Is Savate a Martial Art?

Savate shares many attributes with other activities called martial arts: it is a codified system of fighting; it has a self-defence association; it requires mind-body-spirit application. But different people will arrive at different answers when posed the question: is Savate a martial art? 

Watch the video here and read the article below.

Savate is composed of a circle of associated disciplines. 

  • Savate boxing, or Boxe-Française, in which padded gloves and safe boots are worn but the purpose is to win a sporting contest in a ring, using either full (in Combat) or partial (in Assaut) force.
  • Canne de Combat which is either a game or defence system using sticks of several lengths.
  • Savate Defense which teaches self-defence techniques against a street attacker.
  • Savate Forme, a fitness routine boxing to music. 

With relevance to the perennial question of whether boxing – that is, pugilism – is a martial art, I am going to stick both to that and to what I know best by considering the boxing side of Savate for this article. Let’s learn more by looking at it through three useful contrasts.

East and West.

Quite often in anglophone culture the term ‘martial arts’ is reserved for describing something oriental or eastern. We imagine Kung Fu, Karate, or Aikido of Chinese and Japanese heritage. Yet this is perhaps odd as Mars, the god from whom the term derives, is Roman, and therefore part of ancient western civilization. Mars is the god of war, which is why the name sticks to the practice of fighting (more on that below), but Mars was also the god who brought peace through war, the sort of union of opposites more typical of Eastern than Western thought. This is perhaps why ‘martial arts’ is the usual translation of the Japanese term ‘bujutsu’, (‘martial technique’) or the more philosophical ‘budo’ (‘martial way’). It means something very similar, at root, in each culture and we may translate ‘bu’ as ‘martial’ without loss of nuance to describe Western fighting arts.

Savate was codified in the 1830s having been built on Parisian street fighting, Jeu Marseillais, and English bare-knuckle boxing (link). Savate is therefore not an oriental martial art – despite unevidenced stories about French sailors travelling to the Far East for their inspiration – but might be described as martial even within a western understanding of the word. Which leads to the next problem with the term.

War and Peace.

Mars is the symbol of war, that is, military conflict, and Savate was not built for this exclusive purpose. In a very rigid sense, there are very few ‘martial’ arts, designed to win wars. Jujitsu was originally designed for battlefield use, Krav Maga by the Israeli defence forces. You will find other examples, but it would seem unhelpful to classify arts solely by their original or historical purpose rather than the one they grew into. Savate, including its boxing variants, was originally practised in a civilian manner, but was later applied in military settings. After first gaining civilian popularity, it was taught to French forces from 1870 in response to the demands of war (link). Records can be found of Chausson appearing in the syllabus of the Ecole Militaire from 1853 (link). By the end of the 19th century, however, the influence of Charlement and of Coubertin’s Olympic movement reasserted Savate’s sporting basis (link).

Do art lose their martial status by being practised as sports? Most if not all battlefield arts will be taught with less than lethal technique so they may be learnt safely in a practice room without loss of life or limb. Even if an art was once deadly, it will be made safe in the gym or dojo, with unwarlike clothing, equipment, and scenarios. Whether the safety is rendered by using soft gloves, technical rules, and time-limits, but with full-speed and partner aggression – as in boxing, Savate, and other sports, or with dangerous weapons and bare hands, but with aggression and speed removed – as in street self-defence – is of little matter. Both have been civilised somehow: they differ only in the method.

A good deal of sport can serve as an attractive means for preparing men to become warriors. Our service academies see this; they take athletics to offer an opportunity for training men to meet that final, crucial test which war provides.

Paul Weiss, ‘Sport, A Philosophic Inquiry 1969, Southern Illinois University Press, p183

Savate, naturally enough, has a French military club (link)

Martial arts likely do not need an opposing army to legitimise them. Whether they are still called martial arts depends largely on whether the history or the practice is deemed more important to the naming.

Read more about Savate technique in our series.

Art and Application.

‘Art’ can connote impracticality. By putting paint on a canvas, or words to an opera, one engages in art as a means to personal expression, without needing any practical application. Fighting must be more prosaic. An opponent gives a function to what we do. Can an effective fighting system ever be a pure art? Without much controversy we may talk of the art of bricklaying, say, or of motorcycle maintenance. In these cases art fuses the practical with the expressive. This is exactly what happens in Savate. To do Savate, or boxing more generally, is to apply grace over chaos, which is perhaps the purpose of all art. Savate as a sport has rules which limit expression, but it is ‘in self-limitation that the master shows himself‘ according, at least, to Goethe.

Is Savate an art or a sport? Tae Kwon Do and Judo are both sports with rulebooks and competitions, but both are generally said to fall squarely into the martial arts camp. In this distinction I find my own answer, I think. Art connotes expression whereas sport connotes application. The method of progress is different. In competition one is informed and changed by one’s opponent. You don’t judge whether what you are doing has value simply because of its expressive or artistic content, but also through whether it is effective. This keeps you honest. Results anchor you in the real world and cultivate the personal quality that is able to accept what is.

After the game is over you count your money. That way you find out who was best. The only way.’ 

The Hustler, Walter Tevis. (1998, Bloomsbury, London, p89)

Modern Savate bouts are scored on a single point system which rates, very simply, the relative effectiveness of the fighters in each round. Interestingly, for many years Savate Assaut scoring separated out ‘touches‘ from ‘technique‘, essentially allowing a fighter to score for artistry in one column and effectiveness in the other.

Nietzsche said in his notebooks that ‘we have art so we don’t die of the truth’. Taking the philosopher at his word, maybe the opposite of this is to let truth in even if that makes what we do no longer an art.

A sporting answer.

savate sparring bonnet

Sport is predicated on competition, a word composed of two others, ‘com-’ and ‘petere’ meaning ‘with’ and ‘to strive’. So competition literally means ‘to strive with another’. This for me is the value, the human element, in sport, which chisels your understanding through meeting another and struggling together with them. In art we aim for connection to the cosmos; in sport, with each other.

That’s why I think of Savate as a sport. And also why I think of sport as a worthy vehicle for personal development in place of the Buddhist, Taoist or Confucian philosophies which ground Eastern martial arts. Savate was an Olympic demonstration sport in 1924 and today the International Federation explicitly shares the values of the Olympic charter, whose first principle reads:

‘Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.’

(Olympic Charter 17 July 2020).

Savate is based on western chivalry, the philosophy of Dumas (link), Paine (in the founding of the French Republic), and Coubertin and the modern Olympic movement. If martial arts need an underlying philosophy to qualify, this test is surely met.

There are, in summary, several reasons to defend thinking of Savate as martial art: it comes from the same Western culture as the eponymous Mars; it has a place alongside other fighting systems taught today with non-military applications; it has features of both a sport and an art and shares these with the likes of Tae Kwon Do and Judo, among others; it has a philosophical basis worthy of deep practice. Savate can justifiably be called a martial art. But, for me, ‘fight sport’, invoking the values of a sportsmanship and the Olympic ethos is the preferred description.

Leave a Reply