Foil tournament rules – 1696

In 1696 Jean de Labat wrote a fencing treatise, L’Art en Fait d’Armes, which contains as an appendix the rules for a tournament called le Prix des Deux Epées (the Prize of the two Swords), a fencing event organized with some regularity in the French city of Toulouse from the early 17th century up to the late 18th, when the French revolution put a definitive stop to it (for more details one can read this article in French).

These rules are interesting because they show the emergence of concepts which later found their ways into sport fencing. In particular, they are the first hint of a priority rule that I have been able to find so far. The following is my attempt at a translation of these rules, so that these insights would not be restricted to the French-speaking community any more.

From the context, we can assume that this was thrust-fencing with weapons rather similar to our modern foils; Labat illustrates very clearly flexible, even permanently bent weapons.

The foils illustrated in Labat’s treatise.

Several persons have often asked me in which way was played the Prize of the two Swords, which Mrs Mayor and Capitouls of Toulouse give every year in the month of May, when there are enough people fit to fight for it, and therefore I have thought that they would be happy to see the regulations set forth by the Masters.

Apparently there was some lull right about when Labat was writing, where there was a lack of candidates for the Prize. The Capitouls are magistrates of the city.

1) Mrs Mayor and Capitouls, and those who won the Prize, judge the blows.

It is interesting here that the fencing Masters, which would normally be the best qualified to judge fencing bouts, are not judges.

2) There are several Sundays and Holidays to be selected as a participant, and the last of these days is reserved to deliver the Prize to those who fought previously.

There were apparently qualifier rounds before the actual Prize.

3) To be selected one must defeat three in a row, to the first three good strikes.

Winning three times in a row is quite a task; apparently this was later changed to two as the disparity in fencing level between candidates made it to hard to succeed.

4) Those selected will not fight until the day of the Prize, and then the first of their number will be against the second, the third against the fourth, and so on by rank until there are only two left, who will fight for the best Prize.

The fights happened by chronological order of selection.

5) If on the last day, at the end of the assaults, someone arrives to fight, if he is the student of some Master, the other Masters will choose at will three among their already selected students, and there will not be any consequence to them even if they are defeated.

This seems like some sort of play-off to accommodate for further odd contestants.

6) If there is a odd number of selected fencers, the last has to fence against the first who won; and if at the end of the assaults there are three students who did as much as one another, they have to draw lots to see the pair which has to start, otherwise there would be an advantage to the last selected.

With no assumptions on the parity of the number of contestants, of course you end up in complicated situations where it is hard to ensure a fair contest!

7) Hits on the front and the back are counted from the top of the belt that is tied around the body to the top of the collar, and inside the seams at the shoulders. The belt is tied a bit more than a foot under the chin.

Clearly this is analogous to the valid surface in foil fencing, although not strictly identical.

8) Hit from one, and then hit from the other, are counted until two to two, after that the first to give takes the other one out.

As far as I understand, this seems to mean that the first to three point wins?

9) The hits without delay are counted up to two strikes and not more, either by reprise or riposte, as long as they are scored in two distinct places.

This is rather more original: you could score two points in the same exchange. The halt conditions are not described; perhaps this indicates a more or less continuous bout?

10) Double hits or simultaneous are to be redone, unless it was perceptible that one men did it on purpose in order to make equal hits, in which case the hit of the other is counted, and not his.

This is the root of a priority rule. They did not want to score simultaneous hits, for reasons we are familiar with in HEMA. But this created a loophole, where you could cancel the other’s hit by just hitting back, so they penalized this behaviour. The rules are not explicit as to how the judges would realize that one of the fighter was intentionally doubling out, but this implies some notion of who had manifest initiative to attack.

11) Hits to the face are to be redone, unless it was perceptible that one men aimed there maliciously, in which case he will be removed from the Prize.

The face is off-target because it is dangerous to thrust there, and so intentional thrusts to the face are punished, and not just ignored.

12) If in the same time or not, one gives to the face or under the mark, and the other to the body, then the one to the body is counted, and not the other.

Otherwise hits off-target are just not counted.

13) Even if a man, after parrying with the hand, strikes, he loses one which is for his hand parry, and is not able to count his hit, because his hand parry keeps the sword more engaged than if he had parried with the sword, which might have prevented the one who struck first from parrying the riposte.

Hand parries are quite heavily penalized, perhaps to prevent too much use of the left arm to hide the valid target.

