The European Art of Fencing
by Ken Mondschein
Aswith most things in the martial arts, the story of fencing is not a simpleone. If you ask one person to tell you what "fencing" is, he might tellyou that it's a modern sport. Ask a second, and she might describe fencingas a five-hundred-year-old martial tradition. Yet a third might mentionZorro, Cyrano de Bergerac, and other fictional heroes. All of these explanationsare, in their own ways, correct. Therefore, the question becomes whichfencing we are speaking of? In his article, we will seek to tell the storyof the Western European tradition of swordsmanship, from its beginningsto how it is practiced today.
Swordsmanship, of course, has existed for thousands of years. Egyptianwall reliefs from about 1190 BCE illustrate bouts using protective equipment,and the cultures of the ancient world, such as the Greeks and Romans, setup systematic schools of instruction for their youth. Likewise, medievalwarriors, from Charlemagne's paladins of the eighth century to the Crusadersof the eleventh century, no doubt learned their martial skills from theirelders, and passed them on, in turn, to their juniors. However, specifictechniques can only be traced back to the late Middle Ages, for this iswhen the first surviving book on the subject was written. This manuscript,catalogued in the British Library as I-33, was written in about 1300 bya churchman in southern Germany. The text is in Latin, with illustrationsdepicting a priest and his student performing various techniques with swordand buckler (a type of small shield). It seems that the monks of the Shaolinmonastery in China were certainly not unique in pursuing matters both spiritualand martial.
During the Middle Ages, schools of swordsmanship comparable to thoseof feudal Japan arose throughout Europe. These were sophisticated and deadlybattlefield arts, all designed to dispatch an adversary or adversariesas quickly as possible. Schools and masters of arms taught weapon and empty-handedarts suitable for use in any situation: mounted or on foot, in armor orunarmored, against one adversary or in a melee. One favored weapon wasthe German langshwert or Italian spada da una mano e mezza, known in Englishas the longsword or bastard sword. This was a light, straight, double-edgedcutting-and-thrusting sword, meant to be used in two hands. The use ofshorter swords, daggers, armor-piercing weapons such as poleaxes, and specializedweapons, such as spiked shields used for judicial duels, was also taught.
Notable medieval masters included Johannes Liechtenauer, who is creditedwith founding the widely influential and long-lived German school of swordsmanship,and Ott, a Jewish wrestling master who served the noble Hapsburg familyof Austria. Ott's style of unarmed defense resembled the jujitsu of theJapanese bushi in many respects. The pragmatic art of close combat in theWest favored neutralizing the opponent swiftly through joint locks andtakedowns. Unlike modern karate or tae kwon do, there was little emphasison kicks and punches in the medieval fighting arts, though these certainlydid exist.
The story of fencing as it exists today, though, really begins in latefifteenth-century Spain, for that was where the custom of wearing swordswith everyday civilian dress was most widespread, and where the first knownschools of specialized instruction in a civilian style of swordsmanshipexisted. Beginning in the1530s, we also find treatises on civilian swordsmanshipbeing published in Italy. The schools of use for these relatively light,single-handed weapons, the Spanish espada ropera (or "dress sword"), andthe Italian spada di lato ("side-sword," in the sense of a "sidearm"),were not very much changed from the earlier, more military styles. However,in 1553, an Italian architect, philosopher, and amateur swordsman namedCamillo Agrippa published a book that would prove widely influential. Agrippa'sTrattato di Scientia d'Arme ("Treaty on the Science of Arms") advocateda rationalistic approach to swordsmanship. This book made many lastingtechnical contributions to the art of civilian swordsmanship.
For instance, prior to Agrippa, colorful mnemonic names for guards andstances, such as the porta di ferro ("iron door") and posta di donna ("lady'sguard") were in common use throughout Europe to describe positions takenfor attack, defense, or to invite an attack from the adversary. To somedegree, these paralleled the stances or positions taken by Japanese swordsmen.Agrippa replaced these descriptive names by a simple system of four guards,numbered sequentially from the position the hand naturally takes when thesword is drawn from the scabbard: prima, seconda, terza, and quarta. Thissystem, with additions, is still followed today.
