Early years of Méthode Naturelle
Georges Hébert (1875-1957) was an officer in the French Navy and the founder of the Méthode Naturelle.
Georges Hebert was born in 1875 in Paris as the son of a book retailer. At the age of 18, Hebert entered a marine school, where he spent two years.
As a young navy officer, Hebert navigated South and North America’s seas and the Antilles for the next eight years, until 1903. Hebert’s first inspiration was the physical performance of topmen at sailing ships. During his travels, he also observed indigenous people, soldiers and partisans of Spanish-American War; guerrillas of South American revolutions in Cuba, Uruguay and Columbia, coalwomen at Martinique, and American sports students and bodybuilders. Hebert was impressed by the performance, agility, instinct, and elegance of native inhabitants and their outperformance over troops and athletes trained in a European or American way.
In 1902 Hébert had a stop in St. Pierre, Martinique, as the town fell victim to a catastrophic volcanic eruption. Hebert coordinated the escape and rescue of seven hundred people. This experience profoundly affected him and reinforced his belief that athletes should combine skill with courage and altruism. Hebert eventually developed this ethos into the motto, “Être fort pour être utile” (“Being strong to be useful”).
Most of the existing gymnastic methods of training and physical education of this period were variations of the old Prussian drill: decomposition of movements in simple segments and its isolated repetition upon command – what on Hébert’s opinion killed creativity and imagination.
That was Georges Hébert to develop a new method – the Méthode Naturelle – that was based upon synthesis of diverse natural, or native movements, in natural environement.
G. Hébert sent a report to the Chief of Staff of the Navy asking to train strong men according to his “Méthode Naturelle.” In 1905 he was assigned to the School of the Marines of Lorient where he remained until 1913-1914. During this period, he was perfecting, even revolutionizing, the physical training programs. He also applied an unselfish goal that suited the military mission in peacetime: rescue, transport of wounded, rescue in disasters, etc.
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. Already during the first decade the method was field-tested upon thousands of military school soldiers, children and adolescents in schools and hospices.
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 1918 during the First World War and only party rebuilt later.
In 1916, G. Hébert was commissioned by the Navy for the physical training of the army.
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” – A Guide to Physical, Gymnastic, and Moral Education. and which encompasses already the full range of practical movement aptitudes. Hébert also recognizes the method of Demeny. 1 The core of the natural method, ten movement families – walking, running, jumping, climbing, lifting, throwing, quadrupedal movement, balancing, swimming and self-defence – were first presented in 1532 by François Rabelais and adopted by Hébert without adding or removing anything.
It was in the military school of Lorient, where Hébert develops a first draft of the obstacle course. The training ground had facilities whose conception goes back to Amoros. The use of the facilities in the direction of the course is an innovation of Hébert. In the following years Hébert experiments with it further until finally, 1914-1918 Hébert formalized the obstacle course. After the war the Hebertist course will be adopted internationally. Half a century later, in 1950es, the training of shock troops and commandos, and the obstacle course, are very little different from the first courses developed by Hébert.
What Georges Hébert did new, is to invent and describe systematically a method how to apply, combine and mix those disciplines to achieve – quickly and efficient – full physical development. He invented, as he claims himself, “a better way to train”.
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. During the war, 1916, the Fourth Army adopted MN for rehabilitation of soldiers after injury. It is also during this, that Georges Hébert introduces an innovation into military training – quadrupedal movement. According to his observations, a large number of men have been killed or
injured simply because they were not able to fall to the ground quickly enough, hide themselves, or crawl with the minimum of visibility.
In 1925 the French State incorporated MN into the Règlement général d’Éducation physique, without consulting Hébert. The latter criticized the regulation for being a ‘watered down’ version of the MN.
By 1940 MN was introduced by several, though not all, French military forces, along with Swedish gymnastics and sports. It was also adopted by diverse institutions: Universities, Schools, Scouts (1926). 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.
