Heredia's case of rapiers

Heredia’s case of rapiers

The seventeenth century is still firmly within the Age of the Sword, but its time was already passing.

The technical advance of firearms was gathering speed over the 17th century, and it was this more than anything that marked the decline of steel. The pike gradually gave way to the fusil and bayonet, and even a cavalryman’s sword was in some respects a secondary weapon, his primary function being to fire either the two pistols of the cavalerie légère or the musket or arquebus of the carabin, later renamed the dragon or modern dragoon. The many sieges in the Thirty Years War also gave increasing importance to the role of heavy artillery and even of the early grenades used to dislodge an enemy from his entrenchments. In such a context, the sword itself begins almost to look an anachronism.

Yet it was not.

The sword still had its place on the battlefield, and arguably this increased as the century wore on. Armour had been devised in antiquity to protect against both swords and arrows, but as bolts, arrows, and then the ‘handgonne’ were developed to penetrate it, armour was increasingly discarded in favour of lighter leather protection, and once again the sword came into its own. Nothing could truly replace it. Guns misfired, but the sword did not go wrong. Guns were inaccurate, but a sword did not miss. Guns needed loading, but a sword needed nothing but a strong arm to wield it. Machines fought machines, but those who battled with the sword fought as men against men.

Joachim Meyer's illustration of the fencing sall

From Joachim Meyer’s illustration of the fencing salle

And not only on the battlefield. The sword was the instrument of personal defence (from which the word ‘fencing’ of course derives) and a gentleman wore one everywhere. It was a symbol of power and nobility, and the weapon of choice for duelling. This, however, posed a new problem, for a huge broadsword was hardly appropriate dress for fashionable gentlemen, nor was it fast or manoeuvrable enough for the kind of advanced techniques practised by the masters of the day. A new kind of sword was already developing, sleek enough to be a sidearm for a gentleman but strong and fast enough to be effective in combat.

The rapier was born. Rapier; Wikimedia commons

The archetypal gentleman’s blade of the era of Honour and the Sword, the rapier is arguably the most beautiful and deadly sword ever made. André is depicted carrying one on the cover of the book, but there are in fact two different kinds of rapier mentioned in the text itself.

The first is the sword André brings out of the Manor when Jacques first encounters him. This is the blade his father chose to resist the attack of the Spaniards, and we must assume it was capable of being used in a serious battle situation. All we know of it so far is the comparison made by Jacques when André gives him a sword for himself:

‘a proper battle one like his own, strong and edged from point to hilt. It was a beautiful sword, with a guard like a golden cage to protect my hand, but I knew it wasn’t for me to wear and look important... it was there for me to kill Spaniards.’

A ‘battle sword’ might be any number of things. It might have been a sabre, for according to both W. Guthrie and Dr David Parrott such swords were already employed among cavalry at this time, or it might have been a simple ‘cavalry backsword’ such as this:

Replica cavalry backsword

Armour Class blunted replica from the private collection of the Revd. Stuart Huntley

However, the description of both the sword’s beauty and its cage-like guard clearly suggests a rapier, as does the fact André also employs it in fencing bouts with both Jacques and Stefan. A guard of this type was most probably of the swept-hilt type, which looked something like this:

Replica sword with swept hilt

Modern replica from author’s own collection

If, however, the sword in question is a rapier, then questions may be asked as to its strength and suitability for battle – and here we enter controversial waters. For Honour and the Sword features a second sword, that retrieved by Martin Gauthier, which Jacques describes as:

‘a beautiful rapier... [André’s] father’s dress sword, the mark of a gentleman and the noblesse d’épée.’

Two swords, one for battle and one a dress-sword – surely they can’t both be rapiers?

But they can.

There has been considerable discussion and controversy among experts as to the precise nature of the rapier as it evolved over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A particularly good analysis of this is by Alexandrian master Tom Leoni and there’s another from John Clements, Director of the Association of Renaissance Martial Arts. I would particularly recommend Professor Sydney Anglo’s magnificent book, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe for a very scholarly discussion of the same question.

In simple terms, the extreme Hollywood myth of a visibly light rapier as a suitable weapon for heavy battle as well as personal combat has itself been displaced by an equally extreme myth of the rapier as an almost effete, weak dress-weapon, little more than a pointed version of a modern fending foil. The truth, it would seem, lies somewhere in between, especially during the mid-seventeenth century period in France in which Honour and the Sword is set.

Crossed swords

This is in reality a time of transition. During the course of the century the longer, heavier rapier was gradually shrinking to become the ‘smallsword’ of the fencing masters l’Abbat and Liancour, the now traditional fencing sword we call the ‘épée’.

