The Academy of Arms: Paris’s Royal Fencing Institution

Since the 16th century, fencing masters received special treatment in France. In 1567, the French king Charles IX provided letters patent to the Parisian fencing masters, publicly recognizing their fencing association. Subsequent kings extended the same royal privilege to the Parisian masters.

Louis XIV

Louis XIV

But, never to be outdone in anything, Louis XIV went further. As is well known, the Sun King’s reign was marked by his relentlessness in glorifying France and making his country the center of European culture, what one contemporary Italian diplomat called “l’Europe Française.”

To that end, Louis XIV created many academies to advance French learning and culture, such as the French Academy as well as the Academies of Painting, Dance, Science, Music, and Architecture.

Likewise, fencing benefited from this royal favoritism. Louis XIV’s 1643 letters of patent to the Parisian fencing masters emphasized “[h]ow important it is that [fencing] teachers are not only well experienced in feats of arms, but that they are well born, have manners and conversation, and are Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman.” To that end and as part of his French-centralization of European arts, he created the Academy of Fencing in 1656.

Armoiries de l'Académie d'armes de France

Armoiries de l’Académie d’armes de France

Louis XIV’s letters of patent gave the Academy’s twenty members the exclusive right to publicly hold a salle and teach fencing in Paris. This made it illegal for anyone else to publicly offer to teach fencing—as indicated by hanging above his door a sign bearing a hand holding a sword—in France’s capital.
But the Sun King’s special treatment did not end there: he also gave to six of the Academy’s members—all of whom were nominated by their fellow members—letters of nobility for them and their descendants. Moreover, these six masters—who were to examine future candidates for Academy membership—received a stipend to pay for the costs of their salles and equipment. Louis XIV also granted the Academy a coat of arms, further honoring the Academy.

But publicly holding oneself out as a fencing master was not the only acceptable way to teach fencing in Paris. At the time, there were other academies as well: essentially private schools for the aristocracy’s sons. These academies were boarding schools where these privileged young men would learn the three most important subjects they would need as members of the aristocracy: horsemanship, dancing, and fencing. (Other subjects, such as art or geometry were also taught.) Because dancing was considered a military art, the fencing instructor was frequently the dancing master.

Alternatively, a person could privately teach fencing in his home. Indeed, this is apparently what Nicolas B. Texier La Boëssière— the inventor of the first wire-mesh fencing mask —did with the famous Chevalier de Saint-George. In 1752, Saint-George’s father placed the ten-year-old boy in La Boëssière’s Parisian home, where Saint-George boarded and trained for six years (along with La Boëssière’s son, who would go on to write an homage to Saint-George in his 1818 Treatise on the Art of Arms). Yet Boëssière would not be an accepted member of the Academy with the right to hold an open salle for another seven years.

Even with a monopoly on teaching, the Academy’s fencing masters were by no means rich. In the mid-1600s, the yearly income for a typical fencing master with 20 students—providing a salary of around 700 livres—allowed him to live only modestly for the times.

Moreover, a monopoly on teaching was not a monopoly on real estate in Paris, the largest and most cramped city in Europe at the time. Consequently, fencing masters sometimes had to defray the cost of rent by sharing their salle with dance instructors.

Further, like today, a 17th century fencing master’s revenues fluctuated with his erratic clientele. But, thankfully, that’s where the similarity stops: many students need the master’s services only long enough to hold their own in a duel should the need arise. Few took it up as an avocation. Still, a master could earn more by being assigned to teach fencing at the royal court, up to 2,000 to 3,000 livres. Or, with a good location, a master’s salle could be convenient to neighborhoods featuring high-paying nobility.

Perhaps because of this scarcity, the Academy’s masters were jealous of their exclusive right to teach. If a non-Academy member publicly advertised his fencing instruction, the Academy’s monopoly gave it an oft-used right to appeal to the king’s ministers to punish the violator. Such a person risked his salle being closed and his equipment being confiscated.

For instance, a frequently-quoted 1685 royal decree stated it was “prohibiting the named Bary, swashbuckler, contemnor, from meddling in the exercise of the fencing masters and ordering the closure of the salle where he teaches said art.” A 1765 decree ordered two ferailleurs—i.e., a pejorative for an uncouth fencer—to have the place where they “practiced to be closed and walled up for six months.”
The Academy’s exclusivity of teaching narrowed the diversity of fencing techniques and instruction offered in Paris. Undoubtedly, this helped unify the overall practice of fencing in France for some time.

The Academy was ended by the French Revolution and its republican, antinobility fervor. Specifically, in 1791, the National Assembly promulgated the Le Chapelier, a law that banned all corporations and guilds in Revolutionary France. This law effectively ended the Academy and its dominance over fencing instruction in Paris.

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5 Responses to The Academy of Arms: Paris’s Royal Fencing Institution

  1. I’m curious about this comment: “Because dancing was considered a military art, the fencing instructor was frequently the dancing master.” What was your source for this? I’m looking at notation systems – comparing dance and drill diagrams – so would be grateful for any leads connecting dance and the military in 18th century France. Thanks!

  2. Francesco Giuseffi says:

    So how would you describe salles after the French Revolution? What concepts and virtues were valued in exchange for nobility, and the “higher things” of life?


    • Patrick says:

      I’ve thought about that myself and I can’t seem to find comprehensive research on what happened to the salles in Paris (and elsewhere in France) after the Royal Fencing Academy’s monopoly was stripped: how they changed, what happened to all those maîtres who, presumably, faced a lot more competition. Similarly, I do not see an extended examination of how fencing changed in during the Revolution or into the First Republic.

      The few materials I have seen about this suggested that the salles continued to diminish, at least in Paris. The number of fencing masters also seemed to decrease.

      Certainly, during the years after the Revolution, the formerly aristocratic nature of fencing and learning fencing waned. Remember that, even before the Royal Academy of Arms, fencing was taught in academies, which, at the time, were essentially private preparatory schools for the aristocracy. Indeed, fencing—and, even more proximately, the sword—was a symbol for the aristocratic class.

      But, after the Revolution, this seemed to change consistent with the new republican ideals. For instance, the first fencing treatise that I see published after the Revolution was Bertrand’s in 1801. Safely emphasizing his status as a “citizen” and using the Republican calendar, Betrand titled his work “Fencing Applied to the Military Art, by the Citizen Bertrand, Master at Arms. Paris, Year 9.”

      Accordingly, fencing seems to have been militarized: during this time, fencing seems to be highlighted in the context of Napoleon I’s various armies (e.g., the famous story of Jean Louis’s duel with Italian masters in another regiment, or the Count of Bondy—another soldier in Napoleon’s army—dueling Tsar Nicholas of Russia in front of the French emperor). Likewise, for a while into the 19th century, fencing treatises noted the author’s former military title, which, before the Revolution, was not nearly as common. (See e.g, Moreau’s 1815 treatise, Châtelain’s in 1817, and Lafaugère’s in 1825.)

      I’m sure there’s more to the story there. That’s just what my limited researches have uncovered.

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