History of Savate

If you could go back in time, say a couple of hundred years or so, onto the streets of old Paris, France, you might very well find thugs and hoodlums settling their differences with a street-fighting style which they called ‘La Savate’ (pronounced sa-vat). This was simply a slang term, which meant ‘old shoe’ (or ‘old boot’). They used the expression because, when fighting, the main emphasis was to kick one another with their ordinary everyday shoes or boots on. In addition to kicking, they also slapped, wrestled and head-butted, and were also not averse to gouging and biting it seems. What they didn’t do, however, was to punch each other with the closed fist, in the manner of English Pugilists. In fact, the practise of fist-fighting was originally considered to be unusual by the French. For example: One bemused French traveller, who had previously visited England during the earliest part of George I.’s reign (1714 – 27), wrote in his memoirs:-

“Anything that looks like fighting is delicious to an Englishman. If two little boys quarrel in the street, the passengers [coach travellers] stop, make a ring round them in a moment, that they may come to fisticuffs.” He goes on to say “If a coachman has a dispute about his fare with a gentleman that has hired him, the coachman consents with all his heart; the gentleman pulls off his sword and lays it in some shop, with his cane, gloves and cravat, and boxes in the same manner as I have described above.”

Whilst Savate was originally regarded as a method of street-fighting, as time went on it gradually started to become systemized. The very first ‘official’ Savate training establishment ‘Salle’ was opened by Michel Casseux, aka Pisseux (b. 1794), in 1825. At the time, however, Savate still suffered from its past association with street thuggery, and the like, and initially tended only to attract those of ill-repute and the lower social classes. Never-the-less, things steadily improved, and the art began to attract a higher class of patronage. It is said that the author Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-95) – son of Alexandre Dumas père (who wrote ‘the Three Musketeers’) – and the French romantic Poet, Théophile Gautier (1811-72), also undertook lessons.

Around the time that Casseux opened his Salle for Savate training, another style of foot-fighting was also known, especially in and around the old southern dockyards of Marseilles. This method was initially called ‘Chausson’, the name of a sailor’s deck shoe, or slipper, although it was also known as jeu marseillais (sport Marseilles). Chausson differed somewhat from Savate in that most of the kicks were aimed much higher, and the hands were regularly placed on the ground when kicking – not unlike in Brazilian Capoeira. By contrast, Savate kicks were generally delivered low, as you might expect from a style which had originated in the street. One thing that was common, to both Savate and Chausson, however, was the wearing of shoes on the feet when practising, or fighting.

 chausson on board ship

Whilst we can be fairly sure that Savate originated in the backstreets of old Paris, the roots of Chausson are perhaps a little less clear. As France was (like Britain) an Empire-building and sea-going nation, with many interests beyond its own borders, French sailors would have been exposed to many different cultures and traditions in their travels. Is it possible, therefore, that the art of Chausson either originated from, or was highly influenced by, African arts, which the French sailors had seen performed by slaves. Could it be that the same (or a similar) mother art that led to Capoeira in Brazil, also spawned Chausson in France?