A Short History of Fencing

Fencing is probably one of the oldest games in existence, for it sprang directly from the duel, and the latter has been extant as long as there has been war. In the old days there were duels between two persons, and often between two whole armies, depending on the conditions of war. The Germanic tribes which swarmed over the Empire at the fall of Rome were perhaps the earliest people to recognize combat with swords as a means of settling questions of justice or of vindicating a grievance.

Under the Germanic influence the duel spread all over Christendom. Even as early as the reign of Charlemagne it was admitted as material proof in the judgments of God. This practice continued throughout the Middle Ages, as an integral part of chivalry.

It was under the rule of their Catholic Majesties of Spain that the duel first came under official ban, by the law of the city of Toledo in 1480. Curiously enough, it is shortly before this time that we find the first book on fencing, Treatise on Arms, by Diego de Valera, which was written between 1458 and 1471, and which marks the birth of fencing as a scientific art.

Some time later, when Spain became the leading power of Europe, the Spanish armies carried fencing abroad and particularly into the south of Italy, then one of the main battlefields of the nations. By that time fencing had also developed in the north of Italy where it was taught in the universities side by side with law, in such cultural centres as Bologna and Venice, which were then attracting students from every country in Europe.

If scientific fencing started first in Spain it was in Italy that we find the first great schools where a fencing tradition was soon established through the lessons and the writings of many famous master.

The weapons were at first used chiefly for offensive purposed, blows being avoided by body shifts; later the defense was entrusted to some implement carried by the left arm, a shield, a dagger, or a cloak.

As fencing gained in subtlety and efficiency the weapons became lighter and this developed the use of the sword for parrying to the exclusion of anything else. The Italians preserved in their swords the old cross-bar of the Middle Ages, cutting of the edges so that the bar would not protrude over the circular guard. The French, on the other hand, eliminated the cross-bar entirely, thus losing some of the strength of the weapon but adding to the ease of its handling. During these changes the old Spanish swords, which were gradual modification of the chivalric weapons, passed into the museums, as the armies of Europe came to employ the sabre' and later the modern firearm.

It was not until 1900 that Spain, the mother of scientific fencing, came to have a distinct school of her own, under the Spanish master, Don Adelardo Sanz. The Spanish weapon is a modified form of the Italian cross-bar, so shaped as to facilitate the action of the thumb and index finger in securing the dexterity of the French weapon while preserving the strength of the Italian sword. In some parts of Europe it is called the Portuguese foil.

These three schools of fencing which today differ little except insofar as the peculiarities of each type of weapon demand, dominate fencing all over the world. The Italian school predominates in Italy, Hungary, Austria, South America and Germany.

The French school predominates in France, England, the United States, and Central America.

The Spanish school predominates in Spain and Portugal.

Each has had its share of great fencing masters: men like Greco, Pini, Pessina, and Nadi, in Italy; Kirchoffer, Merignac, Rue, and Gaudin in France; Sanz and Carbonel in Spain.

Italian fencing at the end of the seventeenth century divided into two separate schools, the Bolognese or Italian proper, and the Neapolitan; rivalries between the two schools and the general backwardness of the century brought indifference towards fencing, and a revival occurred only at the time of the Napoleonic wars when the enthusiasm for everything military gave rebirth to fencing.

For a while the French school predominated until a revival of the national spirit brought back the principles of the old Italian schools which found new followers and supporter: finally, a so-called mixed school, embodying the best principles of the Italian and French schools, was generally adopted.

The chief contribution of the French to this mixed school was to make the disengage a continuous movement, simultaneous with the lunge. The classical Italian school had made the feint of a disengage and the following lunge distinct movements, and this change revolutionized fencing in Italy.

In 1861 with the founding of the Accademia Nazionale d'Scherme, Naples, became the centre of fencing but it was soon overcome in importance by other centres, such as Milan, Leghorn, and Rome. The rivalry between the north and south still persisted for a while but, at present, the differences in the teachings of the various masters in Italy are only variations of a unified system.

History in The United States and South America

Fencing begins to appear as a popular sport on this side of the Atlantic only recently, that is since 1900. Under the leadership of the great Italian master Eugene Pini in the Argentine, and under the French master, Lucien Merignac, in Mexico and some Spanish masters in Cuba, these countries made considerable progress at the turn of the century.

taken from "The Theory and Practice of Fencing" by Julio Martinex Castello 1933