To me this question means two different things, both equally important, though perhaps to different people.
But before I answer, I want to make clear that I draw contrasts between styles not to disparage those styles, but to show what makes Thibault’s style attractive to me. Deprived of a living lineage to the historical masters, everyone studying HEMA is as much a historian as they are a martial artist, collaborating to create a new thing from old records. I have the greatest respect for anyone working to recreate, practice, and preserve any of these historical traditions. I am much more interested in what makes styles unique and different and “cool” than what makes them “superior”.
Why fence in Thibault’s style?
Thibault bases his style in natural posture and measured, deliberate movements. A Thibault fencer does not hold themselves in a tortured crouch, but stands tall with their point extended to present as grave a threat and as versatile defense as could be required. Nor do they throw themselves forward in an explosive parry-riposte, guessing at their opponent’s intention; instead, they calmly counter and step off-line, moving past their opponent’s tip and out of danger, while pressing their sword home to wound. But this is not to say that his style is slow. It requires quick thinking and reflexes plus decisive, powerful motion.
Thibault’s own style is derived from the Spanish Destreza style of which he was a student. He shares with it the circular footwork, changing the angle so as to deny an opponent an unconstrained line of attack. And he also adopts the arm-raised, point-forward guard seen in some Destreza. But Thibault did not teach Destreza, and he was met with skepticism and some shock at his unorthodoxy during the first public demonstrations of his own system.
Thibault’s style does not depend on a maze of guards, counter-guards, and ‘re-counter-contra-‘ mindgames. His system of fencing unfolds from a single starting guard, The Posture of the Straight Line, providing uncomplicated but radically unorthodox counters for the linear feint-and-thrust attacks taught in the Italian schools. This same guard forms the starting point for attacking, or countering attacks from, fencers adopting Thibault’s style or Destreza. He doesn’t care for flashy moves or intimidation, and like the unarmed martial arts developed by 20th century militaries, he ends the fight in the most expedient way possible.
Thibault does not depend primarily on athleticism for success. His style is easy on the body, requiring no unnatural stances or unbalancing lunges. When done right and practiced well, the physical motions of even an earnest duel should feel easy and natural. While any sparring will raise a sweat, the most taxing part of most practice is holding the sword out straight.
Why is Thibault suitable for study and reconstruction?
Thibault’s manual is complete and self-contained, providing theory and practice in exhaustive detail. It contains around 50 intricately engraved instructional plates. These engravings are stupidly detailed in content, each one containing between 8-20 figures outlining simple moves in one or two figures, and complicated ones over a larger series of time steps. His use of the Mysterious Circle (which is definitely not mysterious if you have Photoshop) and the attention of his artists ensures that there is no doubt of where to put one’s feet. The perspective is usually flawless, so positions and orientations of hands, fingers, feet, points, quillons, and everything else can be plainly seen. A marvelous addition are “shadows” of the swords on the circle beneath their feet, showing the angles between them from another perspective simultaneously.
The text that accompanies the illustrations is as detailed as the plates themselves. He describes when to begin your motion, what motion to make, how to catch the blade, how to turn your blade, where to move your feet, all of it. He divides the blade into 12 parts, and refers to them consistently along with the labels of the Circle, giving a precision to his instructions lacking in some of his contemporaries. His choice of courtly French makes the original language accessible even to modern Francophones. He is wordy, sometimes even exhausting. But in recreating an art lost to time, that attention to detail enables us to receive his knowledge more completely than pithier manuals.
The organization of his manual is also excellent, expounding first on theory and then laying out a progressive curriculum of practice. The exercises and scenarios grow increasingly complex as he assumes more and more sophisticated opponents, but each builds on the last in a logical manner by little steps. Vitally, he claims that his style is so unique, he starts from absolute first principles. He would like it best if his students had never seen a sword before, and he starts his instruction assuming that you know literally nothing of rapier fencing. Here in the 21st century, that describes most beginning fencers.
So here is this remarkably modern, thorough, detailed manual of outstanding quality describing a unique and comprehensive fencing style that was considered “weird” even in its own time. Why wouldn’t we study it?
— Aubrey Jones, club organizer