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A Portrait of M. sieur de Liancour


Malcom Fare

Malcom Fare is editor of The Sword, the journal of the British Amateur Fencing Association. Subscription to The Sword can be obtained for £18, sent to British Fencing, 1 Baron's Gate, 33/35 Rothschild Road, London W4 5HT. 

Three hundred years ago a book was published that the French regard as the most important work on fencing of the 17th century and one that firmly established the superiority of the French school over the Italian. Le Maistre d'Armes ou l'exercise de l'espee seule dans sa perfection, by Andre Wernesson, sieur de Liancour, was to remain the standard work on defence for more than 80 years.

For 150 years the rapier had been the principal civilian sword in Europe and the Italians were undisputed masters of it. But changing fashion at the court of Louis XIV led to the development of a lighter and more maneuverable weapon, the smallsword, more suited to the wigs and ruffles of the age. This lighter sword allowed separate parries and ripostes to be made for the first time, a much more effective method of defence than could be achieved with the long rapier with which rapid hand actions were impossible. De Liancour's work described the latest principles of fencing with the smallsword and established a distinctive French style.

Unlike most great masters who wrote towards the end of their lives, de Liancour published his book shortly after starting his career and went on to practice in Paris for 40 years. The high regard with which this book has always been held is due in no small part to his shrewd use of dramatic illustrations to entertain as well as instruct his readers. Fourteen splendid copperplate engravings by Perelle show fencers in elaborate 17th century costume executing movements on vast stages against some of the most interesting backgrounds in fencing literature. Island castles on clifftops here, towns and harbours there, in one scene a troop of cavalry leaves a burning village; in another an entrenched army is in the process of blowing up a town's defences. And in the most dramatic illustration of all, elegantly attired gentlemen practice parries and ripostes unconcerned while behind them a full scale naval battle rages with two ships sinking and cannon smoke everywhere.

De Liancour begins his treatise with advice about the choice of a sword and is the first to recommend a startling procedure, copied by many of his successors, for testing the quality of blades: break the point. If grey, it is good; if white, it should be rejected. How one was expected to use a sword with a good but broken blade is not explained, nor is the reaction of the sword cutler on seeing his stock treated in this way.

He was also the first master to omit any reference to cutting strokes, indicating that by his time the classic hollow ground triangular smallsword blade designed purely for thrusting had superseded the flat or diamond-shaped rapier blade with its cutting edges. He taught with a lighter and longer foil than his pupils, arguing that a master should not tire himself unduly with a heavy weapon, and that the length of his blade taught pupils to observe the rule of distance. The pupil's foil had neither crossbar nor shell to encourage him to hold the handle firmly and parry with the forte to prevent the master's blade from slipping down his own and giving him a painful knock on the fingers.

In teaching the conventional movements of the period de Liancour emphasized the need for pupils to take a lesson as if their lives depended on it, "for fencing is by no means a sport, it is an exercise by which one learns to defend one's life." Two hundred years later his teaching methods inspired the Parisian dueling enthusiasts who turned to the realism of epée fencing as a reaction against the conventions of foil.

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Saddle, Lance and Stirrup: The Irish/Roman Connection
The Naked Truth | If I Had a Hammer
The Sabre's Edge | Swordfight at the OK Corral
How to Defend a Monopoly | A Propos d'un Accident
The Dubious Quick Kill part 1 | The Dubious Quick Kill part 2
Review and Commentary | Duels with the Sword | Starting with Foil
Liancour's Tercentenary | The Manuel d'escrime of 1877 | The Military Masters Fencing Program
Analysis of the Patton Fencing Manual | The Red Court Fencing's Royal Connection
| The Practical Saviolo part 1 | Saddle, Lance and Stirrup
Demystification of the Spanish School 1 | Demystification of the Spanish School 2
Demystification of the Spanish School 3
| A Brief Look at Joseph Swetnam
| Ithacan Retains Title | Third Time's a Charm
Cross-Training Not Cross-Purposes | Riposte Direct | Use of the Word "Sparring"
Chivalry Makes a Come-back | Teachings of Marozzo |

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