The following essay is taken from the first chapter of the most elaborate treatise on fencing ever written, Gerard Thibault’s L’Académie de l’Espée (The Academy of the Sword)1 Thibault, one of the best fencers of his age, was also a physician, a painter and an architect— and, if his manual of swordsmanship is any guide, a capable student of the Hermetic tradition as well. In discussing the philosophical underpinnings of his style of fencing, he borrowed themes and details from a wide range of Hermetic writings including the Asclepius, the Conclusiones of Pico di Mirandola, and the Three Books of Occult Philosophy of Henry Cornelius Agrippa.
I have dealt elsewhere with the historical background to Thibault, and to the whole movement of Hermetically inspired swordsmanship he exemplified.2 That movement represents one of the more unexpected facets of Renaissance Hermeticism — and one of the more cogent pieces of evidence that Renaissance Hermeticism was far from the purely intellectual and abstract pastime envisioned by some modern scholars. It may also serve as a reminder to modern Hermeticists that the traditions they study are by no means without their practical implications.
On The Philosophy of Hermetic Swordsmanship
A discourse on the excellence and perfection of man, declaring that his body is exactly compassed by Nambet; Weight and Measure, having movements which relate to the circle
Man is the most perfect and excellent of all the creatures of the world. In him is found, among other marks of divine wisdom, so exquisite a representation of the whole universe, in its entirely and in its principal parts, that he has been rightly called by the ancient philosophers “Microcosm”, which is to say the Little World.
For even aside from the dignity of the soul, which has such great advantages over all that is perishable, his body contains an abridgment, not only of all that is here below on earth, but also of that which is in heaven itself. It represents the whole with a harmony so sweet, beautiful and complete, and with so exact a concordance of number, measure and weight, related so marvelously to the virtues of the four elements and to the influence of the seven planets, that nothing else can be found like it.1
The most perfect number, Ten, is continually shown before his eyes, in its entirety by his own fingers, and again divided into two equal halves on his two hands, with Five fingers on each; which is again divided unequally into One and Four by the thumb and the rest of the fingers, of which the One is made up of Two joints, and the Four of Three. In such a way, this structure places always in his view the first and most excellent numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 10.
Such illustrious philosophers as Pythagoras, Plato, and all those of their schools have held these numbers in such great esteem that they chose to conceal in them, and deduce from them, the greatest mysteries of their doctrine. Furthermore, in the length, breadth and thickness of this same body, measure is seen to be so precisely observed that the greatest ancient and modern architects have not found anything else in the world more appropriate to serve them as a rule, according to which they order their works, than this sole pattern of man. In this pattern they saw a perpetual proportion observed by God Himself in the making of the body, which they took as an example in order to fashion from the beginnings the architecture of temples, theaters, amphitheaters, palaces, towers, ships, and other instruments both of peace and of war, not only in their entirety, but also in each of their principal parts: columns, posts, capitals, pedestals, and other similar members.2
So we read that the Temple of Solomon, that grand ornament and miracle of the flourishing republic of the Jews, was built according to this same proportion; and what is more, that God Himself commanded the patriarch Noah, in building the Ark, to follow the same rule.3 For just as the body of man measures 300 minutes in length, 50 in breadth, and 30 in thickness through the middle of the breast, so similarly the Ark was made 300 cubits in length, 50 in breadth and 30 in height. In both of these the length is six times the breadth, and ten times the depth.
This is a proportion of which we have the numbers always before our eyes, and which we are able to demonstrate clearly on our fingers, where we are accustomed to apprehend the first lessons of natural arithmetic. For the whole sum of the fingers, which is 10, being multiplied by 3, makes 30 for the thickness, and multiplied by 5 makes 50 for the breadth; and multiplied by 10, and then again by 3, makes 300 for the length.
These measures also agree with what several grave authors have written on the same subject. Among others, Vitruvius reports that the stature of man is six geometric feet in length; the foot contains ten degrees, and each degree five minutes; which makes 60 degrees or 300 minutes, corresponding exactly to the 300 cubits of the Ark. Although I would rather not rely so precisely on Vitruvius as to give man a length of six geometrical feet, it is enough for me that his height may be divided in six equal measures. Pliny remarks also in Book Seven, Chapter 17, that the natural stature of a well-proportioned man accords exactly with the measure of his own arms from the fingertips of one hand to those of the other. In sum, all philosophers have made so great an estimation of this measure, and of the proportion of the human body, and have studied it so much in one way or another, that Pythagoras dared to name man “the measure of all things”.
