Fencing History

Brief history of a technique, of a science, an art, a sport and (or) a method of education.
This article is re-printed by permission of the F.I.E., and is an English translation from the original French.

First Traces of Fencing

The history of this sport is very eloquent, it often relates to that of humankind through the use of the sword and, if by analysing the features of the art of weapons, we immediately see that it corresponds to the customs of the era in which it appears. The human being has always tried to invent weapons to defend himself against the dangers of the natural world and other human beings. The history of fencing gives us a marvellous account of one aspect of that history.

  1. 1.The Pharaohs invent the mask and competition

  2. 2.The Games of the Olympe

  3. 3.Thrusting fencing of the Romans

  4. 4.From chivalry up to the fine blades

  5. 5.Fencing for honour, justice and faith

  6. 6.Rebirth of fencing, a talent of court

  7. 7.The development of Italian fencing

  8. 8.French fencing, conventional foil

  9. 9.The birth of modern fencing

  10. 10.Fencing, an art of enjoyment

  11. 11.Timeline to Modernization

  12. 12.International Fencing Federation

The Pharaohs invent the mask and competition

Four centuries before the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece, a bas-relief in the temple of Medinet- About in High Egypt and built by Ramsès III in 1190 BC, depicts a sporting competition organised by the Pharaoh to celebrate his victory over the Libyans. The weapons - certainly sticks with bronze plates in the end - are buttoned. Hands are protected by a guard similar to that of sabre, and some of the fencers have their faces protected by a mask, whose chin rolling pad, covering both ears, is attached to a wig. The non-sword arm is used for parrying blows and is protected by a kind of shield. The translation of hieroglyphs teaches us that the opponents shouted at each other "On guard … and admire what my valiant hand is going to make!", and that spectators did not spare encouragements for their favourites: "Go ! O excellent fighter!". The winner salutes with his weapon, to the Pharaoh who is accompanied by his suite. The public is composed of Assyrians, Libyans and Egyptians; the jury and the organisers are recognizable thanks to their feathers. A scribe notes on a papyrus the results of the competition.

The Games of the Olympe
It is necessary to cross ages and transport ourselves in Greece to find in the hoplomachie (fight with weapons one to one) the tracks of a competition where prizes were proposed to the winners, "grown men or children". Many of us know that fencing was included in the programme of the first games of the new era, in 1896, but many ignore that it was certainly included in the first Olympic Games in 776 BC. Sensitive to the equal education of the body and the soul of their youth, the Greeks honoured all the games preparing to the profession of arms. Olympic combats in which athletes (word derived from the Greek "combat") had to be Greek, free and beyond reproach.

If the first laurels awarded during these events are regrettably unknown to us, we can learn from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiques, that in the 3rd century, in Teos, Greece, the "hoplomachès" (fencing master) was paid 300 drachmas : much more than the archery master or javelin master. This book evokes, in the 5th century, two masters with a great reputation (Euthydème and Dyonysodore) who taught the hoplomachie (fencing) in return for a great reward.

Thrusting fencing of the Romans
In 648 BC, the education of fencing, or armatura, was introduced into the Roman camps by the consul Rutilius, in order that "the courage joins the art, and the art the courage ".

Fencing was practised with two hands: one was for parrying thrusts with the help of a shield, the other was used for hitting with the two-edged sword. Bad pupils of instructing officers (lanistes, campiducteurs or rudiaires) were deprived of wheat, received a strong ration of barley, and were sentenced to lashes (Virgile, Enéide, book I). Their "doctores armorum" established rules to avoid thrusts or execute thrusts more skillfully. In particular, they recommended thrust with the point, which is more mortal than the thrust with the edge.

From chivalry up to the fine blades
For the knight or the equerry, fencing was part of a good education which he had to receive before his consecration by "dubbing", or "investiture". The profession of arms was long and painful for the young noble, until the solemn day when, finally, the blessed sword, symbol of glory, justice and moral value, was handed to him together with the shield and the spear.

