Over the years since the classical period there have been a number of descriptions of how a French Foil is held and a number of doctrinaire statements about what is and is not the correct orientation of the fingers in classical French Fencing. For example, when I learned to fence in the 1960s, I was taught that the hand was always held in full supination for parries 4, 6, 7, and 8, and that was what French fencing was all about. In reality, if you examine the classical hand positions in contemporary texts, there is considerable variation over the period, not as clearly defined as the Italian system but there nonetheless. In this post, we will look at the French School up to World War I (and follow it in a second blog post).
First, an opening comment on the hand position. The variants of a description that suggests the thumb is turned partly to the right could describe a turn to the right from virtually anywhere. A partial turn to the right from supination twists rotates the arm to a position possibly 60-70 degrees from the vertical, is very uncomfortable, and does not appear to make technical sense. A turn of the thumb to the right from pronation results in a hand position roughly equivalent to the Italian hand position of second in third - it works, but it is not consistent with the illustrations in any of the three texts consulted for this post. The interpretation that makes the most sense is that the turn of the thumb to the right occurs from the middle (thumb up) position.
The quest for the actual French technique starts with the 1877 fencing manual published by the French Ministry of War (Slee's translation). This document's descriptions of the parries were supplemented by diagrams that make interpretation easier.
- Prime - the hand position was not described but the diagram showed what appears to be a grip with the fingers nails down and oriented toward the opponent, essentially pronation.
- Seconde - the fingers were turned downward into pronation.
- Tierce - the fingers were below in pronation.
- Quarte - the thumb was turned slightly to the right.
- Quinte- the hand was turned so that the fingers are upward; the diagram quality is such that it is difficult to tell, but when used this appears to be most efficient in partial supination.
- Sixte - the thumb was to the outside with the fingers turned slightly upward.
- Half-circle - the fingers were upward in supination.
- Octave - the fingers were turned slightly upward.
- 3 positions in pronation - Prime, Seconde, and Tierce.
- 4 positions in partial supination with the thumb rotated partially to the right - Quarte, Quinte, Sixte, and Octave.
- 1 position in supination - Half-Circle.
- Prime is clearly classified as a pronated parry.
- Quarte is described as in neither supination nor pronation, but with the thumb uppermost (likely the middle position).
- Quinte - the hand in pronation.
- Sixte - the hand in supination.
- Septime or Half-Circle - the hand in supination.
- Octave - the hand in supination.
- 4 positions in pronation - Prime, Seconde, Tierce, Quinte - forming a complete pronated system for the first time..
- 1 position thumb uppermost (middle guard) - Quarte.
- 3 positions in supination - Sixte, Septime, Octave.
- 1 as being large, slow, and easily avoided - Prime.
- 1 as leaving the point well outside the line with a difficult riposte - Quinte.
- 2 as being weak - Sixte and Octave.
- Quinte - the fingers were nails downward in pronation.
- Sixte - the thumb was upward. Because Rondelle described the motion of the wrist and forearm was pronounced, this may indicate that this was a thumb vertical position. There is a picture of the execution of sixte in Rondelle's text, and that appears to confirm a vertical thumb and hand in the middle position.
- Septime - the thumb was turned a little toward the right.
- Octave - the thumb was turned slightly to the right.
- 4 positions in pronation - Prime, Seconde, Tierce, Quinte
- 3 positions in partial supination with the thumb rotated partially to the right - Quarte, Septime, Octave
- 1 position with the thumb upright (probably middle position) - Sixte
- Prime - the hand position with the nails turned toward the right and thumb below.
- Seconde - nails down.
- Tierce - nails down.
- Quarte - nails slightly turned up.
- Quinte - nails slightly turned up.
- Sixte - nails slightly turned up.
- Septime - nails up
- Octave - nails up
So what the four texts tell us is that the French School at the start of World War One appears to have consisted of various combinations of hand positions in pronation, supination, middle, and a partly supinated position with the position with the thumb raised bringing the hand up perhaps as much as 45% above supination. There is variation between the four sources, and that variation reflects that Fencing Master were experimenting with a system of hand positions that was not rigid in its execution.
In our next post on this topic we will examine the French School hand positions in the 1930s to the end of the period.
France. Ministry of War; Fencing Manual; translation by Chris Slee; [fencing manual]; reprint by Long Edge Press, no place; 1877 reprinted 2017.
France. Ministry of War; Fencing: Foil, Epee, Sabre, Theory, Method, Regulations; translation by the Amateur Fencers League of America; [fencing manual]; Alex Taylor and Company, New York, New York, reprinted by Rose City Books, Portland Oregon, United States of America; 1908 reprinted 1908, Rose City Book reprint no date.
Pollock, Walter H., F. C. Grove, and Camille Prevost; Fencing; 2nd edition; in the Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes; [fencing manual]; Longman’s, Green, and Company, London, United Kingdom; 1890.
Rondelle, Louis; Foil and Sabre: A Grammar of Fencing in Detailed Lessons for Professor and Pupil; [fencing manual]; Estes and Lauriat, Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America; 1892.
Copyright 2020 by Walter G. Green III
Hand Position in French Guards and Parries Prior to World War I by Walter G. Green III is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.