History of Fencing
Reproduced with the consent of Fencing Net - www.fencing.net

Sword fighting as sport has existed since ancient Egypt, and has been practiced in many forms in various cultures since then. Although jousting and tournament combat was a popular sport in the European middle ages, modern FIE fencing owes more to unarmored dueling forms that evolved from 16th century rapier combat. Rapiers evolved from cut-and-thrust military swords, but were most popular amongst civilians who used it for self-defence and dueling. Rapiers were edged, but the primary means of attack was the thrust. Rapier fencing spread from Spain and Italy to northwest Europe, in spite of the objections of masters such as George Silver who preferred traditional cutting weapons such the English broad sword.

The Spanish school, under masters such as Narvaez and Thibault, became a complicated and mystical affair whose geometrical theories required much practice to master. Italian masters like Agrippa and Capo Ferro developed a more pragmatic school in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, introducing innovations such as linear fencing and the lunge. By the 18th century, the rapier had evolved to a simpler, shorter, and lighter design that was popularized in France as the small sword. Although the small sword often had an edge, it was only to discourage the opponent from grabbing the blade, and the weapon was used exclusively for thrusting. The lightweight made a more complex and defensive style possible, and the French masters developed a school based on defence with the sword, subtlety of movement, and complex attacks. When buttoned with a leather safety tip that resembled a flower bud, the small sword was known as le fleuret, and was identical in use to the modern foil (still known as le fleuret in French). Indeed, the French small sword school forms the basis of most of modern fencing theory.

By the mid-19th century, dueling was in decline as a means of settling disputes, partially because victory could lead to a jail term for assault or manslaughter. Emphasis shifted to defeating the opponent without necessarily killing him, and less fatal dueling forms evolved using the duelling sword, or epee de terrain, an unedged variant of the small sword. Later duels often ended with crippling thrusts to the arm or leg, and fewer legal difficulties for the participants. This is the basis of modern epee fencing. Cutting swords had been used in blood sports such as backsword prizefights at least as far back as the 17th century. Broadswords, sabres, and cutlasses were used extensively in military circles, especially by cavalry and naval personnel, and saw some duelling application in these circles as well. Training was performed with wooden weapons, and stick fighting remained popular until Italian masters formalized sabre fencing into a non-fatal sporting/training form with metal weapons in the late 19th century. Early sport sabres were significantly heavier than the modern sport sabre and necessitated a strong style with the use of moulinets and other bold movements. As with thrusting swords, the sabre evolved to lighter, less fatal duelling forms such as the Italian sciabola di terro and the German schlager. Hungarian masters developed a new school of sabre fencing that emphasized finger control over arm strength, and they dominated sabre fencing for most of the 20th century.

Duelling faded away after the First World War. A couple of noteworthy duels were fought over disputes that arose during Olympic games in the 1920s, and there have been rare reports of sword duels since then. In October 1997, the Mayor of Calabria, Italy, publicly challenged certain Mafiosos to a duel. German fraternity duelling (mensur) still occurs with some frequency.

The first modern Olympic games featured foil and sabre fencing for men only. Epee was introduced in 1900. Single stick was featured in the 1904 games. Epee was electrified in the 1936 games, foil in 1956, and sabre in 1988. Early Olympic games featured events for Masters, and until recently fencing was the only Olympic sport that has included professionals. Disruptions in prevailing styles have accompanied the introduction of electric judging, most recently transforming sabre fencing. Foil fencing experienced similar upheavals for a decade or two following the introduction of electric judging, which was further complicated by the new, aggressive, athletic style coming out of Eastern Europe at the time.

Women's foil was first contested in the 1924 Olympic games, and Women's epee was only contested for the first time in 1996, although it has been part of the World Championships since 1989. Women's sabre made its first appearance in the 1998 World Championships as a demonstration sport.

When most people think of swordplay, the images that come to mind are either of the lumbering power of armour-clad knights battling with broadswords, or of the swashbuckling flair of Errol Flynn and other screen duellers of the '30s and '40s. In what it requires and how it is conducted, Olympic fencing resembles these two clichés about as much as the Olympic Opening Ceremonies resemble the ritual sacrifice of animals that once signalled the start of competition. The modern Olympic fencer trains for years, honing agility, quickness, and subtlety of movement. The sport has been described as "chess with muscles," suggesting that complicated strategy lies behind the thrusts and parries that punctuate a duel.

Fencers of today employ a strange combination of archaic and modern customs; combatants still salute before a match and wear the traditional white uniforms and masks, but scoring is now determined by electronic padding worn by the combatants that registers when a hit takes place with flashing, colour-coded lights.

As suggested by the continuing power of the myths of sword fighting knights and adventurers, the fencing tradition is rich and storied. Like fellow Olympic sports archery and javelin, fencing has its roots in ancient combat. Around 1200 BC, the Egyptians began the custom of fencing for sport, as seen by images in decorative reliefs from that period depicting knobs on the end of weapons, earflaps and other protective garb.

Sword craftsmanship evolved through the ages, from the short, wide swords favoured by the Greeks and Romans to the heavy two-handed broadswords in vogue during the age of chivalry. After the advent of gunpowder and firearms, armour became obsolete and lighter swords gained popularity as the sidearm of choice for European officers and gentlemen. The Italians, Spanish, and French all claim parentage for modern fencing, but throughout Europe during the Renaissance the discipline took on the aura of high art, with masters refining and passing on to a select few their secret techniques.

In the 18th century, treatises appeared in print setting forth the current system of rules and scoring, and prescribing the foil, a metal mask with eye slit, and protective jacket or vest as equipment for use. The rules were intended to simulate real combat while protecting the safety of the combatants. "Conventions" were subsequently adopted to limit the target area of the body and providing for a "right of way" for attacks.

Fencing was a clear choice for inclusion in the Olympic program from 1896 onwards. At the time, the sword was still considered an important military weapon, and sword fighting remained a well-established European custom backed by centuries of tradition. In addition to the foil, contested weapons were the epee, descendent of the duelling sword, and the sabre, which evolved from the weapon of choice for cavalry troops. Fencing remains one of just six sports to have appeared in every modern Olympic Games.

In the first decades of competition, Europeans dominated, with France, Italy, Spain, Great Britain, and the Netherlands all boasting champions. Following World War II, the communist nations of Eastern Europe rose to pre-eminence, with the Soviet Union, Poland, and Hungary sharing the medal stand. Aladar Gerevich of Hungary is considered fencing's greatest champion, with seven gold medals in sabre competition to his credit.

Club is running every Wednesday from 8pm at CIYMS