Granted, me being primarily a longsword fencer, I am not all that aware of later masters of the sword, but damn do they have some interesting stories! This time around
in inspirational historical swordspeople: Jean-Louis Michel
Born in present-day Haiti in 1785, his earliest years have a bit of a conflict in the sources. Some say that he was the son to a fencing coach to the French Army, others that his father was unknown to him. It is known, however, that he had joined the army early in his life. Unfortunately, he was a small, almost sickly child, and the army had sent him to a fencing master to put him into shape. The master, seeing the child and his awkward movements, quickly cast him aside. But the young mullato stayed on the side lines and soaked in what he could. His perseverance was noticed by a Belgian fencing master, who took him under his wing. The little fighter (157cm or 5’2” for those of you barbarians who still use that lawless system of measurement) developed, building up his muscle and gaining grace of movement.
When he was 19 years old, he made an impression on everyone present: during an indoor squabble, he was challenged to a duel. Jean-Louise accepted this duel, but that wasn’t quite enough. He would fight left-handed and with a practice foil, while his much larger opponent would use a rapier. Jean-Louise fought defensively, tiring out his opponent, and finishing the duel with a vicious cut across his opponent’s face that left a scar despite the button end. Of course, all present were like:
This newly earned respect also eventually earned him the rank of Drum Major – a position that involved teaching sword skills to the army.
At the age of 27, he was a candidate (the youngest candidate up to that point) for the Master’s exam, which he passed with flying colours. His style was clear by then, and based on conservation of movement, flexibility, and grace. He is credited with saying “you should hold the handle of a sword like you would hold a bird: gently enough not to crush it, and firmly enough not to let it fly away.”
Now, here comes my favourite part of this story: in 1814, outside of Madrid, Italian and French soldiers met. Since both nations had a strong national fencing style, fighting on whose Kung Fu is best was inevitable. The fighting grew into bloodshed, and the officers had to step in. It was decided that they would prove which style is best. So in 40 minutes, the absolute madlad that was Jean-Louise Michel fought 13 opponents. Of those, he had killed three and wounded the rest.
Of course, being such a badass, he was offered promotion in the army several times, which he always declined, saying he would betray his Art if he stopped teaching it. That didn’t prevent him from being awarded the medal of the Legion of Honor and being made into the First Master of Arms of France.
Shortly after his above achievements, he moved to Montpellier, where he opened a fencing hall, and it is here that the badassness (yes, that’s a word now) of his character was also revealed: he thought his student to always avoid killing in duels, preaching that “fencing is the art of conciliation.” He was often asked to arbitrate duels, which he had never turned down. In 1829, he retired and made Montpellier his permanent home.
There is another story about him, but one I could not verify, so take it with a grain of salt: it is said that in his youth, he had attended a bone-fide Mortal Kombat tournament. The participants would fight to the death. Jean-Louise made it to the finals, where he fought a much larger opponent. The fight supposedly lasted for a full hour, whereupon his foe lost concentration due to the fatigue. The young mullato took the opportunity to claim the victory right there and then.
What I find sad about the otherwise fascinating story about this man, is that despite being a huge influence on French fencing, he had never written a fencing manual. However, his legacy lives on, and it is only befitting that we know of someone who was such a great fencer, and just as importantly, a kind and gentle man.
Here’s the main source, though it’s in French: