History of Fencing
The history of fencing parallels the evolution of civilization, back from the days of ancient Egypt and Rome, to the barbaric Dark Ages, to the fast and elegant Renaissance, up to the modern, increasingly popular fencing of today. Fencing has always been regarded as more than a sport; it is an art form, an ancient symbol of power and glory, and a deeply personal, individual form of expression. Fencing is and always has been an intrinsic part of life, from the dueling and battle of yore to the widely captivating movies and facets of popular culture such as Zorro and The Princess Bride.
The earliest evidence of fencing as a sport comes from a carving in Egypt, dating back to about 1200 B.C., which shows a sport fencing bout with masks, protective weapon tips, and judges.
The Greek and Roman civilizations favored short swords and light spears, and taught their warriors in schools called ludi. The collapse of the Roman civilization at around 476 A.D., however, brought the crude, heavy weapons of the barbarian invaders and signaled a regression of fencing through the dark ages. It was not until the beginnings of the Renaissance in the 14th century that light, fast weapons such as the rapier came back into use, primarily because gunpowder rendered heavy armor obsolete.
The fifteenth century brought the beginnings of modern fencing. Spain had the first true fencers, and the first two fencing manuals were published there in 1471 and 1474, but swordplay guilds such as the Marxbruder from Germany began springing up all across Europe. About 1500 the Italians began extensive use of the Rapier. The right hand held the weapon while the left hand held a dagger (often called a Main Gauche) or buckler (a small shield), used for parrying blows. Italian fencing masters, such as Agrippa, who invented the four fencing positions (prime, seconde, tierce, and quarte), and masters Grassi and Vigiani, who invented the lunge, became very prolific in this time. The 16th century also brought a large increase in the popularity of dueling. More noblemen at during this period were killed in dueling than in war.
The Queen Catherine de Médicis of France had many Italian fencing masters come to France and develop fencing there. She was so successful that in 1567, her son, King Charles IX, officially recognized the French Fencing Academy, and awarded many hereditary titles to the new French fencing masters. These new masters were the first to classify and define fencing attacks and parries. In 1573 Henry de St. Didier was the first french fencing master to publish a treatise, and one of the first to advocate heavy use of the Épeé instead of the Rapier.
During the 17th century several major changes occurred in fencing. The “fleuret”, or foil, was developed in France as a lighter training weapon for dueling. Right-of-way, a set of rules which made the game a series of alternating attacks and defense, became generally accepted. With right-of-way, duelists were unlikely to impale each other, as they did not both attack at the same time. This made fencing safer and reduced the number of casualties to dueling.
In the 18th century the heavier weapon called the Épeé became the popular weapon for dueling. The sabre, a weapon descended from the Oriental scimitar, became the national weapon of Hungary, and while the Italians helped develop the sport immensely, the Hungarians stayed the true masters of the sabre.
1780 brought an extremely important development to fencing. The French fencing master La Boessiere invented the fencing mask, allowing a much safer bout. This sparked a lot of development in non-fatal technique and strategy.
Fencing first came to America in the 1860’s-1870’s via immigrant French and Italian fencing masters, and the first American fencing school was founded in 1874. By this time fencing less resembled its violent roots and was now considered a non-harmful sport. Dueling never completely died out until after the end of World War I, but the majority of fencers were not warriors.
Men’s Sabre and foil competitions were present in the first modern olympic games in 1896, and Men’s Épeé joined in 1900. Women’s foil joined the Olympics in 1924, but it was not until 1996 that Women’s Épeé joined.
At the beginning of the 20th century French, Italians, and Hungarians were the masters of the sport, and thus it is not surprise that the International Fencing Federation (FIE) was founded in France. The French, Italians and Hungarians maintained their grip on the sport until the 1950’s, when eastern European countries such as the Soviet Union and Romania came to the fore. Their style emphasized speed and mobility, relying on touches that before would have gone undetected, but now were seen with the recently invented electric scoring machines.
Today cultural intermingling and competition has eliminated the national fencing styles; there are no longer French or Hungarian fencing techniques. Instead, the sport has become more reliant on individual technique. Fencing history is still being made today. Will Women’s sabre join as an olympic sport? Will wireless scoring devices become the norm with new technology? Only time will tell.