The History of Fencing is a long and storied one, and while sword-fighting has been around for thousands of years, the sport of fencing has ancient origins and is believed to have developed from the similar techniques of swordplay, wrestling, and boxing.
The first recorded evidence of fencing as a competitive sport was around 588 A.D., in the Byzantine empire. But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that modern fencing came about with its two styles: Classical Fencing and modern, Olympic Sport Fencing- each style representing something different but all coming together under one umbrella term. This article will explore these histories and origins as well as how they have evolved over time to became what we teach in our fencing classes today!
Ancient origins of fencing
Fencing can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where it was used for both self-defense and combat. The first evidence of swordsmanship appears in Egypt, around 3,000 years ago. The Egyptians used swords for both dueling and war, and developed a number of different techniques for fighting with them. In ancient Greece, swordsmanship also became popular, and was used in both civilian and military contexts. The History of Fencing really started with the Greeks when they developed the first fencing schools, and created a number of different styles of swordsmanship which are still used today.
16th century Italian Fencing masters
In the 16th century, fencing masters in Italy developed the three styles of fencing that are still practiced today. These masters were very influential in the development of fencing and were responsible for codifying many of the techniques and rules that are still used in fencing today. The three main masters are: Filippo Vadi, Achille Marozzo, and Ridolfo Capoferro.
Filippo Vadi was alive from 1482-1540. One of his published works, De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, contains detailed illustrations on how to fence with the sword and buckler, sword and dagger, one handed longsword, quarterstaff, two handed swords, poleaxes, and spears.
Achille Marozzo lived from 1463-1536 and his book, Opera Nova, is one of the most important sources of information on Renaissance swordsmanship. It contains detailed descriptions of the armoured and unarmoured combat of the period, as well as illustrations of various techniques.
Ridolfo Capoferro lived from 1550-1619. His book, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell’Offesa di Spada e Sciabola, is one of the most important sources of information on Baroque swordsmanship. It contains detailed descriptions of the techniques and principles used at the time.
Fencing in 17th Century France
French classical fencing is said to have originated in the 17th century when King Louis XIV decreed that French nobility were required to train in the rapier. The “belle Épée” was used exclusively under this decree, which continued until the late 1800s when other weapons were also allowed.
France’s “École des Maîtres d’Armes” (School of Swordmasters) was founded in 1670, making it one of the earliest schools for teaching military skills and civilian self-defense in Europe. However, by the early 18th century, members of French society captured sword fighting arts around Europe and began teaching them to others in Parisian salons. This led to the establishment of the Academy of Arms in 1725, which became recognized as the national school for French fencing.
This school’s Head Master was Joachim-Napoléon Murat, who also taught King Louis XVI and his family. His methods were renowned across Europe, spreading to England by 1830 when they became adopted at the Academy of Chivalry there.
Domenico Angelo’s Fencing School
One of the most important Fencing Schools was founded by Domenico Angelo in 1763, who is the first person to have laid down rules for modern fencing.
In this same year he had first published his book “L’Ecole des Armes”. This consisted of a series of lessons that were based on his time as a pupil in Naples with some masters that had first taught him. It is said that during this time he observed classically styled fencing and also fenced himself. He also observed the French school of fencing, which was done with small swords called foils.
What made his school different from any that had preceded it was the fact that he emphasised on weapon handling and footwork, which would be essential for gaining control of the fight. He also taught students how to use their blades in order to disarm their opponents, highlighting the importance of this skill.
His work had influenced the French school of fencing- some notable names who were influenced by his work include Jean-Louis Michel and La Boëssière. Angelo’s book gained some success in France through these individuals, who enjoyed it so much that they began to spread its popularity among people who would be interested in it. Angelo’s book was the first to include the concept of a foil, which is a light sword with a small circular hand guard- this would be used for practice and competition with rules that were developed by Angelo.
