Jeffrey R Tishman. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 2, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.
Fencing is the sport and art of swordsmanship using blunted weapons. Several features of fencing make it distinctive, if not unique. For example, until recently, fencing was the only combative sport open to both men and women, although they complete separately. Fencing also is the only combative sport that has neither weight classes nor height restrictions.
Fencing champions come in all sizes and shapes, and competitors meet each other as equals, separated only by ability. A person can initiate fencing at any age and can continue to fence for the rest of one’s life. Fencing requires few players and a group may be large or small) and no purpose-built setting or expensive installation. The nature of fencing is such that athletes with visual or physical impairments that might prevent them from taking an active role in other vigorous sports are not only welcome, but also encounter no limit but that of their own talent. Successful fencers have been deaf, blind in one eye, or missing a limb.
Fencing has several millennia of tradition behind it. Perhaps the earliest reference to a fencing match appears in a relief carving in the temple at Madinet-Habu near Luxor in Upper Egypt, built about 1190 BCE by King Ramses III. The fencers depicted there are using weapons with well-covered points and masks not unlike those used today. A panel of officials and administrators is depicted and distinguished by the feathered wands that they hold.
Every ancient civilization—Persian, Babylonian, Chinese, Japanese, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman—practiced swordsmanship as a sport as well as training for combat. Curiously, European swordsmanship—the most immediate ancestor of modern fencing—did not develop until after the advent of firearms (black weapons) during the fourteenth century. Until then men carried ever-heavier swords to cleave through ever-more-ponderous armor. Strength was more critical than skill. However, the development of ballistic weapons rendered armor obsolete, enabling speed, skill, and mobility to prove a greater influence than mere force.This development led to lighter swords (white weapons), which were used with faster, more subtle handwork for better use in close quarters. Thus arose the art of fencing. Learning to use a sword was difficult. The wounds resulting from fencing became infected. Threats to a fencer’s vision were a particular risk. Indeed, it was said that no competent fencing master could expect to end his career with two good eyes.
Three innovations, however, made fencing more appealing to students who were concerned for their safety. The first innovation came during the seventeenth century, when a light practice weapon was developed. It was called a “foil” because its point had been flattened—”foiled”—and padded to reduce the chance of injury to an opponent. The second innovation was the development of rules of engagement known as “conventions,” in which the valid target was limited to the breast, and the fencer who initiated the attack had precedence unless completely parried (warded off) by the defender. Fencing with foils thus became a “conversation of blades.” However, even with the advent of the foil and its conventions, fencing remained a stylized, slow sport because of the chance of injury to the face and eyes. The third innovation—the invention of the quadrilled (having squares) wire-mesh fencing mask by the English master Joseph Boulogne (c. 1739-1799) and the French master La Boiessiere during the closing decades of the eighteenth century—was the final step necessary to make fencing a completely safe sport.
More complex “phrases” (exchanges of blows) became possible after the mask came into widespread use, and foil fencing as it is now known was developed. The conventions prevented fencing from deteriorating into a brawl. These conventions form the basis of modern fencing.
Few athletic activities were open to women during the nineteenth century. The exceptions were skating, lawn tennis, gymnastics, and fencing. Fencing was offered at athletic and gymnastic clubs such as the New York Turnverein (founded 1851), which early on included women in its activities. The New York Fencers Club (founded 1883) has had women members since the 1880s, although during the early years women members had to fence at different hours than men of the club. The Fencers Club of Philadelphia (founded 1913) admitted women from its inception. Not all clubs were as gracious; the London Fencing Club (founded 1848) did not admit its first woman member until 1946. The Boston Fencing Club (founded 1840) passed the following resolution in 1858: “no females shall be admitted to the club-rooms under any pretext whatever, except by permission of a member of the government of the club.”
Women’s participation until the twentieth century was largely restricted to salle fencing, that is, women fenced only with foils. The sport’s national governing body in the United States, the Amateur Fencers League of America (AFLA; founded 1891), held its first national championships for men in 1892 but held no events for women until 1912. The first AFLA national women’s foil champion was Adelaide Baylis of the New York Fencers Club. The AFLA added a foil team event for women in 1928.
Fencers during the early years of the twentieth century were frequently three-weapon competitors. As time passed, the duration of competitions and the size of the starting fields, as well as the accompanying expenses, continued to increase. The quest for success led fencers to specialize in one weapon or at most two. Each weapon came to have its own aficionados. As noted, women’s fencing had been restricted to the foil, but during the 1970s a group of women, particularly in the United States and England, began campaigning to fence with the heavier weapons. Local events were staged, eventually sectional championships were expanded, and finally national championships were staged. In the United States épée events for women were added to the national championships in 1981. An épée is a sword with a bowl-shaped guard and a blade of triangular cross-section with no cutting edge; it tapers to a sharp point blunted for fencing. Events for women were added to the national championships in 1998. Most women fencers today specialize in one weapon.
