“There is a romanticism that comes with fencing. Even the rule book is imbued with tradition.” - foil fencer Chris Craig.
Fencing is a sport that has a lot of history rooted in ancient cultures and traditions. The salutes that come before and after a match are derived from the European culture of chivalry. French and Italian phrases dominate the language of fencing. For example, the phrase to describe the deciding touch of a match, "La belle touche," is French for "the beautiful touch."
The weapons themselves also have a rich history in war and combat. The modern saber, for instance, is a slashing weapon descended from the cavalry sword, yet the actions taken with it are ancient. The target encompasses the entire body above the waistline, excluding the hands. The modern “thrusting” weapons in fencing are the foil and the épée. "Thrusting," a technique widely known in modern fencing, was a concept unknown to the Romans until they came across it in combat with the Spaniards and their iron swords. The foil has a target area focused on the torso, the area where the vital organs are. In contrast, the épée is a true dueling weapon that targets the entire body.
While swordsmanship reaches back into ancient times, the modern art of fencing began in the Renaissance. The invention of the Gutenberg printing press allowed establishers of fencing schools across Italy, Spain, Germany, and France to publish their learnings and educate the masses on fencing techniques. The tactics described in those pieces and other Renaissance texts are still studied and practiced by Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) clubs.
Unlike the modern sport of fencing, which is constantly evolving its rules to adapt to advancements in training and technology, HEMA practitioners are ensuring that the classical knowledge of swordsmanship is not lost. Studying the old texts provides one with an interesting perspective according to Coach Jonathan Mayshar, one of the founding members of the HEMA Alliance and its former President. “The more you study swordsmanship and other medieval weapons the more you see the similarity of the schools and even the similarities to other martial arts.” Mayshar also points out: “Contrary to Hollywood movies, even during the Middle Ages there were extended periods of peace in parts of Europe. During those periods, swordsmanship was studied because it was just plain cool, rather than a response to an imminent war.”
As gunpowder became widely used in combat, fencing evolved from a necessary form of self-protection into a sport for the nobility. Swordsmanship was already considered a necessary pastime in the development of young leaders in the 19th Century. Fencer Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic games and ensured the sport would remain a permanent fixture at every Olympics. Today the Fédération Internationale d'Escrime (FIE, established 1913), headquartered in Switzerland, governs international fencing competitions, including the events at the Olympics.
"Old school" fencers first start out learning the basics (advancing, retreating, parrying and riposting) using a foil, the weapon designed by Renaissance masters to be lightweight for young nobles to handle. They can choose to go on as competitive foilists or, once grounded in the basics, apply that knowledge as they study the épée or saber. Today, the choice of weapon a fencer starts training with may depend on which club they attend. While coaches who are considered fencing masters have the expertise to train their students in all three weapons, only a few clubs have such broad programs with most opting to specialize. The result of this choice of weapon has created three separate sub-cultures among modern fencers, each testifying to the superiority of their beloved weapon.