As we study le trompement this month, we are necessarily focusing on using our fingers and, to a lesser extent, our wrists in steering our blades around attempted parries and engagements. The French had a term for skillful finger-work in manipulating the blade, in being able to detect the opponent’s pressure and lightly evade it: doigté. (That’s pronounced “dwah-tay.”)
In order to help us develop our own doigté, I thought it might be useful to receive guidance from two influential French fencing masters of the 19th century.
The first is from A.J.J. Possellier, who was called Gomard in that he was the adopted son of another French fencing maître with that name. In 1845, the adopted Gomard published his Theory of Fencing Taught by a Simple Method. Gomard’s text was very influential in the French school of fencing. Gomard’s Theory is systematic and clear in its descriptions. Here is an excerpt from the Theory:
Doigté refers to conducting the point of your blade solely by the action of your fingers. It is one of fencing’s most precious qualities, and, without it, it is impossible to become skilled in this art.
Not all the fingers contribute equally to executing the blade’s movements.
The thumb and the index finger are the point’s two principal motors. These are the only two that should place the point in moving and leading its advance; these are the only two making the feints, the disengage, or coupé; these are the two which also begin the circular and demi-parries. The three other fingers serve only to maintain the blade, and their action is to make you aware when you must press upon the enemy’s blade as in the parries, the beats, the croisés, etc.
In general, students tend to tense the arm and contract the muscles, which activate the arm in order to obtain more speed in the blade movements. This is a fault . . . . [The maître] should require slowness in the demonstration of the feintes in order to assure that the shoulder and the forearm do not participate in these movements. By slow and repeated demonstrations of the feints of engagements in all the lines, the maître leads his student to execute with speed the sole action of doigté. We insist particularly on this recommendation because, in our long career of practice, we have noted that the absence of doigté is a common fault of many students and is very difficult to remedy
Note that Maître Gomard recommends using the index finger and the thumb to steer the blade. Traditionally, French practice refers to these two digits as the “manipulators,” while the remaining fingers are called the “aides.” Nonetheless, our practice at CCF is to use the aides to maneuver the blade’s handle, reserving the so-called manipulators as essentially a fulcrum.
Only two years after Gomard’s text, Augustin M. Grisier published his Les Armes et Le Duel. As Émile Mérignac noted in 1886, Grisier’s text is not as analytical and systematic as Gomard’s: Mérignac describes Grisier’s work as “sometimes inferior to other theories,” but, due to the work’s “delicious” preface by Alexandre Dumas, Les Armes et Le Duel was among the better written texts at the time. As you read the following, observe that Grisier—like Gomard—stresses conducting the point, not the entire blade itself, thus distally shifting your focus in executing doigté.
Doigter is to conduct the point of one’s blade solely by the fingers’ actions and without aid from the wrist, which always wants to act in this circumstance.
It is impossible to successfully deceive the blade if you do not have precise doigté with your blade’s point.
One generally makes the coupés from the middle of the arm, and one will be very surprised by the speed which one can attain in practicing the coupés while using only the fingers. They alone should conduct the point directly, as near as possible to the enemy’s blade, close inside the lateral lines.
To have fingers, we say, is to sense the blade with all one’s fingers, to maintain it without force, and to improvise with it according to the circumstances in all directions. It is to skillfully deceive the parries; in short, the term signifies conducing the blade’s point with art, accuracy, precision, dexterity, and speed, but only with movement of the fingers.
And there you have it: art, accuracy, precision, dexterity, and speed. And only with your fingers. That should be easy, right?