Vigny’s La Canne, boxing, and the Olympics

Pierre Vigny became known through his involvement in Bartitsu, a short lived attempt at bringing together various martial arts in Edwardian London, and which gained later fame by being practiced by none other than Sherlock Holmes. Vigny’s art of La canne came to be through his time training as a fencing master in the French military, his possible training under Charlemont, and reportedly some combat “experimentations” in the streets of Europe.

Pierre Vigny as a fencing instructor in Evian-les-bains. 1898 – La vie au grand air

There are still certain mysteries regarding Vigny’s system and his later life. What we know is from only a handful of newspaper articles, and a book written down by Lang; the student of a student. It is also unclear how much his wife, Marguerite Sanderson, had an influence on the style. Herself being quite an accomplished fencer and assisting Vigny in many of his demonstrations, especially umbrella self defense.

In this article, I am presenting a few previously unknown articles that bring some light on the history, techniques and pedagogy of Vigny’s system, as well as his later life after Bartitsu. Thank you to Romain Meister for the help in finding most of them!

The Vignys move to Geneva

After 10 years in London, Vigny and his wife Marguerite Sanderson moved to Geneva to open up the the “Académie des Sports de Self Défense” on the 15th of October 1908. There, the Vignys, and their assistant Mr. A. Macdonald from London, basically continued the idea of Bartitsu by mixing martial arts of different origins under one roof. There they taught English boxing (according to the new American school), jiu-jitsu, La canne, savate, a “combined method of free combat” (all round self defense), a special system of body building, foil, epee and American bag punching. Miss Sanderson, world fencing champion of 1907, also taught fencing classes for women, young girls and children.

La Tribune de Genève, October 15th 1908

Vigny and the Olympics

Here is an article that was written in May of 1912 in the Revue Olympique. It was then republished in the Tribune de Genève of September 15 and 16th where it was found by a student of mine: Romain Meister. This article brings up a lot of interesting and mysterious details about the technical aspects of Vigny’s La canne. Namely three different types of strikes being the fouettés (whipped), enveloppés (wrapped), and massue (club). We can also note the disdain Vigny had for light sparring canes.

Pierre de Coubertin in 1912

Still, probably the most surprising part of this article is its author: Pierre de Coubertin, the famous founder of the modern Olympic Games. It is unclear how Coubertin came in contact with Vigny, but , as we will discuss later, Coubertin was a student of Vigny. As far as we know, Vigny was not involved in the Olympic Games, but he seems to have maintained a certain friendship with Coubertin, as can be guessed from this announcement of a sports gala in honor of Vigny’s 35th anniversary of professional activities, and chaired by Coubertin himself.

Journal de Genève, April 8, 1924, p.4

The art of La canne (Revue Olympique, May 1912, Pierre de Coubertin, p.74 – 76)

It is very well to learn how to use the “noble” but unusual weapons such as the epee, the sabre or the gun; it is better still to superpose to this knowledge the one weapon we have so often in hand and which, we must well admit, most of us are unable to get anything useful out of. Yet, there exists an art of the cane, but this cane is remindful of the gymnastic horse that we stubbornly construct in such a way that nothing about it shall remind us of the real animal; to the exercise of which it could so well prepare.

The sparring cane is a small and light wand, short, stinging, which is neither a stick nor a crop: a hybrid weapon for which an opportunity to effectively use it will never present itself. When you know how to use it, and that you take back your stiff walking stick, stronger, heavier, and of a different length, you are in no way capable of using it for your defense. And therefore, the opinion that the walking stick was a worthless weapon gained credit.

Prof. Pierre Vigny, who taught at the London Boxing Clubs and the Aldershot Military School, and who today directs the “Academy of Defense Sports” in Geneva, succeeded in demonstrating that this was not the case, and his method, apart from it being an excellent form of gymnastic, leaves little to be desired as to the practical aspect. Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to give an idea of this other than by direct instruction. A manual with figures would maybe succeed, but a short article could not pretend to do so. We will therefore confine ourselves to point out the characteristics of a method of which it would be desirable that the use should spread.

The necessity of acquiring a great flexibility of the wrist represents more or less the unique similitude between this new form of fencing and cane fencing as is taught elsewhere. The guard and the strikes are very different. The guard is essentially a combat guard. The left arm is forward as if it was holding a shield; the right arm is elevated straight behind, the weapon over the head, finds itself somewhat in a perpetual “momentum building” position. You are attacked: a brief retreat with a rapid change of guard and your cane lands mightily on the hand or the arm of the aggressor. You are certain, almost mathematically so, to reach and injure him. After which, if you march unto him by quickly turning the wrist you send the iron tipped end of the cane now transformed into a dagger right in his eyes or under his nose. And there his a man… stupefied.

