Fencing Through Ages
The history of fencing is controversial and difficult to track down, due to the lack of real documentation.
The meaning of the word “fencing” itself, has different connotations and some think it originates from the Latin “defensus”, “defense” in old French, meaning “to protect, protection”.
Although many might think that fencing has been born as a form of self-defense during a battle, it looks like it actually started as a sport of stick fighting, in ancient Egypt.
The earliest evidence of fencing comes from an Egyptian carving, in the temple at Madinet-Habu, near Luxor in Upper Egypt. This temple was built by King Ramses lll, around 1190 BC.
The carving depicts a fencing bout between two people. We know that it was not a duel as the weapons used have well covered points and they are wearing masks very similar to those used today. There is also a panel of judges and even spectators, that are holding feathered wands, while the score is kept on a piece of papyrus.
Homer’s Iliad includes some of the earliest descriptions of combat with shield, sword and spear, usually between two heroes who pick one another for a duel.
In the 5th century, in Athens, “hoplomachie” (fencing teachers) were in demand to teach the art of combat. They used to be employed by the health clubs, which organized events for the men and children. Their teaching was established in Sparta, even during the time of the Roman domination.
Later on, the practice of fencing was included in the Olympic Games.
In Roman times, also, people had mock-fights, using sticks with the sharp points covered up. They used to practice and develop fighting techniques, some of whom became the basis of the art of fencing, as it later developed.
Another form of fencing for the Romans was military combat. Their most skillful soldiers became “Doctors of Arms” and received a double allowance for living. Unconcerned with the Hellenic traditions, the Roman conquerors transformed the Olympic Games into a circus. The gladiator’s combats, greatly enjoyed by the Romans, were extremely cruel and bloody. They were a far cry beyond the conventional combats and courtesies of the Greek fencers.
Fast forwarding over the time, after an era of war, invasions and professional warriors, the Christians began the Crusades when chivalry and the knighthood were established.
First tournaments were organized in 1066 AD, after the French invasion in England. These were the times of great ostentatious equestrian exercises, where a knight attempted to display his skills and value.
Sword fighting schools can be found in European historical records dating back to the 12th century.
The fourteenth century marked the appearance of the two-handed épée, when the weapons became heavier and the techniques were based upon the brute force of fencers.
Although there were numerous teachers during these times, the fencers were taught “secret” tricks and they were swore not to reveal them – during this period, fencing went through the dark ages with no literature being produced and teaching being done in secret.
At the same time, the invention of gunpowder and development of firearms made armor useless and it was shortly abandoned.
The Italians were the first to arrange some fencing principles in theoretical order. They regulated the techniques from which originated the basic exercises and created a veritable fencing school of didactics.
The Italian Renaissance and the influence of Italian fencing masters in France, gave rise to the French fencing movement. The nobles and young French fencers were taught in fencing schools, in Rome, Milan or Venice.
Henry de Saint-Didier, highly devoted to the art of fencing, learned the Italian fencing theories and published his first treatise in 1573, defining the secrets of épée.
Even if his treatise was inspired by the Italian methods, he can be considered the founder of French fencing.
Modern fencing has its roots in Spain, “Treatise on Arms”, written by Diego de Valera, between 1458 and 1471 is the oldest surviving manual on western fencing.
In the 16th century, more noblemen were killed in fencing duels than in war. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the sport grew in Europe and became less deadly, as lighter swords were developed and face masks came into use.
Spanish conquistadors introduced fencing to the United States, in the 16th century.
The classical Spanish school “La destreza”, which was based on geometry and philosophy, depicts fencing as a high art and skill.
Zorro (Spanish for “fox”), perhaps the most popular fencing character, is the secret identity of Don Diego de la Vega, a nobleman living in the Spanish colonial era.
He further promoted fencing as an exalted symbol of the Hispanic character, a man who weaves together Spanish and California history to form a new prototype.
Skipping over a few years in time:
A commonly held myth among contemporary fencers is that in past history, women were only allowed to fence with the foil. Generally speaking, this seems to hold true prior to the 1870s, at which time Colonel Thomas Monstery began training female fencers in a number of other weapons such as the broadsword, bayonet, and bowie knife. After beginning with his protégé Ella Hattan (a.k.a. “Jaguarina”), Monstery held classes in New York City to instruct women in stick self-defense. Also of note, during the 1880s, Professor Hans Hartl of Vienna was giving demonstrations throughout America with his female students in the use of the sabre, sword and dagger. By the 1890s many other fencing masters, such as Regis Senac, were following suit. Although foil continued to be the primary weapon taught to women in the fencing world at large, numerous accounts of women fencing with other weapons can be found in the literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Attached are a few illustrated examples.
Note: this page will be updated, as we work on gathering more information.
More about American Fencing history can be read on the Museum Of American Fencing website.