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Fencing is the sport of armed combat involving cutting, stabbing, or slapping bludgeoning weapons directly manipulated by hand, rather than shot, thrown or positioned, of European origin. Examples include swords, knives, pikes, bayonets, batons, clubs, and similar weapons. In contemporary common usage, fencing tends to refer specifically to European schools of swordsmanship and to the modern Olympic sport that has evolved out of them. It has Spanish origins.
Fencing is one of the four sports which has been featured at every modern Olympic Games. Currently, three types of weapon are used in Olympic fencing:
The word fence was originally a shortening of the Middle English defens, that came from an Italian word, defensio, in origin a Latin word. The first known use of defens in reference to English swordsmanship is in William Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor: “Alas sir, I cannot fence.”
Fencing teachers and schools can be found in European historical records dating back at least to the 12th century. In later times some of these teachers were paid by rich nobles to produce books about their fighting systems, called treatises.
The earliest known surviving treatise on fencing, stored at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England, dates from around 1300 AD and is from Germany. It is written in medieval Latin and Middle High German and deals with an advanced system of using the sword and buckler (small shield) together. From 1400 AD onwards there are an increasing number of fencing treatises surviving from across Europe, with the majority from the 15th century coming from Germany and Italy. In this period these arts were largely seen as ‘knightly’ and for the nobility – hence most of these treatises deal with the knightly weapons, such as rondel dagger, longsword, spear, pollaxe and armoured fighting mounted and on foot. Some treatises do cover the weapons more usually used by the common classes however, such as großes Messer and sword and buckler. Wrestling, both with and without weapons, is also featured heavily in the early fencing treatises.
By the sixteenth century, with the widespread adoption of the printing press and the increase in the urban population, together with other social changes, the number of fencing treatises being produced increased dramatically. Fencing schools had been forbidden in some European cities (particularly in England and France) during the medieval period, though court records show that such schools were kept illegally. After around 1500 it seems to have become more socially and legally acceptable to carry swords openly in most parts of Europe, and the increasing fortunes of the middle classes meant that more men were aspiring to carry swords, learn fencing and be seen as gentlemen. By the middle of the 16th century many European cities contained great numbers of fencing schools, often clustered together, such as in London in ‘Hanging Sword Lane’. Italian fencing masters were particularly popular in the 16th century and they went abroad and set up schools in many foreign cities. The Italian styles of fencing at this time, bringing concepts of science to the art, were seen as revolutionary and new, and they appealed to the new Renaissance mindset.
In 16th century Germany compendia of older Fechtbücher techniques were produced, some of them printed, notably by Paulus Hector Mair (in the 1540s) and by Joachim Meyer (in the 1570s), based on the teachings of the 14th century Liechtenauer tradition. In the 16th century German fencing developed sportive tendencies. Eventually the newer Italian attitude to fencing grew in popularity in Germany as well as elsewhere.
Today there are many groups around the world recreating the old fencing systems, using the surviving treatises. Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) are growing fast, bringing in people from many backgrounds, including those who have taken part in modern sport fencing and Asian martial arts.
Strictly, the European dueling sword is a basket and cage hilted weapon specifically used in duels from the late 17th to the 19th century. It developed through several forms of the rapier to the smallsword — reflecting the changes from a cutting style of swordplay to a thrusting style (‘foining’). This was a result of increasing specialization in their use on the dueling field, and the social stigma attached to carrying and using swords too obviously adapted to the actual “work” of warfare. The smallsword, and the last version of the rapier, were made possible only by metallurgical advances in the seventeenth century as high toughness steels became more readily available..
In England, it was not uncommon for fencing masters to take on other fencing masters in a fight, often to the death, often with intervals for medical staff to dress wounds. Such spectacles were generally held in beargardens, particularly in the Southwark neighborhood near London.
The foil was invented in France as a training technique in the middle of the 18th century; it provided practice of fast and elegant thrust fencing with a smaller and safer weapon than an actual dueling sword. Fencers blunted its point by wrapping a foil around the blade or fastening a knob on the point (“blossom”, French fleuret). In addition to practice, some fencers took away the protection and used the sharp foil for duels. German students took up that practice and developed the Pariser (“Parisian”) thrusting small sword for the Stoßmensur (“thrusting mensur”). After the dress sword was abolished, the Pariser became the only weapon for thrust fencing in German colleges and universities.
Since thrust fencing with a sharply pointed blade of any kind is quite dangerous, many students died from (especially) pierced lungs (Lungenfuchser). However, a counter movement had already started in Göttingen in the 1750s, with the invention of the Göttinger Hieber, a predecessor of the modern Korbschläger, a new weapon for cut fencing. In the following years, the Glockenschläger was invented in Eastern Germany universities, also for cut fencing.