What is the origin of Fencing? When did Fencing become an olympic sport?
The sport which is practised in the Olympics today, often called Olympic or competitive fencing, is rather different from classical fencing, although they both have the same three categories of weapon: foil, sabre and epee. Olympic fencing is a sport while classical fencing is more a form of self-defence and is often classified as one of the martial arts. The word actually comes from the French word for defence, so it’s easy to see that its origins are in fighting rather than sport.
The use of a sword or similar weapon in combat is obviously very old and can be found in many cultures, and making this into a sport or form of military training is also ancient and widespread. In Roman times, for example, people sometimes had mock-fights using sticks with the sharp points covered up, and they used this to practise and develop fighting techniques. Some of these techniques became the basis of the art of fencing as it later developed.
The earliest surviving records of fighting schools in Europe go back to the 12th century, though it’s likely that they had existed in some form since Roman times. People also often paid an expert to instruct their sons. Over the next few centuries books began to be written on the art of sword fighting, and by the 16th century it was common for gentlemen to carry swords in public – often as much for a fashion statement as for self defence, though this was also very important.
Fencing as we understand the term today dates from this period of the 16th century. Because it developed out of the fighting practices of several countries it is hard to say for sure which country it started in, but early classical fencing is most often associated with Italy (with some traditions going back to Roman times), France, Germany (where a lot of books on the art were written) and especially Spain.
By the end of the 16th century the rapier was in common use. This is a light, slim sword ideal for fast use, and for the kind of techniques that had been developing over the centuries, such as the thrust. Famous fencing masters, especially from Italy, were operating all over Europe and the term ‘fencing’ began to be used as the norm from about the end of the century. An early mention of the word in English can be found in Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was first published in 1602. However, it would be almost another 100 years before the rules in force today became established, such as the use of foils rather than rapiers.
Eventually, partly due to the practice of duelling to the death rather than just fencing for pleasure – and also because of improved street safety - carrying a sword became less common and finally ceased altogether. However, fencing as a sport remained popular, and classical fencing finally took the form we know today in the 19th century. In 1896 fencing was included as an Olympic sport for the first time. In this contest, judges had to watch the combatants and decide whether one had managed to get a hit or ‘touch’ on the other. The judges then all had to agree on whether the touches were ‘real’ ones. This obviously led to a lot of arguments.
Eventually in 1936, more modern methods were found for judging Olympic fencing; an electronic system was used that would make a sound when a touch landed or show a coloured light. Variations on this method have been used ever since.
You can learn more about the history of fencing here.