A Not-So-Brief History of Fencing, Part 1: Fencing in the Ancient World

The history of fencing might surprise you – even if you’ve got a long history in the sport yourself. 

We are an unusual sport because of our origins – conflict. Just about as far back as you go with human history you’re going to find conflict, and in order to be great on the battlefield, you had to practice. It’s baked into who we are, which is part of why fencing feels so compelling. Kids naturally pickup backyard sticks and start swordfights, it doesn’t matter that they aren’t training for real battles. It’s like we can’t help ourselves, we want to challenge one another. 

That’s all fine and good, but we want to know more. Fencing as a sport has some surprising roots, and our sport was an actual sport much further back than most of us realize. 

To understand the scope of fencing history, from as far back as we can trace it, we’ve broken this down into three parts. The first is what you’re reading – Part I: Fencing in the Ancient World, where we delve into the earliest history. We then move onto Part II: Old World European Fencing, which follows through the time when fencing developed into something more like we know it to be today and the rise of high fencing styles. Finally,  in Part III: Modern Fencing, we trace back through the last couple of centuries, including the Olympic Era. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get going!

Egypt and beyond

How far back does fencing history go? Here’s a hint: pyramids and mummies.

Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa have rich traditions of sword fighting. Asia has a deep well of knowledge of swordsmanship, one that ranges from Turkey to Korea, down through India, and everywhere in-between. These traditions go far back in time and have their own methods and techniques, and they were developed for different and fascinating reasons. Fencing belongs to the world, and the world has added to and enriched our sport over centuries. Though Europe is the center of the tradition that we follow, it’s fascinating to realize that sport swordfighting does not start there. 

Ancient Egypt is where fencing has its very first beginnings. It didn’t start off as a function of war though. In fact, fencing started off as stick fighting in Ancient Egypt. It was more game than it was a path of violence. 

Carvings at a temple called Medinet Habu near Luxor that was built by King Ramses III about a thousand years before the turn of the first millennium. In the carving we see two people engaged in a fencing bout. This is just one many examples of carvings of fencing bouts in Ancient Egypt. It’s hard to tell much about their footwork from a carving, but it’s hard not to look at this carving and see the beginnings of our modern lunge! 

Fencing in Ancient Egypt

Image source: http://www.fioredeiliberi.org/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=29&t=20320

Here’s where we see the Egyptian versions of stickfighting as a direct line to modern fencing. Remember that Egypt is just across the Mediterranean Sea from Greece. We know that Greek culture was directly influenced by Egyptian culture. They were regularly in contact long before the turn of the millennium, and that contact allowed the Greeks to learn a lot. 

This is important because it means we can draw a compelling line between Egyptian stick fighting, along with other sports, and the earliest forms of the Olympic Games. 

Fencing continued to progress through the Ancient World, where it found more of the form that we think of now. The great epic poem the Iliad by Homer takes us up to something totally different than Egypt left off with. Here we see something that looks like the things that we think of as sword fighting, with metal swords and shields in the style that we would think of today. Keep in mind that this is all still B.C., so we’re talking about 2500 years ago or so. 

In Greece and Rome, fencing starts to look more familiar. Individual sword battles prepared fighters for big battles, but it also crossed over into the concept of fencing for fun and athleticism. This transformed into hoplomachie, which was the sport version of sword fighting that was akin to the unarmed sports of wrestling or boxing. The swords used were heavier than fencing weapons that developed later. Health clubs in Athens were places that men and children went to practice fencing as part of leisure culture. Just the way that we use fencing as a way to stay active and fit today! This traces all the way back to Homer’s writings and would go on to be a direct line to fencing clubs of the 21st century. High level trainers in hoplomachie were sought after not only for those who were interested in non-military applications, but also by the military.  The sport and the military crossing paths would be a common refrain in fencing for the next 

The early Olympics

The Olympics of course originated in Greece and are now the epitome of modern sport. Though it has been a part of each of the Modern Olympic Games, fencing was not one of the original sports in the Ancient Olympics. Those games included the pentathlon, jumping, discus, wrestling, boxing, pankration (a martial art that mixed wrestling and boxing), and equestrian events. It wouldn’t be until much later that fencing would come to its place in the modern Olympics. 

