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The ancestor of modern fencing originated in Spain, where several books on fencing were written, Treatise on Arms, was written by Diego de Valera between 1458 and 1471,although this is the oldest surviving manual on western fencing shortly before dueling came under official ban by the Catholic Monarchs. When Spain became the leading power of Europe, the Spanish carried their fencing abroad and particularly into the south of Italy, one of the main battlefields between both nations.
Modern fencing originated in the 18th century, in the Italian school of fencing of the Renaissance, and, under their influence, was improved by the French school. The Spanish school didn’t became prominent until the 19th century. Nowadays, these three schools are the most influential around the world.
The English term fencing, in the sense of “the action or art of using the sword scientifically” (OED) dates to the late 16th century, when it denoted systems designed for the Renaissance rapier. The first known use of defens in reference to Renaissance swordsmanship is in William Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor: “Alas sir, I cannot fence.” This specialized usage replaced the generic fight (Old English feohtan).
The verb to fence derived from the noun fence, originally meaning “the act of defending”, etymologically derived from Old French defens “defence”, ultimately from the Latin. The first attestation of Middle English fens “defence” dates to the 14th century.
The origins of armed combat are prehistoric, beginning with club, spear and axe. Fighting with shield and sword developed in the Bronze Age; Bladed weapons such as the khopesh appeared in the Middle Bronze Age, and the proper sword in the Late Bronze Age.
Homer’s Iliad includes some of the earliest descriptions of combat with shield, sword and spear, usually between two heroes who pick one another for a duel. Roman gladiators engaged in dual combat in a sport-like setting, evolving out of Etruscan ritual. Tomb frescoes from Paestum (4th century BC) show paired fighters, with helmets, spears and shields, in a propitiatory funeral blood rite that anticipates gladiator games.
Romans who frequented the gymnasia and baths often fenced with a stick whose point was covered with a ball. Vegetius, the Late Roman military writer described practicing against a post and fencing with other soldiers. Vegetius describes how the Romans preferred the thrust over the cut, because puncture wounds enter the vital organs directly whereas cuts are often stopped by armour and bone. Raising the arm to deliver a cut exposes the side to a thrust. This doctrine was exploited by Italian fencing masters in the 16th Century and became the primary rationale behind both the Italian and French schools of fencing.
Middle Ages and Renaissance
Fencing schools can be found in European historical records dating back to the 12th century. In later times fencing teachers were paid by rich patrons to produce books about their fighting systems, called treatises. Fencing schools were forbidden in some European cities (particularly in England and France) during the medieval period, though court records show that such schools operated illegally.
The earliest surviving treatise on fencing, stored at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England, dates from around 1300 AD and is from Germany. It is known as I.33 and written in medieval Latin and Middle High German and deals with an advanced system of using the sword and buckler (smallest shield) together.
Unarmoured longsword fencers (plate 25 of the 1467 manual of Hans Talhoffer)
From 1400 onwards an increasing number of fencing treatises survived from across Europe, with the majority from the 15th century coming from Germany and Italy. In this period these arts were largely reserved for the knighthood and the nobility – hence most treatises deal with knightly weapons, such as the rondel dagger, longsword, spear, pollaxe and armoured fighting mounted and on foot. Some treatises cover weapons available to the common classes, such as großes Messer and sword and buckler. Wrestling, both with and without weapons, armoured and unarmoured, was also featured heavily in the early fencing treatises.
By the 16th century, with the widespread adoption of the printing press, the increase in the urban population and other social changes, the number of treatises increased dramatically. After around 1500 carrying swords became more acceptable in most parts of Europe. The growing middle classes meant that more men could afford to carry swords, learn fencing and be seen as gentlemen. By the middle of the 16th century many European cities contained great numbers of fencing schools, often clustered together, such as in London at “Hanging Sword Lane”. Italian fencing masters were particularly popular and set up schools in many foreign cities. The Italians brought concepts of science to the art, appealing to the Renaissance mindset.
In 16th century Germany compendia of older Fechtbücher techniques were produced, some of them printed, notably by Paulus Hector Mair (in the 1540s) and by Joachim Meyer (in the 1570s), based on 14th century teachings of the Liechtenauer tradition. In this period German fencing developed sportive tendencies.
