The following essay has been reproduced on this website with the express permission of the author, James V. Ciaramitaro.

An Unofficial History of Fencing

Many anthropologists and most paleontologists agree that Man was a hunter long before he became a farmer. It is not surprising that, sooner or later, the thought processes, organization, and violence inherent in this type of occupation were applied to rivalries and disagreements between individuals and groups of humans.

By the time cities were established, armies and organized warfare were already extant, indicating a previous development from small clan feuds to larger tribal conflicts. Finally, national and even imperial wars were not unknown in almost every corner of the ancient world.

The imperial conquests of Rome brought captives to the Roman arenas, and it was here that the Western tradition of fighting with weapons for sport emerged. Apart from a few well-paid and famous exceptions, gladiatorial combat was an occupation for slaves. These were trained, bought and sold, much like race horses (or, for that matter, professional football teams) are today. Like today, the majority of Romans were content to just sit and watch.

Since the arena had been the ultimate fate of many early adherents to the Christian faith, such entertainment was, understandably, condemned by the Church. And after the collapse of the Empire, gladiatorial combat was not one of the cultural traditions preserved by the Catholic Church during the Dark Ages.

On the other hand, the medieval mind had no trouble basing the foundations of an entire civilization on the concept that "God protected the right." Translated into the idiom of the times, this meant "might made right"; giving rise to the feudal system. Curiously enough, this also legitimized something the sophisticated and law abiding Roman citizen would have found barbaric--trial by combat.

As we know, killing someone you disagree with is, regretably, nothing new to mankind. However, the existence of such a convenient solution to legal and personal problems, sanctioned by both Church and State, caused anyone who was anyone to improve his abilities at this form of argument. The result was an almost Darwinian evolution, over a period of 500 years, of the fully armored mounted knight.

While the ups and downs of armor and the swords used to chop up the people who wore it is too extensive to cover here, we can say that as iron corsettes were eventually discarded in favor of velvet doublets, the broadsword gave way to the rapier.

For five centuries the elite had cherished the option of settling their differences "man to man." Conventions had been agreed upon and backed up by a code of honor. Up to this point, the number of participants had been limited by social status and the prohibitively high cost of horses and equipment. Now, due to technological and social changes (which included the musket and the rise of the middle class), almost anyone who could afford three feet of steel and a feather in his cap could claim recourse to divine judgment.

For a gentleman, fencing class became as important as reading, writing, and rhetoric. Spanish, Italian, and French methods of fencing were offered in various schools by Spanish, Italian, and French fencing masters who would teach anyone who could pay. So effective was this instruction that dueling fatalities increased at an alarming rate, and it finally became obvious to national governments and the Church that the victim wasn't always the bad guy, just the bad fencer.

The legal endorsement and moral justifications were gradually withdrawn from dueling, but the institution, so deeply entrenched, would not go away. The old code of honor was alive and well, and there was no lack of young (and not so young) men who would, quite literally, die before they would abandon it. Besides, here was a unique opportunity to defy authority and deprive the legal profession; the exciting risk of death, and a 50/50 chance of going to heaven while still young enough to enjoy it.

More practical men began to see the value of fencing as a non-lethal sport. The rules and conventions were developed, many coming directly from the dueling situation and the code of honor. Protective equipment and blunted swords were designed. Governments and military schools were happy to support this move. It was good training. They still needed men who could effectively kill foreigners in time of war, they just didn't want citizens killing each other on their own.

As the sword became less useful in war, fencing emerged purely as a sport. It was included as an event in the first modern Olympic Games. Sport fencing utilizes three weapons: the foil, the epee, and the fencing saber. Both men and women can enjoy fencing, and almost anyone can learn to fence at some level. Despite its deadly past, fencing is a safe sport when practiced with proper equipment and under adequate supervision. However, it is not an activity that can be learned from a book or mastered in a few hours. A minimum of 12 hours of instruction and drill in form, balance, and most importantly, self-control is required before a person can face an opponent in a fencing situation.

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