Once the initiation was over and the accolade given, the noble knight was to go forward in single combat for the defence of the weak and the oppressed, but also to tournaments which represented a source of profit. The knight received the horse and the armor of any opponent which he had defeated with courtesy or dulled weapons.

The arrival of firearms and the invention of Gutenberg were a turning point for fencing, which saw its weapons become lighter and its techniques popularised. Before these inventions, fencing, mainly an occupation of the nobility and the elite, was considered an occult science with secret strikes as popular as the philosopher's stone or the elixir of life.

Fencing for honour, justice and faith
In the 12th and 13th centuries, we find in France "givers of lessons" and advice in fencing, whose function was to prepare a student for the judicial duel or trial by combat. Sometimes, for a very high sum, a student could take the spot of one of the parties present.

Trials by combat were common in the Holy Roman Empire from the 11th to the 15th centuries. Otto the Great in 967 expressly sanctioned the practice of Germanic tribal law even if it did not figure in the more "imperial" Roman law. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 deprecated judicial duels, and Pope Honorius III in 1216 asked the Teutonic order to cease its imposition of judicial duels on their newly converted subjects in Livonia. For the following three centuries, there was latent tension between the traditional regional laws and Roman law.

The Sachsenspiegel of 1230 still recognizes the judicial duel as an important function to establish guilt or innocence in cases of insult, injury or theft. The combatants are armed with sword and shield and may wear linen and leather clothing, but their head and feet must be bare and their hands only protected by light gloves. The accuser is to await the accused at the designated place of combat. If the accused does not appear after being summoned three times, the accuser may execute two cuts and two stabs against the wind and his matter will be treated as if he had won the fight (book I, art. 63).

The Kleines Kaiserrecht, anonymous legal code of ca. 1300, prohibits judicial duels altogether, stating that the emperor had come to this decision on seeing that too many innocent men were convicted by the practice just for being physically weak. Nevertheless, judicial duels continued to be popular throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.

Trial by combat plays a significant role in the German schools of fencing in the 15th century. Notably Hans Talhoffer depicts techniques to be applied in such duels, separately for the Swabian (sword and shield) and Franconian (mace and shield) variants, but other Fechtbücher such as that of Paulus Kal and the Codex Wallerstein show similar material. While commoners were required to present their case to a judge before duelling, members of the nobility did have the right to challenge each other for duels without the involvement of the judicative, so that duels of this kind were separate from the judicial duel already in the Middle Ages and were not affected by the latter's abolition in the early 1500s, evolving into the gentlemanly duel of modern times.

Rebirth of fencing, a talent of court
Armor eventually disappeared as gunpowder rendered it obsolete. For that reason the weapons are modified, swords slowly become a wardrobe accessory : they are not necessarily shorter, but their centre of gravity returned towards the hand, they are henceforth lighter and held by a single hand. The Italian and Spanish methods spread through France, advocating the superiority of the hit with the point and clarifying the various techniques of attack and defence.

Fencing as a profession, originally developed from the unscrupulous and shady characters of the 13th century (1200's), who specialized in secret tricks of swordplay which they would sell for a hefty price. In some incidences they would personally duel on a client's behalf in an attempt to ensure a satisfactory result. This professional duelist was classed as a rogue and it was not until the middle of the 15th century that it was safe to admit to running a school of fencing, though legislation of the 13th and 14th centuries forbidding dueling and such schools was still in force. In 1540, Henry the 8th granted Letters Patent to a Corporation of Fencing Masters, the London Masters of Defense, giving them a virtual monopoly on the teaching of fencing in England, Wales and Ireland.

