Translated Excerpts from Gomard’s The Theory of Fencing (1845)
Below you will find excerpted translations of The Theory of Fencing, an 1845 fencing treatise written by A.J.J. Possellier. History knows Monsieur Possellier better by his adopted name: Gomard. These excerpted translations are by Patrick T. Morgan, CCF’s manager and head instructor.
Available in PDF format, these translations of Gomard’s fencing treatise began in response to CCF students’ questions regarding classical French fencing. They are presented here with those types of fencers in mind, i.e., beginning fencing enthusiasts who are interested in classical French fencing.
Research suggests that this is the first online English translation of Gomard’s treatise. In fact, to date, there seems to be no English translation of Gomard, which is surprising given how important he is to French fencing. These translations are posted in the hope of spreading awareness of classical French fencing and Gomard’s contribution to the development of fencing.
Antonin Poessellier was born in 1793. Later, Antonin would change his surname when he was adopted by Gomard père, a Parisian fencing master. The elder Gomard had been taught by Nicolas B. Texier La Boëssière, the same man who wrote the blistering critique of Guillaume Danet’s L’art des Armes. And, naturally, the elder Gomard would go on to teach his own adopted son the art of fencing.
After 1814, Gomard became one of the mousquetaires, that is, a member of the Maison Militaire du Roi (household troops for the French king). In 1845, Gomard published The Theory of Fencing. Gomard’s text was very important in the course of French fencing, as shown by the fact that his text established the eight guards that have been taught in French fencing ever since. Gomard died in 1864, at the advanced age of 71.
Gomard can be compared to Euclid, the ancient Greek geometer. Euclid did not individually generate the proofs, postulates, axioms, corollaries, etc., that populate the Elements of Geometry, the unquestioned best book on mathematical reasoning and argumentation. Instead, Euclid is known for his systematic and clear organization of Greek geometry as it was known in his time.
Similarly, in his text, Gomard does not claim any substantive addition to fencing’s body of knowledge; he does not propose any new way of delivering an attack, nor does he introduce a unique way of parrying.
Rather, his insight is in the clarification of fencing principles as understood in his period. That is, Gomard analyzed his predecessors’ fencing works—German, Spanish, Italian, and French—and teased out their inconsistences or contradictions. And, from that analysis, Gomard created an internally consistent and encompassing fencing theory for the time. This thorough classification is consistent with the French fondness for Cartesian structure and organization.
Indeed, Gomard’s treatise is considered one of the best and most complete statements of French fencing theory.
Notes on the Translations
These translations are an attempt to have Gomard speak in a modern voice directly to the reader. In this way, we can receive instruction from one of the greatest French fencing theorists. To that end, some liberties have been taken with sentence structure and word choice, all in the goal of making Gomard more real for today’s reader.
But the changes were only to how Gomard communicated. The substance of Gomard’s teaching needed no change or additions. And it is a testament to Gomard’s treatise that what he teaches is still practical for the classical foil fencer today.
Yet this should not be overstated. Indeed, as you can see by reading a few pages, many terms were left in the original French. This seemed especially appropriate if those words were irretrievably part of fencing’s language, such as the description of the guards (prime, seconde, etc.) as well as other terms familiar to many fencers, e.g.. doublé, sentiment du fer, or temps perdu.
Still, some changes need to be justified. Below are some terms that required adjustment to facilitate today’s English-speaking reader.
“Coup” and “Botte”
The translations of coup and botte were tricky, because French fencing writers sometimes used those two words synonymously. For instance, a coup can mean a hit or strike. A botte can mean a boot, and, in the martial context, a kick or hit. In the past, some French fencing writers used botte or coup to refer to a thrust or a specific attack. Between writers, this became confusing for readers.
To remedy this, Gomard distinguished these terms and used them in a specific and consistent way. We have attempted to use these terms just as consistently, balancing Gomard’s distinctions with a modern fencer’s understanding.
Achieving that required some play in Gomard’s use of coup, which he defines as the “composition of the attack’s movements; it is the method employed, the route that is followed to arrive at the opponent’s body.” Accordingly, Gomard’s “le coup droit” is properly translated as the straight thrust.
On the other hand, Chapter 20 is originally titled “Des Coups Simples.” But, in deference to modern readers’ understanding, we have translated that title as “The Simple Attacks.” In general, then, coup has been translated to generally refer to a “thrust” or “attack,” depending on the context.
More consistent is the single use of botte for two reasons. First, Gomard used botte (which is explained below) to distinguish it from the more general coup. Second, there is no single English equivalent of what Gomard was trying to signify with botte.
To understand Gomard’s theory in general, you need to understand the term botte. For Gomard, the botte referred to “the figure of the attack at its end,” or “the overall picture of the blades’ respective positions and the position of the wrist.”
The botte, then, consisted of two properties, like GPS coordinates today require two properties: x degrees north or south and y degrees east or west. Likewise, the botte in Gomard is always used to indicate two properties: the line in which the attack ended (e.g., outside high) and the position of the wrist (i.e., supinated or pronated).
Note: as mentioned above, other authors translated in Gomard’s work appeared much less consistent in their use of the words coup and botte to describe their actions. Thus, coup and botte were translated less consistently in those instances, sometimes using “thrust,” sometimes using “hit,” or other words that seemed to fit the context.
Gomard uses the word opposition in three different circumstances, specifically, to designate:
- how two blades can meet at the moment of the parry,
- what a fencer does to the enemy’s incoming blade, and
- what a fencer does with his sword arm when lunging.
The first two senses seemed the most important to distinguish in that both used opposition to indicate some aspect of a parry. The first is parer d’opposition, a verb form indicating to parry with (or from) opposition. Gomard uses parer d’opposition to indicate the act of parrying by holding the enemy’s blade against your blade. This is the alternative to the tac parry, that is, one that parries away the incoming blade with a dry beat.
The second—parade en opposition, a noun—indicates a parry that horizontally changes an enemy blade’s line. To make the distinction between the two clear, I have used the more recent term holding parry to indicate a parry that maintains contact with the blade. I have used the term opposition parry to indicate a parry that—whether done by tac or by holding—horizontally changes the incoming blade’s line.
Gomard’s third sense of opposition refers to angulating your arm at the wrist when thrusting—to the right when thrusting to the outside line, and to the left when thrusting to inside line—in order to protect yourself from the opposing blade. To avoid confusion, I have taken care to always use the conjunctive term opposition parry to distinguish it from the single term opposition, which indicates the arm’s motion when thrusting. (The use of holding parry is sufficiently distinct to obviate any worry about confusion with this third type of opposition.)
Excerpts from The Theory of Fencing
- Gomard Ch 4 & 5 Guards & Lunge
- Gomard Ch 8 Lines
- Gomard Ch 10 Engagements
- Gomard Ch 11 Hand Elevation
- Gomard Ch 20 Simple Attacks
Check back with us from time to time: more translations to come!