Think fencing duel with real swords is a thing of the past? Then I guess you haven’t heard about the Polish prince who challenged a British political leader to a fencing duel just last month. Prince Jan Zylinski issued the message with a YouTube video. His reason? According to an article on CNN.com, “he was fed up with discrimination against Poles living in Britain.” Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) had complained about the flow of foreign immigrants into Britian, and Prince Zylinski challenged him to a duel in London’s Hyde Park in response to his immigration policies. Farage did not take him up on the challenge.
We might not see a true fencing duel in Hyde Park anytime soon, but duels did happen as recently as 50 years ago in Europe for the purpose of defending one’s honor. The most recent duel to be recorded took place in 1967 in France and can be seen on YouTube.
Alas, despite such recent events, fencing has been around longer than you may realize.
“As a preparation for armed combat, fencing is as old as the sword itself.”
If we were dueling for honor as recently as 50 years ago, and are still hearing of people challenging others to a duel to this day, imagine how blood-thirsty our ancestors were in ancient times, when fighting to the death was a norm.
Earliest Evidence of Fencing as a Sport
The earliest evidence of fencing as a sport comes from an Egyptian carving dated around 1200 B.C.E. that depicts an Egyptian “bout” and was likely used to display agility and defensive tactics, while also preparing soldiers for battle. Luckily, if you were fencing in Egypt, your life wouldn’t have been in danger. At least not in a fencing competition. Both masks and protective-tipped weapons were used, and the matches were even judged! But there is a much bloodier story to be told in the thousands of years of fencing to follow.
Fencing Duel as a Means of Settling Disputes
After the Roman Empire fell in 476 C.E., Germanic rule took hold and marked the first time combat with swords was recognized as a means of settling grievances. These grievances weren’t just until first blood—they wanted last blood as well.
It wasn’t until the Crusades began in 1000 C.E. that chivalry and knighthood were officially established, and fencing was used for more than just disagreements and battle training. The first fencing tournaments on record were held in France in 1066 C.E., but the beginning of the Dark Ages left historians in the dark for hundreds of years to come.
Middle Ages: From Fencing Duel to Fencing Art
Finally, in the mid-15th century, we begin to see fencing evolve with the dawn of the Renaissance and fencing becomes the most fashionable pastime for a young aristocrat. Sometime between 1458 and 1471, the Spanish fencer Diego de Valera wrote “Treatise on Arms,” which is widely considered to be the first published fencing manual and marked the birth of fencing as a scientific art. When Spain became the leading power of Europe, the Spanish brought fencing to the south of Italy. And the Italians were all about it!
Rocco Bonetti, one of the most famous early Italian fencers, opened a school for fencing in London in 1576. It was one of the first fencing schools in existence and his students were mostly nobleman and gentleman of the court. Wearing swords had become quite fashionable and Bonetti was known as an advocate of the rapier, which looked much better with your fancy tights, embroidered velvet bodice, and oversized lace collar than a broadsword. While this move to longer, thinner swords was quite the fashion statement, it also marked a critical shift in fencing as a sport.
This leads us to the 18th century Italian school of fencing and the most famous Italian of all. In 1763, Domenico Angelo wrote “L’Ecole des Armes,” which was the first publication to focus on the benefits of fencing as an athletic sport. Angelo established the essential rules of posture and footwork that remain in place to this day. Over the years, the French school improved upon the Italian school and both are still in practice today! By this time, of course, dueling was often only to first blood and your honor could be restored without any deaths. Nonetheless, an absurd amount of men still lost their lives to the custom.
Modern Times: Sport of Fencing
In the mid-19th century, at the same time dueling was beginning to die out, fencing as a sport was finally ramping up in America. The first regularized fencing competition occurred in 1880 at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington, and in 1896 the fencing that we know and love became part of the first Olympic Games. In fact, it is one of only five sports to have been played at every Olympic Games since! The French, Italian, and Spanish schools of fencing that developed over hundreds of years all contributed to the modern school of fencing that we practice each and every day. And the rest, as they say, is history!