This gave the profession a new respectability, although it was not for another decade or two that such an occupation was officially recognized. In 1605, James 1 issued a Royal Warrant giving the Masters of Defense the highest status they had ever had. This warrant granted them the power to legally control the teaching of fencing. The qualification of Scholar, Free Scholar, Prevot or Master in the guild of Masters of ye noble science of defense was bestowed by playing a prize or demonstration in public to show one's skill with a wide range of weapons. These exhibitions were very popular. They were accompanied by processions, music and a good deal of showmanship, and were performed on the same shared-stage with the Elizabethan theatre actors. Shakespeare's knowledge of swordsmanship and his use of the various weapons throughout his plays would have undoubtedly come from these exhibitions. The audiences of the day would have made the highest demands regarding the performance of the theatrical swordfights, since they would have specialist experience of combat between the most skilled exponents in the country. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was first produced in 1595 and contains some of the most spectacular fighting scenes of any Elizabethan play. The Corporation of Professional Fencing Masters remained active until around the end of the 18th century.

The development of Italian fencing
The authors and Spanish masters Pons of Perpignan and Pedros de Torre marked fencing of a universal trace, and Gérard Thibaulst from Anvers was inspired by their teaching to write, in 1628, a book which became famous in the fencers circle, Académie de l’Espée (Academy of Epee), a work, which is as much interesting by its boards than sometimes indigestible by the text. But the cold seriousness and slight pretentiousness of the Spanish fencing went out of fashion at the beginning of the XVIIth century, leaving the way free to Italian fencing.

The Italian fencing masters rushed to the court of kings of France, from Charles IX to Louis XIII. They remained there until the Revolution. The most famous are Pompée and Silvie.

From their side, the French masters did not hesitate to frequent the fencing schools of the peninsula. They met there the French nobility, in lack of duels, who preferred the defence of their epee to the king’s counsels. At that time, the Italian and French fencing progress together, as attested by the tremendous combats and duels between both nations, but also by the fencing treaties which begin to prosper : Agrippa (1553), Marozzo (1566), Fabris (1603), Capo Ferro (1610), etc. But it is actually with Viggiani that the "development" of the fencer stops being an empty word to become a true technique : the guards, the measure and the favourable moment for attacking (time) appear to be the first concerns.

French fencing, conventional foil
Before the middle of the 17th century, there are only few French among the famous fencing masters ; Noël Carré, Jacques Ferron, le Flamand, Petit-Jean and, of course, Sainct-Didier, are the sole famous maistres en faict fencing masters, who taught the noble science of arms to the most quarrelsome court of the world.

Henry de Sainct-Didier was not only the first French author (1573), the first one to speak about "floures" or foil, but also the real first teacher. He will be imitated only 60 years later, in 1635, by Le Perche du Coudray : those who are skilful in both the handling of the blade and the pen are rare, even if fencing and writing are more and more alike. Molière will not make anything to bring closer these " sciences " and their masters; but his Bourgeois Gentilhomme (Gentleman) will however remain a remarkable document on more than one point. He will summarize quite exactly fencing as the " art of hitting without being hit ". So during the combat, all the art consisted in first not being hit and hit if possible.

It is really under Louis XIV (to whom we owe the shortening of the court sword) that the French method begins to distinguish itself, especially with the adoption of short foil, ended by an esteuf or button. Thrusting fencing improves, the moves become faster and more complicated and are only slowed down by the absence of the mask, which holds back the ardour of the fencers.

To avoid accidents, each fencer gave a simple strike, that the opponent tried to parry without riposting; the attacker stood up and expected the riposte (at lost time) from his opponent. No remise nor stop which could have misled the point.

Rules and convention allowed fencing "of hit" to gain accendancy. This courteous and elegant game of foil suited very well with the conventional game of the court of the king of France Louis XIV. However, out of the court and fencing room, conventions were sometimes forgotten, and replaced by the duel, where the elegance of court fencing was not always present, being more realistic and often more murderous.

The birth of modern fencing
The classification of actions, the definition of terms and the teaching methods were progressively established by French masters, who left remarkable writings : Le Perche du Coudray (fencing master of Cyrano) in 1635 and 1676, Besnard in 1653 (master of Descartes), la Touche in 1670, Labat from Toulouse in 1690. The fencing phrase was actually created with the appearance of the mask with metal mesh (replacing those made of white iron with openings), about which Girard speaks already in 1736, and which allowed the remises, the stop hits, the redoublings and counterripostes. La Boëssière (father) demonstrated its importance and imposed it.

