Modern fencing in the 21st century is a dynamic and explosive sport. The movement we see in fencing is something unique to European martial heritage and yet many of us are unaware of its origins. I am sure that we have all grown up seeing swashbuckling movies of knights and nobles exchanging sword blows in duels to the death? But where does fencing originate and how has it changed?

Origins of European Fencing

European Fencing

To understand the origins of European fencing, we need to understand the origins of the weapon. Fencing as a name is itself an abbreviation of the word defence. The system therefore originates in the martial systems of defence taught to warriors in Europe. Some of the earliest surviving manuals on fencing appear in the medieval period, where systems of combat were taught to the nobility. However modern fencing is focused around use of the sword. The sword has evolved through different forms over time.

The early swords of the medieval period were referred to as arming swords. These tended to be designed for cutting techniques, characterised by wider blades and more rounded blade points. However, as techniques in metal work improved, so did armour. As a result, swords had to change to remain effective. Thus, swords were made with tapered points, that emphasised the thrust rather than the cut. By the renaissance the arming sword had been replaced in large part by the rapier as well as other variants such as the Spada de Lato.

This new type of sword was employed often with a support weapon like a dagger, buckler or even a cloak. Over time the rapier itself was phased out for weapons like the small sword that became known for its use by the nobility as well as in duelling. We can see then, that modern fencing and the movement it espouses is routed in the design of the sword.

European Fencing Schools

European Fencing

As well as the weapon, fencing was codified and evolved within specific schools for combat and defence on the European continent. These schools would often hold opposing theories regarding fencing and how it should be used. The Italian School with exponents such as Capo Ferro, Camillo Agrippa and others had a significant impact on martial development. Primarily the Italian school developed techniques with direct movement and emphasised the thrust.

The Spanish School also gained notoriety for its system known as Destreza that taught an in-direct and subtle approach, making use of off-line footwork to defeat an aggressive opponent. As the renaissance ended, the French school built off the advances of older methods and set out the groundwork for the movement we see in modern fencing.  This development of movement was routed then in the culture and context of the time and as, warfare and combat changed, so did the dynamics of fencing.

European Fencing Weapon

European Fencing

As time went on, fencing became narrower in its training focus. As gunpowder overtook warfare, so the sword remained the weapon of the nobility and officer class. Moving into the 19th Century, other cultural practices came to prominence such as the duel. Duels between noblemen were often fought for the sake of reputation and so could range from a formal ritual to the climax of a long running feud.

By this point in time, the small sword had been largely adopted. Much lighter and quicker in the hand than its predecessors, the sword became popular in the French school that employed a high percentage of thrusting techniques. The sword was adapted for practice into what became known as the foil. From which point the physical benefits of training in fencing made it increasingly popular. By the 20th Century, duelling had itself died away and fencing took on its current sporting form that we see today.

The origins of European fencing demonstrate the weapons and movement employed by the current system. With the evolution of the sword, so too the human movement required to use it changed as we can see in the rapid footwork and subtle use of angles in the sport. We can also see how the different European Schools influenced fencing and directed its development from a more general martial system, into a specialised style that evolved into a sport.

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