The history of European swordsmanship is often presumed to be the story of white, cisgender men. But people of all genders and races have played leading roles in this story.
On April 23rd, 2023, Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site partnered with the Musicians of Ma’alwyck (including Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz , Norman Thibodeau, and André Laurent O’Neil), actor Devin Funnye, and historical fencer Reily Mumpton, to present The Match!, a celebration of the stories of two 18th century individuals who exemplify these contributions: Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Chevalière d’Éon.
Saint-Georges and d’Éon were both considered celebrities in late-18th century London, and were part of the entourage of the Prince of Wales (through which they made the acquaintance of Schuyler Mansion’s very own Angelica Schuyler Church, of Hamilton fame!). On April 9, 1787, when the Prince of Wales hosted a fencing tournament at his personal residence, contemporary accounts hailed the match between Saint-Georges and d’Éon as the capstone of the event.
In addition to being immensely respected fencers, Saint-Georges was a celebrated musician and composer, while d’Éon had a thrilling past as a soldier and spy in secret service to King Louis XV of France. If this were not enough to capture the interest of their contemporaries and modern audiences alike, neither figure fit neatly into societal assumptions about the identities of aristocratic 18th century courtiers and fencers: Chevalière d’Éon was a trans-woman, while Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a biracial Afro-Caribbean man.
Possibly born intersex, d’Éon had been assigned male at birth and raised as a son of the French nobility. Her espionage career eventually led to exile, forcing d’Éon to protect herself by threatening to publish incriminating documents about the king of France. In 1777, at the age of forty-nine, d’Éon agreed to return to France and turn over the documents on several conditions: that she be legally recognized as a woman, be given a full feminine wardrobe suitable to her status, and be allowed to wear her military honors earned while presenting as a man. Desperate to avoid scandal, the king agreed. From that point forward, d’Éon was able to live publicly as a woman.
Saint-Georges, on the other hand, was born not into nobility, but into slavery on the plantations of Guadeloupe. His life story is featured in Searchlight Pictures film, CHEVALIER, which hit theaters on April 21, 2023. The son of a white French planter and an enslaved African mother, he was sent to France at the age of seven, where he was legally free. There he studied many topics, including music and fencing. The specter of racism still followed him, however, as the Code Noir (“Black Code”) limited his freedoms. He likewise faced personal prejudices from fellow fencers and musicians. He did not back down to his detractors, however, besting many of them with sword or violin, and eventually secured the patronage of Queen Marie Antoinette herself. He later became an important voice in the French abolition movement, and an officer in the French revolutionary forces.
Saint-Georges and d’Éon are stirring examples of Black and LGBTQ+ excellence in a history from which such voices are often sidelined by traditional narratives. Both openly celebrated who they were, excelling in every area of their lives, even when met with social opposition. They are important reminders that people from these groups have always been part of our shared stories, and that the contributions of marginalized individuals and groups today are part of a living tradition with very deep roots.
236 years later after they crossed swords before the Prince of Wales, visitors of all ages and backgrounds gathered to hear performances of some of Saint-Georges’ compositions by the Musicians of Ma’alwyck (as well as music by contemporaries who drew inspiration from the Afro-Caribbean virtuoso), and to witness an exciting live recreation of Saint-Georges’ and d’Éon’s 1787 fencing match! We are honored to have been able to help share their stories, and look forward to continuing to amplify the many, many voices that make up our whole history.
– Written by Ian Mumpton, Historic Site Assistant at OPRHP Schuyler Mansion
Event photographs courtesy of Madeleine Goodman, Excelsior Service Fellow at OPRHP