Getting to the Point:
The European Art of Fencing
By Ken Mondschein
with most things in the martial arts, the story of fencing is not a simple
one. If you ask one person to tell you what "fencing" is, he
might tell you that it's a modern sport. Ask a second, and she might describe
fencing as a five-hundred-year-old martial tradition. Yet a third might
mention Zorro, Cyrano de Bergerac, and other fictional heroes. All of
these explanations are, in their own ways, correct. Therefore, the question
becomes which fencing we are speaking of? In his article, we will seek
to tell the story of the Western European tradition of swordsmanship,
from its beginnings to how it is practiced today.
Swordsmanship, of course, has existed for thousands of years. Egyptian
wall reliefs from about 1190 BCE illustrate bouts using protective equipment,
and the cultures of the ancient world, such as the Greeks and Romans,
set up systematic schools of instruction for their youth. Likewise, medieval
warriors, from Charlemagne's paladins of the eighth century to the Crusaders
of the eleventh century, no doubt learned their martial skills from their
elders, and passed them on, in turn, to their juniors. However, specific
techniques can only be traced back to the late Middle Ages, for this is
when the first surviving book on the subject was written. This manuscript,
catalogued in the British Library as I-33, was written in about 1300 by
a churchman in southern Germany. The text is in Latin, with illustrations
depicting a priest and his student performing various techniques with
sword and buckler (a type of small shield). It seems that the monks of
the Shaolin monastery in China were certainly not unique in pursuing matters
both spiritual and martial.
During the Middle Ages, schools of swordsmanship comparable to those
of feudal Japan arose throughout Europe. These were sophisticated and
deadly battlefield arts, all designed to dispatch an adversary or adversaries
as quickly as possible. Schools and masters of arms taught weapon and
empty-handed arts suitable for use in any situation: mounted or on foot,
in armor or unarmored, against one adversary or in a melee. One favored
weapon was the German langshwert or Italian spada da una mano e mezza,
known in English as the longsword or bastard sword. This was a light,
straight, double-edged cutting-and-thrusting sword, meant to be used in
two hands. The use of shorter swords, daggers, armor-piercing weapons
such as poleaxes, and specialized weapons, such as spiked shields used
for judicial duels, was also taught.
Notable medieval masters included Johannes Liechtenauer, who is credited
with founding the widely influential and long-lived German school of swordsmanship,
and Ott, a Jewish wrestling master who served the noble Hapsburg family
of Austria. Ott's style of unarmed defense resembled the jujitsu of the
Japanese bushi in many respects. The pragmatic art of close combat in
the West favored neutralizing the opponent swiftly through joint locks
and takedowns. Unlike modern karate or tae kwon do, there was little emphasis
on kicks and punches in the medieval fighting arts, though these certainly
The story of fencing as it exists today, though, really begins in late
fifteenth-century Spain, for that was where the custom of wearing swords
with everyday civilian dress was most widespread, and where the first
known schools of specialized instruction in a civilian style of swordsmanship
existed. Beginning in the1530s, we also find treatises on civilian swordsmanship
being published in Italy. The schools of use for these relatively light,
single-handed weapons, the Spanish espada ropera (or "dress sword"),
and the Italian spada di lato ("side-sword," in the sense of
a "sidearm"), were not very much changed from the earlier, more
military styles. However, in 1553, an Italian architect, philosopher,
and amateur swordsman named Camillo Agrippa published a book that would
prove widely influential. Agrippa's Trattato di Scientia d'Arme ("Treaty
on the Science of Arms") advocated a rationalistic approach to swordsmanship.
This book made many lasting technical contributions to the art of civilian
For instance, prior to Agrippa, colorful mnemonic names for guards and
stances, such as the porta di ferro ("iron door") and posta
di donna ("lady's guard") were in common use throughout Europe
to describe positions taken for attack, defense, or to invite an attack
from the adversary. To some degree, these paralleled the stances or positions
taken by Japanese swordsmen. Agrippa replaced these descriptive names
by a simple system of four guards, numbered sequentially from the position
the hand naturally takes when the sword is drawn from the scabbard: prima,
seconda, terza, and quarta. This system, with additions, is still followed
Agrippa also placed great emphasis on using the point, which, he argued,
is superior to a cut, since an object moving in a straight line will reach
its destination faster than an object traveling in an arc. This idea would
prove greatly influential in the development of fencing. As in Japan,
swordsmanship remained an essential part of the education of every gentleman,
and the sword was a required dress accessory for certain social classes.