The masters Danet (1766) and La Boëssière (1766) brought their style to the elaboration of a French method which is both revolutionary and conventional. Conventional because its practice was more and more codified and regulated. Revolutionary because of its technique but above all because the Revolution had changed the mentalities. The nobility, or what remained from it, was not anymore the only one interested in handling the sword and being able to do it ; the middleclass, the writers frequented more and more the fencing school and the "pré aux clercs". Freedom was progressing on each side of the grip.

Modern fencing was really born at the beginning of the XIXth century and was consecrated by the romanticism thanks to masters such as Lafaugère (1815), Gomard (1845), Grisier (1867), Cordelois (1872), or Bertrand, incomparable fencer and outstanding demonstrator, who modified the guard, improved the riposte, established the rules for the time, stop hits, remises and redoublings.

Fencing, an art of enjoyment
The XIXth century was an extraordinary century - the golden age - for fencing, that nothing comes to oppose : the light and well-balanced weapons allow the execution of technical exploit safely, fencing masters, at the top of their science, sometimes of their genius, transmit and codify the art of " beautiful and fine foil ". They will be at the source of the tremendous influence of French and Italian fencing. The civil and military fencing schools multiply, the followers rush and develop a passion for this fashionable physical activity.

But fencing, also qualified as a mind game, will only become a sport at the end of this century. For the purists, it is just an enjoyment in which "the way of hitting is better than what we give". Foil is king on the piste, sometimes even on the "ground" where the "sense of honour" (the duel), more democratised, is still very present.

Fencing, an art of sport
The end of the XIXth century seals the evolution of the trinity of weapons - epee, sabre and foil - but not necessarily their cohabitation. Between " art " and " sport ", it will soon be necessary to choose.

If fencing became a sport, it is partially thanks to epee. This weapon being by definition the weapon of duel, it had to be taught in schools and, with it, the realism begins to prevail over the romanticism.

It is around 1890 that we begin to speak about fencing as a sport. Revolutionaries suggest to " judge" the bouts and count the hits of button. What a revolution ! Was loyalty not the first rule of the bout ? We do not use yet the word " match " but " blank duel ", with a judge and four witnesses, but the score was less important than the manner and relative speed of the strikes.

Timeline to Modernization

While the Italian and French fencing schools are still quarrelling for the glory of weapons at epee and foil, sometimes unbuttoned, sabre begins to take its direction from Eastern Europe, and little by little, the sport gets organized; competitions appear.

  1. The famous bout at foil between Louis Mérignac and Eugénio Pini was held in April 1891 and was " unofficially " won by Mérignac, named as the Big Boss.

  2. In 1892 takes place the first school championship at foil, by direct elimination in one hit, except for the final, during which Bétoland won against J.-J. Renaud by 4 to 3.

  3. In 1895, the newspaper "French Fencing" organised a tournament upon invitations between four Italians and four Frenchmen. The result while not important, was nevertheless, controversial.

  4. In 1896, foil and sabre are part of the Olympic Games of Athens, epee will appear in those of Paris, in 1900, and team events in 1908. Women’s foil is only introduced in 1924 while women’s epee will wait until 1996 and women’s sabre the 21st century.

  5. The international tournament of 1905 will apply the rule of the validity of hits to the not extended sword-arm but, more than the validity of hits, their materiality began seriously to concern the referees. It was necessary to wait until 1931 to see the experimentation of the first electric control apparatus.

  6. Since 1955, the fencing phrase at foil can be electrically controlled thanks to the Milanese Carmina, the one of sabre will wait until the last decade of the 20th century. Fencing was always closed to the technological progresses, even if it takes long sometimes to see them and accept them.

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