March 27, 2007
Fencing is NOT duelling
By: Harry A. Shamir
Head Coach, SaEF Fencing Clubs
508 747 5803; http://home.comcast.net/~fencing_SaEF/indexSaEF.html
Fencing derives from the word “defence” or “defense” (English or American spelling). At root it is the general system of actions and reactions and strategies and tactics used in all types of combat between living beings, individual or groups.
European style Fencing is the application of the above process to the sport descendant from late medieval duelling in Europe, as developed in France and Italy and commonplace in all the rest of Europe. Indeed there were local variations, such as the swordplay of Spain and Portugal, but in the main, the French and Italian schools predominated.
Upon disenfranchisement of the nobility in the 19th Cent, the European governments disallowed the taking of lives by private individuals, reserving that right and privilege for themselves. Nevertheless it took another one hundred years or so for the custom to die out.
To preserve their income, the teachers of swordfighting transformed the activity from bloody maiming and killing to a safer form, and called it a Sport. The fact that its teachings continued for a while to be used illegally for duelling, is irrelevant.
As a result of the transformation, three so-called “weapons” came to be used: Foil, substituting for the lethal Smallsword, Epee, substituting for the deadly Rapier, and the sport Sabre – which was actually a completely new tool.
To replace FEAR as the major inhibitor of foolishness, the teachers, called Maestri (sing Maestro), instituted rules of proper fencing, rules debated and constantly modified to our own very day. It turns out one cannot replace fear by rules. One can only approximate, and none of the existing rule systems does the job well.
Our Massachusetts South Shore SaEF Fencing Clubs have come out lately with a set of rules we hope will be tested for close approximation of Foil duelling reality. They are listed in the Appendix. We would appreciate comments from fencers who will have tried fencing according to them.
The current world of fencing is divided between the “classical” and the “sport” approaches, though there is no consensus onto what constitutes “classical”. As for “sport” fencing, that is dictated by the French dominated FIE in Europe and its daughter organization USFA in the US. It is the version whose refereeing is aided by electrically determining “touches”, notwithstanding that this version of fencing has come to strongly deviate from the past bloody reality.
Steps toward reconciliation have been taken. For instance, in the latest Olympics in Greece, technology was used to replace the wires connecting the fencers to the electronic scoring aides. However, much work remains to be done.
East Asian, South American, African, and all other martial arts are also implementations of the root meaning of the word “fencing”, whether using tools (sticks, swords, knives, etc) or not. We exclude from this conversation all ballistic tools (stones, arrows, balls, etc). Please note it would very unsportsmanlike to pit one style against another if they deviate much from each other’s basic techniques and rules. Of course, upon duelling instead of engaging in sport, anything goes, but that is NOT the subject of this discussion.
All non-contact, individual-against-individual, sport activities achieve essentially the same goals: highly refined coordination between sight and body actions including arms, hands, legs and feet, short reaction times, understanding of an opponent’s skills and thought patterns, implementation of psychology and deception and foiling the opponent’s deceptions, and stamina. These goals can be translated into purely verbal implementations, expressed daily in our lives in any bout-encounter where conflicting objectives are sought. The most obvious examples are in politics and organizations’ boardrooms. Obviously the reality is that these tend to be duels and not pure sport, hence real hurting will ensue.
Objective: to better simulate real duelling with small-swords by using the dull-tip version called "foil".
Note: an Ambi-grip is a grip holdable by either hand.
The rules (not in order of importance):
1. No right-of-way (row);
2. target area is as in current Foil rules, plus bib and mask - to simulate near instant death due to piercing a vital area; consideration was given to exempting the touch on mask from rule #7, but was dismissed as too complex for now;
3. Users of ambi-grips may switch hands at will;
4. If armed arm is touched and ambi-grip is used, touched fencer MUST switch arms before continuing to use weapon;
5. Fencer using non-ambi grip may not switch arm anytime, upon being touched on weapon arm may then not use weapon for anything and will be considered disarmed, in which case the other fencer has one tempo to make a good touch (simulating a lethal coup-de-grace);
6. non-weapon arm may be used for parrying, but grabbing by hand is not allowed (since not all smallswords had no sharp edge, and would have resulted in severed fingers - thugh in truth this rule is more because grabbing seems so unsporting);
7. reposte from fencer B that arrives within 5 seconds of good touch by fencer A, creates "mutual death" - no points for either;
8. all bouts are 1 touch, but 5 bout series, or 10, or 15, can be performed with previous agreement;
9. no time limit to a bout, except an arbitrary total of 1 minute allowed for no action. (This rule is arbitrary, and I don't like it very much due to its inevitable misuse, and difficulty to manage).
10. a "good touch" is only one that bends the weapon, simulating penetration; anything else is a "scratch", usually not even felt in the heat of duel;
11. the strip may be 7 meters long, 3 meters wide, to allow fencers to switch positions during a bout. (We found this to be a necessity stemming from the use of the defending arm and the increased use of body actions to avoid being touched).
12. catching the opponent's blade under armpit is allowed but touch must forthcome within one tempo, or bout is considered to have transformed into a brawl - with no points allocated to either fencer.
A recently adopted set of rules for Classical Fencing, from the AHF (Association for Historical Fencing), can be found at www.ahfi.org
The FIE/USFA (Olympic) rules can be found at www.USFencing.org