Fencing Parries Classified – The Classical French Foil Parries

The basic parries of the French school of the foil evolved from smallsword play in the 1700s with certain elements that clearly come from rapier play in the late 1500s and early 1600s, and even longsword technique of the 1400s. By the late 1800s the set of parries used in classical fencing were well established, parries that continue in use today in modern fencing.

The parry system of the classical period from the 1870s through the 1930s is distinguished by several elements. First, parries were developed to cover and protect lines, generally accepted as high and low lines horizontally separated and inside and outside lines vertically separated. The area of these lines varied with the foil target area, which was not firmly established to a single standard until the elimination of the waist length target for women’s foil in the 1950s. That also meant that the way in which the parries were executed, especially for the low line parries, also varied to some degree throughout the period.

Second, parries were defined by how the hand was held. The conventional view is that parries were either pronated (the weapon held with the knuckles of the hand uppermost) or supinated (held with the knuckles on the bottom of the hand and the palm of the hand and tips of the fingers uppermost). This is not completely true. The pronated parries were certainly held with the knuckles uppermost. However, as early as the 1870s the supinated parry was also held in the modern thumb upward and fingers to the inside line position, termed a middle position. As a practical matter the thumb upward position is physically stronger, reduces stress on the arm, and is more tolerant of errors in point control than is a pure supinated position.

By the late 1880s two standard parry systems were in use – one pronated and the other supinated or middle position. Each achieved the same basic goal, complete coverage of the four lines (high inside, high outside, low outside, and low inside. Depending on the fencing master and the date, either both systems were taught, one or the other system was dominant, or some mix of the two systems was preferred.

The supinated or middle position system included the following parries:

… Sixth – to protect the high outside line.

… Eighth – to protect the low outside line.

… Seventh – to protect the low inside line.

… Fourth – to protect the high inside line.

The pronated system included the following parries:

… First – to protect the high inside line with some capability to protect the low inside line.

… Second – to protect the low outside line.

… Third – to protect the high outside line.

… Fifth – to protect the low inside line with some capability to protect the high inside line.

The classical fencer who wishes to take a traditional approach to learning classical technique might well start by learning the pronated system first. Pronated parries were very important to the earlier smallsword play, were in common use in the early to middle 1800s, and continued in general use throughout the classical period. Perhaps the easier system to master for the person exploring classical fencing is the middle position system of 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th. Under any conditions, the purely supinated system is the least easy to master and should probably be the last explored.