Early ears of Méthode Naturelle
Georges Hébert (* 27. April 1875 in Paris; † 2. August 1957 in Tourgéville) was an officer in the French Navy and founder of the Méthode Naturelle.
Prior to the First World War, Hébert was stationed in the town of St. Pierre, Martinique. In 1902 the town fell victim to a catastrophic volcanic eruption. Hebert coordinated the escape and rescue of some seven hundred people from this disaster. This experience had a profound effect on him, and reinforced his belief that athletic skill must be combined with courage and altruism. He eventually developed this ethos into his personal motto, “Être fort pour être utile” (“Being strong to be useful”).
Hébert had travelled extensively throughout the world and was impressed by the physical development and movement skills of indigenous peoples in Africa and elsewhere.
Upon his return to France, Hébert became a physical instructor for the French marines in Lorient, where he began to define the principles of his own system of physical education and to create apparatus and exercises to teach his Natural Method.
During the Stockholm Olympic Games of 1912, the German athletes performed way better than their French counterparts. A different training concept was indispensable and Georges Hebert was called upon to assist. 1913 Reims College of Athletes was build. This first training center for physical education in France was destroyed during the First World War and party rebuilt later.
Contrary to the widespread belief that his approach was exclusively based on his observations of the natural movements of indigenous people, his method is a synthesis of various influences like classical representations of the human body in Graeco-Roman statuary and works of his predecessor Francisco Amorós, who published in 1847 Nouveau Manuel Complet d’Education Physique, Gymnastique et Morale and which encompasses already the full range of practical movement aptitudes and many others.
G. Hébert also was an early advocate of the benefits of exercise for women.
Georges Hébert’s teaching continued to expand between and during the two wars.
The marines adopted MN already 1904, the Paris fire brigade in 1913. By 1940 MN was introduced by several, though not all, French military forces, along with Swedish gymnastics and sports. MN, in a modified version, also became the official system of physical education in public schools.
G. Hébert’s relations with the ministries (armies, health, public education, sports) were rather complex. Against the wide-spread believe, for G. Hébert the MN was a school work, not the military. But the Public School did not really adopt MN in it’s full sense. The MN has spread to private schools, business schools, etc.
Hébert had patrons. One of them and the best known one was Marquis de Polignac, a house producing Champagne in Reims, who build in his park the Reims College of Athletes, mentioned above.
By 1930 there existed over 250 Centres hébertistes, – groups that practiced the natural method, half of them in France, the other half all over the world – Belgium, Argentina, Denmark, Portugal, Switzerland etc. There also existed many of the centers that remained unknown, as one was completely independent in opening a center.
G. Hébert himself emphasized that MN belongs to no one and the idea of independence and autonomy of centers, and freedom to establish one. No need for an organization, governmental approval or money, it is enough that a group of friends is interested in the method and practices together in a local park, using stones and trees. For Hébert it was also important, that classes are open to every one regardless of his origin, political or religious views.
The number of centers went drastically down during the Second World War. As 1942 the French Federation of Physical Education was founded, Hébert refused Presidency, as he was always against federalism and state subsidies, because a federation always had the possibility of a fusion of the centers into a unified and totalitarian power capable of being infused as an object of state power.
The magazine “L’Éducation Physique” (1902-1972) was the main propaganda organ of Hébertism in France.
1955 Hébert was named Commander of the Legion of Honor by the French government in recognition of his many services to his country. In 1957, George Hébert, by then suffering from general paralysis, cultivated the admiration of his courage by relearning how to walk, speak and write. He died on the same year.
Hébert’s teachings influenced systems of physical education worldwide : Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Czechoslovakia and others.
We must keep in mind though, that ‘Hébertism’ is a broader concept than the natural method. The term was proposed by a sports journalist, and there are many collaborators who contributed to the development of Hébertism.
The adoption of Hébertism in Belgium was quite late compared to other European countries, but progressed more rapidly and comprehensively than elsewhere.
From 1920, Hébertism was introduced and popularized in Belgians schools and universities, thanks to Hainaut’s standard Physical education course, under the direction of George Dejean and support of a gymnastic professor Gaston Etienne. From 1926 to 1933, 22 centers were institutionalized, all of which operated for free. Propaganda of women’s physical education through MN in Belgium is exemplary. MN spread in the military as well as in schools, girls schools, labor movement, and 1934 it has merged with the scouts.
