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  Swashbucklers I Have Known – A Brief History of Fencing
by Michael Covert
 


When you think of fencing, what comes to mind? Errol Flynn suavely defending damsels in distress? Luke Skywalker brandishing a light sabre battling the evil Darth Vader? Johnny Depp as a pirate of the Caribbean? Although each image is distinctly different and maybe generational, the basic aspects of fencing have remained unchanged for quite some time.

The earliest known references to fencing come from Upper Egypt circa 1190 BC in the form of a bas relief carving. The familiar elements are all there – the sword, a protective mask, spectators, and a judge to determine (presumably) the winner and loser. The sport held great attraction for centuries. The Greeks formalized it in early Olympic ceremonies. In about 100 BC Romans held a variety of sporting bouts known as “ludi” and fencing was one such event. Of course we also know that the Roman gladiators used a more lethal form in the Coliseum where a lost bout had the ultimate consequence – death. There were four types of gladiators and three of them (the Myrmillo, the Samnis, and the Thrax) were all swordsmen. By about 30 BC the Romans had built great Coliseums throughout Europe (many that still stand today) where these events provided formal entertainment for the masses. The Arabic world also contributed greatly to the sport. The Assyrian king Nimus reputedly used trained fencers to teach these skills to his army. Damascus steel, an early composite of iron and carbon provided the high end technology of the day.

Through the Middle Ages, fencing was an essential skill for a warrior. Combat was primarily hand-to-hand, and the ability to fight at close range in many cases determined your longevity in life. The sword and the shield were the primary elements of warfare. Cavalry, archery, and artillery augmented the foot soldier, but it was infantry that carried or lost the day.

Modern fencing, the one that we now know as sport (i.e. not the blood sport version) is believed to have begun in Spain in the 15th century. Two fencing “manuals” were published in 1471 and 1474. From here, fencing clubs spread rapidly throughout Europe into Germany and Italy. Fencing then continued to advance over the next 300 years adding rules, weapon types, and safer equipment. An American fencing school was established in 1874. Male competition became an Olympic sport in 1896. Female competition began in 1924. Through this time period, French, Hungarian, and Italian fencers dominated the sport. In 1913, the Fédération Internationale d'Escrime (FIE) was established in France and today manages much of the world wide
fencing events.

 

 

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