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. 

Changing weaponry

The loss of armor is the first big change for fencing. 

Gunpowder came onto the scene of battle in Europe in the 14th century, and that meant that armor was no longer effective or necessary. You cannot stop a bullet with a metal helmet, or with a shield for that matter. This completely transformed swordsmanship, and it’s also why fencing moved from the central part of a battle to an individual, one on one battle. The shift to dueling is a major development for fencing.

Not only did the swordplay a central role in self-defense like no other weapon could, it also allowed for a wide range of variability and creativity. Learning to use a sword skillfully without armour pushed swords to become lighter and fighters more agile. There’s nothing between you and your opponent as there had been previously, so movement to escape injury is now central to sword fighting. 

The progression started with the sword and the shield, but as swords became lighter, the shield was too unwieldy and heavy for freedom of movement without armor. We see first a sword paired with a shield, then a dagger, then a cloak folded over the arm, and finally with the opposite hand being empty in the way that we see today. This is all driven by the necessity for a sword fighter to be quick and agile. 

All throughout this time, we see sword battles between individuals banned in various parts of Europe. This is an important part that will factor into how fencing evolves as a sport later. 

Where did European fencing start?

France, Spain, and Italy all claim to be responsible for modern fencing, but in truth, the sport developed across Europe in a similar time frame, so no one can really say that they are the true first fencers. It is more a spectrum that moves through time than a direct line back to a specific person or geographic area. Keep in mind from Part 1 that, though Germany is not credited as being a big player in modern fencing, our oldest fencing manual comes from Germany in the 14th century.

Around this time, there was a major crackdown on dueling by Catholic monarchs in Spain. That happened in 1480, shortly after fencing maser Diego de Valera wrote the first complete book on fencing that we know of, called the Treatise on Arms. Fencing was used by the military in Spain, and they carried it with them all over the world during their conquests. We can see this in the legacy of fencing in the Americas and elsewhere around the world. Later, Italian and French fencing masters would cross paths with the Spanish to influence the development of fencing. There is always a pattern of collaboration and knowledge sharing in fencing. 

Rapier fighting from the 1500s is the direct ancestor of sport fencing. It’s different than the kinds of heavy longswords that were popular during the previous wars in European history. This kind of dueling pulled away from the military and from the bloody tradition of Roman sword fighting. Rapiers started out as military swords that slashed and thrust into opponents, but they were used by non-military citizens for duels and for self-defense. The tip of the blade, as opposed to the edge of the blade, was the primary mode of attack. Sound like something you know? Originally it was in southern Europe – think Italy and Spain, but then it spread to the rest of the continent.

Next comes the explosion of fencing schools across Europe. We know this because of government records that grant permission to open fencing schools and guilds. King Henry VIII of England allowed several fencing masters from Europe to cross the English channel and take students in the middle of the sixteenth century.

Here’s where the distinctions between styles begin to become clear too. Over the next two hundred years, the epee evolved from the rapier as a smaller and more lithe weapon that was less unwieldy. The bravura techniques in Italy, with their large motions and sweeping attacks, became further and further from the delicate speed of the French methods. What we think of as fencing today looks like the French style much more than the Italian style.  

Now is when we see the rise of fencing masters such as Agrippa and Thibault. Fencing becomes more codified with the advent of the lunge and the transition to fencing on a line that would later evolve into the piste. All of this takes about two hundred years until the 1700s when the small sword became popular in France. King Louis XIV of France, the same king who built the palace at Versailles, played a role in the development of fencing at this point. The style of dress popularized under his court was tighter fitting and left less room to carry a large sword, so the fashion dictated that a small sword be worn by the nobility of France. The small sword brought intricate movements and much more detailed technique. These swords were lightweight and airy, very much recognizable as the weapons we know today. French schools of fencing offered complexity that is still seen in our fencing. The le fleuret, as it was known and is still called in French, was used in exactly the same way as foil is now. 

Sabre fencing in army training

Swords that sliced were also used in duels, including cutlasses, broadswords, and sabers. These were mainly military weapons, but those military officers took them off the battlefield for personal duels and prizefighting going back at least to the 1600s. Sabers were always heavier than rapiers or epee swords. Over time, sabers became less cumbersome and got lighter, though their cutting edge remained an essential part of their identity. To train, saber fighters relied on wooden swords for stick fighting. Saber developed through Italian, German, and Hungarian masters into a less violent version that prioritized intricate movements over powerful muscles. 

Through the 1800s, dueling lost its potency as a way to solve problems. People were afraid of being arrested or of committing a murder that would get them executed as laws and culture changed in Europe. Though the dueling as a form of settling disputes dropped off, fencing gained in popularity. The epee de terrain developed as a version of the le fleuret that had no edge at all, so duelers poked each other with less damage. Epee fencing that we know today comes from this version of dueling. 

The move to sport fencing

Now is the point where real sport fencing comes into play. Dueling is largely outlawed in Europe during the 19th century, and that leaves the masters of fencing with a need to do something with their skill. They can’t train for duels, combat is focused on guns, and so they develop the sport of fencing. It’s now that we see the development of the glove that is worn on the hand that holds the sword, the chest protector that prevents injury, and the wire mask that protects the face. 

Over the previous couple of centuries, fencing manuals like L’École des Armes (The School of Fencing) by Domenico Angelo were already turning fencing further from the battlefield. Published in 1763, this book by an Italian fencing master thought that fencing could be best used as a tool for health and intellectual agility. This book’s publication offers us a direct line from fencing for duels and fencing for sport, and it’s easy to see how we go from there to fencing participating in the 1896 Olympics. 

European fencing - illustration from an old book on fencing

Image source: https://royalarmouries.org/stories/our-collection/school-of-fencing/

The three disciplines of fencing become increasingly codified as distinct schools through the end of the 19th century until we see the emergence of modern fencing. We see the first organized and regulated fencing tournament take place in 1880, called the Grand Military Tournament and Assault at Arms. It was held in Islington near London, England. Interestingly, the first fencing school was established in America in 1874, though fencing had been taught in less formal ways long before that time. 

From here, fencing moves swiftly in the age of the modern Olympics. You can learn all about those developments and what happens over the next century and a half in the sport in A Not-So-Brief History of Fencing, Part 3: Modern Sport Fencing