How did modern fencing become so divorced from useful sword fighting technique?

Every time I watch fencing, it occurs to me that almost all of the rules encourage behavior that you wouldn’t want to do in a real sword fight.

From not being able to circle to not worrying about getting hit as long as you are first, there are just all sorts of things that would doom you in a real sword fight.

So, how did it come to be this way, given that it must have evolved from schools that did teach real sword fighting and not too long ago?

Fencing stopped being useful in the battlefield, then in personal self-defense, and so it was just a matter of time before people focused their energies in developing a sport tradition loosely based on what they knew or thought they knew about the art.

Having said that, we probably have the technology to make trackable, watchable sport out of actual fencing, at least with some weapons, like the rapier.

Fencing isn’t derived from the battlefield, but from training for ruled and stylized dueling.

Yes, as I understand it, the ‘right of way’ rules were developed to help make sure that duels didn’t end in double mortality… if one person has to die because two simply can’t live with each other, that’s a regrettable but understandable loss. For both to die because they stab each other at the same moment - that’s just a tragedy.

It’s a long story with a pretty simple answer. Fencing in the first half of the 20th century was quite classical and not too dissimilar from 19th century technique. The biggest change in the sport occurred when electric scoring replaced judges. The change in gear radically changed effective sport technique, making fencing technique today have almost no connection the sport of even 50 or so years ago. Interpretations of right of way have also had some very counterintuitive results.

Right of way rules were important because the foil was a training tool for the smallsword, a weapon with which people actually dueled. Note that there is no priority in epee, a dueling weapon in its own right.

This is not quite true. Ritualized dueling postdates some of the most important discoveries of scientific defense with a sword. It wasn’t needed on the battlefield; it was needed in the street. A gentleman needed a weapon to protect himself from the Romeo & Juliet levels of urban violence in southern Europe in the Renaissance. What we usually think of as dueling comes quite a bit later.

My husband and I were watching some of the gold medal women’s (foil? I think) fencing yesterday and yeah, it just seemed really goofy. I’m not saying it looks easy, just that the rules seem impenetrable and extremely subjective.

Try watching epee: it’s as if the only rule is “stab the other fencer first.” Nothing impenetrable or subjective; in a duel, one would’ve drawn first blood for the win, and, well, that’s pretty much it.

Cool. How have you come by this knowledge? You’re a historian, IIRC?

The reference to electric scoring brings to mind the current controversies over instant replay across sports, electronic calling of balls and strikes, concussion and quarterback- protecting rules, etc…

Cool, thanks!

Yes. And a fencer. :slight_smile: It’s not really my area in general, but I was a (credited) helper in the translation of a key Italian rapier text once upon a time.

The change in fencing induced by electrification cannot be overestimated. George Patton was an excellent fencer in his youth and wrote an sabre drill manual in 1914. The sabre technique he discusses, with an eye to actual use on the battlefield, is closely related to contemporary sport epee fencing. So even as late as WWI, there were honest-to-goodness connections between sport and martial art.

Electrification cut this connection. Once upon a time, a judges were able to regulate something intangible about the nature of touches. If they looked insufficient (i.e., they didn’t conform to what judges thought was good technique), they were discarded. But once that element of human judgment was taken away, there was nothing to anchor the technique to contemporary expectations. People then knew what fencing looked like because it had been perpetuated by historical schools, was still practiced in the army, and still had some of tenuous connection to the battlefield. So if a touch didn’t look like fencing, it wasn’t a touch.

The sense of good taste was probably already on the way out when electrification transformed the sport. Nevertheless, gear change hastened its death. The buzzer doesn’t care what fencing looks like. It just registers hits at a sufficient pressure on the target area. Blades became softer and more whip-like. Human judges still had to determine the application of right of way rules, but when you use a sword that no longer works like a sword, what does an “attack” really mean anymore?

So once upon a time fencing was the preserve of the elite and aristocratic. Electrification democratized it, taking it out of the control of the elitist establishment. This is laudable in theory, but it further marginalized an already dying activity by making it, as jsgoddess says, really goofy. The fencing establishment’s response to this years ago was to make masks out of lexan, so that you could see the fencer’s faces. Somehow this was supposed to make it more accessible and fun to watch. The evidence speaks for itself.

In your spare time, could you explain the “right of way” rule in a way that the average Olympic fencing viewer (once every four years) could understand it? The announcers seem to be more interested is describing why the fencers are screaming after a point is scored.

Sure. The basic idea is a paradox of modern fencing.

The foil was never a dueling weapon. It was a training tool for smallsword, a real dueling weapon. Smallsword fell out of fashion, but foil continued to coexist along with epee and sabre, real 19th century dueling weapons. Foil was fun, but it was soon recognized that it was very “decadent.” People could get away with doing things in foil bouts that they would never do with live steel.

So the idea of “priority” entered foil fencing. Priority basically says that if your opponent attacks you, you must deal with his attack first before launching an attack of your own. There are a few well-known ways of dealing with an attack. But the idea is, you want to prevent him from hitting you before trying to attack yourself. What constituted an attack was equally well-known and relatively obvious. Even a 19th century foil bore passing resemblance to a sword. It was stiff. People knew what an attack looked like. Parry (or something) first, then launch your own attack.

The goal was to prevent a double hit situation. If one hit immediately followed another, it was impossible to tell which landed first. But it hardly mattered; double hits were shit fencing so the point would be thrown out anyway.

Enter electrification. Now we can tell with great precision which hit landed first. And now swords don’t look or behave like swords, so it is no longer immediate what an “attack” even looks like. Right of way is a complicated system of rules that govern what an attack is and how a fencer must respond to this attack before making an attack of his own. These rules and the interaction between rules and technique are very subtle. As long as you follow the right of way rules to the letter and score a touch a fraction of a second before your opponent, the point is good. Whether you’ve done this and not the hit itself is subject to human judgment. Even if you landed your touch first, if your opponent launched his “attack” prior to when you began your technique and you did not deal properly with the attack, you don’t get the touch. So whether fencers conform to the letter of the rules in a bout is highly material. How judges interpret these rules determines what techniques are admissible and even what an “attack” actually is.

Does this help?

I wonder how dueling (with full armor) in say the Society of Creative Anachronism compares?

Does anyone here know how well kendo holds up when compared to practical Japanese swordsmanship?

I’m not sure how you think this contradicts what I said, unless you’re just using “fencing” to mean “scientific” swordplay.

Yes, dueling comes later, with some derivation in street fighting. Fencing, in anything like the modern sense, later still, with some derivation in dueling. The OP is correct that elements that would be important in unregulated swordplay–on a battlefield or in the street–are not present in fencing. This is deliberate.

Just one remark, the commentator on swedish television just said they have removed the sensors for sufficient pressure since they broke all the time. Now you just need a hit.

To my knowledge, the most successful SCA fighters are to a man ex-sport fencers.

The native Japanese martial art is iaijutsu in its modern incarnation, iaido. Kendo is a sport.

Watching fencing on the Olympics, I’m somewhat surprised somewhat at just how fast it is. Not much of a spectator sport, unless you’re another fencer I guess.

I’m enjoying Homer, tho.

Yes, thanks. So, if I attack you at the same time you attack me, the “proper” (point scoring-wise) thing for me to do would be to block/redirect your attack before attempting to touch you or no points will be scored.

There also seems to be a “distance issue”, for lack of a better word, where the match is stopped if the competitors remain too close to one another. I assume that’s because it’s difficult to touch someone with the point if you’re close enough to touch them with your hilt. Since no one would be in a position to score a “proper” point, they may as well start over. Is that correct?