The Olympic Games are connected with much of the history of modern fencing. Fencing was one of the eight sports on the program of the Olympic Games when they were revived in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, himself a fencer. Fencing shares with only three other sports (track and field, gymnastics, and swimming) the distinction of having been on the program of every Olympic Games.
In 1900 an épée individual event was added at the Olympic Games at Paris. Ramon Fonst of Cuba won. Other events for fencing masters were added on a short-term basis. A foil team event was added at the games in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904. It was won by Cuba. Most of the best European fencers did not attend those games because of the great distance between Europe and St. Louis. At the Olympic Games at Athens, Greece, in 1906 an épée team event was added, won by France; and a saber team event was added, won by Germany. A saber is a light sword with an arched guard that covers the back of the hand and a tapering, flexible blade with a full cutting edge along one side and a partial cutting edge on the back at the tip. A women’s foil individual event was added at the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924. Ellen Osiier of Denmark won. A women’s foil team event was added at the 1960 games in Rome and was won by Russia. At the Olympic Games at Atlanta, Georgia, in 1996 women’s épée individual events and women’s épée team events were held for the first time.
The record for the most championships won by any fencer is seven: Aladar Gerevich (b. 1910) of Hungary won in saber individual and team between 1932 and 1960. He is also the only athlete in any sport to win an Olympic championship at six different Olympics. The record for the most fencing medals of any types is thirteen, held by Edoardo Mangiarotti (b. 1920) of Italy in foil and épée, individual and team, between 1936 and 1960; he won five gold, five silver, and three bronze.
Women’s fencing champions in general have been far more dispersed than men’s champions, who have largely been from France, Hungary, Italy, and Russia. In addition to champions from those countries, Olympic women’s champions have included Austrians, Germans, English, Danes, and Chinese.
Until the 1960 Olympics at Rome, when a foil team event was added, the foil individual remained the only fencing event for women; the first winner was the Soviet Union. Epée events for women were added for the 1996 Olympics at Atlanta, where the individual champion was Laura Flessel of France; France also won the team event. A world’s women’s foil championship (then known as the “European championship”) was initiated in 1929; the first winner was Germany’s Helene Mayer. A women’s foil team event was added in 1932; the first winner was Denmark. A world’s épée championship was initiated in 1988; and the first Olympic saber event for women took place in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
Other successful women fencers have included Ellen Mueller-Preiss of Austria, the 1932 Olympic champion and two-time world champion, and Ilona Elek of Hungary, the 1936 and 1948 Olympic champion and three-time world champion.
At the 2004 Summer Olympics Mariel Zagunis won the first fencing gold medal for the United States in more than a century. Other successful U.S. women fencers have been Maria Cerra Tishman, who was in a three-way tie for second and finished fourth in the 1948 Olympics; Janice York Romary, who tied for third and finished fourth in the 1952 Olympics and was fourth again in the 1956 Olympics; and Maxine Mitchell, who finished sixth in the 1952 Olympics. Marion Lloyd Vince was the first U.S. woman to reach the Olympics finals, placing ninth in 1932. The most successful U.S. woman épée fencer is Donna Stone, who was fifth in the 1989 world championship. The most successful British women fencers have been Gwen Neligan, the 1933 world champion, and Gillian Sheen Donaldson, the 1956 Olympic champion.
Fencing offers athletes a much longer competitive career than do many other sports. This fact is best shown by the careers of Janice York Romary, who competed on six U.S. Olympic teams between 1948 and 1968, and Kerstin Palm of Sweden, who fenced in seven Olympics between 1964 and 1988. Palm was the first woman in any sport to participate in that many Olympics.
The creation of women’s collegiate fencing was the factor most responsible for increased interest among women in the United States. Women’s collegiate fencing was years ahead of similar activity in most other U.S. sports for women. Bryn Mawr and the University of Pennsylvania established the earliest college teams during the early 1920s. By 1929 those colleges joined with Cornell and New York University (NYU) to create the Intercollegiate Women’s Fencing Association (IWFA).
NYU won the first IWFA team title, and NYU’s Julia Jones won the first individual title. IWFA, known since 1971 as the “National Intercollegiate Women’s Fencing Association” (NIWFA), grew to nearly eighty teams by 1980. However, by 2004 its membership stood at twenty teams, and it has struggled to maintain itself because of the centralization policies of the Intercollegiate Fencing Association (IFA), the U.S. Fencing Association (USFA), the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
A surge in secondary school fencing accompanied the growth of collegiate fencing from the 1950s to the 1980s, but that surge has abated. New Jersey has the most highly developed program, followed by California and New England.
