Keep Moving

This unassuming block of easily-overlooked text holds a key to Thibault’s fencing style that is utterly missed if one focuses entirely on the illustrations, which might give an impression of static postures and passive defenses.

Let him continue always to move, using a free and natural pace, toward one or the other of the two sides, avoiding above all the line of the diameter [center line] where the body of the enemy is drawn up, and holding perpetually, as far as possible, body, diameter, distances and movement in inequality. For in order to fight well against the adversary, it is necessary to have the advantage, and in order to have the advantage inequality is necessary, it being impossible that between equal things…there should be any advantage. As soon as he comes into measure, let him assure himself of his opponent’s sword, by attacking it to subject it, or by binding it, or covering it, or by carrying out an estocade of first intention…

Academy of the Sword, tr. John Greer, page 82

So Thibault says that we don’t start the moves depicted in the engravings from a standstill, but rather as a sudden motion chained from our natural gait. This is extremely important, as many of our attacks start by raising our right foot so that we can put it down wherever we’d like. Starting from an evenly-weighted static position telegraphs these moves badly, and can slow them down to the point of vulnerability. It is simply too slow and too obvious when you shift your weight backward to lift your front foot. But taken in the context of starting as if it were the next natural step in a gait, the attacks make considerably more sense. This is critical because of the next point.

We launch our attack the moment we come into measure.

Not that we should explode into a lunge the moment we come close enough, but we shouldn’t stand at the edge of the measure gauging our opponent, touching sword tips as we tentatively play for dominance. Thibault tells us to walk into measure in such a way that gains as much advantage as possible, and then the moment we are at the First Instance, to put our plan into motion with all of that advantage conserved. And because we’re starting our attack with our foot in the air, even if our opponent seizes the tempo to make an attack, we can immediately step to either side of the center line as we parry and subject our opponent’s blade. The very first time we contact our opponent’s sword should be an attack to end the fight.

This same observation also brings greater clarity to Chapters 3 and 4 in the manual, which describe in intricate detail just how to walk up to your opponent in the context of a sparring match (which Thibault calls “fencing with courtesy”) or when using the Circle drawn on the floor. While perhaps over-explained, it boils down to a method of entering safely into measure while giving away minimal information about your intentions to your opponent.

While the Impetuous Entrance described in those two chapters may seem extraneous or silly, understanding that our moves start dynamically is critical to properly using a floor Circle to work on drills, and using the Entrance can help instill how that feels. For instance, the first fighting chapter deals with feints and attacks of first intention (those executed at the very first moment measure is attained without first constraining the opponent’s blade). These drills are tricky and unclear if the two partners face off statically from opposite sides of the circle, but snap into focus if the attack comes at the very moment the partner playing Alex brings their sword up to threaten Zach.


Source Material

Our source text is L’Academie de l’Espée, published posthumously in 1630 by Gérard (Girard) Thibault d’Anvers. This manual contains a number of very high quality engraved plates, each one showing between 8 and 16 figures, and extensive text explaining the actions depicted in the figures. Together, the text and the illustrations outline a complete theory and practice of single-rapier fencing that departs radically from the swordplay taught by Thibault’s contemporaries. The manual itself is divided into two books. The first book contains Thibault’s overall fencing theory, instructions for preparing the training space, how to hold the sword, defenses and counters Italian-style attacks, then primarily focuses on how to fence with other students of Thibault’s school or those of the Spanish Destreza tradition from which it derives. The second book, incomplete at the time of his death, outlines Thibault’s defense against the longsword, rapier and dagger together, spear, flintlock (he notes that the fencer is at great disadvantage), and other such weapons that a student might encounter in Renaissance Europe.

The original manual is written in Renaissance French. This is relatively intelligible for a reader of modern French, but certainly requires effort and the internet to decipher in detail. Scans of the plates, a transcript of the French, and an acceptable English translation of the first book of the manual is available for free at Wiktenauer.

There is a very good commercial translation of the manual by John Greer. It can be purchased on Amazon either in hardcover or Kindle editions. This is the primary edition that we use at practice, since a physical copy makes it easy to quickly cross-reference the plates to the text.

The quality of the plates is quite decent on Wiktenauer and in the Greer translation. But both are lacking in resolution, and the printed version has a seam down the middle where it’s split across pages. The best source available is Geheugen van Nederland, which appears to be a collection of museum-quality photographs of historical artwork. There are scans of the plates in extremely high detail, although it can take a moment to load the better quality after you’ve zoomed in.

How to pronounce “Thibault”

A modern French pronunciation would be something like “tee-BAW”. Shakespeare anglicized the name to “Tybalt” in Romeo and Juliet. Thibault’s own father spelled his name “Thibaut”, and they were from Flemish Antwerp, so the “Thibault” spelling is a French styling.

Lacking the man here to correct us, I’d say either “tee-baw” or “ti-balt” is acceptable in English. I use both basically interchangeably.