As for the proportion of man’s weight, it cannot be doubted that this may also be observed with as much art as number or measure. This is easy to recognize, because it is man alone of all the animals who walks upright, in such a way that he always holds himself in counterpoise and balance in all his actions. Otherwise, he would be made awkward by them at every moment. For his structure is such that all his members (the arms excepted) become progressively heavier as they are raised up above the ground, so that lighter and weaker parts hold up others which are heavier and more robust. This would be a thing against Nature, and indeed insupportable over any period of time, with so many and diverse sorts of movements as one sees the human body make, if that body did not regulate its weight from the top of the head to the soles of the feet with a singular and perfect art.
A more complete discussion of this matter belongs to the anatomists, whose business it is to declare the particulars of this noble structure. We do not claim to expound any of this subject except that which touches on the exercise of arms. We are content to declare several things in general concerning it, notably touching its exterior proportions, to the end that once this is done it may be all the more easy to judge the nature and scope of each of the movements that proceed from it. Since these movements are sometimes made with the whole body, sometimes and more often with the arms and hands, and at other times with the legs and feet, we will demonstrate presently that men are able to make use of their necessary and useful movements in more ways, more easily, and more promptly than the other animals can.
Concerning this it is necessary to recognize that it is ordinarily and properly the office of the arms and hands to execute the commands of the will, in doing the actions which utility or necessity demand; and that the legs and feet do not commonly serve any purpose but that of carrying and turning the body, and of putting the arms and hands in places where the will intends their work to be done. Further, there is this difference, that the arms and legs are specially fitted to make large movements, just as the hands and feet to make smaller ones, and that the arms are particularly capable of executing what is needed with force, just as the hands are able for their part to work with dexterity.
The feet, as pillars which hold up the body, are nearly immobile toward the heels, but toward the toes they move quite readily, so that by the inequality of this structure the body is as able to strengthen itself above, by means of the one, as it is on the other hand to move and turn itself quickly and easily to every side, by means of the other. From both of these, again, the body receives great assistance by the proper length which they furnish to it as a stable and solid foundation when the body stands still, and when the body walks, they help to push it and give it its course.
The hands move with great agility in all their parts, and at their greatest width measure half the width of the face, or one-quarter that of the breast. When the hand is closed, the circumference of the fist will be a third of the circumference of the breast, so that it naturally is able to serve it as a shield for defense held out in front, either open and extended or well closed.
This is why the Jewish author Philo has occasion to say that in place of all the ornaments and natural defenses of the other animals, man has been given reason as a guide, and hands as instruments to execute that which reason wills. He says also that reason is the hand, so to speak, of the understanding; the hand of reason is speech, and the bodily hands are those which carry out what speech commands. These instruments, which contain in themselves all the sufficiency of those of other creatures, are in consequence equal to them in dignity, and indeed surpass them.
For this reason man comes into the world without any weapons at all, either offensive or defensive, and has nothing but the sole instrument of the hand, by means of which he is able to prevail over all. The other animals defend themselves and attack their opponents, some with teeth, others with claws, hooves or horns, as can be seen in elephants, lions, bears, horses, bulls, tigers and other beasts. To these Nature has handed out in a rather stingy fashion one sole kind of weapons to each, for the needs of its defense. To man, however, who seems to deprived of all these, she has given in recompense the understanding to recognize them, the mind to make them, and the hands to help himself by means of any and all of them.
Again, so that he may be able to help himself with greater advantage, Nature has given him by a special privilege the power to strike to the rear with his arms and to the front with his feet at the same instant, a thing impossible to other creatures. Also, for the same or similar reasons, the natural position of the arms is in such a place that the operations of the hands fall always under the government of the eyes, for the purpose of securing and assisting that much more easily the rest of the members in their necessities.
In the same way, therefore, all the artists, architects, perspectivists, and others mentioned earlier have tried to prove the foundations of their rules by the proportions of the body of man. We have similarly held to the same course, but with better success, and have found with the help of this same pattern the true and proportional measure of all the movements, times and distances which must be observed in our practice. This will be demonstrated to you all at once in the explanation of our circle,4 where the measures and proportions of man are applied to man himself, and to the movements which he makes with his own limbs, where the aforesaid proportions are found, and without which it is impossible for him to perform the least action in the world.
In practicing this exercise, as I have done for some years in many countries, and with great practitioners of the art — of whom some tend toward the French style, others to the Italian, and all in all, each one does in his own manner — I have seen that people are accustomed by all of these styles to strange postures: the body bent in several angles with feet and legs put out of their natural proportion, and in positions wholly repugnant to the ordinary way one walks or stands. Instead of showing any great courage by these postures, in fact, those who use them inconvenience themselves and lessen their own force, rather than obtaining through them the effect which these inventions claim.
