A Brief History of Fencing

The Art of Fencing

The skilful use of a sword according to established rules and movements was practised by the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans as well as the Chinese and the Japanese, not only in war but also in exercise and in entertainment. The development of fencing techniques and the history of the sword are interlinked. As new needs for the sword arise, the sword has to be modified accordingly. And as new models are made with new material and improved methods of construction, new techniques are devised.

The sword evolved in the Bronze Age when metal smelting became known. With the availability of other metals such as iron and later, alloys and the advances in metallurgy and metalwork and with the changes in the role and function of the sword, the sword has evolved from a heavy weapon that could pierce an enemy's mail, shield or helmet into a simple and practical fighting weapon that is lighter and easier to wield. Structural changes of the sword have contributed to the development of the art of fencing. An instance would be the 16th century rapier, which was developed from the English tuck or French estoc. Being a much slenderer and lighter weapon with a straight double-edged and pointed blade, it helped to bring about the technique of using the point of the blade as the main instrument of attack. Another instance would be the gradual enlargement of the cup guard (shell guard) till in the mid-17th century, it formed a complete cup to protect the weapon hand completely. As the cup guard and the extended quillons (cross guards) were very efficient in warding off blows from the enemy's blade, simple parries with the sword itself became possible and the use of the main gauche, the dagger used in combination with the sword, was gradually dropped. Giacomo de Grassi, who developed the "single sword" which was a cutting and thrusting rapier with a basket hilt, had suggested as early as 1570 the technique of moving the front foot forward. However, the full lunge was not made possible until simple parries could be executed with the sword itself.

In the past when the sword was mainly a weapon of war, combat techniques dictated its shape and length. The specialized sword for foot soldiers was the heavy two-handed sword with a double-edged blade and point. This sword with a cross-shaped hilt could be held with either of the two cutting edges to the fore and was used in the fray and for opening up breaches through the enemy ranks. The horseman's sword, which could be used both on foot and on horseback, could have a long slender blade or a short broad blade and its hilt had long, straight or S-shaped quillons and side rings. Swords also varied according to local types. For instance, in southern and western Europe, there was a preference for thrusting swords with triangular- or rhomboid-section blades whereas elsewhere on the Continent, cutting swords with parallel edges and a point were preferred. Starting in Spain in the 15th century until the 18th century, the sword was worn with the everyday attire of every gentleman as a status symbol. This nonmilitary sword with a long, rigid blade and a sharp point was known as the rapier and was used in self-defense or in settling a matter of honour in a duel. In military circles today, out of respect for tradition, the dress sword is worn with the uniform for ceremonial use.

In the 16th century, with the increasing use of firearms on the battlefields, the role of the sword became limited to duelling. Duelling reached its peak in the high incidence of duels (mensur) in the German universities in the 19th century. It, however, saw a decline toward the end of the century and in time was banned altogether. As a result, fencing passed from the domain of the duel to that of sport. The three weapons used in the sport of fencing are the sabre, the épée and the foil. With the study and practice of swordsmanship with these weapons, fencing became an art.

The prototype for the sabre as represented in an edged weapon with a curved blade and ornamental elements forming a partial knuckle guard had existed in Europe since classical antiquity. During the Middle Ages, varieties of broadswords designed principally for cutting were used throughout Europe. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the rapier replaced the broadsword as a side arm and emphasis shifted to the use of the point rather than the cut. However, mounted troops still required a cutting weapon and the sabre, based on eastern models, filled this need.

The Germans developed a system of sabre play known as the dusack. However, the development of modern sabre plays with a light, narrow-bladed weapon, is traced to the 19th century Milanese fencing master Guiseppe Radaelli of the northern Italian school. Being a teacher of mounted troops, he was concerned exclusively with the military use of the sabre. So he sought to develop a sabre technique in which the cut played a principal role and which would result in precise, rapid and damaging actions. The fundamental principle of his sabre technique is that the arm should be held in a firm and balanced manner, with principal movement effected by the forearm so that cuts and parries can be dextrous and rapid, and the cutting edge properly directed.

Luigi Barbasetti, a follower of Radaelli, left Italy in 1894 to establish his own fencing academy, the Austro-Hungarian Central Fencing School, in Vienna. He was later appointed fencing master of the Austro-Hungarian Military School at Wiener-Neustadt. In 1896, Italo Santelli, a pupil of Carlo Pessina who was also a Radaellian, was invited to teach in Budapest. With Barbasetti in Austria and Santelli in Hungary, the Italian influence became paramount in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Hungarian school improved on the Italian school by using finger play to control hits and blade movements, thus allowing a flexible wrist and a minimum of arm movements. This proved more effective than the Italian school in world competitions for over half a century. For the latter half of the 20th century, the Soviet Union, Poland and other Eastern European countries dominate international tournaments in sabre with Hungary.

