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History of Fencing

Updated on December 26, 2010

The art of fencing assumed importance after the introduction of gunpowder in the 14th century. Since the medieval heavy armor could not withstand gunfire, it was discarded, and the sword became the standard weapon in personal combat.

During the 16th century the duel became the common method of settling disputes and avenging insults. Fencing masters secretly taught the art of swordsmanship. Authorities, such as Achille Marozzo, wrote treatises and manuals on fencing tricks, positions, and rules. Fencing guilds flourished, especially in Germany. Combat was often two-handed, with the left hand holding a shield, buckler, dagger, or cloak.

With the universal growth of dueling through to the 17th century, a demand for a more efficacious weapon resulted in the colichemarde, a thin-bladed weapon with a sharp tip, replacing the rapier. About 1760 the colichemarde gave way to the small sword, which led to the introduction of the counter or circular parry. The flexible and quadrangular foil became the weapon for dueling preparation, the mask was invented, and the plastron (undergarment) appeared. The saber became the national weapon of Hungary.

In the 18th century, dueling was gradually suppressed by government decrees, and swordsmanship as a private sport or exhibition began to take its place. The art of fencing was perfected throughout the 19th century, mostly by French and Italian masters.

Italian and French fencing masters, who went to the United States toward the end of the 19th century, were largely responsible for the development of fencing in America. Dueling had ceased after the Civil War, and fencing had become the exclusive property of sportsmen. Today the sport has participants throughout the world. A premium is placed on speed and coordination and little advantage is won by sheer strength.

It remained a private and highly specialized skill, however, until the revival of the modern Olympic Games. Fencing has been included as one of the Olympic sports since 1920. The Federation Internationale d'Es-crime supervises annual world championship matches. In the United States, fencing matches are held in schools, colleges, and clubs. All U.S. contests are governed by rules of the Amateur Fencers' League of America, established in 1894.

History of Swordsmanship

Swords were well established in the Bronze Age and all the ancient peoples, the Persians, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, for example, have left evidence of their concern with swordsmanship. There is a record of a fencing match in a drawing in a tomb constructed at Luxor circa 2000 BC. In medieval times, so long as man continued to go to war encased in armor, the sword was heavy and clumsy. Early in the 15th century, the introduction of firearms caused armor to be gradually discarded and led to a sudden transformation of weapons to lighter forms better adapted to quick and neat fighting. Guilds of fencing masters, the best known perhaps the famous Marxbruder of Frankfurt, sprang up all over Europe to study the now important art of fencing. The Italians are credited with being the first to recognise the superior efficiency of the point over the edge of the sword, and by the end of the 16th century they had developed lighter weapons and nimbler, cunning and controlled methods which were soon universally adopted as rapier fencing. The rapier, a long, beautifully balanced sword excellent for attack or keeping the adversary at a distance, was still too heavy to allow quick defensive movements and therefore had to be used in conjunction with a lighter sword or dagger in the left hand used primarily for defense or at close quarters. In the last half of the 16th century fencing masters discontinued the teaching of wrestling tricks, the lunge was discovered and swordsmanship pure and simple may be said to have originated. The Spanish school developed a scientific method early in the 17th century based on mathematical lines drawn on the floor within a circle, but this had little influence on the development of swordsmanship elsewhere.

During the reign of Louis XIV, in the 17th century, a change of fashion in dress led to a revolution in swordsmanship. Every gentleman had to carry a sword and be prepared to defend his honor 'at the drop of a hat', but the long rapier was no longer suitable for the new elegance of knee breeches, silk stockings, and brocaded coats. Fashion decreed that the light, short, court sword should be worn. With the 'small sword' hits were made with the point only and all movements of attack and defense could be performed with one sword wielded with one hand. The dagger was no longer required for parrying, and the French school of fencing then evolved rapidly, displacing rapier fencing throughout Europe. All modern fencing is based on the movements then established.

Swordsmanship was studied in Britain for many centuries. In 1285 a statute of Edward I prohibited the establishment of fencing schools or the holding of tournaments in the City of London. Fencing masters were regarded with disfavor as persons who encouraged duelling, brawling and ruffianism until Henry VIII, a great lover of swordplay, founded a Corporation of Masters of Defence before 1540 to govern fencing in his realms. It was because the first organisation of fencing in Britain was established by a Tudor king that later Edward VII granted British international fencers the right to wear a Tudor rose as their international badge. The sword and buckler, the long (two-handed) sword and the backsword were the traditional English weapons until the rapier was adopted in the reign of Elizabeth I. Fencing masters in London at that time included Vincenzo Saviolo, the first writer on the rapier here and said to have been Shakespeare's fencing master; Signer Rocco, who had an academy in Warwick Lane near St Paul's; and George Silver, champion of the Corporation of Masters of Defence.

Development of Modern Fencing

Fencing did not develop until the 15th century, after gunpowder ended the bow and arrow as a major weapon in warfare. Once the effectiveness of heavy armor was destroyed, skill with the long sword, or rapier, supplanted sheer strength with the earlier shorter and heavier weapons. Swordsmen learned the art of defense as well as attack, and schools for teaching fencing began to appear throughout Europe.

Though printed works on fencing were found in Spain and Italy as early as the 15th century, the first book describing the movements of the art was II duetto, written by Achille Marozzo and published in Bologna in 1517.

In Germany from the 15th to the end of the 16th century, schlager fencing, with a long, heavy cutting weapon was the vogue. Only blows aimed at the cheeks were allowed. (The sport remained popular in Germany until shortly before World War II.) Throughout Europe, however, the rapier was the weapon of offense, parries being made by the left hand armed with a dagger or hat or cloak.

