HEMA

Posts about Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA)

How is modern fencing different from the “real thing”?

Different people mean different things by “real” fencing.

For some, “real” fencing is a duel with sharp swords and lives on the line. Other than the fear/courage factor, the primary technical difference here is that with live blades you only need to hit your opponent once, and therefore only require one good move (which explains the prevalence of “secret thrusts” in the bad old days). The sport fencer, by comparison, has to hit his opponent as many as 15 times (even more if the officiating is poor!), and so requires considerably more depth than the duellist. On the other hand, the sport fencer takes many more defensive risks, since he has up to 15 lives to work with.

Some purists will equate “real” fencing with classical fencing, i.e. the prevalent styles of the traditional French and Italian schools of fencing that predominated before electric fencing was popularized. By comparison, modern fencing is more mobile and athletic, while classical fencers were known for their more sophisticated phrasing and bladework.

A few fans of heavy metal think real fencing is only done with big, strong swords, and that light duelling-style weapons are toys. Historically, however, lighter thrusting swords evolved because they were considerably more deadly than heavy cutting weapons. Many masters of the 17th century disliked the new schools of fencing precisely because they were too murderous. However, the light duelling sabres that arose near the end of the 19th Century did lack offensive punch on the cut compared with their more military antecedents. Military sabre fencing required more arm strength, and the use of moulinets.

Lastly, it just seems apparent to some that sport fencing has evolved away from its bloody origins. Technically, this is untrue, at least for the thrusting weapons; the theory, methods, and techniques of fencing have not seen significant innovation since at least the last century. The modern fencer remains well-equipped, skill-wise, to fight a duel. Tactically and psychologically, however, the sport is a vastly different world from the duel. Obviously there is no real danger to getting hit, and with up to 15 hits needed to secure victory, there often isn’t even much figurative danger. In addition, since the quality of a hit (eg. fatal vs. serious wound vs. minor scratch) is immaterial, fencers will naturally prefer an easy “wounding” hit over a difficult “fatal” one, and glancing hits will often win out over strong thrusts.

Which is the ‘best weapon’?

Okehampton Castle weapons displaySuch a question is an open invitation to religious warfare. Everybody loves to participate, but nothing is ever settled.

If the question means “what kind of fencing is the most fun?” then the answer is: it depends what aspects of fencing you enjoy the most.

All fencing involves skilled timing, tactics and technique. Most épée fencers consider themselves practical, no-nonsense swordfighters who rely on as few artificial rules as possible. More visceral fencers who want to experience the adrenaline rush of a fast, aggressive swordfight will want to try some sabre. Enthusiasts of more medieval combat styles can try weapons such as the longsword at one of our half-day short courses or apply to us for individual lessons.

On the other hand, if the question means “which weapon is the most deadly?” the answer will depend on a lot of factors, not the least of which are the skill of the combatants, the presence of armour, the military and cultural context, and the rules of the fight (i.e. is this a street fight, a gentlemen’s duel, or open field warfare?). Most swords are highly optimized for performance in a specific environment, and will not perform well outside it. Comparing two swords from completely different historical contexts is therefore extremely difficult, if not downright silly.

Then again, perhaps the question means “which style of fencing is the most realistic?” It must be said that questions of realism have little relevance to an activity that has almost no practical application in the modern world other than sport and fitness. Historically, however, epees have the closest resemblance (among FIE weapons) to real duelling swords, and the rules closely relate to those of actual duels (sometimes being fought to only a single point). Other martial arts with a high realism factor include kenjutsu and some aspects of SCA fighting.