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What is "classical fencing?"

Classical fencing is simply fencing AS IF the swords were sharp. As if your life depended on it. It is the direct descendent of 500 years of swordsmanship and was the ONLY kind of fencing until after World War II. We continue that tradition keeping intact not only the techniques, tactics and terminology of real swordplay, but also the attendant code of honour.

I began using this term in around 1984 in order to distinguish fencing as it had always been practiced, from the hyper-stylized stuff that was the latest fad in what I referred to as "olympic style" fencers.
At the time, I considered that saying "classical fencing" and "olympic fencing" was much more charitable than saying "correct fencing" and "stupid fencing."

What's the difference between classical fencing and modern fencing?

Classical fencing is modern fencing—if by modern you mean post-1800. If by "modern" you mean the olympic sport of fencing as governed by the USAF and FIE, then there are several important differences:

We view fencing as a martial art, not as a sport. Our goal is self-mastery, not winning medals. We use contests as opportunities to test our progress or to improve our progress, but we believe that winning is the result of excellence, not the definition of it.

We do not use an electrical scoring apparatus, preferring to trust to the skill and integrity of the fencers and the officials.

Our style of fencing is very realistic, since we conceive of the swords as sharp. The object is not to hit first, but to hit without being hit. I don't teach anything that you couldn't or shouldn't do in a real fight.

We have a strict code of conduct that is at least as important as technical skill.

So classical fencing is "non-competitive?"


It's MORE competitive. Cross blades with a classically trained fencer who regards every touch as if it might mean his/her death and you'll think you've taken a nice big bite out of a hurricane.

The main difference is that we don't think "competitive" is synonymous with "rude, egocentic boor."

Where can I learn classical fencing?

There seems to be increasing interest in real swordplay and as teachers see that, I hope more will return to the classical fold. Meanwhile there are only a handful of teachers who are dedicated to it, and a few more who, while they may "coach" fencers for olympic type competition are very classically oriented.
What is historical fencing?

Since few people stroll the town commons carrying swords these days, in some sense, ALL fencing is historical. We mark the classical period from 1800, about the time swords ceased to be worn with a gentleman's daily attire. From that time to this, the sword changed little.

All before that we lump into the "historical" category because swords were a bit different in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and so their handling is a bit different too.

Which should I choose, classical fencing or rapier & dagger?

"Classical fencing" refers to modern fencing, that is post-1800, after the sword was no longer commonly worn as an article of a gentleman's everyday attire.

"Rapier & dagger" is the fencing of the late 15th through mid 17th century. It is the grandfather of classical fencing and lays down all the fundamental principles upon which later fencing is based, but is also quite different in many ways.
You might say rapier and dagger is the root; classical fencing is the fruit. If you're uncertain of which to do, I would recommend classical fencing for a number of reasons, chief among which are:

  1. the practice weapons and equipment are inexpensive and easily obtainable
  2. when it comes time, it will be much easier to find someone with whom to practice

Rapier & dagger is generally for either more "advanced" students or those who have a particular need for it:
actors, for example.

What exactly is a fencing master and how did you get to be one?

First, what is a fencing master?

Technically, I suppose a fencing master is anyone who has a fencing master diploma. But when I was studying with my mentor, Maître Jean-Jacques Gillet, he expressed a view with which I completely agree: a fencing master is one who is competent to teach fencing to anyone at any level for any purpose. (I'd add that a fencing master is someone who could be locked in a room with an edged weapon with which he or she is completely unfamiliar, and by the end of the day have worked out how to use it effectively and how to train others to do so.)
A fencing master could function as a "coach" preparing people to compete in an athletic contest.
Most so-called fencing masters today are really just glorified coaches.
A fencing master could also function as a choreographer, arranging fencing sequences for theatre or film. Naturally, this would require that the fencing master also have an understanding of dramatic purpose, and the actors' craft. It would also require a knowledge of weapons of different periods and how they were used.
A fencing master could fulfill the role of teacher, cultivating in his/her students not only skills and knowledge of fencing, but further, attending to their development as complete, well-rounded healthy people. This is the one I enjoy most and is most important to me. I don't really care who wins what or who beats whom. That kind of thing is very transient. But I care very much what kind of people my students become, and how they effect the world.
There aren't many fencing masters capable of doing all three of these things well these days, but there are still a few around.

Second, how did I get to be one?

Technically, any fencing master could issue fencing master diplomas—or any kind of award, or certificate he/she pleases, within the confines of his/her own school or practice. Fencing Master certification, on the other hand, is what allows you to be recognized as a fencing master by other fencing masters throughout the world. To get that, you must take an exam administered by a board of fencing masters and approved by the national governing body of fencing masters, if there is one.
To prepare for that you either apprentice yourself to a fencing master who trains you in exchange for you being his slave—I mean that in the nicest way—or you attend a special school like the I.N.S. in Paris and come out with an academic degree and your fencing master ticket.

