So I got curious recently about what sort of martial arts were around during the time of the Golden Age of Piracy. Obviously sword-play was huge, as well as the use of knives, cudgels, and other close combat weapons. But I got to wondering: what happens when you’ve shot your blunderbuss and your flintlocks, your sword breaks or gets knocked out of your hand, and now you’re barehanded?
So far the only “empty-hand” martial art I’ve found evidence for is Savate, which is a French martial art. To quote from Martial Arts of the World, An Encyclopedia, Volume Two: R-Z, “Savate (from the French for “shoe”), is an indigenous martial art of France and southwestern Europe that developed from the fighting techniques of sailors, thugs, and soldiers.” (pg. 519) Savate is known for its kicking techniques, which probably evolved from the Greek and Roman art of pankration. Apparently there is a German book on wrestling (not named here) that “shows what appears to be the continuation of savate-like techniques from 1447 to 1700.” (pg. 519)
There is a reference to a practitioner of savate in a poem written in the 1700’s which describes a savateur as “part angel and part devil.” (pg. 519) This next reference is a bit past the Golden Age of Piracy, but it is probably safe to say that any of these techniques were already in use during this period of time. “In the mid-1700’s, the term chausson, from the type of shoe worn on board ship, was being used to describe the fighting techniques of French, Spanish, and Portugese sailors.” (pg. 519)
A formal school of savate wasn’t established until 1803’s in Paris. Michel “Pisseux” Casseux codified the techniques into “fifteen kicking techniques and fifteen cane techniques.” (pg. 519)
So what is the relevance here? Well, if your enemy is on deck and is too close to allow the use of a weapon or there aren’t any weapons available, it would seem safe to think that it would behoove a pirate or sailor to have an alternate means of defending himself.
I once took a demonstration class of savate which included kicking techniques that utilized kicking while holding onto a railing or another person, techniques which would be useful on board a ship. There were also techniques for two people holding a person between them, allowing that person to kick higher than they might otherwise be able to. Most sword fighters utilized kicks and strikes as part of their arsenal.
The instructors here also spoke of a period of time in France where it was illegal to strike another person with a closed fist. This led to the development of open-hand striking techniques. If you don’t think that slapping someone is effective, MMA Champion Bas Rutten once put a man in the hospital for six months simply by slapping him.
So, this is my brief foray into savate as a pirate martial art. I’m still researching it and hope to have more information in a later post.
If you have any information to contribute, I would be interested in hearing it, as I find it to be a very fascinating topic!
Martial Arts of the World, An Encyclopedia, Volume Two: R-Z, edited by Tomas A. Green, ABC-CLIO, Inc., Santa Barbara, California, 2001.
Savate: From the Back Alleys of France to the Martial Arts World, posted by Patrick Sternkopf on May 19, 2014, in General Martial Arts History, Savate, Martial Arts History.
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