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.
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.
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.