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Talk:Le Jeu de la Hache (MS Français 1996)

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Images Bibliothèque nationale de France Bibliothèque nationale de France
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Translation Dr. Sydney Anglo Association for Renaissance Martial Arts
Transcription Index:Le Jeu de la Hache (MS Français 1996)

Translator's Notes

The resemblance between chivalric axe combat and quarter-staff play is important. Long-handled swinging strokes with the axe head - such as the mighty overhead smashes of Spencer's Gerioneo, or the cleaver blows of Prince Author - were easily countered, and were not greatly admired by experts such as the unknown author of Le Jeu de la Hache.[1]

This manuscript, though obviously planned as a presentation copy, could scarcely be more anonymous. It is a slight volume, measuring 240mm by 160mm; and it consists of ten vellum leaves (of which fol. 1r-v and fol. 10v are blank) preceded and followed by three blank leaves of paper. The binding is not original, but appears to be of the late eighteenth century in a style common to the Bibliothèque du Roi: with pink boards, and a red morocco spine decorated with a tiny gold-tooled motif of crowned laurel wreaths. It is entitled on the spine LE JEU DE LA HACHE D'ARMES. The Prologue (fols. 2r-v) is lightly ruled in read at thirty-four lines to the page and is underlined in red; while the rest of the text is lightly ruled in red at thirty-seven lines to the page. The text is in a fair hand and was designed to have decorated initials at the head of each paragraph: though with the exception of only two [2,3], these have not been completed. The vellum leaves have been numbered in the top right recto corner of the margin in arabic numerals by a later hand; and in my transcription of the text I have indicated this foliation italicized within square brackets; supplied all the missing letters 'I' for 'Item'; and numbered the paragraphs within square brackets for easy reference.

The earliest allusion to this manuscript is in the inventory of Francis I's library at Blois, when the books were transferred to Fontainebleau in 1544. There it is listed as, 'Le jeu de la hache; covert de veloux noir'. Subsequently it appears in Nicolas Rigault's catalogue of the Bibliothèque du Roi in 1622, as 'Le jeu de la hache d'armes'; and then as Le jeu de la hache d'armes pour soi habilitier en armes', in the Dupuy catalogue of 1645.[2] The manuscript, unfortunately, not only lacks the author's name, but is also devoid of dedicatee, date or internal reference either to people or places. Nevertheless, its tone, quality and precision suggest that it is the work of some professional master of arms, well versed in the practical instruction of knightly pupils.

In a brief prologue, the author expounds the value of skill in arms, and argues that the handling of weapons in general derives from facility with the axe. He then launches into the main section of his work [4-51], dealing with combat between two right-handed knights; and this is followed by a shorter section [52-73], on how a right-hander should cope with a left-handed adversary, which stops suddenly on a note which is stylistically, though not materially, inconclusive. Throughout, there is a determined attempt to group together, in a logical sequence, different modes of attack - whether swings or openings with croix, queue or dague - and to accompany these with various possible parries, counter-attacks and what fencers might term counter-ripostes; and there are also clear descriptions of feints and distracting moves [20, 22, 25, 44, 60, 61, 73].

The author employs a consistent terminology both for the parts of the axe and for his categorization of movements and positions. He repeatedly reminds his tutee to be en garde, and he uses the term throughout to indicate not simply the first stage of an attack - as is common in Renaissance fencing books - but rather in the modern sense of being in a position from which one may equally initiate an attack or defend oneself.[3] The garde is often qualified by the part of the axe with which the knight leads, whether queue, dague or occasionally croix.[4] Of the first two, the author specifically recommends the queue as the more advantageous [65]; and the most striking feature of the text is the heavy reliance on the queue both for attack and defense; indeed it is referred to more than three times as often as the dague; while the mail and bec de faucon (which we might consider to be the business-end of the weapon) are rarely used.[5]

The author of Le Jeu sometimes describes a counter or parry as a couverte, but often uses the verb deffaire and the noun deffaite to indicate the successful parrying of an attack. These terms are, on the whole, undifferentiated; and certainly they do not correspond to the modern distinction between parry and riposte. He also uses tourner and destourner more precisely for the turning aside of the opponent's axe;[6] while modes of attack are denoted by entree and prinse which, again, are not sharply differentiated, though I have taken them to mean an 'opening' and a 'move' respectively.[7]