14) If one takes the time while opposing with the left hand to the blow of the one who thrusts, and in this way gives without receiving, the blow is to be redone, because without the hand they would both have been hit, the hand opposition having been useful just to avoid, without contributing to the success of the Sword.

An exception to the previous rule, when the hand parry happens together with the strike. Still does not count, but at least it’s not a hit against!

15) The one who gives a hit, and retreats while asking for it, must not be followed: because if he is hit, if there is some interval between the hits, the hit is not good; however if he asks for this falsely, the other is allowed to thrust, and all the hits are good up to two.

An interesting rule which is akin to the limited window of opportunity for an afterblow. Apparently you had to signal that you were making a retreat in some way.

16) If in parrying, whipping, or binding the Foil, it falls to the ground and one thrusts without delay, the hit is good.

By implication, I suppose a disarm which does not lead immediately to a hit would not count as anything, and presumably the fencers would reset.

17) Hits delivered while holding the Foil, or pushing with two hands, or switching the Foil to the other hand, are not counted.

People must have tried a number of tricks in these events!

18) The Masters of the students currently fencing must not attend the place where the fight is taking place.

Coaching was not welcome. I suspect there must have been some heated controversy about hit validity between involved Masters, which perhaps also explains why they were not judges.

Many thanks to the Ost du Griffon Noir for the transcription and publication of Labat’s treatise: Olivier Boulbes, Gautier Petit (Gaths), Delphine Gerique!

2 thoughts on “Foil tournament rules – 1696

  1. A reader points out that Andrew Mahon published a translation of Labat’s treatise in 1734, which includes an abridged version of the rules. Here they are for comparison:

    All Thrusts from the Neckband to the Wastband are counted good.

    Coup Fourrés or interchanged Thrusts are not counted on either side, except one of the Competitors has Recourse to it in order to make the Thrusts equal, then the Thrust of the other is good, and not his.

    If one hits the Body and the other the Face or below the Wast at the same Time; the Thrust on the Body is counted, but not the other.

    If a Man parrys with his Hand, and afterwards hit, his Thrust is not good, because by parrying with the Hand, his Antagonist’s Foil is less at Liberty than if he had parryed with the Blade, and might be a Reason why he could not parry and risposte.

    If a Man takes the Time, opposing with the Left-hand, and hits without receiving, his Thrust is not good, because if he had not Opposed with the Hand, both would have hit, the Opposition of the Hand serving only to avoid, but no way contributing to the Success of the Thrust.

    If in parrying, binding, or lashing the Foil, it Falls, and that the Thrust is made without Interval, it is Good.

    Thrusts made with the Sword in both hands, or shifting from one Hand to the other are not good.

    A Master is not to give judgment for his own Scholar.

  2. Found by Matt Galas, a precedent for this embryonic priority rule, here combined with a form of afterblow:

    Source: Sir William Hope, The Fencing Master’s Advice To His Scholar, Or A Few Directions For The More Regular Assaulting In Schools, pp. 20-22 (Edinburgh, Reid, 1692)

    “For the better preventing of Contretemps in School play; when thrusts are exchanged, I would have alwayes the thrust to be decided in the persons favours who was the first Lancher out of the Thrust, suppose his Adversary should also give him another, but without ever going to the Parrade, or offering to defend himself with his Fluret (for I would have all Defence with the left Hand in School play to be banished, except against Ignorants) and this is but just, because it can hardly be supposed that a Man will thus foolishly venture his Life at sharps, and seeing his design was meerly to hit, and not to show his Art, by first endeavouring to parrie the Thrust, (which is the main end of Assaulting) it is but reasonable that as a punishment for not first offering to defend his person, he should be charged with the receival of a Thrust, notwithstanding of his giving another at the same time to his Adversary; but if after endeavouring a Parrade, and having failed in it, he shall receive a Thrust, and then give the exchanged Thrust in the time of the others recovering of his Body, then both shall be charged with a Thrust, because although the one was the first Lancher out of the Thrust, yet the other after endeavouring a Parrade and failing in it, returned him another before he recovered himself, or got off; now his not getting quickly enough off, shows he committed a gross fault, contrary to the Rules of Art, for which also as a punishment to him he is to be charged with the Thrust, and so they are to be considered in equal terms until another fair Thrust shall be given: I know that one Contretemps, or one exchanged Thrust at sharps, is of more consequence and more dangerous than a thousand with Blunts, but the best and only way to prevent them at sharps, is to be very careful, and to avoid them as much as is possible with Blunts, to which I am confident this Law if punctually observed, will not a little contribute.”

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