Fencing unmasked

29 May 2015
IOC News

Fencing is a sport that has its roots in antiquity, but which has evolved over the centuries, and today benefits from an array of cutting-edge technology and safety equipment, not least the specialised helmets. Here we take you behind the scenes to see exactly what goes into these vital pieces of kit.

The fencing mask was invented in 1780 by French master Texier De La Boessiere, with some help from famous fencer and duellist the Chevalier St. Georges. It represented a major landmark in the sport’s development, vastly reducing the risk of fatal injuries and enabling techniques and strategies to be radically reformed. La Boessiere, an influential member of the French Academy of Arms, advocated that fencers did not advance or retreat at all during their bouts, arguing that they should finish exactly where they started, and his mask facilitated such an approach.

By that stage, fencing had already existed in one form another for almost 3,000 years, with the earliest recorded competitive bouts taking place in Ancient Egypt in the 12th century BC, and later by the Romans. However, it was in the 15th century AD that the sport was formalised with the emergence of fencing guilds around Europe, and the first manual, codifying rules and techniques was produced in Spain by Diego de Valera in 1471.

A century later, French fencing master Henry de St. Didier published the first French fencing treatise, advocating the use of an epee without a dagger and beginning classification of many attacks and parries, and shortly after that the Italian masters Vigiani and Grassi added the lunge to the repertoire of recognised techniques.

Until that point, rapiers had been the standard weapon of choice, but in the mid-17th century, the foil became the preferred weapon for training. By the start of the 18th century the much lighter epee was established as the main duelling weapon across Europe, though the Hungarians embraced the sabre – the third weapon used in modern fencing – as their national weapon, and they would go onto to completely dominate this strand of fencing until the mid-20th century.

The shift towards fencing as a sport rather than as a military training discipline took place from the mid-18th century, and was spearheaded by Italian fencing master Domenico Angelo, who in 1763 set up a fencing academy, Angelo's School of Arms, based in the Soho district of London, where he taught members of the aristocracy the art of swordsmanship. Angelo’s school would remain influential for the next three generations, and his seminal book L’École des armes (The School of Fencing), published in the same year that he opened his academy, was the first to emphasise the health and sporting benefits of fencing.

Fast forward 123 years, and fencing was among the sports included on the programme for the inaugural modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. Three events were contested at the Zappeion in the heart of the Greek capital: foil, sabre and ‘master’s foil’ (the epee event was cancelled, and only made its Olympic debut four years later in Paris), with Greek and French fencers dominating the podiums.

©IOC / Albert Meyer

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