As opposed to the foil and épée in which the point alone is used, in the sabre, the cut with the edge has to be taken into account. This second dimension plus the speed and complexities in a phrase (e.g. counter-attacks, attacks on preparation, renewed attacks and so on) make judging and presiding at sabre tournaments particularly difficult. An electrical recording apparatus would increase the degree of efficiency and accuracy in judging. However, the development, experimentation and adoption for universal use of a satisfactory electrical system for sabre took longer than for the épée and the foil due to various technical difficulties. Electrical scoring for sabre fencing was first used in the World Championship in Denver, U.S.A. in 1989 and at the Olympic Games in 1992. With technological advances, a wireless scoring system for sabre was developed and it was introduced in the 1998 World Championship in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.

The English term épée is derived from the French éspée (which was close to the Italian spada and Spanish espada). As the Italian duelling sword looked like the Neapolitan foil which offered little protection for the back of the weapon hand, the Greco brothers (Agesilao and Aurelio) designed an épée with a large, offset bell guard that shields the entire hand and with a crossbar that extends inside the bell guard from one side to the other. This new duelling sword became the modern Italian épée.

When duelling was still prevalent among the beau monde, the épée de combat was introduced in the fencing schools in the latter half of the 19th century for those who required preparation for a duel. As duelling declined at the end of the 19th century, matches and competitions were held for épée fencing which thus became a sport. As competitive fencing developed, the basic conception of approximating épée bouts to one hit out of doors as in a duel was progressively abandoned. Bouts were fought for two, three and eventually five effective hits. Nevertheless, for many, the fascination of épée fencing lies in the fact that it approximates most nearly to a real fight than to sabre and foil fencing.

The adoption by the FIE (International Fencing Federation) of the Laurent-Pagan electric scoring apparatus (named after Monsieur Laurent, a French engineer, who developed the device in the 1920's and Monsieur Pagan of the Société d'Escrime de Genève who improved it) for official épée competitions in 1933 brought about a great change in the character of épée fencing. Epée fencers are encouraged by the machine to try by speed or forceful play to hit before they are hit, thus departing from the basic ideal which is to hit without being hit, and to take risks which no one dared to do in a duel. And as all hits, wherever they land, would be registered, fencers are able to practise hits, for example under the hand, which the human judge could not be relied on to see.

The foil, which is a light thrusting sword with a slender flexible quadrangular-section blade, came into existence as a practice weapon. As foil fencing is bound by conventions and the target area is the smallest of the three fencing weapons, blade control has to be developed. This provides for subtlety and finesse and allows complicated phrases and a conversation with the blades. With the "invention" of the mask by the French master La Boëssière about 1780 and its common usage as from the mid-19th century, increased speed and a widening arsenal of movements were made possible in foil fencing.

After the First World War, an Italian engineer Signor Carmina perfected an electrical scoring device for foil fencing. In 1954 the FIE decided to use it as an experiment in the judgment of the foil events at the 1955 World Championship and the 1956 Olympic Games. However, the apparatus finally adopted for all official foil competitions was designed by Dr. R. Parfitt of Great Britain in 1956. With the introduction of the electric scoring device, the style of foil fencing changed and came close to that of the épée as the fencers tend to use simple actions, go for angular attacks, and be constantly and continually on the attack. Also as the electric foil is heavier than the practice foil, blade play is ignored since the hand moves slower under the heavier weight. The fencers also tend to parry in the sabre style (last-minute parry and possibly a single one) instead of employing a series of parries.

The two classic foil fencing systems are the Italian and the French. Each represents a closed system with its own grip, fencing style and temperament. In general, the Italian style is more vigorous, definite and active whereas the French style is calm, with round, plastic, smooth and fluent movements. This higher degree of elasticity and ease enables the French foil system to survive in the electric foil. Sharing the domination of present-day electric foil fencing with the French school is the Soviet school which having practically no predecessors or traditions, is not bound by the past. Soviet foil fencing which had begun to develop in the years preceding the introduction of the electric scoring apparatus, owes its achievements to the machine.

The French school of foil has been adopted by the British National Coaching Scheme which was founded in 1949. This is so, because most of the masters who taught fencing in the foil and the épée in Great Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were Frenchmen or had been taught in France. As for sabre fencing, the Hungarian school has been adopted.

With the establishment of fencing federations (e.g. the FIE was founded in Europe in 1913), the sport of fencing has become organized with rules and formalities that have to be strictly observed. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin, himself a fencer among other things, revived the Olympic Games, the first of which was held in Athens in 1896, fencing was one of the Olympic events. Foil fencing was included only in 1912 when the foil became an independent weapon and foil fencing gained recognition as a sport in its own right. Women's foil and women's épée were included in the Olympic Games in 1924 and 1996 respectively and women's sabre in the World Championship in 1998. Fencing, an ancient art, has become a modern sport.

The History of Fencing, Part I: Ancient Fencing

The History of Fencing, Part II: Modern Fencing

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