The early Olympics were even more important to the Greeks than the modern Games are to us. They went on every four years for nearly four hundred years, and they were a center of Greek culture in terms of both aspiration and practical training for the wars that were waged. The winners were given wreaths made of olive branches as a reward for their victory, and everyone competed in the nude. All free men were allowed to participate, no matter their social status. Women were not even permitted to attend, much less participate. That’s something that we can see reflected even in fencing today, where women could not compete in Olympic saber competition until the year 2000. It’s also notable that the original Olympics were a religious festival, for the glory of the gods and goddesses. We cannot overemphasize the role that the original Olympic Games have in our modern sport of fencing, because it is the modern Olympics that drive much of our sport culture today. (Learn more about that in Part III.) 

In the Ancient World, fencing continued to develop as both a military and a non-military discipline through the rise of the Roman Empire. It’s notable that, under Roman rule, the Olympics did include a sword fighting event. This wasn’t what we would recognize as fencing though. Under the Romans, the sword allowed for bloodsport. The Olympics transformed into the Circus, which was bloody and cruel. Spectators were not there to see the perfection of human intellect and skill, but rather to watch the carnage. 

Dark age fencing

Luckily, this wouldn’t be the end of fencing. The Roman Empire fell and with it the codified rule of Europe. It would be almost a thousand years before organized swordplay that was not focused on survival started to return, and when it did it was in a totally different way.  One key thing to understand here is that under the Roman Empire, swords were given by the government as part of the armed services. After the fall of the central government, swords were given by feudal lords. This is important because it lays the groundwork for individual swordsmen that will eventually evolve into fencers. 

This is the Middle Ages, which lasted from the fifth century through the fifteen century. For the purposes of fencing, we break at around the twelfth century, which is when fencing schools start to pop up and we see our sport really take shape. 

In the meantime, sword fighting did continue in Europe as escrémir, or combat. That idea of the knight with the sword that we all have about the Middle Ages? That’s where fencing traces its lineage through this time period. At this time, the shield is as important as the sword, maybe even more important than the sword, so that emphasis is very different from what we have in our sport today. This was the time of heavy armor and diseases plaguing the continent. Violence was a reality of life, which is why the first half of the Middle Ages is often called the Dark Ages. Techniques changed dramatically throughout this time, including the expansion to two-handed sword fighting and a great many combinations with other weapons. Anything was game, and creativity became an incredibly important aspect of sword fighting. The more creative you could be in combat, the better you could survive in a kill-or-be-killed time period. There was less time, almost no time for sport swordsmanship.

Throughout this time, we see early manuscripts start to be developed. The first European fencing manual that we know about is from around the year 1300 and is called the Royal Armouries 1.33 manuscript. It’s from Germany and is written in both German and Latin, and the pictures are extraordinary. It’s what is called a Fight Book, or Fechtbuch in German. No one knows who it was written by or why they wrote it, but we do know that it is full of instruction on how to use a sword and shield. The pictures are of an apprentice and a mentor, which is very much still how fencing is today. In fact, this is starting to look like fencing! 

Fencing in Middle Ages

Image source: The Royal Armouries

This is the beginning of fencing schools that will become the backbone of the development of the sport through the history of fencing. This particular manuscript is full of more than thirty different fighting sequences, some of which are incomplete due to missing pages of the book. It’s hard not to try to imagine the mysterious early fencer who would have written this text! The book itself is not written in a totally coherent way, and it is much more like the notes of someone who is working through developing their craft rather than a master who is laying out a piece that would be read centuries later. There are several authors and illustrators who take part in it, and we cannot help but wonder if it was part of an early fencing school.

What comes next in fencing history is where we begin to trace our modern sport, with the development of cohesive fencing schools that codified the style and techniques of fencing. This is a time of swordplay that is both familiar and somehow still drastically different from what we know today! Read more about in a Not-so-brief History of Fencing – Part II