The rapier’s popularity peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Dardi school of the 1530s, as exemplified by Achille Marozzo, still taught the two-handed spadone, but preferred the single–handed sword. The success of Italian masters such as Marozzo and Fabris outside of Italy shaped a new European mainstream of fencing.
The Ecole Française d’Escrime founded in 1567 under Charles IX produced masters such as Henry de Sainct-Didier who introduced the French fencing terminology that remains in use today.
Rapier gave rise to the first recognizable ancestor of modern foil: a training weapon with a narrow rectangular blade and a flat “nail head” point. Such a weapon (with a swept hilt and a rapier length blade) is on display at the Royal Armouries Museum. However, the first known version of foil rules only came to be written down towards the end of 17th century (also in France).
Early modern period
European duelling weapons developed through several forms of the rapier to the smallsword—reflecting the changes from a cutting style of swordplay to a thrusting style (‘foining’). This was a result of increasing specialization in their use on the dueling field, and the social stigma attached to carrying and using swords too obviously adapted to the actual “work” of warfare. The smallsword, and the last version of the rapier, were made possible only by metallurgical advances in the 17th century as high toughness steels became more readily available.
Fencing was a popular form of staged entertainment in 16th and 17th century England. It was also a fashionable (although somewhat controversial) martial art. In 1540 Henry VIII granted a monopoly on the running of fencing schools in London to The Company of Masters. Fencers were specifically included in the 1597 Vagabonds Act (“all fencers, bearwards, common players of interludes, and minstrels”). A number of notable fencing masters from late 16th century (Vincentio Saviolo, Rocco Bonetti, and William Joyner) ran schools in and around Blackfriars (then the main theatre district of London). Around the same time, a number of significant fencing manuals were written in or translated into English. Prizefights were bloody but rarely lethal. Samuel Pepys describes visiting at least two prizefights held in Lonodon bearagardens in 1667 – the contestants were tradesmen rather than fencing masters; both fights ended after one of the contestants was unable to continue because of wrist injuries. On the whole, the English public opinion of fencing during this period was rather low; it was viewed in much the same light as cage fighting today. The situation changed in late 18th century, when Domenico Angelo made the new highly stylized French fencing style popular at court.
An almost exclusively thrusting style first became popular in France during the 17th century. The French were enthusiastic adopters of the smallsword, which was light and short, and, therefore, well suited to fast, intricate handwork. Light, smaller training weapons were developed on the basis of an existing template: narrow rectangular blade with a “nail head” at the end. The first documented competition with rules resembling contemporary foil took place in Toulouse in late 17th century.
In some German cities, students adopted the new thrusting style for recreational duelling. They developed a particular variation of academic fencing called the Stoßmensur (“thrusting mensur”). This was fought with the Pariser (“Parisian”), a weapon with a thin straight blade and a large flat guard.
After the dress sword was abolished, the Pariser became the only weapon for thrust fencing in German colleges and universities. Many students died from pierced lungs (Lungenfuchser). A rival movement of cut-based academic fencing started in Göttingen in the 1750s with the invention of the Göttinger Hieber, a predecessor of the modern Korbschläger. In the following years, the Glockenschläger was invented in eastern Germany, also for cut fencing.
1800 to 1918
Thrust fencing (using the Pariser), and cut fencing (using Korbschläger or Glockenschläger), existed in parallel in Germany during the first decades of the 19th century, according to local preferences. Thrust fencing was especially popular in Jena, Erlangen, Würzburg and Ingolstadt/Landshut, two towns where the predecessors of Munich University were located. The last thrust Mensur is recorded to have taken place in Würzburg in 1860.
Until the first half of the 19th century all types of academic fencing can be seen as duels, since fencing with sharp weapons was about honour. No combat with sharp blades took place without a formal insult. For duels involving non-students, e.g. military officers, the academic sabre became usual, apparently derived from the military sabre. It was then a heavy weapon with a curved blade and a hilt similar to the Korbschläger.