Camillo Agrippa published his description of the first four fencing positions (prime, seconde, tierce, and quarte) in 1553; Giacomo di Grassi in 1570 printed the first rules and diagrams and described the lunge. In 1573, Henri Saint-Didier advocated the rapier without the dagger for offense as well as defense.

From the 16th century, 'prize-fights' were public displays of skill with swords. The fights were usually held on platforms in public gardens, and the fencer who defeated his opponents, often using a variety of weapons, was said to 'hold the stage' to the last and collected the prize money. Towards the end of the 18th century James Figg, expert swordsman and the first British boxing champion, introduced fisticuff fights into prize-fights. This became so popular that fencing was soon relegated to a provincial amusement where it degenerated to bouts with single sticks. Fencing was neglected in Britain during the early Victorian era, but popular interest was revived in the 1860s by its inclusion in the army physical training programme and the enthusiasm of Captain Alfred Hutton and his friends. In 1902 the Amateur Fencing Association was founded to govern fencing in Britain, with Hutton as its first president, and the sport has steadily increased in popularity both for ladies and men since that time.

Fencing with the small sword, even with blunted weapons, always involved danger of injury to the eyes. Various conventions were therefore established to govern orthodox play. For example, hits were restricted to the breast, and a fencer initiating an attack was allowed to complete his action, unless parried, before his opponent could commence his counter-attack. The invention of the mask, about 1780, by the French master La Boessiere, allowed much freer play, including complicated movements such as remise, counter-riposte, redoublement and so on. The traditional conventions became of increasing importance to prevent quick 'phrases' made at close quarters with light weapons degenerating into a brawl of simultaneous movements. They have survived as the basis of the rules for foil fencing. Foil fencing, evolved directly from the light court sword, thus became a complex game, a 'conversation with the foils', but increasingly unlike the simpler swordplay in duels. Early in the 19th century the epee de combat, with comprehensive target and absence of conventions, was adopted for training in schools for duelling. It is now fenced as a separate weapon. The heavy military sabre continued the tradition of backswording until the last quarter of the 19th century, when the light Italian duelling sabre was introduced, and soon universally adopted as the recognized cut-and-thrust weapon.
Fencing as a sport is divided into four main divisions according to the type of weapon used: foils, epee-de-combat, sabres, and singlestick. In all cases wire masks, gaundets, and white padded jackets are worn by the combatants. In foil-fencing, only hits correctly made on the body are counted, accidental hits, or hits on the face or limbs, being disregarded. The French foil has a quadrangular tapering steel blade 33 inch in length from guard to button, with an 8-inch handle, and a light metal guard. It weighs around 1 pound. The thicker part of the blade near the guard is called the forte, the thinner front portion the foible. The Italian foil is slightly longer, and has a bell-shaped guard with a cross-bar, with which the forefinger is interlocked. The French foil is lightly held with the palm and fingers, the thumb resting on the upper side of the grip. The principal form of attack, called the lunge, is made by extending the right arm so as to bring point, hand, and shoulder into one straight line, at the same time advancing the right foot and straightening the left leg. The extension of the arm should slightly precede the movement of the right foot. The part of the body on which hits may be scored is called the target, and is divided into four sections, the two upper quarters being known as the "high lines", the two lower as the "low lines". There are eight recognized parries, two in defence of each quarter of the target, one in each case being made with the thumb upwards (supination), and one with the knuckles up and thumb down (pronation).

The parries are known as prime, seconds, tierce, quarte, quints, sixte, septime, and octave. Sixte and tierce defend the right "high line"; quarte and quinte the left "high line", octave and seconde the right "low line"; septime (or demicircle) and prime the left "low line". The first of each pair is made in supination, the second in pronation. The most important parries are quarte and sixte. Parries are made by a quick beat of the "forte" of the blade on the adversary's "foible", but in making counter parries the point describes a narrow circle, catching and turning aside the opponent's blade.

The names of the parries are also applied to thrusts and engagements, e.g. a thrust at the upper left breast is said to be a thrust in quarte. Attacks are made by the hinge, described above, the disengagement (i.e. dropping the point under adversary's foil, followed by a lunge on the other side), the cut over (i.e. passing foil over adversary's blade), and the riposte, a thrust delivered immediately after a successful parry. Attacks made when the adversary is on the defensive are called primary attacks; secondary attacks are made while the adversary is preparing or developing an attack, or on the conclusion of an unsuccessful attack. Every attack must be parried, and a stop-thrust, or counter-thrust without parry, is invalid if the thruster receives a touch on any part of his person. Force attacks follow a blow or pressure on the adversary's blade to force it aside and make an opening for a lunge.

Epee-fencing, an attempt to reproduce the conditions of actual duelling, in which hits are counted on any part of the person, was established in France circa 1880, and introduced into England in 1900, in which year the Epee Club was founded. The epee is longer and heavier than the foil (35 inches long), and has a bowl-shaped guard. Sabre-fencing, a form in which both edge and point are used. Various types of weapon have been used, based on the different kinds of cavalry sabre, but since the beginning of die 20th Century, the light Italian sabre, 34 inches long, and slightly curved, has been almost universal. Hits count on any part of the person above the waist and on the outside of the thighs. The two principal parries are tierce, as described under foil-fencing, and a high hanging parry made with a crooked arm.

Singlestick was fencing with a round ash stick, 34 inches long with a basket hilt, originated in the 16th Century, when it was used as a practice weapon for the broad-sword. Singlestick was extremely popular in the 18th Century, under the name of "cudgel-play", and was practised in the 19th Century, on much the same lines as sabre-fencing, but it has largely been neglected since the introduction of the light sabre.


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