the history of the sport of fencing



Before there were swordsmen, there were warrior customs involving swords-play. These one on one sword matches were usually fought over property or a criminal act also known as "Trials By Combat." In these "Trials By Combat," you were fighting for your guilt or innocence.


Centuries later, sword fights were still being fought over property and criminal acts, but in this age of chivalry, new customs were being added, including: loyalty to church, loyalty to his master, and loyalty to his family. Single combat was used to resolve disputes over loyalty, bravery, or truth.


Knights during this time period, lived and died by these codes of chivalry. In combat, these codes of chivalry were: that vanquished, or wounded knights should not be left to die on the battlefield (Commoners and soldiers were outside of this code and could be left behind). If a knight was captured, he was a man of his word, and could be trusted he would not try to escape or harm his captors.


Throughout history, there have been codes upheld by swordsmen. True swordsmanship did not evolve until approximately the early part of the 1500's. At this time, there was a worldwide explosion of swordsmanship. About 1450 A.D., fencing guilds started to appear in Germany. As the swords improved, new skills were developed. These skills were what made the swordsmen.


The first sword, which honed the skills of a swordsmen, was the Katana. The advent of the Katana was about 700 A.D., and at that time the Katana was much larger, (as long as 5 ft.), and might have been used to cut down horses, as well as riders. The testing of a great Katana was executed upon slaves, by seeing if the blade would go completely through the body with a single cut. By the early part of the 1500's, the Katana had become much shorter, and over a 800 years time span, Japan had many swordmasters with skills of mythic proportion.


European weapons had evolved over this time period as well. European weapons had become lighter, and more well balanced, which resulted in the development of the cut and thrust sword and eventually the Rapier.
The Rapier went through the same sizing changes as the Katana, starting out at almost 6 ft. The rapier was a thrusting weapon, therefore, the swordsmen would use their dagger, sword, cloak, hand, and buckler to parry with. Swordsplay was now no longer combat, but an art, almost a dance. This made people develop a romance with swordsmanship. Now the upper class had an infatuation with swordsmanship, and their combats were now called duels. Unlike "Trials By Combat", dueling was about honor and no longer about justice. A man was judged by his composure, not who the victor was.


In Europe, (especially France), during the 16th Century, forbidden duels of honor became the new fashion. Historians attribute the popularity of dueling, at this time, to the publishing of how to manuals on swordsmanship as well as fencing academies. In the mid 16th Century the French Fencing Academy was recognized by King Charles IX, and the fencing positions: Prime, Seconde, Tierce, Quatre, and the lunge were defined.

Almost anything could provoke a duel. It may be as simple as how a man chews his food, or as complex as insulting someone's friends or family. Insults to a man's integrity would certainly provoke a duel, but however, once you have crossed the line of invading a man's personal space, there was no way out of a duel, for touching a man in anger was the biggest affront to his honor.

Once a man was disgraced, he then issued a challenge to the person who he was insulted by. In the 16th-17th Centuries, this challenge was delivered by a second. A second was usually a close friend you trusted to speak on your behalf. The lives of the duelists were in the hands of their seconds. The seconds arranged the duel, and the details of the duel, such as: time, location, weapons to be used, and if the duel would be fought to the death. Since the seconds were negotiating for their friends' lives, if they found there to be abt danger whatsoever, they would try to negotiate a way out of the duel. If the duels were unavoidable, then the seconds would set the date.

On the day of the fight, the seconds would accompany the duelists the seconds would attempt one last time to avoid the duel, if their efforts were fruitless, the seconds would then stand aside and let the duel commence. After the first hit, no matter how small the wound, the seconds would stop the duel and provide aid to the duelists. At this point, if the duelist was injured to the point that he could not continue, the duel would end, unless the second wished to step in and take the place of the injured duelist. Under the worst of circumstances, the duel would continue to the death.

After the arrangements for the due were made, the duelists could spend weeks preparing for the challenge and because of this time spent preparing for the duel, there was a rise in the need for swordmasters and fencing salles. Swordmasters during this time became reknown for their skill, and were very popular amongst the ladies.

There were many aspects of the swords, besides being a weapon. A sword was also worn like a piece of jewelry, reflecting a man's social status and wealth. In this time period, a man was not considered a man unless he fought numerous duels to parade his masculinity. Duels were numerous throughout the uppercrust in the eras of the 16th-18th Centuries.

In the 17th Century, the foil had become the training weapon of choice. The rules of right away were used as teaching techniques for the safety of pupils. The earliest historical mention of the use of the foil was at the court of Louis XIV in about 1670 A.D. The foil was developed to entertain as well as hone the skills of a swordsman. The tip of a foil were dipped in iodine or vermillion to clearly show where a hit had been landed on the opponent.

In the 19th Century, the outlawing of dueling was still being ignored and the Sabre had now been introduced to the military and quickly became the sword of choice. The Sabre's curved blade enabled it to be used on horse back. The Sabre would not get caught up on an enemies' body, but would go through it. Because the sabre was primarily a cutting weapon men could be trained very easily to use one.

The first electronic scoring equipment had appeared in the 1890's, but did not get final approval for competition until 1954. At the middle of the 19th Century, the sword was no longer apart of civilian dress. Because of the disarming of society, in conjunction with stronger legal institutions, dueling went on a sharp decline. During this time, Fencing's focus had changed from survival, to amusement and sport.

Basic fencing practices were ways to improve skills with minimal risk of injury. First came a safer weapon, which started with something like a single stick, which was a wooden dowel with a woven basket hand guard and over the years developed into the Foil. The Foil had a very flexible blade, that would lower the risk of injury to almost zero. Second, came the mask, which started out as a piece of very thick leather, which was molded to the face, with the eyes cut out. This protected the face, but left the eyes exposed. Once metal qualities improved, craftsmen were then able to construct a safer metal mesh mask, which did not become common usage until the early part of the 19th Century. Third, came the fencing uniform which started out being a leather vest. Over the years, due to the increased safety of the practice weapons, the uniform changed to white, heavy fabric. The color white was chosen for the uniform so that if a fencer was injured, blood would show immediately.

In today's society there is dueling still taking place the way it did over 300 years ago. Fraternities in Austria and Germany called The Mensur, still practice the same blood letting traditions. The Mensur have developed a less deadly weapon to uphold the ideals of dueling called the Schlaugher.

In Schlaugher duels, there wasn't any foot movement, (to test bravery), and opponents would continue fighting until someone was injured. These injuries would leave scars on the face and head, which were called a schmiz. These scars would show superiority. Many German officers had facial scars obtained from this dueling process. Schauger deulists would wear a long tunic made of either leather or chain mail, heavily padded arm sleeves and collar, and goggles to protect eyes.

In 1896, fencing was at the first Olympic Games. Although only Foil and Sabre were exhibited at the Olympic, the Epee shortly followed in 1900. In 1908, the French extended the Foil target to include the groin and the upper sword arm. The Olympic Committee shortly there after, went back to the old target area. In protest to the Olympic Committee, the French withdrew from the 1912 Olympics for the sport of fencing. In 1924, women's foil became an Olympic sport, however women's Epee didn't become an Olympic sport until 1996.

Throughout history to present day, people have found passion and intrigue (including small children playing with their wooden sticks) through swordsmanship as well as a right of passage.. A sword is unlike any other weapon. It dosen't jam and never runs out of ammo. Once you understand it, a sword truly becomes an extension of your own body. Nobody understands that more than your competition fencers of present day.

Coach David C. Copeland