About the History of Swordplay
by David S. Hoornstra, Cofounder, Ann Arbor Sword Club
Since I was about ten, fifty years ago, I have read just about every book on fencing I could get my hands on, and almost every one of them has a “concise” history of fencing. Being constitutionally unable to be concise, I will instead comment with the idea of saving you time.
Few of the histories go back to the really ancient roots of fencing, which I personally believe to be the first time two humans ever played at non-serious combat with sticks. It’s the non-serious or non-lethal part that divides fencing off from mere combat, and the lengthwise object that allows both attack and defense at a distance beyond the reach of fists and feet.
That must remain supposition. But while many “histories” of fencing begin with the rapier, the real history of fencing starts with the earliest archaeological finds of swords, which give us some clue as to their use. For every well-made, well-balanced sword found in ancient sites, there must have been many people who knew how to use it.
Sidney Anglo’s wonderful book on Western European Martial Arts (2000) takes its history entirely from that of the books of instruction written and available somewhere in manuscript or print. That leaves out all the non-instructional history to be found in chronicles of warfare and the knightly biography genre, where insights into the fighter’s conditioning and skills may be found.
The sorts of “concise history” we find in basic books on modern fencing are often based on a single Victorian history by Egerton Castle, “Schools and Masters of Fence.” This book is dismissed by Sidney Anglo on a number of counts, one of which is that it subscribes to a Victorian ideal of continuous progress, i.e., “that which is later is probably better,” or worse, “a medieval swordsman was a clumsy savage.” The tone suggests a progression towards modern fencing which is taken as the highest plane of art.
When we take in the much larger sweep of history available, we can see that the history of fencing has yet to be written. For that to happen, a scholar must do more than mention the Ars Palestrinae (Art of the Gladiator of Roman times) but illuminate it. We must hear much more about the training of sword-bearing soldiers of every age as well as anecdotal evidence of whatever enjoyable play they had with them. We must see the equipment exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their 2001 fencing exhibit as well as others available.
So I will end by pointing to a list of places to look for pieces of this vast panorama as well as a few fairly concise treatments which, while none is complete, some may satisfy a few. Please see the Instruction & Sources page.