Born 1785 in Saint Domingue, Jean-Louis Michel was known as the father of modern fencing in France. By the end of his life, he was known as the foremost authority on fencing of the 19th century and had trained soldiers and influential people alike.
In Service to Napoleon
Fencing was a part of Jean-Louis Michel’s age from an early age in Saint Domingue. The elder Michel served as the French army’s fencing coach and he would pursue the art very early on. One recollection has him participating in a dueling tournament to the death and defeating several other youths.
The finals of the tournament saw him face off against a Spanish duelist with a ten-inch height advantage at 6 feet. For an hour, the two clashed swords before Jean-Louis took advantage of a distraction and running him through.
Loyal to France, Jean-Louis Michel joined the army’s 32nd Regiment of the 3rd Division serving under Napoleon. Here he grew his legend as an extremely deadly fencer. The French and Italian armies camped outside of Madrid in 1814. Eventually, an argument arose between the two forces. In several duels, Jean-Louis kills three Italian master swordsmen and injures ten others. The duels all lasted 40 minutes and Michel defeated them in 27 thrusts.
Well into his 40s, Jean-Louis Michel accepted a number duels and would train others. He retired from the military in 1830 and opened his fencing school in Montpellier. Jean-Louis made sure his students knew that fencing to death was the worst use of his training and simply low brow.
He would pass away 35 years after opening his school at the age of 80.
In training and in dueling, Jean-Louis Michel focused on not wasting movement. Several accounts of his fights note that he would evade or parry his opponent’s advances and wait until they tired themselves out before attacking with a well-placed riposte or follow up thrust. This approach resulted in many opponents either leaving for the town morgue or for the town doctor after challenging the fencing master.