Women are increasingly involved in fencing as coaches, administrators, and officials. Julia Jones became the first woman to coach an intercollegiate championship team in 1932. Maria Cerra Tishman in 1965 was the first woman named to the U.S. Olympic fencing committee. Julia Jones in 1970 was the first woman to coach a U.S. international squad, the World University Games team. Harriet King in 1976 became the first woman editor of American Fencing magazine. Emily Johnson, a San Francisco jurist, in 1980 was the first woman elected president of the AFLA. She changed the organization’s name, after ninety years, to the “U.S. Fencing Association” (USFA).
Rules and Play
A fencer uses one of three types of weapons: the épée, the foil, or the saber. Competitions for men or women are conducted for all three weapons, although until the 1970s women competed almost exclusively with the foil. Fencing events may be conducted as individual events or team events, although even in team events only two fencers meet each other at any one time. Team matches may be run in a “relay” fashion, in which touches (hits against an opponent) are added cumulatively from one bout to the next. International teams are usually composed of three or four on a side, with each competitor meeting each competitor on the opposing side.
The foil has a flexible, slender blade, quadrangular in cross-section, and a small, circular guard that is centrally mounted. The maximum blade length is 90 centimeters. A foil fencer tries to score, using only the point of his weapon, by hitting his opponent on the torso. If the fencer touches his opponent’s head, legs, or arms, no point is scored, and the action resumes. If the fencer touches his opponent on the torso, then a point (touch) is scored. If both fencers touch each other, then the official applies the conventions of right of way to assess the situation and awards the touch, if any. Bouts usually are for five touches in elimination pools leading to a final round-robin pool, ten or fifteen touches in direct-elimination ladders leading to the title bout, or a combination of both methods. Until 1976 women fenced four touch bouts in pools and eight touch bouts in direct elimination.
The épée has a wide blade, more rigid than that of a foil. The blade is no more than 90 centimeters long. Epée fencing observes no conventions, and touches are made with the point anywhere on an opponent. If both fencers hit together, then a double-touch is scored against each, and both fencers are counted as having been hit. Epée bouts may be fenced to one touch or multiple touch bouts, in pools or direct elimination, or a combination of both. Epée fencing for one touch is part of the five-event competition called the “modern pentathlon.”
The saber has a flexible blade with a maximum length of 88 centimeters. In saber fencing touches made with either the point or one of the two cutting edges count if they land above the opponent’s hips. Saber fencing observes the conventions of foil fencing, although before World War II it observed some rules more characteristic of a combative weapon.
With all three types of weapons bouts in a round-robin pool last four minutes. Direct-elimination contests are encounters of ten or fifteen minutes, depending on the maximum number of touches. Until 1976 women’s bouts were of shorter duration than men’s.
Fencing is conducted on a field of play called a “strip” or “piste,” which is 2 meters wide and 14 meters long. A fencer who exits the side of the piste is penalized 1 meter in distance. A fencer who exits the end of the piste is penalized one touch.
Fencers wear a heavy wire-mesh mask with a thick canvas bib to protect the head and neck. They also wear a padded glove on the weapon hand and thick canvas or nylon jackets and knickers. In competition fencers wear additional equipment that permits electric scoring. Until 1940 women fencers could wear dresses or skirts instead of trousers or knickers. Women also wear breast protectors or plastic shields under their jackets.
Until electric scoring devices were developed, fencing matches were adjudicated by a jury composed of a president and four assistants. The president has also been called a “director” and, more recently, a “referee,” and the assistants “judges.” At the end of the nineteenth century foil fencers wore black uniforms, and chalk tips on foils aided in the scoring; this system was not popular, particularly in Europe and U.S. colleges, where form was also taken into account in scoring. About the time of World War I and for the next thirty years, fencers wore white uniforms and used red ink on the tips of épées to indicate a touch.
Since the invention of the mask, no innovation has had more impact on fencing than electrified scoring. It has eliminated the need for assistants, leaving only the president to officiate. In 1935 épée was electrified in time for the world championships at Lausanne, Switzerland; in 1955 foil was electrified for the world championship in Rome; and in 1989 saber was electrified for the world championships at Denver, Colorado. However, these advances have not been without complications. Electrification has increased startup and maintenance costs considerably and has had a steadily debilitating effect on the technique of competitors. Also, despite the objectivity of the equipment, the individual bias of officials remains entrenched. Many observers feel that fencing has been changed from the simulation of a duel into a display in which competitors simply turn on a light with flair and that fencing’s truth and drama have been sacrificed to speed and efficiency.