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
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