A Brief History of Fencing

The Mystique of the Sword

The sword is one of mankind's oldest weapons, and early on gathered about itself a reputation as being an extraordinary weapon, a weapon for heroes and leaders. This reputation has lasted through many centuries, and indeed has outlasted the practical life of the weapon itself. The fascination exerted by the sword shows itself in many forms in modern society - in collectors, fencers, martial artists, and military re-enactors. At some times and in some cultures, people have regarded, or pretended to regard, swords as being more than mere artefacts, and they have become repositories for the warrior spirit, enchanted habitations of chained forces, or even beings in their own right. This cultural history is probably not irrelevant to the motivation of many visitors to this site, so I will take a moment to put the sword-cult into perspective.

Some have argued that the growth of this mystique was due to the sword's great effectiveness in battle, and suggest that "magical swords" were those made with relatively advanced metallurgical technology - iron swords in the bronze age, or steel swords in the iron age. While there may be some merit in this, it is at best debatable whether a sword per se is significantly more effective than, for instance, a spear - probably the most common military weapon in most early cultures. I suggest three other characteristics that may be relevant. One is that swords are technologically more demanding, in their manufacture, than any other striking weapon (missile weapons are another matter), and are therefore in pre-industrial societies very expensive. They are, as a result, only readily available to men - or in a very few cultures, women - who have already established their pre-eminence. A second is that a sword (at least, many varieties of sword, though not all) is convenient to have about one's person, and may reasonably be carried other than when battle is imminent. This characteristic it shares with such everyday tools as axes, knives, and hammers, all of which may also act as weapons. The third point, though, is precisely that a sword has no practical purpose other than in personal combat. It has no application in manufacture, agriculture, or commerce.

Thus, in an early culture, a sword will normally only be in the possession of one who occupies a prominent place in society, who can afford to spend resources on something that is of no practical use most of the time, and who is trusted to be in possession of a weapon that is at the forefront of military technology.

Exceptions to the above observations start to appear in civilised societies early on. The civilisation from which most readers are likely to be derived, and which is of most interest to students of rapier-play, is the Western European. To take an obvious example from this civilisation, swords were not particularly reverenced by the Romans. They were a practical infantry weapon, able to be mass-produced to adequate standard by state-sponsored armaments factories. Military service was expected of one who would be eminent in Rome, but military excellence was not, still less personal skill at arms, and the role of warrior-hero, beloved of sword-worshippers, was looked upon by Roman society with considerable disfavour. It may be noted that while Rome was not an industrial society, the efficiency of its manufacturing infrastructure, even in Republican times, gave it some of the characteristics of one.

The attitude to swords in European-based cultures, however, is not chiefly derived from our civilised Mediterranean forebears, but from the Celtic and Germanic societies of Northern Europe. Eminence in these societies was based very much on personal excellence, and weapon-handling and the warrior ethos figured prominently. With the formation of early medieval society on the foundations of Rome on the one hand and Germanic warrior-culture on the other, the military leader was established for a millennium as the dominant figure of what turned out to be the world's dominant culture. The European Warrior-Aristocrat, the Knight, kept the sword as the favoured symbolic weapon, even when it was not the battlefield weapon of choice, and it has retained this status to the present day.

Of the Technology of Swords

The rapier of the Renaissance is derived directly from the knightly sword of the middle ages, and is a crucial stage in one of the branches of the development of the western sword. From its first adoption in the classical period by the tribal warriors of Europe, and then by Roman cavalry, the iron - later steel - sword was intended as a cutting and slashing weapon for use against unarmoured or lightly armoured opponents. It could cut, with some difficulty, through a light helmet or a mail coat, and would in any case deliver considerable force in the blow. While the metallurgy improved, neither the form nor the use of the sword changed substantially until about the beginning of the fourteenth century, when an arms race in military technology began.

The fourteenth century saw the introduction of two technologies which would have dramatic impact on the shape of war for centuries to come. One of these would defeat the other and continue to dominate war until the present day. The first development was rigid steel body armour covering most of the body, which rendered most of the weapons in common use up to that point much less effective. The second was gunpowder - the use of chemical explosives for battlefield firepower. Neither became really effective for some time after their introduction, but by the sixteenth century the contest between missile power and armour had well and truly marginalised the sword as a military weapon. It continued to be carried in battle, however, and it continued to develop along lines intended to keep it as a useful secondary weapon as long as possible.

At first, the challenge of rigid armour was approached by developing new types of sword, as well as by increasing reliance on axes, picks, hammers and the like. The sword diverged at this point into two branches. One development was swords of increasing size, weight, and cutting power. As the ability of armour to resist blows increased, so did the ability of the sword of war to deliver blows. Ultimately, armour won this contest. The other approach exploited the fact that armour necessarily left certain areas unprotected - groin, armpit, throat, the insides of elbows and knees. By and large these are not vulnerable to cuts, but a well placed thrust may get through the armour's weakness. The swords developed for this purpose tended to be long, rigid, and acutely pointed. Hybrid blades were also produced, shaped for thrusting, but retaining enough weight and edge to be of use in the cut, if a lightly armoured opponent were encountered. Such swords were of particular use to soldiers other than knights, who would tend to fight their own kind. The expense of state-of-the-art armour precluded its use for all or even most combatants.

