Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Study of Fencing in the 19th Century by the Victorian Fencing Society

This blog is a place to muse and comment on the research and activity of the Victorian Fencing Society. The Society’s purpose is to promote the research, training and demonstration of the fashion of fencing in the Victorian Age. We’ll be looking at sources from the period that exhibit the era of English fencing, both in Victorian England and America, and to review the demonstrations performed by the Society. 

A Definition of Fencing in the 19th Century    

The term fencing itself offers various meanings, both today and in the 19th century.

The practice and study of fencing in the 19th century was primarily the foil and the saber. Most manuals of the period cover these disciplines, the English occasionally substituting the singlestick for the saber. Epee developed later in the 19th century as a reaction to the academic forms of the foil. However, 19th century proponents of the sword such as Alfred Hutton and Egerton castle wanted to expand that universe through a revival of “historical” fencing.


Egerton Castle – A Definition of Fencing
“As it is logically impossible so to restrict the meaning of the word fencing as to apply it only to the more handy weapons, rapier, small-sword, or saber, especially when keeping historical considerations in view, it is here accepted in its broadest etymological sense – namely, the art of fighting with weapons retained in hand. This meaning is equally applicable to the German Fechtkunst, the Italian Scherma, the French Escrime, and the Spanish Destreza as to the English Art of Fence (or defence).” Egerton Castle from his “Bibliotheca Artis Dimicatoriae (Library of the art of fencing)”  in the Fencing treatise from the badminton library.


Sport Fencing

For an example of the traditionally accepted forms of sport fencing in the 19th century, one can look at events offered in the 1896 Olympic Games held in Athens. Events were scheduled for Foil, Saber and Foil for Masters (according to Bill Mallon in his book of the 1896 Olympic Games, the Masters event was approved because Fencing Masters were very popular athletes in France at the time). Apparently an Epee event was also scheduled, but did not take place. Epee will make its debut four years later. No Englishmen or Americans took part in the fencing events at the first Olympics, but both were represented in the 1900 Paris Games.

Military Fencing

Meanwhile, military minded fencers wrote many texts on the use of the broadsword or saber, and often added treatise on such things as bayonet fencing. Even though the sword was diminishing in use as a weapon of warfare in the 19th century, Great Britain was involved in conflicts across the Middle East, Africa and Asia during this time. Many of these battles were fought against people who still carried hand to hand combat weapons, and so the bayonet and sword remained vital weapons.

The practice and study of the Victorian Fencing Society will focus on foil, saber and dueling sword, but will not exclude those other martial arts still in use in the 19th century.