'Le Maitre d'Armes ou L'Exercice de l'Épée Seule' by the Sieur de Liancour

Plate from ‘Le Maitre d’Armes ou L’Exercice de l’Épée Seule’ by the Sieur de Liancour

At the same time, the edge seems to have been retreating, so that later fencing masters can cheerfully recommend actually seizing the blade near the ‘fuller’ end (modern ‘forte’) with a bare hand. The ‘cut’ is still possible, if only by a slash from the tip, but the ‘thrust’ is now the dominant attack, typified in Capoferro’s archetypal ‘lunge’:

Lunge, Capoferro

If the reader should imagine this made it a less formidable weapon, he would be mistaken. The needle point of the narrower blade was quite simply lethal, and the reliance on thrusts rather than cuts in duels led to a noticeable increase in mortality. A fight to ‘first blood’ might end well with a simple cut, but if the main attack is the thrust then ‘first blood’ is likely also to be the last...

It seems probable, therefore, that the Chevalier Antoine de Roland’s ‘battle sword’ was an older rapier, strong and edged to its full length, while so-called ‘dress sword’ was a very modern rapier of the latter description. That it had at least some degree of edge we can still be fairly sure, for this is the sword André wears into the Château Petit Arx, and with which he slashes one man’s face ‘like a whip’, and when another man seeks to take hold of it I notice he clutches the guard rather than the blade. It is possible, however, that it was edged only a certain distance up the blade, for Capoferro described a rapier as being only sharpened from tip to centre, while Cris DeVeau of the renowned Tattershall School of Defence informs me some rapiers of the later period have edge extending no further than four inches from the tip. Some may have had virtually no edge at all - those described contemptuously as ‘estoc’ by Italian master Pallavicini in La Scherma Illustrata in 1670.

Whichever they were, what matters most is the skill with which they were employed, which in André’s case seems to have been considerable. We cannot know the school of fence to which he was trained by his father, although it does not sound like the mathematical approach of Thibault, the most significant master of the French school in this period. It is clear, however, that the years in which he was effectively learning to teach himself produced an unconventional style all his own.

That there are both advantages and drawbacks in this we can see from André’s first formal encounter with Bouchard in In the Name of the King. Sword-master Charlot needs only to see the manner in which Bouchard draws his sword to know he is ‘Thibault-trained’, since the presenting of sword and right foot together is a notable characteristic of his method. Thibault favoured the horizontal attack, as we can see in this illustration from his fencing manual, the 1628 Academie de l'Espée:

Thibault school of fencing

It is, however, the diagrams beneath the combatants’ feet that give us the true heart of Thibault technique, deriving as it does from geometry and what he called ‘the mysterious circle’. Charlot was right to tell André it was ‘like Spanish’, since the fencing ‘circle’ is Spanish in origin:

Spanish circle

The Spanish Circle

There were other elements in common with Spanish teaching, notably that which Jacques unscientifically described in Honour and the Sword as ‘that Spanish thing of always going for the eyes’. The Spanish ‘guard’ was indeed noticeably higher than its French equivalent, as demonstrated here by the actor Vigo Mortensson, himself a swordsman of no mean ability:

From the film ‘Alatriste’

From the film ‘Alatriste’

Here the swordsman is also using a main-gauche, the shorter blade in the left hand used both to parry and thrust through gaps in the guard created by the rapier. There was nothing ‘unsportsmanlike’ about using a second weapon, and indeed André himself learned to do so with a particular view to his next bout with d’Estrada. He might, however, have done better to study the Thibault exercise shown above, since this was designed specifically to cope with those opponents who shared the Spanish captain’s personal advantage.

I experienced a dilemma in the translation of these fencing sequences, for although the language of modern classical fencing is largely of French origin, many of the terms with which a modern sports fencer would be familiar were not in use in the mid seventeenth century. I have therefore translated most terms as simply as possible for a layman's understanding, but on a couple of occasions I have permitted Jacques’ own words to stand untranslated, such as ‘coup sec’ and ‘battement’. Jacques, of course, is using these words simply at face value - he speaks only of the sound of a ‘dry blow’ which to him indicates the crispness of André’s attack, and of 'beating' down an opponent's sword, which does not necessarily imply today's technical requirement of top third to top third so the blades are almost tip to tip. Nevertheless, since these terms have now been adopted into the fencing vocabulary of our own day it seemed appropriate to at least illustrate their use in the proper context.