For serious study, see the original manuals or facsimiles thereof. Classical fencing is the tradition and style of European fencing invented in the 19th century.
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It emphasizes respect for the blade, honor, and treating the art of fencing as what it should be, a martial art, not a sport. Because of these roots, certain artifacts of the USFA are disdained, not necessarily because they are "modern", but because they are contrary to the goals and roots of classical fencing. Flicks, fleches, and pistol grips are disallowed and ineffective because they are suicidal in a true fencing bout, even in foil, which is maintained as a training ground for the more realistic forms.
Scoring machines are likewise disliked because they provide an objective and inaccurate method of scoring which, in the USFA, has largely replaced the need for judgement which is developed by judging fencing matches, and required in order to be a good fencer, not to mention the director's personal responsibility for ensuring a fair and correct match. Olympic fencing is a sport that is the direct descendent of classical fencing. While it may share superficial similiarities with its parent, it is optimized around the demands of a competitive sport and technique is optimized around making the light go off.
Thus, it has diverged from classical technique and will continue to diverge along its own lines away from classical technique. Classical fencing is the martial art of the final phase of sword duelling in Europe.
Like many weapon martial arts in the modern era, it is practiced with blunt weapons and under more controlled conditions than in an actual fight. It emphasizes personal control, poise, and commanding a situation more than it emphasizes scoring a point. Techniques are optimized for not getting hit and for hitting without being hit rather than for hitting first or hitting in such a way as to "play the rules".
Furthermore, as an art rather than a sport, it often cultivates a certain aesthetic although there is the inherent absurdity of "dying beautifully" to consider. There is also the subject of historical swordsmanship, which really covers a very broad range of styles, including:. French smallsword.
Late Italian rapier. My first teacher, Maitre Adam Crown, defined it in terms that I paraphrase here:. Modern sport fencing is a discussion that centers around the question, "How can I score points in a competition? This can be very satisfying to the people involved, but it's a fundamentally different from classical fencing, where we attempt to the best of our ability to simulate a serious fight with sharps. If my object is to wound or kill, I'm unlikely to fleche or flick the first is near suicidal with sharp weapons, the second is wholly impossible and ineffective even if it were possible , and I will employ a very conservative strategy.
If my object is to set off a light and sound a buzzer while remaining at least one point ahead, I can try all sorts of manuevers that would be anathema to classicists, and take risks that would be suicidally stupid in a serious fight. The difference is that of a martial art and a game. They don't mix well on the strip becuse they are discussing different things. Given two fencers of similar talent, one a classical fencer and the other a sport fencer, the classical fencer will tend to win on the classical piste while the sport fencer will tend to win on the sport piste.
There are no absolutes, of course. In terms of techniques and methods of teaching, a Martial Art teacher of fencing would probably teach many of the same things, use many of the same drills, but the attitude passed on is substantially different. In combat every hit counts, and it is more crucial to ensure that you don't get hit than it is to ensure that you score a hit. In sport, an individual hit doesn't really count - it is the agregate score which leads to a win. A single hit in combat, is likely to render the fencer hors-combat out of action , either immediately or over a period of several minutes due to blood loss - once disabled the fencer is therefore easy meat for a killing blow if to the death.
Either way any hit against is unacceptable. In the most cautious of modern weapons - Epee - fencers will take risks which would be considered totally mad in combat. After all if the current score is , a double hit will still result in a win! That equivalent double hit could result in that fencers death in combat, and would therefore be out of the question as a tactic. So the difference between a martial art Master and a Sport Master is not so much the technique, but the attitude that he passes on to his students.
Ignoring the history of the communes, so important to the development of civic humanism and such movements as the Savonarolan millennial community in Florence, emphasis was placed on the "tyrants," the great political powers and artistic patrons. Their epitome was Cesare Borgia, who was the despotic son of a Spanish pope of few scruples, and who was the admired hero of Machiavelli, whose very name was a byword for political cynicism and moral indifference. The Italians had genius, to be sure, as is seen in the art of Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, but the history textbooks then switched their focus as they still do today from the Italian wars to the theology of Luther and Calvin, or to the consolidation of the French state in the seventeenth century.
The Italians were ruled by "tyrants," the French by "autocrats.
Fencing, likewise, was held to have been perfected by the "refined" French, who in this period pioneered the "small sword," or "walking sword," as Hutton calls it, that combined the functions of masculine jewelry and self-defense. Physical labor and brute strength, in the most courtly fashion, were considered uncouth.
The featherweight small sword provided a personal weapon as light, elegant, and refined as the spirit itself.
