The “Knowledge of the Stick” in Napoleonic France

  • Originally published on the site on Saturday, 2nd March 2013

This short essay on the practicalities and wisdom of stick fighting is excerpted from “The Story of the Stick in All Ages and Lands” (1875), by Antony Réal.

I REMEMBER an armory of the quartier Latin that was very much frequented in 184-, where the art of using the cudgel was especially taught. There were a dozen of us, students, who were almost passionately fond of this kind of fencing.

The name of our fencing-master was Gousset. He was a very strong man, most devilishly irritable, much feared by his equals, but withal a good fellow, and very talkative — especially when we invited him to drink.

“Gentlemen,” he often said to us, “learn how to use the stick with one or both hands — then I will answer for you. In no matter what situation you may find yourselves, no matter how many enemies you may have, you can victoriously repulse their attacks, with this weapon in your hands.” “Why,” he sometimes said, as he twirled his stick,
“with this instrument, I could repulse a squad of policemen.” Gousset was a fanatic on the stick question. “Fencing with the stick,” he also said, “develops the body more than any other exercise. It is the best way to acquire strength and suppleness. After six months of this healthful exercise, you will be proof against diseases of the chest.”

Gousset’s aphorisms on this subject occur to me:

“The knowledge of the stick is the knowledge of life.”
“Aim at the breast, but strike at the head.”
“Beware of your own eyes; let no one know where you are going to strike.”
“Man is only successful through audacity. Be expert with the stick, and you will be audacious.”
“Have confidence in your stick, and you will have confidence in yourself.”
“To be feared is better than to be loved; and nothing inspires fear so much as a good, solid stick.”
“We ought to know how to use the stick, and how to shake hands.”

These aphorisms of Gousset seem to have been put in practice principally by a celebrated society formed in 1850, and which was christened by the public Decembraillards.

“The organization of this society was formidable,” says M. Ernest Hamel, in his patriotic Histoire du second Empire. It was a whole army recruited from the soldiers, and men of no profession or trade, who were ready for anything. Its members were armed with long, iron-pointed sticks, which they were always ready to use on those who were not as enthusiastic as they.

It was on the plain of Satory, near Versailles, on the 10th of October, 1850, that the Decembraillards appeared for the first time, armed with their clubs. They were reviewed by Louis Napoleon, at that time president of the republic.

On that day the aphorism of our master, Gousset, was realized. “You should know how to strike with a club, and how to shake hands.” Here the hand-shakings were bottles of wine distributed among the soldiers.

“When,” said an eye witness, “partisans of the new empire were seen exciting the enthusiasm of the troops, and provoking the cries of ‘ Vive l’Empereur!’”, a bottle in one hand, and a club in the other.

And the empire arose!

In 1869, when this power which M. de la Gueronniere called in a journal the club empire, was about to fall, the stick again tried to play its political part.

Unfortunately for the men who still dream of the feudal stick, the people of to-day no longer allow themselves to be cudgelled, and the society of the cudgellers had its trouble for its pains.

And the empire fell!!!

It is the fate reserved to all nations whose principle is not The Right, that they can only rise and be maintained by force.

If, in all ages and with all nations, cudgelling has been practiced —as we shall see it has, in the next book of this history — it belonged to our epoch to make an art of this practice. But happily for our generation, this art is only exercised to-day in a platonic way, although there are still backs ready to bend before the first stick that comes along.

In Gousset’s time only forty to fifty blows were given in thirty seconds. Our cudgellers of to-day can administer from seventy to eighty.

Such progress in the art of cudgelling makes me muse!

To all cudgellers, past, present, and to come — to all stick-bearers, kings, emperors, or prelates, I prefer the inoffensive cudgeller who lately performed tricks with his stick on the Place de la Madeline, and on the great boulevards, and whom all Paris has seen throw in the air, with the end of his stick, a small coin which always fell into his vest pocket, amid the deafening shouts of the people. This cudgel-player modestly called himself the first stick-juggler of Europe.

We can forgive him for this feeling of pride, for his stick never tyrannized over nor hurt any one. It knew how to command respect without inspiring fear.

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