Unlike Japan, where the katana was the all-purpose sidearm of the samurai,
a specifically civilian weapon emerged in Europe. From Agrippa's time
on, we begin to see the first uniquely civilian sidearm, the rapier, come
into its own. A rapier is a long, single-handed sword constructed primarily
for thrusting. Though sometimes carried by gentlemen serving in their
country's armies, its unwieldy length, limited cutting ability, and considerable
cost made this practice more a mark of status than a wise choice in battlefield
Changing social attitudes, as well as the practicalities of using a long,
agile blade, saw grappling techniques diminish in importance, though not
entirely disappear, through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So,
too, did other technical aspects change. By the late 1600s, various national
styles had become well established throughout the nations of Europe. Italian
fencers used a long blade, often in conjunction with a parrying dagger
held in the non-dominant hand. As time went on, footwork became increasingly
linear, though circular and angular motions, as well as various evasive
actions, were also practiced. The Germans followed the Italians in many
things, but favored blades with more developed cutting edges, and also
kept up the use of older weapons, such as the langshwert. The Spanish,
beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, developed a sophisticated and
deadly school of fencing, La Verdadera Destreza ("The true art and
skill") based on humanistic philosophy.
La Destreza, today often erroneously called the "Spanish Circle,"
"Magic Circle," or "Mysterious Circle," used geometric
concepts to train the mind of the fencer. The French, meanwhile, favored
a blade that, as time went on, became increasingly shorter, quicker, lighter,
and almost edgeless.
This French version of the rapier eventually came to be called the smallsword.
The French kings founded an academy in Paris, and the masters-at-arms
there enjoyed a teaching monopoly. Both because of the effectiveness of
a lighter, more agile blade, and for reasons of international style, the
French school of fencing became widely influential throughout Europe.
Smallsword fencing is the direct ancestor of the most common styles of
fencing of today.
The Classical Age
Following the revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the sword,
and emblem of the aristocracy, was no longer worn with civilian dress.
However, the practice of dueling did not cease, though the code that governed
such occurrences grew more elaborate. For this grim purpose, the French
devised the épée du combat, a dueling sword used for thrusting
only. The Italians followed in this, and also favored the dueling saber,
a light cut-and-thrust weapon. The Germans favored a somewhat heavier
saber. Fencing with the foil, originally a practice weapon for the smallsword,
continued to develop into a sophisticated art that let swordsmen use their
technical mastery of all the techniques of killing in a context where
injury was highly unlikely.
This "classical age" was really the fullest development of
the art. While fencing has changed quite a bit since the nineteenth century,
it had reached a recognizable form by this time. Though fencing, like
dueling itself, became more formal, forbidding the use of such techniques
as disarms, the skills of fencing always remained grounded in reality.
Duels were serious affairs, and not infrequently ended with disfiguring
or fatal results. Likewise, disarms and other "rough play" continued
to be taught, if not used, and have passed down to the present time in
certain traditional schools.
By the late nineteenth century, the three classical fencing weapons had
become established and were used in international competitions. These
weapons were the foil; the épée, fitted for non-lethal purposes
with a three-pronged safety tip (the pointe d'arret); and the blunted
fencing saber. Other weapons, such as the cane (French: la canne), the
grand canne or two-handed stick, bayonet, quarterstaff, and singlestick,
or an Anglo-American substitute for the saber, were also commonly practiced
for sport and self-defense, though they are rare today.
Fencing was an integral part of the first modern Olympics, and the FIE,
or Federation International d'Escrime, was founded in Paris in 1906 to
oversee rules and standards for international competition. These rules
codified French fencing practice into the international standard. Under
the FIE rules, the foil scores touches only to the torso. Double-hits
in foil are resolved using a concept known as "priority," often
commonly referred to as "right-of-way," that originally evolved
to emphasize defense over suicidally counterattacking. Saber allows the
entire upper body as a target, though at one time it also included the
leading leg. Saber fencing also uses the concept of priority to resolve
double-hits. The épée, which allows touches to the entire
body, has no such rules, and is considered a more perfect mirror of the
these three weapons, though, legacies from the past remained. Sword and
dagger was still commonly taught in places such as Naples and Sicily,
and, in 1888, a team of women fencers from Vienna put on a demonstration
of "Neopolitan" in New York City. Likewise, two-handed sword
fighting survived in the French and Italian forms of grand canne, and
even as late as the 1930s, an attempt was made to revive the old school
of German longsword as part of Adolph Hitler's volkskultur movement. These
martial artifacts are still alive today. Not unlike the koryu bujitsu,
or feudal warrior arts of Japan, they are handed down from master to student,
and remain a vital, though increasingly rare, part of Western martial
Today, on the cusp of the twenty-first century, the vast majority of
fencers participate in the sport of fencing, also variously called Olympic
fencing, competitive fencing, or electric fencing. As much as the teaching
of kendo and judo in Japan is standardized under the Japanese Ministry
of Education, so, too, is the FIE the central organizing body for competitive
fencing. The governing bodies in other countries, such as the United States
Fencing Association, which oversees such aspects of competitive fencing
in the U.S. as insurance, rankings, and the selection of the Olympic team,
all comply with the standards and rulings of the FIE.
