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Thibault – Chapter 1

The Proportions of the Human Body, Related to the Figure of our Circle and to the Proper Length of the Sword

Chapter 1 is very dense, both with theory and the way that the theory is discussed, but has a number of key statements that need to be observed. It’s a pretty good illustration of his habit of stating something once, and expecting the student to remember it.

This chapter begins with a lengthy discussion about the ratios and proportions of the human body, calling back to Pythagoras, Plato, Vitruvius, Pliny, Hippocrates and the Bible as examples of previous proofs. This is a fairly typical way of constructing an argument at his time, where first the prior knowledge is laid out, and then the author’s own assertion posited as though another layer on top of the previous arguments. The truth of the argument can be tested because it has some logical connection to the previous arguments that have been accepted as true.

This is an interesting point to bear in mind. At the time that Thibault was writing, the philosophy and technique of Science was just being created, and his mode of argument is a melange of ancient and modern thinking: some of his argument is just an appeal to authority, and other parts of his argument are the presentation of a testable thesis. In this chapter he rather exhaustively discusses how to draw out his circle and squares, which is related to and derived from the proportions of the body, but he mentions that he shows the working out so that the reader can repeat his experiment and satisfy themselves of the truth, rather than relying purely on his authority.

The statement at the very end of the chapter exactly explains why he has demonstrated the geometries exhaustively, and excuses the student from having to understand all the maths:

It is true that we have gone into some detail… rather for the contentment of those who wish to examine our theory closely, than because these things are themselves necessary in the exercise. Beyond this, we have tried to put the whole so well in order that everyone will easily be able to distinguish the things necessary from practice from those which are only for theorists….

However this chapter does contain key assertions around the posture and gait that are crucial to his system. These include the rather obvious observation that the structure of the body is such that the legs are good for moving it around and making large movements, the arms and hands are good for small movements, and the hand is good for holding a weapon. I remain unsure whether in this he is merely restating “ancient wisdom” to support his other propositions, or whether he felt a need to emphasise this as a key underpinning of his style.

He does proceed from here to make a reasoned argument that the most efficient way to move is with a natural upright posture – and criticises other authors and fencers for using other postures – so his justification could be read either way. Another key assertion which he derives from the ratios of the body is that a natural walking pace both fits the geometry of the circle, and is sufficient for moving around it and traversing the diameters.

It is this chapter where he describes the First, Second and Third Instances, and works through the mathematics around them. Actions at these instances are dealt with exhaustively in subsequent chapters, and they are a particularly significant element of his style and theory:

  • First instance is at measure, where if standing upright in the straight line, the tips of your sword just reaches the hilt of the opponent’s, and a small inclination of the upper body allows you to touch their wrist;
  • Second instance is where you can just touch their elbow;
  • Third instance is where you can just touch their body.

He has a bit of a rant about the proper length and proportions of a sword, and includes the rather lovely observation that a sword of his proper length allows you to lean comfortably on the hilt. Within this rant is a restatement of the demonstration that the straight line gives the greatest reach (or distance from the opponent, if you wish to think of it that way) by pretty well cribbing the diagrams and explanation from La Destreza authors. Interestingly he does digress to briefly mention that shortening the line is not inherently bad, and is useful under certain circumstances.

In a somewhat Pythonesque manner (“not 2 numbers, not 3, nor 4 shalt thou divide the sword, but 12 numbers…”) he introduces the idea of dividing the blade into 12 parts along it, and gives a somewhat offhand discussion of graduation/degraduation and the forces on the blade. He returns to this at various times later, but this is one of the places that feels like he is assuming a pretty high level of previous knowledge on the part of the reader.

Finally, he makes a brief statement of one of the most distinctive features of his system, the grip, which has the cross held horizontally, thumb resting on the flat of the ricasso – in essence taking the standard grip and rotating it by 90 degrees along the axis of the blade.

It is absolutely necessary that all those who would make any study of our practice should hold the sword in this manner alone, and not in any other way; the more so, as on this alone depends the certainty of a good part of all the operations, and on it are founded the most noble feats of thrusting, drawing and defending. In all these, assurance is principally founded on the position of the cross, and on the force of the blade, held in the manner just described.

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