by Malcom Fare
As a preparation for armed combat, fencing is as old as the sword itself. Even as a sport it has a surprisingly long history – ancient Egyptian temple paintings show fencing bouts over 3000 years ago using sticks, a recreation that continues unbroken to this day in upper Egypt.
The earliest surviving manual of swordsmanship is a Latin manuscript of German origin dating from around 1300. Now in the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, it deals with the use of the sword and buckler or small shield. Other early German and Italian manuals show that medieval fencing masters had developed their art to a high degree of sophistication. But it was only when the wearing of swords by noblemen became fashionable in the 16th century with the development of the long thin rapier that the foundations of modern fencing are laid. First seen as part of civilian dress in Spain and then Italy, the rapier, with its emphasis on hitting with the point, was considerably more dangerous than the cuttings swords that had preceded it.
Because rapier thrusts were often fatal, there was a need for fencing masters to teach young men how to handle the new weapon. The first teachers were usually old soldiers well used to swordplay, but by the mid-16th century a number of educated amateur swordsmen were looking at the scientific principles involved and began publishing learned and beautifully illustrated treatises. Italian masters became the most sought after in Europe and the rapier became an essential accessory for the fashionable man about town.
The trend was resisted by English masters of defence, who taught students how to handle a variety of weapons in actual combat: sword and buckler, two-handed sword, pole-arm, dagger and staff. In 1599 George Silver published a scathing attack on Italian fencing masters and their weapons, which he described as “bird-spits”. But there was no stopping the march of fashion. The international best seller of the time was a treatise produced by the Italian master Salvatore Fabris in 1606 under the patronage of King Christian IV of Denmark; it was reprinted five times over the next 70 years.
But during the 17th century the rapier became obsolete. It was too long and cumbersome to be easily carried, particularly when travelling by coach. And in France at the court of Louis XIV the latest fashion demanded the wearing of a much shorter court sword. The highly manoeuvrable weapon that evolved had a triangular hollow-ground blade for lightness and strength ending in a needle-sharp point and was the deadliest civilian sword ever made. It completely changed the way fencing was taught. Even practice versions with a button at the end of the blade could result in serious accidents to the face when handled by enthusiastic beginners in the days before masks and it was not unusual for fencing masters to lose an eye.
What they needed was a way of demonstrating the skills of swordplay in relative safety, and so the foil was developed. This new sporting weapon had a flat or square-shaped flexible blade and, most importantly, there were rules governing its use. These restricted the valid target to an area of the body between neck and waist and established ‘right of way’, whereby the attacker’s blade had to be parried before the defender could make a riposte or launch his own attack. And so from the mid-17th century onwards, fencing masters taught two quite distinct styles. Those pupils who had to fight a duel would be prepared for a real combat that might involve hits to the head, arms and legs. But the majority of clients sensibly avoided duelling whenever possible and simply wanted to look good with sword in hand. They received instruction in foil fencing, an academic exercise that soon became an essential part of a gentleman’s education, along with dancing and music.
The French school now predominated in Europe, except in Spain and the Austro-Hungarian Empire where a modified form of the old rapier play continued to be taught. In the late 18th century the French fencing master Texier La Boëssière invented something that was to revolutionise fencing technique: the wire mask. It took a generation for it to become accepted because good fencers felt it was quite unnecessary, but fencing masters appreciated the protection it gave them and their beginner pupils. The next generation also realised that, since there was no longer any risk of injury to the face, fencing could change from a relatively static exercise with the weight on the back foot to a much more mobile and fluid form of swordplay whose key feature was the instant parry-riposte.
However, by the mid-19th century many fencers thought foil had moved too far away from its roots. They wanted a sword more like that used in a duel, and so epee fencing developed, first in France and soon throughout the rest of the fencing world. The epee used the same triangular blade as the smallsword but with a button on the end and had a larger bell-like guard to protect the hand. It replaced the artificial conventions of foil with just one aim: to hit and not be hit – anywhere from head to toe. The difficulty of judging whether a hit was good or not led to the development of the pointe d’arrêt, initially a single sharp tip protruding 2 mm from its cord binding and later the safer triple point.
Unlike foil and epee, the third fencing weapon, the sabre, allows cuts as well as thrusts, and the target is anywhere above the waist. Sabre fencing is derived from military swordsmanship, particularly the cavalry sword. But the practice swords used in the army were heavy cumbersome weapons and in the late 19th century an Italian fencing master, Giuseppe Radaelli, developed a lightweight fencing sabre that could be manipulated with the speed and accuracy of a foil. By the early 1900s, Italian masters had introduced the principles of this new weapon to all fencing countries.