History Of Fencing – Medieval To Modern Day

Fencing and swordsmanship today are synonymous, but in the past swordsmanship was just a part of fencing; you only have to look through old books to see a splendid array of weapons.

‘Foil’ is the most characteristic word in the fencing vocabulary, but has no proven derivation. The best guess by The Oxford English Dictionary, ‘from failed or blunted weapon’, embraces all three of the modern fencing weapons: foil, épée and sabre.

The earliest recorded fencing match took place at The Temple of Madinet Habu, erected by Rameses III in about 1190bc, near Luxor. Weapons had points and guards then, but the non sword-arm was used to protect the face. The Romans had gladiatorial schools, but the Greeks preferred boxing.

Medieval Fencing

The medieval version of hooliganism gave fencing a bad name during this period. As a result, fencing tuition within the City of London was banned by Edward I in 1285. This ban remained effective for over 400 years. The government of that time considered fencing masters to be the equivalent of vagrants, but retained them for the principals in the ‘Trials of Combat’. This had its risks, because it was found that a master had bet against his pupil and had won and profited from this, penalties were harsh. For example, Elias Pugin in 1220 was sentenced to lose a foot and fist. His appeal was upheld and he lost his foot only and was told to be grateful for such leniency.

Age of the Rapier

In the sixteenth century the sword evolved into the rapier, a weapon over 1 m (1 yd) long and weighing about a kilogram (2.2 lb). It was the Italian School of Fencing which dominated Europe until the mid-seventeenth century. Positions in those days were not guards, for the non sword-arm, whether mailed, shielded, or holding another short sword was used for defence. It is also noticeable that the opposite foot to the sword-arm was advanced. Soon it was realized that if the sword-arm itself was advanced, you could develop a lunge. By 1610 it was becoming clear that a thrust was faster and the resulting injury more serious.

ln 1599, an amateur coach, George Silver, tried to prove that a cut with a curved sword was faster than a direct thrust. These toils, of which few survive (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London). were formidable. Averie Borwick, a yeoman, was killed in practice at a fencing school in the same year.

The Spanish Style

The Spanish style was different from the rest of Europe. Thibault of 1628 related the nature of footwork to a dance executed on the tangents and chords of a circle drawn using the rapier blade as its radius.

The second difference was the very upright stance with the rigid sword-arm holding the blade as a threat to face or body, but it still produced swordsmen whose exceptional strength and stamina were universally respected.

The English Scene

There is plenty of evidence to show that many in this country preferred the robust swordsmanship of the heavy, cutting broadswords to the more technical skills of rapier fencing. Henry Vlll, a great enthusiast for combat sports, granted patent to the Masters of Defence who qualified for the privilege of teaching sportsmanship by giving public demonstrations, known as prizes, of their proficiency with an impressive array of weapons. Paradoxes of Defence by George Silver, 1599, is the only known book on their methods. The only main source of the merits of sword-play was to be found in plays, and by the middle of the seventeenth century, these had degenerated into blood-letting for the benefit of the audience.

French Influence

At the court of Louis XIV a lighter weapon known as the small sword evolved and with it emerged the dominance of French fencing.

At the same time the foil was developed as a light practice weapon. Although the button was wrapped in leather to the size of a musket ball, there was danger of getting one in the eye.

Disarming was still taught. Blood gladiatorial contests were well advertised in the press. Fogg, in a career of 271 fights, lost only once. Masters, such as Liancour, were encouraging the practice of fighting along an imaginary straight line as used today, instead of traversing from side to side as in rapier fighting. The lunge was now universally accepted as the most efficient method of attack and the use of the left hand had declined as a means of protecting the face.

1190 BCRameses III. Probably used short swords (combat).
1285Edward I bans fencing in London.
16th C.Development of rapier.
1536Marozzo publishes first popular fencing book.
1540Henry VIII grants patents to fencing masters.
1599Averie Borwick killed in practice at a fencing school.
1628Thibault relates footwork to a dance round a circle and publishes book on Spanish school.
18th C.Angelo family dominates fencing in England up until just before 1900.
1780Invention of wire mask.
19th C.The Services organise fencing in England.
1886First demonstration of electric fencing by Mr Little.
1933First electric World Epee Championship.
1936Electric Fencing at Berlin Olympics.
1950sBob Anderson develops National Training Scheme.
1955First Electric World Foil Championship.
1956Gillian Sheen wins Olympic Gold.
1986First electric World Sabre Championship.

Eighteenth-Century Fencing

Fencing in England was dominated by the Angelo family from Italy from the 17503 to early 1900. Angelo illustrations command high prices.

Some were drawn by John Gerwyn, a founder member of the Royal Academy and some were engraved by Ryland, who was later hanged for forgery.

During this period many of today’s conventions of foil play were instigated, for example having only the trunk as the valid target, and following the strict sequence of attack, parry, riposte. There was also a convention, now not used, when no riposte was made until the attacker had recovered to the on guard position. These rules were brought in for reasons of safety and to reduce blinding. ‘One in the eye’ could be an inspired phrase in the English language.

These rules initiated a period of stagnation of fencing through lack of mobility. The left hand was still used occasionally for parrying and disarming, and also to guard against foul play. 1780 saw the invention of the wire mask by La Boissiere. Why so late an obvious invention? Perhaps because wire mesh had not been developed until then. This invention still did not improve the mobility of the fencers through increased safety. Domenico Angelo provided training aids especially for use by drill instructors and was appointed Cutlass Instructor for the Navy.

The Revival

It took a generation for professional teachers to realize that the mask presented an opportunity to exploit the demand for speed and mobility as well as grace and accuracy of movement. Masters like Jean-Louis and Bertrand in the first half of the nineteenth century realized the mask presented an opportunity to exploit the demand for speed and mobility as well as grace and accuracy of movement. Masters also realized that the lightweight foil could be manipulated with the fingers more accurately than with the wrist, and this led to an economy of effort, which is still characteristic of good fencing.

Epée and Sabre

As a reaction against the conventions of toil, a group of French fencers in the second half of the nineteenth century demanded practice with the duelling épée. This brought about some basic principles: for instance, the whole body became the legitimate target. At the same time the Italian master Radaelis developed the light fencing sabre. The final organization of fencing from club to international standard was taken up by the Services. Many years before the National Championships were held in the early twentieth century, the Services organized fencing competition at the Royal Tournament, first with foil, eleven years later with sabre and, in 1901, with the épée.

The Present Century

The most significant change has been the advent of electric apparatus, and although a demonstration was held on 24 June 1886 by a Mr Little, development was slow and it was not until 1933 that it gained official recognition at épée competitions. The first public demonstration was at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. With the foil, there was a problem in that they had not yet devised a system which would differentiate between on and oil targets. In 1955 this problem was solved. and the sabre was also introduced to the system in 1986.

Increase in gamesmanship has led to a whole new category of penalty hits. However, fencing should be a conversation of the sword; an artistic co-ordination of movement by body and blade.

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