Lunch & Learn: The Evolution of Fencing

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The Evolution of Fencing By: Julia Wynne
Lunch & Learn 10/26/17

In this week’s Lunch & Learn, Julia showed us how one of the oldest methods of resolving a one-on-one dispute has evolved into a sport practiced around the world. Fencing—the act of back-and-forth dueling with a thin blade—was a prominent means of brutal self-regulation among soldiers and nobles once upon a time. Today, fencing is no longer a struggle for life or death but rather a (relatively) friendly competition featured in international tournaments like the Olympic Games. Julia herself was a competitive fencer during her middle and high school years.

History suggests that blade duels were conducted from pre-14th century and into the 19th century, even after the introduction of pistols in the 18th century. Early firearms were extremely unreliable, so blades (simply called “weapons” in modern fencing) were consistently preferred. Duels were often prompted by one party committing an offense and the wronged party demanding satisfaction. In accordance with the Code Duello, agreeable and dignified terms were laid out and the Field of Honor was chosen. The violent confrontations were deemed illegal despite their common occurrence, so duel participants would sometimes take creative measures in selecting a Field of Honor. The famous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton reportedly took place on a small island in a river that separated New York from New Jersey, supposedly to create territorial confusion and prevent conclusive law enforcement against the surviving combatant.

Duels from centuries past were often battles to the death, while others were decided by drawing first blood. This spirit remains alive in fencing today, though protective head and body equipment mitigate the risk of serious injury. Foil competitions task fighters with “killing” their opponents by striking the chest and abdomen where vital organs reside. Sabre is a similar style, except the arms and head are also valid targets for scoring purposes. Epee (pronounced eh-pay) allows strikes on all parts of the body and rewards fencers simply for inflicting wounds. Judges used to keep score by applying dye to weapon tips and watching for marks on the white uniforms, but electronic methods of scoring have since become prevalent in the sport.

Fencing emphasizes the value of decisive stab wounds over slashes or cuts. This reflects tactical logic, as a long, swinging attempt at a slash will likely expose vulnerable areas of the body to a counterstrike. The Foil and Sabre styles are characterized by right of way, meaning a fencer who fails to land a strike must immediately yield the attacking position to his or her opponent. In turn, right of way can be regained by successfully deflecting or evading an incoming attack. Epee style does not involve right of way, so competitors may pursue any possible advantage.

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