Journal of Martial Arts Anthropology

Abstract - The historical transformation of sabre fencing

The evolution that fencing with sabre has gone through for the last decades and the fact of organizing the Olympic Games 2004 in Athens after 108 years from the debut of the sabre as a fencing event in the olympic competition has been for the author the pretext to trace the development of the sports sword against the historical transformation of various kinds of side-arms. The paper presents the precursors – the first masters of fence from the end of the 17th cent., the authors of works and treatises on fencing. They were the first guidebooks and at the same time handbooks of the difficult art of fencing. They describe characteristic features of the particular kinds of weapon: a sabre, rapier, epée, and later a foil. They give advice how to teach cutting blows, thrusts, attacks and defense. They clearly stress differences between national schools, mainly the Italian, French and English. The paper discusses widely the transformations brought along by the 17th cent. It was then that a mask was invented and foils alongside light court swords were introduced. These changes pushed the evolution of fencing positively towards sport. It became more a sport than a utilitarian form of armed fighting. It was the time when the famous fencing schools in Italy, France and Austro-Hungarian Monarchy were established. That is also the period of a wonderful full bloom of the Polish fencing school. Its recesses were described by Michał Ostoja Starzewski, captain of horse of the November Uprise of 1831. It contained many universal and up-to-date elements. It was cultivated in Hungary and Germany. A lot of our masters were invited to the West where, at the courts, they passed the recesses of the Polish fencing school. Undoubtly, the end of the 19th cent. brought into fencing changes towards the sports direction due to the introduction of the first – close to modern – rules of acting as a referee in fencing encounters. Before then the fights were of a utilitarian character – duels or shows which gathered spectators. They were fighting for awards, prestige and also to prove superiority of one school over the other.
The end of the 19th cent. brought the debut of fencing in the 1st modern Olympic Games in Athens (1896). For the time being these were the tournaments in sabre and foil. The epée fencing appeared 4 years later during the 2nd Olympic Games in Paris. The period up to 1939 was definitely dominated by the sabre, which was the most popular of all fencing disciplines. During those thirty years the Italian sword school was triumphant on the world fencing floors; however, in the late 1920s it gave way to the Hungarian school. The latter had a great impact on the development of the Polish sabre, which brought much success to Polish fencers during the between-the-Wars period and after World War 2. In 1959, in Budapest, Polish fencers managed to overcome the Hungarian hegemony by winning the title of the team world champions. These triumphs continued till the end of 1960s and the crowning achievement was the gold medal won by J. Pawłowski in the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968.