As in any sport, the objective is to win, which is accomplished by scoring
hits, or touches, as they are termed in fencing. All competition fencing
weapons make use of an electrical scoring apparatus. When a hit is scored,
an electrical circuit is completed, setting off a scoring light. Exactly
what constitutes a valid hit is determined by the rules established by
the FIE, and may be rather abstract, bearing little resemblance to what
a fencer would do if his life were actually on the line. In épée
fencing, for instance, a touch to the foot sufficient to set off the electric
scoring machine is a valid hit, whereas the counter-thrust to the attacker's
throat that arrives an instant after is not counted as valid. The relatively
safe nature of the sporting weapons makes actions that would be unthinkably
risky with sharps quite effective in competition. Likewise, though martial
arts such as kendo and judo maintain rituals and etiquette descended from
their feudal forbears, the rituals in competitive fencing, such as the
salute and the handshake after the bout, are often almost perfunctory.
However, there is also a growing minority of classical fencers who seek
to preserve fencing as it was practiced in the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries in all its sophistication, but also in a manner consistent with
the realities of dueling with sharp weapons. Part of this is an attempt
to preserve the rituals, etiquette, and mindset that have come down to
us from the past. Classical fencers see fencing as a martial art, and
argue that, without a connection to the age when dueling was a reality,
and constant reference to the realities of using sharp weapons, fencing
loses its meaning and becomes merely a sporting event played with expensive
equipment under rules incomprehensible to a non-initiate.
There is also a significant number of historical fencers, whose numbers
have been growing in recent years. For reasons of historical interest,
tradition, or romanticism, historical fencers concentrate their study
on weapons that historically predate the three classical weapons. Some
historical fencers practice weapons such as longsword or sword and dagger
in traditions stretching back centuries. Masters versed in these arts,
however, are few and far between. Other students of historical fencing
attempt to reconstruct the practice of lost weapons arts from written
evidence and practical experience.
Finally, theatrical fencing should not be neglected, since it is an art
unto itself. Indeed, much of the interest in fencing is generated by superbly
executed scenes such as the duels in Rob Roy, Shakespeare in Love, and
Dangerous Liasons, both choreographed by the legendary William Hobbs.
However, the aim of theatrical fencing is quite different from that of
classical, historical or sport fencing. In any of those disciplines, the
objective is to enter into the adversary's distance, preferably in a subtle,
deceptive manner, and hit him. In theatrical fencing, the actor seeks
to maintain a safe distance, to show the audience clearly what is happening,
and to keep his partner unskewered. It therefore requires a very different
For further reading, we recommend classic works including Egerton Castle's
"Schools and Masters of Fence," Arthur Wise's "Art and
History of Personal Combat," Richard Francis Burton's "Book
of the Sword," and Baron Cesar de Bezancourt's "Secrets of the
Sword." Some excellent recent publications include J. Christoph Amberger's
"Secret History of the Sword," Sydney Anglo's "Martial
Arts of Renaissance Europe," and Mark Rector's "Medieval Combat."
For those interested in finding instruction, excellent online resources
include the Martinez Academy of Arms homepage at www.martinez-destreza.com
and Kim Moser's classical fencing resource page at www.kmoser.com/classicalfencing.
About The Author
Ken Mondschein, is a New York City writer and amateur historian. After
achieving a masters degree in European History he became a student of
classical fencing and historical swordsmanship under Maestro Ramon Martinez.
He is also knowledgeable about European classical dressage, the art of
horsemanship, and its history and application in mounted combat. Other
martial arts studies include karate where he is now a student at the World
Seido Karate Organization's New York City headquarters. Mondschein currently
works in textbook publishing.
Photo Notes & Credits
Photo one: A person running another through with a blade is from
Ridolfo Capo Ferro's Italian rapier manual, his "Gran Simulacro"
of 1610. Capo Ferro was an extremely influential Italian master, and the
art quality is, in any case, very good.
Photo two: Thibault's so-called "mysterious circle,"
which is really a diagram showing how the proportions of the body are
used in his system of fencing, which is taken from the Spanish school.
However, Thibault was not Spanish; he was Flemish. He published his work,
which was written in French, in 1628. The language of publication alone
marks him as not of the mainstream Spanish school.
Photo three: The team of female Austrian fencers with foils and
daggers in a New York photographer's studio (circa 1888) was provided
"Courtesy of Metropolis Fencing."