Right Shin
  3. Maindroit high on the Left side
  4. Renvers to the Right Shoulder
  5. Thrust to the Left Nipple
  6. Thrust to the Right Nipple

Point 5: Skill? Timing?

It is a bit unclear, but it seems that the author is saying one must be able to perform a single-time attack and defense using the three types of strikes against all six targets. Note that he doesn’t actually use the term “single-time”, so I am be reading too much into this.

Point 6: Judgment?

Finally, one must know when to attack and when to defend.

Excluded Terms

Fendante

According to Sainct-Didier, there is no such thing as a proper Fendante or vertical slash. Every attempt will be slightly to the right or left and therefore be in actuality a Maindroit or Renvers.

Estocade and Imbronccade

The author sees these are a needless distinction. Instead of dividing the thrusts into rising and descending actions, he is content to merge them into one.

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3 Responses to Henry de Sainct-Didier – Introduction to the French Single Sword

  1. Pingback: Henry de Sainct-Didier – Introduction to the French Single Sword ... | WMA - Swordsmanship in the Modern World | Scoop.it

  2. Chris says:

    I’ve several issues with the translation, primarily that smacks of ARMA-isms which force the translation to say things that are specifically contradicted by the French text.

    Low guard is definitely “carrying the hilt of the sword on the thigh.” Middle guard is shoulder height and high guard is held “a little above the level of the shoulder” and in second position “le dessus de la main en haut”.

    He also specifies attack and defending in the same tempo “un mesme temps” but none of the exercises show this.

    The six strikes essentially outline the four quarters we all know and love (upper inside, upper outside, lower outside, lower inside) as well as recognizing thrusts in second and in fourth position.

    I’ve been working with the text for most of this year and I feel I’m just starting to get a handle on him.

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