Classical fencing derives most directly from the 19th and early–20th century national fencing schools, especially in Italy and France, although other pre–World War II styles such as Russian and Hungarian are also considered classical. Masters and legendary fencing figures such as Giuseppe Radaelli, Louis Rondelle, Masaniello Parise, the Greco brothers, Aldo Nadi and his rival Lucien Gaudin were typical practitioners of this period.
Fencing was part of the first Olympics Games in the summer of 1896. Épée and Sabre events have been held at every Summer Olympics; foil events have been held at every Summer Olympics except 1908.
Four judges determined whether a touch had been made. Two side judges stood behind and beside each fencer, watching for hits made by that fencer. A director observed from several feet away. At the end of each action, the director called “Halt,” described the action, and then polled the judges. If the judges differed, or abstained, the director could overrule. However, while the director had 1 1/2 votes, and the judges only 1 each, 2 judges in agreement could overrule the director.
This method had serious limitations, though it was universally used. As described in the London newspaper, the Daily Telegraph & Courier, on June 25, 1896: “Every one who has watched a bout with the foils knows that the task of judging the hits is with a pair of amateurs difficult enough, and with a well-matched pair of maîtres d’escrime well–nigh impossible.” There also were problems with bias: well–known fencers were often given the benefit of mistakes (so–called “reputation touches”), and in some cases there was outright cheating. Aldo Nadi complained about this in his autobiography The Living Sword in regard to his famous match with Lucien Gaudin. The Daily Courier article described a new invention, the electrical scoring machine, that would revolutionize fencing.
1918 to present
Dueling went into sharp decline after World War I. After World War II, dueling went out of use in Europe except for very rare exceptions. Training for duels, once fashionable for males of aristocratic backgrounds (although fencing masters such as Hope suggest that many people considered themselves trained from taking only one or two lessons), all but disappeared, along with the classes themselves. Fencing continued as a sport, with tournaments and championships. However, the need to actually prepare for a duel with “sharps” vanished, changing both training and technique.
Starting with épée in 1936, side judges were replaced by an electrical scoring apparatus, with an audible tone and a red or green light indicating when a touch landed. Foil was automated in 1956, sabre in 1988. The scoring box reduced the bias in judging, and permitted more accurate scoring of faster actions, lighter touches, and more touches to the back and flank than before.
1. ^ “I.33 Medieval German Sword & Buckler Manual”. ARMA. Retrieved 2012-11-15.
2. ^ Julio Martinex Castello (1933). “A History of Fencing”. The Theory and Practice of Fencing. Retrieved 2012-11-15.
3. ^ “Historia de la Esgrima” (in Spanish). Educar.org. 1999-02-22. Retrieved 2012-11-15.
4. ^ Craig Harkins. “Fencing Online”. Fencing.net. Retrieved 2012-11-15.
5. ^ “A History of Fencing”. Retrieved 2012-11-15.
6. ^ Harper, Douglas (2001), Online Etymology Dictionary.
7. ^ Robert Manning of Brunne, The story of England (ca. 1330), 8638: “To stonde to fens auailled nought”, cited after OED.
8. ^ Potter and Mattingly, 226; Paestum was colonized by Rome in 273 BC.
9. ^ “FLAVI VEGETI RENATI VIRI INLUSTRIS COMITIS” (in Latin). Retrieved 15 November 2012.
10. ^ The Single Sword Of Henry De Sainct-Didier, Henry De Sainct-Didier, 1573.
11. ^ Czajkowski, Z. (2005). Academy News (British Academy of Fencing) 33, p.9
12. ^ “History – The British Academy of Fencing”. The British Academy of Fencing. Retrieved 2012-11-15.
13. ^ Giacomo di Grassi, His true Arte of Defense, 1594
14. ^ Vincentio Saviolo, Vincentiio Saviolo, his Practice, in two bookes, the first intreating of the use of the Rapier and Dagger, the second of Honor and honorable quarrels, 1595
15. ^ George Silver, The Paradoxes of Defence, 1599
16. ^ Samuel Pepys’ Diary – Monday, May 27th 1667 and Monday, September 9th, 1667
17. ^ http://brunelfencing.com/history.aspx
18. ^ Alaux, Michel. Modern Fencing: Foil, Epee, and Sabre. Scribner’s, 1975, p. 83.