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Fencing and History Nut Extraordinaire. While I am tending toward 16th century at the moment, I am and have been interested in history for a long time. Hence the fencing focuses more on the Renaissance period than the modern. This explains two out of three of my blogs. The third is a more personal one focusing on fibromyalgia. What I write in these blogs, I hope will be of use to people.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fencing Manuals: Old and New


The written word has been the most effective method for transmitting information about fencing through time. True these documents do often come with pictures, but without the words it is much more difficult to understand what the author is discussing. Fencing manuals have been written by both professionals and gifted amateurs, regardless, each one teaches something about fencing from a particular point of view.

This blog is to do with some of the changes which have happened with regard to the transmission of such information over time, highlighting some interesting points with regard to this. For the purposes of ease of presentation of the information, the discussion will be broadly broken into four sections. The first is about theory content and deals with the presentation of elements of fencing theory. The second will deal with any social elements which may be present in the manual. The third will deal with the method used to convey the information. Some of these will overlap and all will be noted to be related to one another. It is not the purpose of this blog to delve into specifics of fencing theory or method, this needs to be done on a case-by-case basis rather than in such a general method.

Regardless of whether the theory is explicitly presented or whether it is more hidden within the actions presented all fencing manuals have elements of fencing theory present in them. It is these elements of theory which the physical aspects of fencing are hung upon. If the practical element is the meat of the discussion, the theory is most definitely the skeleton upon which this hangs.

In the manuals of the Renaissance period, or at least the later Renaissance period, there were entire sections of the manual which were devoted to the various elements of fencing theory. These would be specifically laid out and detailed before any mention of the practical was made. This was the case even in the later period of the eighteenth century, the same sort of idea was made. This highlighted the importance of the reader understanding what the practical elements of fencing were based upon, and thus the importance of theory to the system. It was through such discussions that fencing was demonstrated to be science as well as art.

In the modern age, fencing theory seems to be something that only the fencing masters need to know. Something that the individual fencer will only pick up through specific studies of fencing theory or through tuition with a fencing master. The theoretical elements seem to be absent from modern fencing manuals, or at least those which are commonly available. If a fencer wants to know about fencing theory then he has to go to specific texts in order to find the information he seeks. Only the practical elements are present in modern fencing books, the theoretical is assumed to be learnt through the repetition of actions and their learning.

The social element is something which seems to be somewhat odd to find in a fencing manual, but it is present in much the same way as the theoretical elements. Many may ask what purpose there is for social elements to be in a sport manual, and this is one place which demonstrates the difference in attitude to fencing over time. The social element and its presence or absence also describes the change in fencing from martial art with sharp weapons to the commonly known sport of fencing.

In the Renaissance period the weapons were real and the potential for injury was high. The social aspects of a person's life dictated what sort of life a person would have and with whom they could associate. The social element found in fencing affected more than just their conduct on the field of combat. Needless to say that for the fencer of the Renaissance, social issues were more important. This resulted in these elements being highly prevalent in the manuals of the Renaissance period. This increased even more with the presence of the phenomenon of duelling. The Renaissance author thus devoted a large amount of space to the social elements.

Duelling is not an element which the modern fencer really has to worry about. There are no duels to the death anymore, no conflicts with live steel for the purposes of settling matters of honour. The conduct of the fencer, especially the sport fencer does not particularly affect his everyday life, and for the most part only affects a small community. Thus the importance of the social elements of fencing would seem to have lessened. The result of this is that for the most part the only element which could be regarded to as being social in the average modern fencing manual is the discussion of the salute. If anymore is wanted for interest sake or other reasons, the reader has to go searching in more in-depth manuals and books more related to this particular subject.

In the discussion of method, it is the method used to convey the information found in the fencing manual which is the subject for this part. This has to do with both the written word and also any pictorial representations present. This may seem less significant than other parts which have been previously discussed, but it is important and also describes a change.

Earlier fencing manuals primarily dealt with written words. Later ones increased the presence of pictures to illustrate what was said in the words present. For the later Renaissance manuals the pictures are used as snapshots for examples of what is going on. There are also diagrams for elements of theory present. Even with this increase in pictorial representation the words were always more important than the pictures. The word was always used to portray that which the pictures could not.

Modern manuals have a lot of pictures in them, mostly these are photos for the fencer to copy. Diagrams are used in order to present those elements which the photos cannot present without demonstration. These pictures stand in place of words which were used in earlier manuals for description. The method and presentation of the information has gone from a more written method to a more illustrative method with pictures and diagrams taking the place of the prose that would be found in the earlier manuals. Thus in an opposite fashion the pictures can become more important than the words.

There is a large amount of material available and this only increases as more and more manuals are found and put on the Internet. This can only increase the amount of information that the fencer can have to hand at anyone time. For those of us interested in the earlier practices various elements need to be understood before the truth of the manual can be found. While it is possible to read the manuals alone it is important to understand that they were not written in a vacuum, and this goes for manuals of all periods and cultures.

This blog was designed to demonstrate and highlight the differences between the manuals of different periods, in a very general fashion. It is true that some blanket statements have been made and there will be exceptions to the rule. The change is what is important rather than which has what and what doesn't. It can even be useful for the fencer of the modern period to study those manuals of the older periods in order to more understand what is found in the modern ones. The older manuals do, after all, present a more complete picture of the art of fencing and this should be of importance to all fencers who truly want to understand the art which they practice.