Agrippa also placed great emphasis on using the point, which, he argued,is superior to a cut, since an object moving in a straight line will reachits destination faster than an object traveling in an arc. This idea wouldprove greatly influential in the development of fencing. As in Japan, swordsmanshipremained an essential part of the education of every gentleman, and thesword was a required dress accessory for certain social classes. UnlikeJapan, where the katana was the all-purpose sidearm of the samurai, a specificallycivilian weapon emerged in Europe. From Agrippa's time on, we begin tosee the first uniquely civilian sidearm, the rapier, come into its own.A rapier is a long, single-handed sword constructed primarily for thrusting.Though sometimes carried by gentlemen serving in their country's armies,its unwieldy length, limited cutting ability, and considerable cost madethis practice more a mark of status than a wise choice in battlefield weapons.
Changing social attitudes, as well as the practicalities of using along, agile blade, saw grappling techniques diminish in importance, thoughnot entirely disappear, through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.So, too, did other technical aspects change. By the late 1600s, variousnational styles had become well established throughout the nations of Europe.Italian fencers used a long blade, often in conjunction with a parryingdagger held in the non-dominant hand. As time went on, footwork becameincreasingly linear, though circular and angular motions, as well as variousevasive actions, were also practiced. The Germans followed the Italiansin many things, but favored blades with more developed cutting edges, andalso kept up the use of older weapons, such as the langshwert. The Spanish,beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, developed a sophisticated and deadlyschool of fencing, La Verdadera Destreza ("The true art and skill") basedon humanistic philosophy.
La Destreza, today often erroneously called the "Spanish Circle," "MagicCircle," or "Mysterious Circle," used geometric concepts to train the mindof the fencer. The French, meanwhile, favored a blade that, as time wenton, became increasingly shorter, quicker, lighter, and almost edgeless.
This French version of the rapier eventually came to be called the smallsword.The French kings founded an academy in Paris, and the masters-at-arms thereenjoyed a teaching monopoly. Both because of the effectiveness of a lighter,more agile blade, and for reasons of international style, the French schoolof fencing became widely influential throughout Europe. Smallsword fencingis the direct ancestor of the most common styles of fencing of today.
The Classical Age
Following the revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the sword,and emblem of the aristocracy, was no longer worn with civilian dress.However, the practice of dueling did not cease, though the code that governedsuch occurrences grew more elaborate. For this grim purpose, the Frenchdevised the épée du combat, a dueling sword used for thrustingonly. The Italians followed in this, and also favored the dueling saber,a light cut-and-thrust weapon. The Germans favored a somewhat heavier saber.Fencing with the foil, originally a practice weapon for the smallsword,continued to develop into a sophisticated art that let swordsmen use theirtechnical mastery of all the techniques of killing in a context where injurywas highly unlikely.
This "classical age" was really the fullest development of the art.While fencing has changed quite a bit since the nineteenth century, ithad reached a recognizable form by this time. Though fencing, like duelingitself, became more formal, forbidding the use of such techniques as disarms,the skills of fencing always remained grounded in reality. Duels were seriousaffairs, and not infrequently ended with disfiguring or fatal results.Likewise, disarms and other "rough play" continued to be taught, if notused, and have passed down to the present time in certain traditional schools.
By the late nineteenth century, the three classical fencing weaponshad become established and were used in international competitions. Theseweapons were the foil; the épée, fitted for non-lethal purposeswith a three-pronged safety tip (the pointe d'arret); and the blunted fencingsaber. Other weapons, such as the cane (French: la canne), the grand canneor two-handed stick, bayonet, quarterstaff, and singlestick, an Anglo-Americansubstitute for the saber, were also commonly practiced for sport and self-defense,though they are rare today.
Fencing was an integral part of the first modern Olympics, and the FIE,or Federation International d'Escrime, was founded in Paris in 1906 tooversee rules and standards for international competition. These rulescodified French fencing practice into the international standard. Underthe FIE rules, the foil scores touches only to the torso. Double-hits infoil are resolved using a concept known as "priority," often commonly referredto as "right-of-way," that originally evolved to emphasize defense oversuicidally counterattacking. Saber allows the entire upper body as a target,though at one time it also included the leading leg. Saber fencing alsouses the concept of priority to resolve double-hits. The épée,which allows touches to the entire body, has no such rules, and is considereda more perfect mirror of the duel.
Alongsidethese three weapons, though, legacies from the past remained. Sword anddagger was still commonly taught in places such as Naples and Sicily, and,in 1888, a team of women fencers from Vienna put on a demonstration of"Neopolitan" in New York City. Likewise, two-handed sword fighting survivedin the French and Italian forms of grand canne, and even as late as the1930s, an attempt was made to revive the old school of German longswordas part of Adolph Hitler's volkskultur movement. These martial artifactsare still alive today. Not unlike the koryu bujitsu, or feudal warriorarts of Japan, they are handed down from master to student, and remaina vital, though increasingly rare, part of Western martial culture.