Considering this closely, and knowing on the other hand that all the arts follow Nature, without ever contravening her, I have decided to conduct our exercise also in the same school of this sovereign mistress of good inventions. In this I have remarked first of all that all the measures and stances to be observed in this practice (which are the first foundations, and the basis for all the following parts) proceed from the proportions of the human body. Without recognizing this, it is impossible to learn to properly take up these measures and stances, or to practice them with assurance. It is the same with the pace and steps, ordinary and extraordinary, which the usage of the exercise and the variety of occasions may require. It is apparent, therefore, that it is necessary first to recognize the proportion of the members and parts of the human body, so that one may at the very least make some reasonable judgement of the scope of each movement in proportion to the member or members on which it depends, and from which it may be continued, ended, turned, returned, released, bent, or changed in any of thousands of other ways.
It is therefore necessary to learn first of all that the philosophers attribute to this Microcosm, the human body, diverse figures, of which the triangle, square and pentagon will be discussed elsewhere. For now, we say that the body is also round or circular in the figure of its movements.
To this accords the saying of Hippocrates, prince of physicians, that the body is a circle. This may be understood in regard to the natural actions and operations of its inner parts, and of their subordinate changes, reciprocal and succeeding one another in such a way that one can no longer find a beginning or an end, as in the circumference of a circle. It can also be related to the figure in all its movements in space, each of which takes place in a circle, extending from the center of its strength out to the extreme circumference of its weakness.
Now since it will presently be asked what gives you the measure which is convenient and proportional to the stature, situations, steps, and generally all the outward movements of the same body, here is the figure of our circle, which we say contains all the qualities just mentioned, and is drawn from the proper measure and proportion of the human body.
All mathematicians know that the circle is the simplest, first, and indeed the most perfect, most excellent and most useful of all figures for defense, since it only allows itself to touch a surface at one point at a time. A figure so accomplished ought not to be lacking in a body so noble, and indeed a circle can be demonstrated in the human body in diverse manners. Principally, this can be done from the length of the body at full extension, that is, when it stands upright on its legs, feet together, and arms extended straight up so that the elbows are level with the top of the head. When it stands in this way, either upright against a wall or extended in the same way on the ground, and one end of a large compass is placed at the navel and the other at the toes or against the soles of the feet, and the circumference is then drawn all around, it forms a circle, the center of which will be at the person’s navel, the diameter equal to the height at full extension, and the circumference touching the soles of the feet on one side and the tips of the fingers on the other. If this turns out not to be the case, the body is not properly proportioned according to the rules of composition.
That is the circle which we propose to use all through this book for skill in our exercise. Seeing that it is proportioned to the extended length of a man, we say also that it is proportioned to all the movements which he would know how to make, with arms and legs and with the entire body, or with any one of its parts.
It would be possible to draw many other circles from the proportions of man in diverse manners (such as by placing the center on the genitals, and the circumference at the top of the head and the soles of the feet). These cannot have the same sufficiency, nor the convenience of measures, as that which we have given here, because they do not have the proportion with the arms extended, which is obviously needed to execute the greater part of this exercise. For this reason, together with several other considerations, if it is a question of making use of this circle, it is necessary not to take up any other diameter than that which accords exactly with the body’s length at full extension.
Notes to the Introduction
1. Originally published Leiden: Elzevier, 1630.
2. John Michael Greer, “Geometries of the Sword,” Gnosis 40 (1996), pp. 50-55.
Notes to the Text
1. This entire passage is highly reminiscent of the famous description of “Man, the miracle” in Asclepius VII. See G.R.S. Mead, Thrice Greatest Hermes (repr. York Beach: Weiser, 1992), Book II pp. 201-203.
2. Much of this paragraph and the next is a close paraphrase of a passage in Agrippa’s chapter on “The Proportion, Measure and Harmony of Man’s Body.” See Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1993), p. 345.
3. The measurements for the Temple of Jerusalem may be found in 2 Kings 6:210 and 2 Chronicles 3:3-17, while those of Noah’s ark will be found in Genesis 6: I 416.
4. Thibault’s “circle” is a complex geometrical diagram composed of a circle set within a square and elaborated by a series of diameters, tangents and chords. It and its proportions, which are given in exhaustive detail in the first two chapters of Thibault’s book, bear a distinct resemblance to the diagrams Agrippa gives to illustrate the symmetry and proportion of the human body. See Agrippa, op. cit., pp. 346-348.