Amateur Fencers League of America
The Amateur Fencers League of America (AFLA) is the oldest fencing organization in the United States. It was founded in 1891 by a group of New York fencers who wanted to create an organization that would promote and support fencing. The AFLA hosted its first national championship in 1892, and has been running championships and competitions ever since.
The AFLA was instrumental in the development of fencing in the United States. In 1931, they developed the first standardized set of rules for American fencing, which formed the basis for modern fencing. They also helped to develop the foil, sabre, and épée as competitive weapons.
The AFLA is still active today, and is responsible for organizing and running many national fencing championships. They also promote the sport of fencing to the general public, and work to increase participation in the sport.
First Fencing competition in the Olympic Games of 1896
The history of fencing in the Olympics started in 1896 in Athens, Greece. They were men’s foil, master’s foil (only held for one more event afterwards) and sabre events, and only 4 nations participated – Austria, France, Denmark & Greece.
In these games, there were four events planned, but the epee contest was canceled for unknown reasons. The foil competition was won by a Frenchman, Eugène-Henri Gravelotte, who defeated his compatriot Henri Callot in the finale. The other two competitions, the sabre and masters foil, were both won by Greek fencers. Leonidas Pyrgos, who won the master’s foil event, became Greece’s first Olympic champion in modern history.
In 1912, women were finally allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. With the first women’s fencing event starting in 1924. This was a foil event, as epee and sabre were considered “inappropriate for women” (glad we’ve moved past that).
The fencing competition in the Olympic Games has grown over time, and now features three different weapons- foil, épée, and sabre. There are also multiple events for each weapon, with men’s and women’s competitions held separately.
Electrical scoring in Fencing
Scoring fencing correctly would always be difficult, especially in international competitions where politics and nationalism became involved. Eventually, just as with many other subjective scoring sports, cheating and collusion crept into the sport. The phrase “four blind men and a thief.” for the judges soon became popular and it became clear a new, unbiased system was needed.
Thanks to this, the history of fencing was changed forever as it became among the first sports to embrace electronic scoring. Robert Houdin led the initial effort back in 1840, but it wasn’t until 1896 that it started to gain acceptance – albeit with a lot of suspicion. That’s when British foil master M. Bertrand demonstrated an electronic scoring system for the foil that had been created by someone named Mr. Little, an amateur fencer that wanted to keep his identity secret.
Each combatant’s collar was connected to a wall-mounted buzzer, by a wire that ran down their arm and into the foil handle. When a hit was scored, the foil blade would be pushed back into the handle, completing a circuit and triggering a buzzer.
There were some technical problems that contributed towards resistance of electronic scoring systems – to avoid undue stress, Little’s device had been created to be as unobtrusive as possible.
In Bertrand’s demonstration however it was heavy and cumbersome, making the fencers tired very quickly. In addition it caused problems with incorrect scoring due to an orientation of the fencer not being quite right or a faulty wire connection. The French refused to accept this new system because they thought it would lead to bias being introduced into fencing! This use of electronic scoring systems continued until 1914 when World War 1 halted progress dramatically.
After the war, however, advances were made and by 1928 it was finally generally accepted for foil fencing to have an electronic scoring system. The first electronically scored Olympic fencing event was men’s épée in 1936 as this was fairly easy to score. A hit on any part of the opponents body with the tip of the épée was enough to score.
Foil and sabre Olympic events were scored electronically from 1958 and 1988 respectively. These came at later dates due to the complexity of scoring hits on target areas vs. non-target areas using a conductive lamé and conductive masks and cuffs.
We hope this blog post on The History of Fencing has been enlightening! Fencing is a combat sport that has been around for hundreds of years. It’s history is long and varied, but it has always remained popular. Likely due to the fact it’s an exciting and challenging sport that will keep you on your toes.
Our academy offers a variety of classes for people of all ages and skill levels. Whether you’re a beginner just looking to try out the sport, or you’re a seasoned veteran looking to sharpen your skills, group session or 1-to-1, we have a class for you. Contact us today to sign up!