Translation: Le Perche du Coudray’s salle play

This little text (only three-and-a-half thousand words) is the source of a large amount of confusion among fencing historians. In this foreword, I wish to delve into a few of the questions that this interesting work raises; though I can offer no hard answers, I hope to contribute something to its study.

The most puzzling mystery surrounding Le Perche’s book is its date of publication. The text itself gives few clues. Edgerton Castle, the British dilettante, dates the work to 1635; he offers no citation, and the claim appears to be entirely fanciful.[1] For a more rigorous discussion, we must go directly to the source, and engage with the French historiography. The nineteenth-century fencing historian Arsène Vigéant is our most important source on the publication of this text, but in many ways his claims are themselves dubious.[2]Vigéant tells us that Le Perche’s book was published in two editions: one in 1676, containing 35 plates, printed by one N. Bonnart; and another circa 1750, published by a “widow Chéreau”, with an additional five plates appended. 

There is no question that this latter edition exists – it is almost certainly the one from which this translation has been made. As for the purported 1676 edition, however, no one, at least since Vigéant’s time, seems to have laid eyes on it. Moreover, certain inconsistencies in the historian’s account raise questions about its veracity. The name of N. Bonnart, whom he identifies as the publisher of the first edition, appears twice in the text, on plates 11 and 40. Obviously, the fact that these two images were produced by the same man gives the lie to the notion that the last five plates were added in a second edition published some eighty years after the first.

Nonetheless, Nicolas Bonnart (1636-1718) was indeed a prominent French printmaker and engraver.[3] The address that appears in many of his prints is identical to the one we find in the plates to Le Perche’s book; moreover, Bonnart had worked with fencers on at least one occasion, producing a portrait of a Parisian maître d’armes in the last decades of the seventeenth century.[4] There is a strong case to be made for a connection between this artist and the illustrator of this text.

But there is also reason for doubt. A glance at Nicolas Bonnart’s works is enough to confirm that they are of an entirely different character to N. Bonnart’s illustrations in this treatise. The former are simply of a much higher calibre of artistic technique than the etchings we find in Le Perche’s book. There are also important differences of detail – the costuming of the fencers is notably of a later fashion, much more at home in the eighteenth century than the seventeenth. It should be noted that Nicolas Bonnart had a son, also called Nicolas, who inherited his father’s business at the same address, and lived until 1762.[5] If the mid-eighteenth-century date is correct for the publication of the text, is plausible that Nicolas Bonnart fils might have executed the illustrations.

What can sources outside the text tell us? In Henri Daressy’s 1888 compilation of the archives of the governing body of French fencing masters in the early modern period, we find reference to a Jean-Baptiste Le Perche, who is said to have published a treatise in 1676.[6] That is very well; but the first name “Jean-Baptiste” does not appear in the actual text of this treatise, and Daressy’s records also contain many other Le Perches who could also have been its author.[7] It is not clear whether Daressy had primary evidence that Jean-Baptiste Le Perche published a treatise, or whether he simply took his cue from Vigéant, ascribing authorship to a master whose years corresponded to the date given in the Bibliographie de l’Escrime

So what do we really know about the author of this text? As an official maître d’armes in seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Paris, he belonged to a quite rarefied group of professionals whose privileges and monopoly were time and again protected by the crown. Beyond this, his life remains a mystery. We cannot even be sure of his first name – if the early date for the first edition is correct, then he is Jean-Baptiste, but if the book was first published in the eighteenth century he remains nameless. 

As for the system itself, it is simple, but in its own way fascinating. It is salle play, purely sportive fencing complete with its own conventions of respect between athletes (see plates 2 and 3). The characterisation of the work as a mnemonic aid in the subtitle and “Notice to the Reader”, along with the fact that so many pages begin with the same phrase (“après s’être mis en garde et en mesure”), suggests to me that the book was not intended to be read sequentially but rather to be consulted as a reference text. In this respect it is perhaps inaccurate to describe it as a treatise at all, although I have used this word in recognition of its centrality to twenty-first-century discussions of historical fencing literature.

I leave Vigéant with the last word, because he is a more eloquent partisan of this text than I:

This treatise presents a little-developed text, with naive images; Le Perche nonetheless counts among our first French authors; one must above all recognise in him the veritable creator of the riposte; and if one considers that the riposte characterises in part the superiority of the French School, one will understand what a service this Master has rendered to his art.

Click here to read the full translation.

[1] Edgerton Castle, Schools and Masters of Fence from the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century (London: George Bell and Sons, 1885), 136. The same date appears in a French encyclopedia some years later; Castle’s work is cited. La Grande Encyclopédie, Tome Seizième, s.v. “Escrime” (Paris: H. Lamirault, 1885-1902), 283-293.

[2] Arsène Vigéant, Bibliographie de l’Escrime Ancienne et Moderne (Paris: Motteroz, 1882), 103-105.

[3] Beryl Kenyon de Pascual, “Keyboard and Drum Iconography: Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Fans and Brocades,” The Galpin Society Journal 52 (1999): 61; Hafez Chehab, “Reconstructing the Medici Portrait of Fakhr al-Din al-Maʿani,” Muqarnas 11 (1994), 119.

[4] Nicolas Bonnart I, Le Maistre d’Armes, c. 1680-1700, engraving, 26.4 x 18.6 cm, The British Museum.

[5] See, for example, Nicolas Bonnart II, Celebi Mehemet Effendi, engraving c. 1722-1725, 27.2 x 19.3 cm, The British Museum. 

[6] Henri Daressy, Les Archives des Maîtres d’Armes de Paris (Paris: Quantin, 1888), 107.

[7] An eldest son, active 1692-1729, and a younger son, active 1725-1739 on page 108; and another member of the family, active around 1760, on page 112.

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