The other strikes are in general whipped strikes. Though Mr. Vigny calls some “whipped”, others “wrapped” to better distinguish them. One must always obtain a whistling of the whip. This whistling, the small crop cane shall give it to you without effort. The stiff cane will only give it if you wield it with real vigor. This vigor, where to get it? In the shoulder. Naturally, teaching is given from the left as well as the right. The left couldn’t equal the right, but it must supplement it occasionally.

There also exist club strikes which demand a particular preparation. Nothing resemble it in the other kinds of fencing and the muscles, at first do not want to accommodate it. They contract faultily; the strength is lost on the way and the strike arrives weak as if dampened.

It’s because there must not be, so to speak, a break of internal continuity between the arm and the stick which prolongs it. Without stiffness but with elastic strength, the right wrist must become like a knot in the wood. For this reason the cane must be held with the full hand, the thumb folded on the other fingers and not stretched along the cane. It is a difficult habit to acquire and is a little trying. The palm crumples; blisters appear and the neophyte muscles indicate their dissatisfaction by a painful tension. But effectiveness has a price.

The Vigny method demands that the body is always well balanced, but in an ever moving balance. On this point, it is close to jiu-jitsu. It also has the inconvenience of not allowing sparring between intermediate amateurs. To do a real combat in such a sport would be to severely expose ourself and our partner. You must stick to the lesson or a mock-fight with the professor. But does such an inconvenience not constitute the best praise for a defense exercise?

Update: it seems that this article had already been translated as part of the Bartitsu Compendium back in 2008, though the author had not been identified.

Vigny’s eulogy

Interestingly, not much has been published about Vigny after or even before his time in London. I suspect this may be due to the language barrier, as most of these documents would be in French. Romain was gracious enough to look for Vigny’s eulogy in Swiss newspapers. The article he unearthed reveals to us some of the later accomplishments of the sportsman, including having as a provost the Swiss boxing champion Louis Clément Thioly (or Louis Clément). Clément won the the European light heavyweight title twice in 1924 and 1925-26. He was unfortunately knocked out by Max Schmeling in 1927, which effectively ended his career.

Louis Clément in 1927

An article from L’Express, on the 7th of may 1937, discusses how Vigny had just announced that he was retiring to Nyon. It mentions how, after 10 years in London, he came to Geneva and never left, except for a few European tours, and even though he apparently had an opportunity to go to “the Americas”. More interestingly, the article names some of the famous characters Vigny taught to, including some eminent Swiss families like the Engels, Turrettinis, Loriols, as well as the kings of Serbia and Yugoslavia Peter I and Alexander I, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia (who was presrnt when Vihny demonstrated in front of the Royal British family), the journalist Arthur Meyer and Joseph Avenol, a secretary general of the League of Nations.

Pierre Vigny is no more (Le Journal de Genève, Sept 23rd, 1943)

Pierre Vigny, a sportsman of conviction from the start, passed away in Nyon at the age of 77. With him disappears a master who had set a goal of developing ever more the defense sports, a branch which is currently abandoned. Maybe we are wrong to forsake self-defense. He himself declared that it is much easier to defend oneself with a stick than a knife or a revolver. He made a point of putting in their place ten adversaries with his method. Pierre (unreadable) as he had very much studied sports such as la canne, fencing, French and English boxing, and jiu-jitsu. But he really excelled in the art of la canne and had perfectioned the French method as to make it much more effective.

Pierre Vigny was much more a professor than a fighter, and with him boxing could truly bear the name of “noble art”. Yesterday still, Clément Thioly, former European boxing champion, once provost to the master, told us: “With Pierre Vigny disappears a true master of defense sports. He also pushed the science of English boxing to a point that was undoubtedly never reached since. He was a professor that did not seek brawls, but who knew how to teach the use of this fearsome weapon that is called “the left” and which many boxers now ignore.”

During his nine years when he sojourned in England, Pierre Vigny was called on as a professor of la canne at the Bartitsu-Club, nd his brilliant qualities allowed him to do a magnificent demonstration at the British Court. He did a few boxing exhibitions with the world champion Jack Johnson.

He started in Geneva in La Cité, then moved to the du Marché street, and finally opened his Académie des sports on de l’hôtel-de-Ville street. Pierre Vigny is no more, but those who knew him will keep the memory of a straight and honest man, and who fought without end for the development of the sport.

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