Augustin Grisier remains one of my favorite French fencing masters.
In a time when duels to the death or even first blood were still fought in Europe, fencing masters must have led drama-filled lives. Surely, others’ living during that time had daily lives we can still relate to: the trained laborer, the merchant, the educator, the professional.
But, the fencing master’s daily existence included interpersonal violence and instruments of death—the rapier, the small-sword, and, later, the saber and the dueling sword. At a time when law and institutions did not so thoroughly regulate life as it does for us today and, thus, duels were commonplace, the fencing master prepared a man to confront and kill another man.
Thus, it is a considerable statement to say that Augustin Grisier must have lived one of the most interesting lives of any fencing master. This would not be hyperbole. Grisier lived through a tumultuous time in Europe and Russia and witnessed both wars and revolts. He hobnobbed with aristocracy, authors, and artistes. More than a hundred 19th century gentlemen owed Grisier for emerging unscathed from their duels. Moreover, Grisier not only wrote a famous fencing treatise, but his stature as a renowned fencing master earned him appearances in novels during his lifetime.
Grisier’s Early Life
Grisier was born in 1791, during the course of the French Revolution. Early on he settled on the career of a fencing master. This is especially ironic given that the year of his birth was the same year that the French National Assembly passed the Le Chapelier, the statute that banned guilds and corporations—such as Paris’s Royal Academy of Arms—in Revolutionary France.
However, before becoming a maître d’escrime, Grisier became a soldier in La Grande Armeé, Napoleon I’s formidable army. His service was such that his superior officers recommended him for commendations.
After his military service and while still a young man, Grisier made a profound decision for himself and his future. He would not remain in France: he would seek his fame elsewhere.
Pour la Russie!
To make a name for himself in his budding fencing career, Grisier decided to travel to Russia. In deciding to make the odyssey across Europe and Central Asia, Grisier describes a youth whimsy and the bachelor’s enviable freedom:
I was still in the age of illusions, I possessed a sum of 4,000 francs, which appeared to me to be an inexhaustible treasure, and I had heard of Russia as a veritable Eldorado for the artist who was above average in his art. And so, lacking no self-confidence, I decided to leave for Saint Petersburg.
Once taken, this resolution was soon executed: I was a young man, I left nothing behind me, not even my debts. So, I only had to secure a few letters of recommendation and my passport (which was not difficult), and, eight days after I had first decided, I was on the road to Brussels.
In this, Grisier was not alone. In the 19th century, Europeans were discovering Russia. They were traveling there to discover what the West had long considered to be an untamed and backwards part of the world. Grisier followed in their footsteps and was to benefit from it.
Attacked by the Czar’s Little Brother
Grisier lived in and traveled through Russia for ten years. During that time, his status as French fencing instructor abroad made him something of a celebrity amongst the Russian elite, such as members of the Russian aristocracy and the famed Alexander Pushkin. (A frequent duelist, Pushkin later fought a duel with pistols, Grisier notwithstanding, and died from the resulting wound.) High ranking military officers and visiting notables from other countries also learned fencing from the famous Frenchman in Russia. Grisier even gave well-received fencing demonstrations in imperial theaters.
Indeed, Grisier became sufficiently renowned to attract the attention of the royal Russian family, including the czar and his two brothers. And at least one of those brothers almost proved fatal for Monsieur Grisier.
In his attempt to earn a post as a fencing master in the Russian Imperial Army, Grisier managed to acquire an audience with the Grand Duke Constantine, the younger brother of Czar Alexander. Grisier would later recount his encounter with the second-most powerful man in Russia, something that would give pause to most anyone. Grisier describes an heir to the throne that wanted to test the twenty-six-year-old fencing master. Speaking to him in a grammatical form reserved for servants and people of lower rank, Constantine baited Grisier. If his later biography is to be believed, Grisier diplomatically resisted being bullied:
“You say that you are the best?” said Constantine.
“I beg your pardon, Your Imperial Majesty,” replied Grisier. “I did not say that because it is not for me to say.”
“No, but you think it.”
“Your Imperial Highness knows that pride is the human race’s dominant sin. Besides, I have given a demonstration and Your Highness can draw his own conclusions.”
“I know what happened, but you only dealt with second-class amateurs.”
“And I spared them.”
“Oh, you spared them! And if you had not spared them, what would have happened?”
“I would have touched them ten times to their two.”
“Ah! Then, for example, me, you would touch me ten times to my two?”
“What? ‘That depends?’”
“Yes, it depends upon how Your Majesty wants me to treat him. If Your Majesty requires that I treat him like a prince, Your Majesty would touch me ten times and I would only touch him two times. If Your Majesty allows me to treat him like everyone else, it is thus very probable that I would only be touched twice and he would be touched ten.”
“Lubenski!” cried the Czarevitch while rubbing his hands. “Lubenski, my foils. Ha! Ha! We are going to see, Mr. Braggart!”
“What, does Your Highness allow this?”
“My Highness does not allow it, My Highness wants you to touch him ten times. Or is it that you would like to back out of it, perhaps?”
“When I came [here], it was to put myself at Your Highness’s disposal. I am at your service.”
“Very well, take this foil and mask, and soon we will see.”
According to Grisier, the young fencing master was at first merely content to parry the Russian prince’s attacks. However, soon the prince became angry at this plainly defensive stance, and goaded him to attack. Finally, after Constantine scored two hits, Grisier loosed a fusillade of attacks, finally scoring the requisite ten touches against the Russian prince.