G. Hébert also was an early advocate of the benefits of exercise for women. The ideas of his book “Women’s physical education” (1919) about feminine beauty and physical development, strongly inspired by Antique and indigenous models, were revolutionary for his time. After the war, from 1919 – 1925, Hébert launched a physical education school for women and children in La Palestra. MN was introduced in girl schools, boys and girls were trained in centers, female instructors, or monitrisse, were educated. The practice for women differed partly to that of men and included dancing or elegant movements.
über natürliche weibliche Schönheit und körperliche Entwicklung, inspiriert von Vorbildern der Antike und Naturvölker, war für seine Zeit revolutionär
Hébert was one of the naturists of his time, a popular alternative movement that promoted healthy nutrition, naturopathy, and a lifestyle that reduced negative effects of urbanisation, civilization and hard working conditions of that time. Hebert in his Methode Naturelle advocated training in the fresh air, in minimal clothing and shoes or barefoot, use of water and snow as resistance training. He also published several articles on helio-, aero- and hydrotherapy and nutrition.
The magazine “L’Éducation Physique” (1902-1972) was the main propaganda organ of Hébertism in France, of which Hébert was director from 1922 until his death.
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 more widespread MN became, the more Hébert withdrew from the society. In 1937, Hébert refused to be part of Groupement Hébertiste, a year later he announced he would have nothing further to do with the Hebertist movement.
During the Second World War, MN was taken by Vichy Government as the basis of national doctrine for general education activities, Hébert was never consulted by the authorities.
The number of centers went drastically down during the Second World War. As 1942 the French Federation of Physical Education was founded, Hébert refused honorary presidency, as he was ‘always been 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.
1955 the 50th anniversary of MN was celebrated at the Arènes de Lutèce in Paris under aegis of the President of the Republic, with demonstration by diverse military schools, the Paris Fire Brigade, the police, the Scouts de France, the elite National School for Girls’ Physical Education, and others. 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.
Following the Internation Congress of Physical Education held in Paris 1913, the influence of Héberts teachings reached physical institutes in Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Argentina, Brazil, USSR, CUba, Poland, Bolivia, Vietnam, Lebanon, Jordan and others.
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, a gathering of scouts and former war prisoners. The organization 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.
The influence of Hebertism started to fade in 1950-60es, after the wars of Indochina and Algeria, that followed by a period of relative peace. The military training underwent reform, physical education now followed a new goal – to prepare young athletes for the Olympic Games.
The civilian world has changed, and was interested in new physical activities, outdoor sports, yoga etc. The only way MN was present in the broad sports were fitness trails, also known in some countries as Vita Parcours, that were built all over the world since 1968, based on the principles of MN.
At the second half of the 20th century Méthode Naturelle continues to live unknowingly in the scout movement, firefighter training and fitness trails.
In the early 2000’s there were only a few Heberstism Communities left in Belgium and France. 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. 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”.)
2001, during the French army’s involvement in Afghanistan, it became clear that sport had failed to successfully train soldiers for rugged terrain. NM was dug up and used to prepare experts in Military and Sports Training and Physical Education.
But this is the civilian world the name “Méthode Naturelle” is mostly being heard – in context with Parkour. At the beginning of the new century David Belle and his friends made the teachings of Georges Hébert famous to many traceures all over the world – as the origin of Parkour.
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.
Due to the actual trend of ‘outdoor fitness’ the public’s attention to Méthode Naturelle is rising again.
Renson, Roland. La diffusion de la Méthode naturelle en Belgique (2014). Le Collège d’athlètes de Reims. ÉPURE.
Philippe-Meden, Pierre. Georges Hébert (1875-1957). A naturalist’s invention of body ecology. Body ecology and emersive leisure. Routledge, 2018
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.
1. Hébert, Georges: L’Éducation physique virile et morale par la méthode naturelle, Band I, 6. Auflage, Paris 1936, S. XIX