A Brief History of Fencing

       Fencing, both for fun and as military training has been recorded in history as far back as the high Egyptian civilizations. Moving forward throughout both recorded and unrecorded history, fencing as an elite sport comes to the fore in the hands of the 13th Century Europeans.  It is from these written works that we can trace the modern fencing we see at the Olympics.

     13th Century Europe was a place of armed and armored men-at-arms. Because of the influence of movies and television, we have a view of these warriors as barbarians, aimlessly hacking their way through opposing troops, however a monastic fighting treatise written and illustrated in Germany around 1230 reveals a much more interesting and complex history.

     This manuscript, known only as I.33, shows a monk and his partner engaged in various attacks and defenses with buckler (a small shield) and sword, with notes detailing the uses in combat of each move. This is the first recorded evidence of a long history of high skill on the part of the Medieval knight.

     The reason there is no record previous to I.33 is simple; books were rare and hand-copied, and even if they existed most of the target audience didn't know how to read. It was with the introduction of the printing press and the spread of literacy that more manuals made their way into the hands of soldiers and civilians alike.

    For example, the venerable fight master Johannes Liechtenauer published his treatise on fighting with long sword, sword and buckler, sword and dagger, and grappling in the 1380's. This famous book was to influence other fighting manuals for the next 2 centuries.

As time passed, the firearm came into use. Armor became obsolete, and with it the use of the weapons designed to defeat it, including the long sword, pole axe, and other heavy hand weapons. Swords with small, thin blades began to appear, as did manuals on their use, although there was some reluctance to accept these weapons among the fight masters of the early 16th Century. This inertia didn't last, and in 1553, Camillo Agrippa wrote his manual to particularly emphasize rapier usage; not just for soldiers but for civilians as well. Schools like Master Agrippa's started to grow, and so began the era of rapier duelling we know so well from Shakespeare's plays.

     Much of modern fencing technique began with a manual written by the Italian Master Ridolfo Capo Ferro in 1610, considered by many as the father of modern fencing. The Gran Simulacro codified both fighting technique and process, and the rules for civilian duelling. With the development of safety equipment during this period, competitions began to be staged; first among students and later between the major fencing schools.

     Until the end of the 18th Century, the rapier maintained its dominance as the preferred weapon for free men until the wearing of weapons and duelling in public was outlawed as a means of stopping large numbers of aristocratic young men from inconveniently killing each other.

     Fencing for sport, (fueled by the many fencing schools in Europe), maintained its popularity and traditions in Europe from the 17th through 19th Centuries. The German, Italian, and French rules for fencing, developed over two and a half centuries of tradition, were brought to the same table with those of Great Britain, Belgium, Bohemia, Holland, Hungary, and Norway at a special meeting on November 29th, 1913.

    This meeting resulted in the formation of the Federation Internationale d'Escrime, (or FIE) as the governing body for the sport of fencing throughout the world. The institution established standard rules to govern participants from all countries and traditions for fencing including the field of play (the fencing strip), quality of equipment (manufacture of weapons and masks), and the structure and function of bouts, tournaments, and other competitions. The FIE also is charged with adapting the rules to account for improvements in technology, including electronic scoring and transparent, lighted masks. Because of this organization and the enthusiasm of fencers worldwide, fencing was included in the first modern Olympic Games and continues to this day.