Once thrusting and dual-purpose swords were established as types, the form of the hilt began to change to accommodate new techniques of use. The ham-fisted grip which had served well for centuries for cutting swords was less useful when fine point control was needed for thrusting. Much better control was obtained by enclosing the cross in the hand rather than gripping behind the cross. An early development was therefore to blunt the first couple of inches from the shoulder of the blade, or even square them off in a ricasso, and add a ring, then two rings to protect the exposed fingers. The ends of these arms were then connected by a third loop of steel running over the blade (the forering), and a parallel knucklebow added on the outside of the cross, forming the basis of the swept hilt, or later a solid steel cup was added over the arms to produce the Spanish cup hilt style. Many variations on these basic elements were created, and hilts which have these elements are not necessarily affixed to blades well-adapted for thrusting, but I believe that it is the development of the thrusting technique that provided the impetus for the very vigorous flourishing of hilt design from the late fifteenth century on.

Of the Carrying of Swords

The practice of duelling that sprang up in the wake of the renaissance was a new phenomenon.

It is usual to trace its origins to the practise of judicial combat which had been in use in various Germanic and Celtic societies even since classical times, and to the gladiatorial combats of Rome. Duelling was different from these, however, in that it was essentially a private affair. It was certainly never a public spectacle, and duels did not occur to resolve a legal grievance, nor were they controlled by legal sanctions. Indeed, in most times and places during the Renaissance and Early Modern periods, the practise of private duelling was forbidden by law, and subject to penalty if discovered.

One of the factors that permitted the development of duelling was the change in attitude toward the wearing of weapons, specifically swords, in a civilian context. During the Middle Ages, swords were not generally worn except by soldiers on military duty. Society was, by and large, orderly, so that there was little need for the carrying of such weapons by civilians, and swords were in any case not available to most people. Gentlemen did have access to swords, but they did not wear them as an everyday mark of status. The armour-breaking war swords of the High Middle Ages were, in any case, not particularly convenient accoutrements, as swords go.

With the Renaissance, some of these factors changed. Society was less peaceful and orderly than it had been. Poverty, displacement of populations, violent crime and brigandage were all dramatically on the rise, so that there was more incentive for people to go armed, both in the town and the countryside. The development of the thrusting sword, discussed above, made certain styles of sword more convenient to carry when not in battle, and such swords also happened to be well-adapted to fighting unarmoured or lightly armoured (civilian) opponents.

By the sixteenth century the sword had taken on the role of fashion accessory - a piece of masculine jewellery worn as a standard item by any gentleman, or anyone aspiring or pretending to be a gentleman. It could therefore be worn by men who were not skilled in its use, and who had little or no military training or duties. If one were to be taken seriously, however, particularly in a society which was increasingly violent, both formally and informally, it was all but a necessity to acquire some teaching in the use of the weapon whose wearing proclaimed one's status.

Of the Teaching of Defence

During the middle ages, skill at arms was the preserve of the warrior nobility, who learnt it as squires from the knights to whom they were entrusted for their education. Increasingly, such education dealt with the mace and the poleaxe rather than the sword, as the sword fell out of use as the primary battlefield weapon of the heavily armoured. In parallel with this socially sanctioned system of teaching there were teachers of defence, making a living in the cities of western Europe teaching the use of the sword, falchion, cudgel and staff, who catered to a different clientele. As early as the thirteenth century (1286) Edward I forbade the keeping of schools of defence in London on the grounds that "it is customary for profligates to learn the art of fencing, who are thereby emboldened to commit the most unheard-of villainies...".

Fence schools seem to have been run by private individuals, and to have attracted a rather low class of pupil. Wise observes that by the middle of the fifteenth century the professional fencing teacher was still legally classified in England with rogues, vagabonds, and actors. Fencing schools were also associated with unlicensed taverns and bawdy houses. The running of such an establishment was not a high-prestige occupation. This changed when the teachers of fence started to be patronised by the gently born. During the sixteenth century the civilian rapier (early forms are today sometimes referred to as "sideswords") was swiftly adopted on the continent, and more slowly in England, as the preferred weapon of the gentleman. Theory and instruction in its use were needed, and these came out of the fence schools of continental Europe, who had established their respectability rather earlier than was the case in England.

The earliest association of fencing masters was the Bürgerschaft von St. Marcus von Löwenberg - the Marxbrüder - formed in Germany in the fifteenth century. They were rivalled in the following century by the Federfechter (literally feather-fencers) of Mecklenburg. Both of these societies were officially recognised, the Marxbrüder by imperial patent from 1480, and the Federfechter by ducal charter from the Duke of Mecklenburg. A similar association (the Arte Palestrinae) seems to have been formed in Spain in the fifteenth century, the Maisters of the Noble Science of Defence in England in 1540, and the Academie d’Armes in Paris in 1570. In Italy no formal association existed, but Italy established itself during the sixteenth century as the centre of progress in sword and especially what came to be called rapier play, Achille Marozzo’s Opera Nova (first edition published 1536) on sword play being only one of the better known of many highly regarded manuals coming from there, although the Germans had a long tradition of Fechtbücher, of which there are dozens extant earlier than Marozzo.

From the middle of the sixteenth century the profession of fencing master was entirely socially acceptable, and indeed in some circles very highly regarded. The Oberhauptmänner of the Marxbrüder and the Federfechter were fixtures at the imperial court as experts in matters of honour. By this time there would have been masters of fence teaching in all major cities of Europe, either under the auspices of one of the fencing societies, or on their own. The teachers we now know best are the ones who wrote manuals, and a brief overview of the principal ones is to be found in the appendix to this manual. Castle provides a very extensive listing of fencing books published from 1529 on, although it is worth repeating that manuals of European combat techniques, with sword and other weapons, are extant from much earlier.

© Andrew Brew 1995, 2001