Today, on the cusp of the twenty-first century, the vast majority offencers participate in the sport of fencing, also variously called Olympicfencing, competitive fencing, or electric fencing. As much as the teachingof kendo and judo in Japan is standardized under the Japanese Ministryof Education, so, too, is the FIE the central organizing body for competitivefencing. The governing bodies in other countries, such as the United StatesFencing Association, which oversees such aspects of competitive fencingin the U.S. as insurance, rankings, and the selection of the Olympic team,all comply with the standards and rulings of the FIE.
As in any sport, the objective is to win, which is accomplished by scoringhits, or touches, as they are termed in fencing. All competition fencingweapons make use of an electrical scoring apparatus. When a hit is scored,an electrical circuit is completed, setting off a scoring light. Exactlywhat constitutes a valid hit is determined by the rules established bythe FIE, and may be rather abstract, bearing little resemblance to whata fencer would do if his life were actually on the line. In épéefencing, for instance, a touch to the foot sufficient to set off the electricscoring machine is a valid hit, whereas the counter-thrust to the attacker'sthroat that arrives an instant after is not counted as valid. The relativelysafe nature of the sporting weapons makes actions that would be unthinkablyrisky with sharps quite effective in competition. Likewise, though martialarts such as kendo and judo maintain rituals and etiquette descended fromtheir feudal forbears, the rituals in competitive fencing, such as thesalute and the handshake after the bout, are often almost perfunctory.
However, there is also a growing minority of classical fencers who seekto preserve fencing as it was practiced in the nineteenth and early twentiethcenturies in all its sophistication, but also in a manner consistent withthe realities of dueling with sharp weapons. Part of this is an attemptto preserve the rituals, etiquette, and mindset that have come down tous from the past. Classical fencers see fencing as a martial art, and arguethat, without a connection to the age when dueling was a reality, and constantreference to the realities of using sharp weapons, fencing loses its meaningand becomes merely a sporting event played with expensive equipment underrules incomprehensible to a non-initiate.
There is also a significant number of historical fencers, whose numbershave been growing in recent years. For reasons of historical interest,tradition, or romanticism, historical fencers concentrate their study onweapons that historically predate the three classical weapons. Some historicalfencers practice weapons such as longsword or sword and dagger in traditionsstretching back centuries. Masters versed in these arts, however, are fewand far between. Other students of historical fencing attempt to reconstructthe practice of lost weapons arts from written evidence and practical experience.
Finally, theatrical fencing should not be neglected, since it is anart unto itself. Indeed, much of the interest in fencing is generated bysuperbly executed scenes such as the duels in Rob Roy, Shakespeare in Love,and Dangerous Liasons, both choreographed by the legendary William Hobbs.However, the aim of theatrical fencing is quite different from that ofclassical, historical or sport fencing. In any of those disciplines, theobjective is to enter into the adversary's distance, preferably in a subtle,deceptive manner, and hit him. In theatrical fencing, the actor seeks tomaintain a safe distance, to show the audience clearly what is happening,and to keep his partner unskewered. It therefore requires a very differentmindset.
For further reading, we recommend classic works including Egerton Castle's"Schools and Masters of Fence," Arthur Wise's "Art and History of PersonalCombat," Richard Francis Burton's "Book of the Sword," and Baron Cesarde Bezancourt's "Secrets of the Sword." Some excellent recent publicationsinclude J. Christoph Amberger's "Secret History of the Sword," Sydney Anglo's"Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe," and Mark Rector's "Medieval Combat."For those interested in finding instruction, excellent online resourcesinclude the Martinez Academy of Arms homepage at www.martinez-destreza.comand Kim Moser's classical fencing resource page at www.kmoser.com/classicalfencing.This article was originally published in Fightingarts.comand re-published in JWMA with permission from both author and fightingarts.com.
Journal of Western Martial Art
Aboutthe author: holds an MA in history from Boston University. A studentat the Martinez Academy ofArms for four years, he also studies traditional Japanese karate andclassical dressage. Mr. Mondschein has written for FightingArts.com, Renaissancemagazine, and Hammerterz Forum, and is the editor of Estafilade, the newsletterof the Association for Historical Fencing.In his free time, Mr. Mondschein is gainfully employed as a social studiestextbook editor.