To fully appreciate how the sport of fencing has evolved from a combatant role to the graceful sport that it is today, it’s good to take a closer look at its history and heritage.
As early as 1500 B.C., the Europeans were making swords from bronze, eventually using steel instead. Their grips were designed for one hand, as soldiers used their other hand for shields.
Swords at this time were designed for cutting, rather than thrusting, and so were sharpest along the edge and somewhat rounded at the tip.
Around the middle ages, or beginning in the 5th century A.D., armor began to be improved greatly, which meant that the slicing part of swords were rendered less effective. So, engineers began to concentrate on the tip of the sword, sharpening it to optimize the thrust aspect of the weapon.
Additionally, around this time it seems that the sword became the weapon of choice for personal protection rather than being singled out for the battlefield. The hilt design around the grip or handle of the sword became popular, protecting the sword bearer’s hand effectively.
Asian martial arts.
When we hear the phrase “martial arts,” we often think of the Asian disciplines of karate, kung fu, kendo, and others. While the word “martial” comes from Mars, the Roman god of war, technically the phrase “martial arts” simply refers to any form of hand-to-hand combat, whether for use in military settings, self-defense, or simply as a form of exercise.
The martial arts no doubt developed from a society’s need to defend itself from invading forces, or it’s own plan to conquer a neighboring territory, before there were large-scale weapons available. Hand-to-hand combat was the only means available to defend or defeat.
It is mostly in the Asian regions that we find swordplay being incorporated into the martial arts, and the form or discipline that relied on swordplay most heavily is kendo, the Japanese martial art of fencing.
Kendo gained its support and popularity during the early 12th century, when swordplay, along with archery, were the main forms of combat and defense. This art is still practiced today by some eight million participants.
Swordplay as sport.
It has long been a practice of peoples to use their weapons as a means of sports. In very ancient times, men would practice forms of archery as games; this helped develop their aim and control of the bow and arrow, whether it was necessary on the battlefield or for hunting. By making a sport of it, young men were able to develop their abilities with this instruments long before they actually had to take part in battle or in a hunt.
Militaries have often done the same thing. Chariot races taught control of the animal and the wagon, and the rider could learn how to maneuver both at tops speeds. Again, archery as a sport has been used to train soldiers for centuries. And of course, because swords were used so extensively on battlefields, it should not be surprising that fencing as a sport is actually thousands of years old.
The earliest images of swords or similar weapons being used in sport date back to 1200 B.C. in Egypt. Reliefs show combatants using sharp, stabbing weapons with knobs on one end for easier carrying and control.
The story of fencing as it exists today, with its various rules and protocol, probably begins in early fifteenth-century Spain, for that was where the custom of wearing swords with everyday civilian dress was most widespread, and where the first known schools of specialized instruction in a civilian style of swordsmanship existed.
By the end of the century, fencing had actually been officially outlawed, but the personal use of the sword and of duels as a way to settle disagreements and conflicts had already spread throughout much of Europe.
Over the years, fencing developed from a form of combat reserved for the battlefield to a mark of status, as the swords were cumbersome and difficult to carry with everyday dress; soon it was only “gentlemen” who really had no need of defending themselves that carried swords as a sign of their wealth and security.
During the 17th century several major changes occurred in fencing. The foil was developed in France as a lighter training weapon for dueling. Right of Way, a rule that we’ll discuss in a later section, came into practice. With Right of Way, duelists were unlikely to impale each other, as they did not both attack at the same time. This made fencing safer and reduced the number of casualties of dueling.
By the 19th century, fencing had reached a form that is more recognized today. Schools taught the basics of fencing, including strike points and body movement, along with moves such as disarms. Duels continued to be fought between those with disagreements, and were very serious – often ending with disfiguring strikes or fatal results, but began to be on the decline. Authority figures began to step in and prosecute the winners of duels with charges of assaults or even murder; this was done even if both duelists had agreed to participate. Therefore, fencing began to be viewed as simple sport, rather than a means of survival.
So if you have an interest in this sport today, where to begin?