Although swordplay can be dated as far back as 1190 B.C, where evidence of fencing contests can be seen within the walls of an ancient temple in Egypt, near Luxor. Modern fencing and its name have only been around since the late 1500s.
During the time of the Renaissance, the term “fencing” was first coined to refer to swordplay. And before that, there were several types of sword fighting, although it was first taught as a sport during the medieval ages.
So, who invented modern fencing? Both Italy and Germany claim to have birthed the sport of fencing, but the first fencing guild and guides can be traced back to Germany. The I.33 being the earliest fencing guide, dates all the way back to the 1300s.
The History of Fencing
The Beginning Of Swordplay (1190BC)
Combat with sword and shield have existed throughout the ages. During the bronzer ages, we see weapons like the khopesh and the introduction of the proper sword.
It’s no wonder archaeologists find evidence of sword fights on walls of the ancient temples in Egypt. The first one being a temple near Luxor, which was built in 1190 BC.
Sword fighting was also common in Ancient Rome when two heroes would pick one another for a duel using sword and shield. Similar to fencing, some Romans would spar using a stick with a ball attached to the tip.
Romans were even taught to thrust, as done in fencing since it was easier to wound vital organs rather than cutting.
Sword Fighting In The Middle Ages (1100’s to 1400’s)
Dating all the way back to the 1100s, sword fighting schools were popular all throughout Europe, although many cities banned these kinds of schools, they still operated illegally.
During this time, swordsmen were paid by wealthier citizens to write manuals, or treatises, to teach the skills of the blade. So you can consider a treatise almost as a fencing textbook.
These were more popular in Germany and Italy, the earliest treatise being from 12th century Germany. This is why Germany is considered to be the country of origin of fencing.
These schools and guides are what changed sword fighting from a form of military training, and war, to a sport.
Fencing During The Renaissance (1400’s to 1600’s)
The official term for swordplay; “fencing”, derived from the word defense, was coined during the Renaissance. The earliest recorded use of the term can be found in William Shakespeare’s play; Merry Wives of Windsor, and several other plates thereafter.
Although during these times fencing was not yet renoundly considered a sport, some fencers used blunt-tipped swords that would be harmless to the opponent. However, dueling still existed and was more common.
Dueling would be considered real sword fighting, where the goal is to land a hit on your opponent and inflict harm. While practice fencing was a sport, it would use blunt-tipped swords, where if you land a hit, would inflict no harm.
During these times, popular swords used by sword fighters include the smallsword, the french rapier, and foil (which we know is still used today).
The foil being the safest and bluntest weapon was used primarily for sport, although fencers would remove the tip cover, and duel with the sharp foil. Hits with this foil would cause serious injuries.
The epee and sabre wouldn’t be introduced until later on in the 18th and 19th centuries. All swords however were derived from the same small sword. The epee and foil turned out to be the successors of the rapier.
Modern Fencing (1600s to today)
As years went by, the popularity of fencing kept rising and rising. After the 17th century and the end of the Renaissance, fencing even became a form of staged entertainment, and actors would fence in choreographed scenes of plays.
Around the same time, more fencing schools and manuals were being produced. The 17th century was a key part of modern fencing’s history. The most notable fencing schools, masters, and manuals come from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Although its popularity was increasing throughout France, Germany, and Italy, most of the British people viewed it as a barbaric act, rather than a sport.
The Development Of Fencing Into A Sport
A fencing master named Domenico Angelo established a fencing academy in the mid 18th century. There, he developed and taught the modern rules of posture and footwork in fencing.
He was the first fencing teacher to spread the emphasis on the sporting aspects of fencing, while most fencers considered it an art of war. Domenico Angelo alone started the movement of turning fencing into a sport.
Thereafter, new rules and safety equipment, including a mesh-wire mask were implemented into fencing. The popularity of the blunt-tipped foil started to grow. More and more manuals were being translated into different languages, and soon fencing was renowned on an international scale all throughout Europe.
Fencing was even implemented during the first Olympic Games in 1896. With 4 events being scheduled, the epee event was canceled, while foil, sabre, and masters foil events were held. Around this time is also when fencing was popularized as an American sport as well.
French Phrases In Fencing
After Domenico’s School of Arms was created, France decided to carry the torch by creating their own schools throughout the 18th century. This followed with new sets of rules and French phrases which we still use today.
For millennia, humans have been using swords. Whether it be the military’s way of fighting or a martial art, the history of sword fighting has led us to a fantastic sport. It’s great to see fencing develop even further as the years go by.