Swordfighting is of course where fencing has its origins. Though the art of the sword has long been something that drove individuals to near the top of the social ladder, until its rise as a competition sport in the 20th century it was nonetheless a battle that was often bloody and in many sectors primarily something that soldiers practiced in order to hone their battle skills for serious combat.
Duels of old were not always, pretty, and in most cases one opponent or the other found themselves with serious wounds or worse. Today, on the other hand, fencing is an superbly safe sport in which injuries are uncommon. It is practiced now by elite athletes rather than prize fighters, and for glory and pride rather than money. But how did this transformation happen? Here are few interesting facts from fencing history.
Fencing of course was birthed from sword combat. The earliest depictions of fencing go all the way back to Egypt, where fencing contests are depicted in hieroglyphs. These early depictions and those of the ancient Romans are intimately connected with the fighting arts that were necessary for war, so fencing really was a training method for soldiers getting ready for war. Combat was practiced in various methods with the intent to fatally harm the opponent rather than to simply demonstrate dominance in a match. The Romans practiced with balls on the tips of sticks in order to practice their swordfighting without injuring their opponent (we can see the legacy of this in the modern foil).
During the rise of swordfighting as a refined art through the middle ages there was an increase in dueling. This was very dominant in the area of fencing schools, where fencers fought one another to protect the honor of their schools. The other place that this was very common was in prizefighting bouts. Competitors would set up matches (illegal ones mind you!) where the two combatants were paid. The purse went to the fighter who showed that they were the better fighter but not through scoring points in the way that we associate with fencing, but rather through injuring the other person. Good fencers could make a great deal of money in these kinds of fights, but of course also risked a great deal of injury! Betting was rampant on the bouts and spectators were often charged to see the fights as well. Where today we see corporate sponsors of high level athletes, then it was wealthy backers who paid the bills. In these fights, quarterstaffs and backswords were common weapons. Cheating was rampant and bouts could be fatal.
This kind of prizefighting went on to be quite a hot underground commodity in Europe through the 18th century when prize fighting switched from weaponized fencing to boxing, which was considerably less lethal and so offered the opportunity for fighters to not lose themselves! It also meant that fights were easier to hide without weapons to keep track of, and also that less training was required. Of course fighting with fists was never quite as exciting as fighting with swords, but we might be a bit biased.
After the crackdowns and shifts in fencing as an underground fighting style, fencing schools that had become so prolific and catered to the elite classes began developing a serious culture of fighting all their own. The heads of fencing clubs or their high ranking students would duel each other in a more structured and less deadly fashion in an attempt to show dominance. These kinds of duels and the practice bouts that fencers used to train their students began to create the point system that we know today.
As prizefighting faded, point fighting rose in popularity, especially with the advent of the flat tipped, non lethal foil in the 17th and 18th centuries. At the same time, target areas were specified and masks and other protective equipment was developed. The rules became more and more specific and codified until the first Modern Olympiad in 1896, when fencers finally found their own and were part of the original Olympic Games in Athens. The rest, as they say, is Olympic history! Fencing is one of the post popular sports in the Olympic Games, and has been included in every Olympic Games since the start of the modern version of them.
Non lethal bouts are the absolute norm, and point fighting allows for all of the excitement and athleticism without the injury!
Keep in mind that what we think of as fencing today is something that developed over the course of hundreds of years! What at first was a practical art of battle transformed into an urban kind of underground entertainment and finally moved to the less deadly but no less serious sport that we practice.
Official Website of the Olympic Games. Fencing Equipment and History. Retrieved from http://www.olympic.org/fencing-equipment-and-history?tab=history
Walter Green. The Assistant Moniteur Handbook. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=7fvGAwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA24&ots=fGVCb-xEj_&dq=fencing%20prize%20fighting&pg=PA24#v=onepage&q=fencing%20prize%20fighting&f=false