Excerpted from
"Classical Fencing:
The Martial Art
of
Incurable Romantics".

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He who does not bellow out the truth when he knows the truth makes himself the accomplice of liars and forgers.

-Charles Peguy

What is the difference between fencing, as a sport and fencing, as a martial art? That is, between "olympic fencing" and Classical Fencing. Even in cases where there are few technical differences which is not the situation at the present time there remain substantial philosophical ones:
  • The goal of a sport is to achieve mastery over others; the goal of a martial art is to achieve mastery of yourself.

  • In a sport, winning is the end; in a martial art, winning is the means.

  • A sport is most concerned with the product; a martial art is concerned with the process.

  • In a sport, victory defines excellence; in a martial art excellence defines victory.

  • In olympic fencing, the emphasis is on touching the opponent, in Classical Fencing, it is on not being touched.

An entire generation of fencers has grown up having seen nothing and known nothing but the olympic version of fencing. As a result, there are many misconceptions about Classical Fencing, some of which arise out of simple ignorance, some of which are promulgated disingenuously by those who have a vested interest in misrepresenting the facts. Here are a few of the most common.


Misconception:

Classical Fencing is not "athletic."

Fact:

Classical Fencing does not preclude athleticism. On the contrary, it demands it as much—or more—than olympic fencing does. However, the Classical Fencer does not attempt to subsitute athleticism for skill, maintaining it as the servant of skill.

 


Misconception:

Classical Fencing is "non-competitive."

Fact:

The Classical Fencer conceives of his/her weapon as deadly. Any touch received might be fatal. Therefore, one must avoid being touched at all costs.

The olympic fencer conceives of his/her weapon as a toy with only the most vestigial relationship, if any, to a real sword. No one touch is important as long as the final score shows that they hit the opponent more often than they were hit themselves. Some epee fencers will allow themselves to be hit, as long as they can hit the opponent at the same time (a tactic not likely to be often used in deadly combat!)

So. To the latter it is a game; to the former it is life and death. Decide for yourself which attitude is likely to engender a more determined, more "competitive" situation.

 


Misconception:

Classical Fencing means "non-electrical" fencing.

Fact:

In Classical Fencing we don't use the electrical scoring method because we don't need it. But just because someone fences "dry" that doesn't make it classical. It's quite as possible to fence badly non-electrically as electrically. It is also just as possible to fence beautifully and use the electrical apparatus—it's just that the apparatus is then rather superfluous.

 


Ideals are like stars. You will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you reach your destiny.

- Carl Schurz

 


Misconception:

Olympic fencing has "opened the door" for female fencers.

One person wrote:

"The transformation of fencing from a martial endeavor into a sport is the very thing that has opened the door for me and every other female fencer to be accepted as an equal."
"We would not be taken seriously if fencing were still considered training for duelling, rather than a sport." *

Fact:

Perhaps while I slept last night, the World Championships, the Olympics and other similar events became co-ed. Or do we still segregate men and women into separate fencing categories? Has the USFA mens' foil champion and the USFA women's foil champion fenced-off for the title of National Foil Champion lately. Considering it has taken until very recently (the 1997-1998 season) for the "weaker" sex to be permitted to fence sabre, I think I'll not hold my breath awaiting that development!

There is a maxim in combat: at any given moment on any given day, anyone can kill anyone. When you face an opponent with a sharp sword—in reality or conceptually—you most certainly take that person seriously whether man, woman, black white, young or old—or any other demographic you care to name. That's because the sword is a perfect "equalizer."

Women are not absent from the annals of duelling, though certainly the duel seemed to be an almost exclusive male phenomenon. Nevertheless, fencing "in sport" (not as a sport) precedes its organization for the olympics by several hundred years. During that time women crossed blades with men—since mostly men frequented the salles. Fencing was valued for both body-building and character-building for both men and women. No doubt women fencers in the first part of this century were a bold breed, akin to the suffragette. But the fencing establishment has not exactly been in the forefront of the fight for women's equality.

Incidentally, I'm proud to say that in my school, we rank people by skill alone, not by age or sex. I made ALL my classes and events in ALL weapons, including sabre, completely co-ed back in 1980 when I received my fencing master diploma. This was in part due to my dear friend and colleague Maitre Lynn Antonelli who loved the sabre and gave no few solid drubbings with it!

 

* From a letter to the editor of Fencers Quarterly Magazine, Winter 2001

 


Misconception:

Classical Fencers think that really running someone through with a sword would be "romantic." As one olympic fencer wrote: "The idea of running someone through with a sword strikes me as more barbaric than romantic."

Fact:

This one is interesting. I can't help wondering, if stabbing someone with a sword is so barbaric, how is pretending to stab someone with a sword any less so?

The historian Vegetius noted, "They are the most enthusiastic about warfare who are the least familiar with it." The Classical Fencer understands exactly what this art entails and as a result treats it and every opponent with a respect approaching reverence. We understand exactly what it means to send steel three inches into another's chest—or to receive it in ours. That is why we value defence above all, not offence. And no matter who tells you, in a fit of poetic license, that the best defense is a good offence, this is, as every Classical Fencer knows, a lie. The Classical Fencer knows that it is not enough to stab your opponent as he stabs you. Nor is it enough to stab him a fraction of a second before he stabs you. One must "touch without being touched." And as you face skillful opponents you discover that this is exceedingly difficult to accomplish. The first rule in any fight is "You will get hurt." The more you know about real fighting, the less inclined you are to do any.

But remove the reality of it, stylize it, sanitize it, deny the truth of it and what happens?

If you play with toy guns, you'll be inclined to treat guns as toys.

It is not running someone through that is romantic. What is romantic is standing up for what you believe in, doing what you believe is right, protecting those who need your protection, no matter how overwhelming the odds, even at the risk of you, yourself, being run through.

 


Misconception:

Classical Fencing is about "preserving the past."

Fact:

The logic behind this one is fascinating.

No one fights duels anymore. We have the Olympic fencing now. So Classical Fencers are "preserving a bit of the past." We have cars to drive now. Nobody has to walk very much anymore. So people who run marathons are doing it to preserve a bit of the past? Nobody rides horses around. We have cars, trains, busses, planes. So people who ride horses are just "preserving a bit of the past?" Nobody uses a javelin or discus in war anymore. So those people who throw the javelin or discus are doing so to preserve a bit of the past?" Bach has been dead a long time. People who play his music are just "preserving a bit of the past?"

What was true a hundred years ago or two hundred, or five hundred, may very well still be true. In the case of fencing, virtually everything that could be done with a sword was well-known by the 16th century. Swords—real swords, mind you—have not changed much since the late 17th. The principles of fencing are the same now as ever, and their applicability beyond fencing as important as ever.

Classical Fencing is not about preserving the past; it's about preserving the truth.

 


Nothing that was worthy in the past departs; no truth or goodness realized by man ever dies, or can die; but is all still here, and, recognized or not, lives and works through endless changes.

-Sir Walter Scott

 


 

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