A Guide to Historical Fencing

I tell people I am a fencer.  This to them summons the image of those guys in the white suits poking at each other with what looks like car antennae.  So in order to combat this I thought I would provide a brief history of the sword as well as explaining exactly what it is I do.

In the early 17th century Ridolfo Capoferro defined fencing as self defense with the sword but the history of swords goes back much further.  The first swords weren’t made from any kind of metal but wood with blades of stone and other materials.  I saw on such example in Hawaii that was a wooden handle and “blade” that was wood lined with sharks teeth.  The fist metal blades were made of bronze which is heavy and not soft.  Swords of this era were by necessity short.  Iron came next and quickly spread across the world.  Even later came steel weapons which were much better all around.  Far more interesting to me, though, is the usage of these weapons.

My type of fencing is historical fencing.  By studying old manuals of fencing we can get an idea of how people once fought with swords.  This manuals are scarce, of course.  Many of these “fight books” have been lost forever to history and many cultures didn’t write their martial traditions down in any kind useful format.  Rather than a complete history of the systems that Western Martial Artists practice today, I’m going to do a summary based around the specific styles that I am personally familiar with.  Thankfully I have at least a functional knowledge of one or more historical masters from just about every era of swordplay.

We get hints of how the Romans used swords from their military records, but the first real fencing manual comes from Germany in the 1300’s.  Known only by it’s museum reference number the Royal Armouries Manuscript I.33 details a medieval system of sword and shield play.  It depicts a series of images of monks practicing swordplay together.  Stephen Hand and Paul Wagner have an excellent book out that interprets this very fascinating system.

We have no other written records of swordplay until about a century later.  This the era that truly calls to mind the image of the Knight.  Plate armour and longswords were the weapons of the day and Fiore de’i Liberi was one of the major masters of this era.  Writing his manual in the beginning of the 15th century near the end of his life, we start to see the genesis of the Fencing Manual.  The techniques that Fiore lays out are described somewhat cryptically, but we can understand enough to get a grasp on the style.  This is standard for this time frame as Masters in the 14th and 15th centuries wrote their manuals for one of two purposes.  Fiore seemingly wrote his manual to be used as crib notes designed to remind you of his teachings as he makes the claim that without it written down, no one would be able to properly remember them.  I for one am grateful he felt that way.

Sadly, my knowledge of 16th century swordplay is somewhat lacking.  Swords of this era were becoming lighter and the style of this age is often thought of as being “cut-and-thrust.”  Achille Marozzo is probably the best known master of this time period, but it seems that he was a better sword master than he was a writer.  For me, with any new sword style I pick up I have an “epiphany moment’ were I feel like I understand the core principals of the system, but I have never felt that with Marozzo.  There is some great work being done with his teachings and I feel that soon it will become a lot more accessible.

In the early part of the 17th century we suddenly have a radical increase in our souces of knowledge.  The primary sword of this era was the rapier and most modern practitioners get their start with this weapon.  Manuals of the 17th century were a lot more detailed as well as masters began to write down as much as they could about their system.  At this point in history we see the emergence of two competing styles of rapier play.  We have the Italian school of Ridlofo Capoferro and Salvador Fabris, and the enigmatic Spanish style known as Destreza.

The rapier was the first truly civilian weapon, made not for battle but for the streets.  In part because it was a something of an awkward fashion accessory, the rapier began to become lighter and even more thrust oriented than it started until by the 18th century it had become what we know as the small sword.  The military contemporary of the small sword is the broadsword, which is a cut oriented weapon.

After the 18th century swords began to fall out of vogue and fencing started to become the sport most people think of it as today.  There are plenty of people out there that practice the art of the sword as it was used martially and I think both definitions of fencing, as a spot and as a martial art need to be considered.

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