However, with regard to specific strokes, Le Jeu is much more exact and decisive. It distinguishes sharply between the estocq which is a trust or jab; the tour de bras, which is a big swinging 'round arm' blow; and the coup which usually indicates blows delivered sideways - that is, what would be a cut with an edged weapon. Sometimes coup is the generic term for a particular kind of stroke such as the coup de genoul [23];[8] or,when suitably qualified, it shows the mode of delivery as, for example, the back-hander, coup darriere main [19]. Frequently, too, the axe fighter has to boutter or deliver a boutte; and in the great majority of cases this action is associated with the demy hache position, and indicates a sharp push against a part of the opponent's weapon or body with which one's axe is already in contact [14, 35, 37, 38, 40, 41, 44, 45, 50, 58, 64, 67, 68]. Less usual is the instruction pousser as, for example, when heaving hard against the opponent's armpit [11]; or to deliver a bonne secousse [9, 11] which denotes a sudden push or jolt. The opposite movement, that is a tug or pull - as, for example, when one has hooked the bec de faucon behind the opponent's neck - is indicated, naturally, by the verb tirer [32, 39, 44, 46, 56, 68]: though, again, the word is also used in its other less specific sense of delivering a blow of any sort [46, 48, 60, 61, 66, 67].

Given the lack of any generally accepted conventions or terminology, the language of Le Jeu is remarkably unambiguous, and is far superior to the efforts even of so expert a chronicler as Oliver de la Marche. The author tries hard to give exact details of sequences of movement both of hand, foot and weapon; and he very seldom lapses into banalities. Even such statements of the obvious as suggesting that the answer to one particular attack is to parry 'with your axe on his' [42], or that the way to deal with a left-hander's swing is simply to 'step back one pace and he will find nothing' [54], would have seemed less silly within the context of a school of arms where bald statements such as these would have been accompanied by practical demonstration. In fact, the value of Le Jue is precisely that of the fencing books which were to multiply in the sixteenth century. Like them it would have been no substitute for personal instruction and practice. A knight could no more learn the feel of a real axe from Le Jue than a courtier could gain the feel of a rapier from some Renaissance manual. Rather it is a record of the kind of tuition knights would have received from a master of arms. And, from the appearance of this text, the training would have been rigorous, systematic and comprehensive.


  1. Of course, there is also the difference which would result from whether or not the axes had cutting edges. When they did, as in the combat between Rumaindres and Du Bars in 1415, then swings and long blows were more likely. See above (note 3) for a reference in Saint Remy.
  2. See Henri Omont, Anciens inventaires et catalogues de la Biliothèque Nationale (Paris, 1908-10), I258; II 386; III, 68. The old catalogue numbers appear on fol. 2r of Le Jeu.
  3. See Egerton Castle's comments concerning being 'on guard' in his Schools and Masters of Fence from the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century (London, 1885, repr. 1969), 9-
  4. Le Jeu never refers to the garde of either the mail or bec de faucon - though these were probably subsurned under the garde de la croix. Cf. Olivier de la Marche, op. cit. (note 9), 383b - 4a, where the Spanish knight, Vasques, holds his axe, 'le mailler devant son visage, un grand tour loing de la main, par maniere de garde'.
  5. The illustrations in Talhoffer lay less stress on the use of the queue, though it is still more dominant than the head of the axe. In the narratives of Olivier de la Marche, various strokes are recorded: though it is noteworthy that the expert Jacques de Lalain, fighting against an English knight in 1448, held his axe 'à contre poix' so that he could use either end as he saw fit. He began with an estoc with the queue; then with the teste; and then with the bout d'embas. See above (note 9). Pietro Monte, op. cit. (note 2), Lib. II cap. x as might be expected of a master of armes, recommends the use of the calx (which is his term for the lower end of the haft) because it is swifter of delivery: 'tune generalis regula est ocius cum calce punctam iacere'.
  6. cf. Olivier de la Marche, op. cit. (note 9), 420b, where the knight Meriadet 'detourna le coup de la queue de sa hache'. However, Olivier also frequently uses the verb rabatir and the noun rabar to indicate parries - but they do not occur in Le Jeu.
  7. Olivier de la Marche also uses the word entree, as, for example, in the combat between Lalain and Boniface in 1449 when the former - seeing that his axe blows were having no effect - 'il entre dedants sa hache, par une entree de la queue, de revers', op. cit. (note9), 433b.
  8. This anticipates the notorious coup de jarret with which de Jarnac disabled La Chátaigneraie in 1547. See Scipion Dupleix, Les Lois militaires touchant le duel (Paris, 1611), 494-542.