Even if the profession of the gentleman was to carry a sword, the fashionable courtier of the Age of Enlightenment was determined that his "work" would involve as little actual sweat as possible. This perception is borne out by a well-known anecdote of the famous fencing master Domenico Angelo defeating a certain Dr. Keys in a celebrated early-eighteenth century contest. Keys, an Irishman of considerable size and strength, challenged the French-schooled Angelo to a fencing match in a London tavern, which often served as venues for such entertainments.
According to Angelo's son, the challenger cut a "a tall, athletic figure Clearly, what this meant to contemporaries can be easily interpolated: the intellect and science of the Enlightenment, or at least of the self-made gentleman and courtier of that era, had triumphed over brute force, as personified by the uncouth Irish. Angelo went on to become an enormously influential and successful teacher of fencing and other manly graces to the gentlemen of England, and is a significant reason why Hutton and Castle would eventually come out as such aficionados of the French method.
Similarly, improvement in technique, with all its moral implications, is the logical result of technological development. In fact, it is the logical result of it. As Hutton says, "[The] change of pattern in the sword necessitated a change in the method of using it.
Technical improvement leads to overall improvement, just as oil painting is superior to panel painting. However, despite Hutton and Castle's impressions, it is not the case that the Italians were, in practice, inferior in any wise to the French in the practical application of the art of the sword.
We find in contemporary accounts of contests between fencing masters that the southerners at least held their own. Whereas it is true that, the style of the "home team" was preferred as the most beautiful, elegant, and effective, we see in such events as the French tour of the Italian Scuola Magistrale in , the visitors gave as good as they got. Newspapers even employed fencing critics who, in many ways, filled the roles that both sports writers and theater critics do in modern mass media-for fencing was, as we have said, an aesthetic as well as an athletic exercise.
As one such critic, the French fencing master Rupiere, remarked with obvious nationalistic bias:. However, another French master, Victor Maurel, disagreed with the "sour grapes" approach and wrote this on the difficulty the French fencers had with the Italians:. We, instead, admire, above all, aesthetic bouts. Here is the habitual expression, and we hear this heresy daily: 'One beautiful hit equals ten bad ones. The boldfaced words are significant. What can we read into this preference for "aesthetic bouts," that rhymes so well with Castle's earlier comment on "the courteous and academic 'assault' of modern days"?
Clearly, to this mindset, the artistic and the scientific are one-"truth is beauty, and beauty is truth," as Keats said.
But why, as far as fencing goes, was beauty more important than effectiveness? Peter Gay, in The Cultivation of Hatred , the third volume of his great psychological study of the nineteenth century European bourgeois psyche, does not specifically handle fencing, though he does discuss the German student ritual of the mensur. We would suggest that, by the formalization of violence, it is, in a way, controlled. The world is thus ordered, and the raw id, while acknowledged and given vent to, is removed one step from reality and thereby both diffused and taken out of sight.
The violent instinct, in other words, is both socialized and hidden, acknowledged and denied. Gay says the mensur "is a superb instance of the clash between the two meanings of cultivation, an exercise in aggression checked by accepted rules," but this may be said, to an extent, of similar ritual, or indeed, of any sport. Further, in agonistic fencing, at least, the reality of conflict and death is given a veneer of sociability. In civilized society, which is to say progressed society, one is not in daily peril of one's life.
Saber-toothed tigers do not haunt Picadilly Circus, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting pedestrians, and Genghis Khan almost never leads his Mongol hordes down Bond Street, stopping to loot Sotheby's on the way to Buckingham Palace. Likewise, we do not die in polite society; we "pass on," and we are not fired, but rather "let go. By sweeping these grim realities under the rug, the euphemistic hiding away and disguising of war, death, sickness, and other unpleasantness, is thus maintained.
The reality of death at a sword's point was likewise masked by the extreme academic formalization of the training.
Classical Fencing and Historical Swordsmanship Resources
One does not really penetrate another man with one's steel, one achieves a " touche " with the " fleuret. The fact of violence is thus incorporated into the socially constructed, self-referential web of ideas that constitute "culture. Even when the bourgeois gentleman was willing to lay down his life, such as in a duel or in the opening days of World War I, it was for an abstract idea such as honor or love of country-an aesthetic ideal taking on the substance of an ethical concept in his mind and in the minds of the onlookers.
The duelist makes himself the subject of the onlookers, wishing to win acclaim, objectifying himself and his opponent. In their agon is played out both their own drama, upholding their status in the eyes of their peers, and exorcising the collective insecurity of their entire class, perched midway between chevalier and shopkeeper. Nor should it be forgotten that this ideal was one that began with the feudal knight, who collected rents and rode off to defend Christendom, or at least his own bit of it, and was passed to the new noveau riche , who, even if they were the "nobility of the robe," still armed themselves.
Related Old Sword Play. The systems of fence, 16-18th century
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