Pleased but undaunted, Constantine upped the ante. What follows must be some mix of one part admirable tenacity to two parts lucky foolishness.
“But anyone can learn to fence,” said the Russian Prince. “What good would that be to my cavalry? The broadsword is what is required, the saber. Do you know how to fight with the saber?”
“I am almost as good with it as I am with the sword.”
“Oh, yes? Very well, you could defend yourself with a saber while on foot against a man on horseback armed with a lance?”
“I believe so, Your Highness.”
“You believe so, but you are not sure. Ha! You are not sure?”
“In fact, Your Highness, I am sure.”
“Oh, so you are sure, you could defend yourself?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“You could parry a lance thrust?”
“I could parry it.”
“Against a man on horseback?”
“Against a man on horseback.”
“Lubenski!” cried the Russian prince. The officer appeared. “Bring around a horse and get me a lance. A lance, a horse, you hear? Go, go!
Grisier accompanied the eager Constantine outside and watched as he mounted a horse—“a wild creature from the steppes”—and rode away to take his distance and turn to face Grisier. The fencing master could see the long lance in the Russian prince’s hand. Grisier himself was given a sharpened saber. Now, rather than fence with buttoned foils, Grisier was to use a saber to defend himself against the armed Constantine bearing down on him with a bladed lance. (You can see an example of such lances below.)
This turn of events seemed to give Grisier pause. One can imagine him there, squinting in the sudden daylight, worriedly watching the mounted grand duke take his lead, and then turning to one of the grand duke’s attending officers for comfort:
“I suppose it is only a joke,” I asked General Rodna.
“On the contrary,” he replied, “it is a matter of deadly earnest, your life and your position depend on the result; all I can say is that you had better defend yourself as if it were a genuine fight.”
The affair had become more serious than I had imagined; if it had only been a matter of defending myself and returning blow for blow, well, I would run the risk. But this was a different matter; seeing that my sabre was sharpened and his lance was pointed, the joke might terminate seriously. No matter! I was in for it now, my retreat was cut off; so, summoning all my sang-froid and all my skill, I turned to face the Czarevitch.
As the Russian prince began his charge, Grisier describes what could only have been a frightening image for many a Napoleonic foot soldier facing the Russian lancers:
The horse came on like the wind, with the Czarevitch crouching down on his charger so that he was lost in the waves of its mane which streamed in the wind; I could see nothing but the top of his head between the ears of his mount. When he go to me, he tried to fell me with a blow full in the chest, but I turned aside the weapon with a tierce parry, and, leaping to one side, I let horse and rider dash past at full speed, leaving me untouched.
Once past the fencing master, Constantine pirouetted the horse, and charged at Grisier. This time, Grisier parried quarte and leapt to the right, with similar results. This was evidently too much for the Russian prince, for he roared with anger and, yet again, bore down on Grisier. However, Grisier had had enough:
Therefore the moment I saw him on the point of striking me, instead of contenting myself with a simple parry, I gave a violent blow at the shaft of his lance and cut it in two, leaving the Czarevitch unarmed, then seizing the bridle of his horse, I (not the Czarevitch this time) checked it so violently that it recoiled on its haunches; and at the same moment I held the point of my saber at the Czarevitch’s breast. General Rodna uttered a terrible cry; he thought I was going to kill his Highness. Constantine had the same idea, for I saw him turn pale. But I immediately stepped away and, bowing to the Grand Duke, remarked, “There Your Highness, that is an example of what I can show your soldiers, if you still deem me fit to be their instructor.”
Constantine was in awe. He excitedly agreed to sign Grisier’s petition for a fencing-master post in the Russian army. Then, he sent Grisier away, instructing him to present it to no less than Czar Alexander himself. With a final good bye, the Russian prince encouraged Grisier to come and visit him again. (Understandably, I see no record of Grisier ever doing that.)
A short time after his PTSD-causing interaction with the grand duke, Grisier found himself before Czar Alexander. (In notable contrast to his brother, the emperor of all of Russia spoke to the fencing master in a grammatically more formal tone, the one used to show respect to colleagues and superiors.) Grisier describes a tired but nonetheless gracious emperor. (Alexander would die only a short time later, enabling his youngest brother—i.e., not Constantine, who quickly abdicated—to ascend to the throne.) Three days after his audience with the czar, Grisier received his commission in the mail: carrying the rank of captain, he was now a fencing instructor in the Imperial Engineers.
Before leaving Russia, Grisier would also teach fencing to Alexander’s youngest brother,
the eventual Czar Nicholas I. Grisier would even dedicate his own fencing treatise—which he began drafting while in Russia—to the czar.
But Grisier’s time in Russia wasn’t always caviar and fêtes. He witnessed the Decembrist Revolt, the 1825 military uprising against Nicholas I’s assumption of the Russian throne. Eventually, Grisier returned to Paris where, as one of his biographers noted, “new successes awaited.”
In the next installment, we’ll see look at how Grisier’s career continued to benefit from meeting the right people. We’ll also take a look at his famous fencing treatise, Les Armes et Le Duel.
(If you are really eager to find out more about Grisier, you can find an on-line English edition of Grisier’s biography here. I used some of that translation as well as my own for the above text.)