During the Second World War Méthode Naturelle continued to spread in the Belgian Army, in the imprisoned officers camp in Germany thank to two of it’s biggest supporters, lieutenant colonel Camille Tasse and sub lieutenant of the reserve Marcel Beugnier. The latter had learned MN prior to the war from Etienne, and was familiar with the course of Dejean. During the imprisonment Beugnier learns Hébertism further from the books he could gain from Red Cross and creates a group CHA (centre Hebert d’Allemagne). After the war, he went to France to follow the lessons directly from Hébert.
1948 Beugnier founded the FBEPMN – Belgian Federation of Physical Education by the Natural Method, which was officially recognized by the Ministry of Public Health 1953.
Meanwhile Tasse was appointed as director of the Military Institute of Physical Education. In front of the enterprises of the Hebertists in Belgium, Commander Stefani, the right-hand man of Georges Hébert, wrote: “When will we see in France the same serious work as in the Belgian army? “
This year 1951 Georges Hébert is invited to Belgium by FBEPMN, where he meets the Commissariat for Health and Physical Education of the Belgian Scouts, the Military Institute of Physical Education (responsible for the training of officer instructors) and the elite Regiment Commando.
In the course of his visits, Georges Hébert is struck by the exact understanding of his doctrine and by the pedagogical and technological mastery with which it is applied. Although being against any federation and state subsidy, Hébert officially recognizes the Belgian Federation as the reservoir of doctrine and hebertist practices.
The history of MN in Italy begins with Jean Hendrickx, commissioner of the Belgian See Scouts, who during his two-year stay as a professional trainee as an architect in Italy, organized among the Scouts of Lombardy Hébertism sessions. 1952, the first “Camp Georges-Hébert” took place at the Lake Como. The centers in Mailand, Vicenza Turin and Rom are established. Since 1970, every summer AGESCI (the main scout association in Italy) have been holding Hebertism camp for boys and girls scout throughout the entire nation.
Fitness trails might be the application of MN that is most familiar to the wide mass all over the world. The first fitness trail, also known as Vita Parcours, was built 1968 in Zürich, Switzerland, and supported by Swiss life insurance firm Vita. Hunderds of trails all over Europe followed with a few years.
At the second half of the 20th century Méthode Naturelle was known mostly through various fitness trails and more or less conscious through scout movement.
In the early 2000’s there were only some Méthode Naturelle Communities left in Belgium and France and Hébertisme was almost forgotten.
From all the Hébertism centers two in France were still active – Centre Hébertiste Nantais and Le Centre Hébertiste de La Brède, founded 1943 by Raymond Baumard and 1950 by Pierre Barron, respectively.
The Belgian Federation that was founded 1948 by Marcel Beugnier, was active through all the years too, both having hard times and opening new centers. It shortened its name to the Belgian Federation of Hébertisme (FBH) 2004. Today the federation operates under the name Sport’nat® and counts around 300 members.
These three enthusiastic men who passed the method further, the “passeurs de l’hebertisme “ – Baumard, Barron, Beugnier, were called by Regis Hébert, the son of Georges Hébert as “three B”, or “BBB”.
Hébertism continued to live in the scout movement, mostly unknowingly.
Modern civil obstacle runs such as Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Tough Guy Race & Co as well as military training all over the world take place on obstacle courses and parcours, which were first introduced and designed by Hébert.
Fitness trails, also know in some countries as Vita Parcours, build all over the world since 1968, as well as adventure playgrounds are based on the principles of Hébertism.
Due to the actual trend of ‘outdoor fitness’ the public’s attention to Méthode Naturelle is rising again.
But in most cases the name “Méthode Naturelle” is being heard in context with Parkour. At the beginning of the new millenium David Belle and his friends made the teachings of Georges Hébert famous to many traceures all over the world – as the origin of Parkour.
Renson, Roland. La diffusion de la Méthode naturelle en Belgique (2014). Le Collège d’athlètes de Reims. ÉPURE.
Philippe-Meden, Pierre. Vers une histoire du pouvoir hébertiste en Europe (1913-1940). Deuxième partie : le rayonnement de l’hébertisme en Belgique (2016). Sport’nat® Belgique.
Philippe-Meden, Pierre. Des Groupements libres aux Centres hébertistes (2016). Sport’nat® Belgique.
History of MN in Belgium and Italy. Personal discussion with Christian Beugnier and Pierre Philippe-Meden on Facebook.