A Not-So-Brief History of Fencing, Part 2: Old World European Fencing

Fencing takes its style, substance, and sensibilities from the European schools of fencing that arose in the Renaissance and then grew over the next several centuries. 

We learned about Fencing in the Ancient World in Part 1 of our not-so-brief history of fencing, and we’ll dig through the era of the modern Olympics in Part 3, but for now we are right in the middle. This is where fencing begins to take the shape that we know it to have now, and it’s where we can start to see the distinctive nature of our sport as different from other forms of military combat

What is very similar to what comes before is that fencing is not a sport yet, it is still a skill that is largely centered around keeping the individual alive during a real fight. Over the course of five hundred years or so, from the end of the Middle Ages in the sixteenth century to the modern Olympic era that begins at the dawn of the twentieth century, fencing moves from a test of mettle that can end in death to a test of mettle that can end on a podium. This happens through the development of fencing schools and the move of fencing from military combat to the nobility. 

This section is focused on how fencing came to be in Europe, because that’s where our sport has its origins. There was sword fighting that developed in other parts of the world through this time period, like kendo in Japan, but it’s not related to sport fencing today. We are a diverse sport in the modern era, but the origins of fencing are fundamentally European. We also cannot help but point out that, though there were women fencing throughout its history, it is a history that is predominantly made up of men. The transition to total inclusion of women in fencing wouldn’t be complete until the 2004 Olympics with adding women’s sabre competition, by that having all 3 weapons represented in women’s fencing! 

The part of fencing history that we’re exploring now could be thought of as the adolescence of the sport. This is where we’re figuring out who we are, and a lot of things are changing along the way. It’s a big transition, and it wasn’t always easy.