The way I did it was a little of each.
In 1973 I attended the International Fencing Camp at Cornell University. The coach at that time, Raoul Sudre, arranged to bring over about a dozen fencing masters from France: Henri d'Avignon, Jean Marie, Daniell Barbas, and Jean-Pierre Genin were among them. There were also Jacques Piguet, Claude Caux and Jean-Jacques Gillet, French-schooled masters already teaching in the US.
It was an inspiring experience, to say the least. For one thing, I got to have lessons from some of the best teachers around. I also had the pleasure of watching American Master Ed Richards play a foil bout ( I believe it was against Henri d'Avignon) that was far better than the best swashbuckling swordplay you've ever seen on film. I can't remember who won. It doesn't matter. They were both brilliant.
One of the things that impressed me most watching these teachers giving lessons was the complete calm and relaxed ease with which they performed, utterly precise and fluid, even at top speed.

Later, after getting out of the service, I had some lessons from Maître Richards at a little fencing club we had going in Portland, Maine. I loved those lessons. It was like a dance. Maître Richards floated above the floor. He encouraged me to apply, if I was really interested, to the American Fencing Academy. But, he warned, I'd better be ready to make a 110% commitment.

The American Fencing Academy was operated by Cornell Head Coach Jean-Jacques Gillet, with help from Jacques Piguet and, later, Maitre Steve Cook. It combined elements of the academy with elements of apprenticeship.
I applied. I was accepted. On probation. I was going to have to bring my fencing up a level or two. I'd have to forego my Italian grip for French grip and learn the French idea of balance and method of lunging. And I'd have four months to do it.

At the time, my wife worked as a medical technologist at Maine Medical Center and I was going to school on the GI bill. We were child-free (and still are). So as soon as I got word that I was accepted, we packed up our VW bug and a small U-haul and within ten days were wading ashore on the sandy beaches of Ithaca, New York. We had no jobs, nowhere to live and no money.

We started looking around for apartments—cheap apartments. The first place we stopped was at Fairview Heights, a beautiful place that was a fifteen-minute jog from the old Cornell salle d'armes in Teagle Hall.
When they quoted us the price we smiled and said, "Nice meeting you." They asked what our "budget" was. Well, at those rates there was no budget. But as it turned out, they were looking for a resident manager and their preference was for a young couple, maybe a grad student and wife.
Close enough.
We took it.
At least we'd have a roof over our heads, even if we starved.
Then my wife landed a meagre job in one of the Cornell labs and I went out and convinced a local bar-owner that what he needed was live music and I was just the guy to provide it. These pieces fell into place so smoothly, I took it as a sign from the gods that they wanted me to do this.

Maitre Gillet was a demanding taskmaster. The program he set up was two years, but I just didn't feel ready. So I took that first year to polish up my own fencing to a respectable level. When I first arrived most everyone on the Cornell varsity team could whip me like a dog. By the end of the year, I could hold my own with most any one of them, and it was no longer an assumption who would win.

Here's what our schedule was like:
Arrive at the salle by 8AM. M. Gillet or his assistant would present a topic. It might be simple atacks, or prises du fer or counter time, or attaques au fer. Then we would each give and take a lesson in each weapon focusing on that particular thing. Certainly the emphasis was about being able to teach. But for our partner to teach it, we had to be able to do it, if not spectacularly, at least competently. Every morning, foil, sabre and epee. Give a lesson and take a lesson.
Around noon the team came in for individual lessons. Cornell had a mens 3-weapon team and a womens foil team which probably meant 30 people on average. Any one of them could have a lesson any day they wanted it—every day if they wanted it. It was the job of the student-masters (my classmates were Lynn Antonelli, Graeme Jennings, and Robert Scranton) along with the coaches, to see that they got it. I gave on average 4–5 lessons a day, 20–25 lessons a week.
From 230pm–430pm, we assisted and then taught the Physical education fencing classes. At 5pm, the team would come back in for group training. One hour of running, stretching and footwork followed by one hour of bouting.
At 7pm one or two nights a week, we taught the advanced fencing classes. Other evenings belonged to the club. One hour of group training and open bouting and/or lessons. The evenings were also our time to delve into things like rapier and dagger—one of M. Gillet's graduates was an actor and was teaching in the Cornell Theatre department. We took turns "interning" with him, too.
Friday was a "light" day. No P.E. classes in the afternoon.
On weekends, we were expected to either fence or officiate at a tournement, if there was one within an hour of Ithaca (so that included Binghamton and Syracuse).
In our "spare time" M. Gillet strongly recommended we keep fit, do some running, some weight-lifting, and maybe a little judo. And he gave us some things to read. In French, of course.
We also did the off-broadway version of Have Sword; Will Travel. M. Gillet farmed us out to teach fencing at any clubs in the area that expressed an interest. We came up with a few good "traveling fencing master" jokes, but I can't repeat them in mixed company.

In the summer, we put our energy into the fencing camps, usually two-weeks long, and kept up lessons with those crazy enough to be indoors on those few occasions when the sun shines in Ithaca.

So that's how it went for three years.

At the end of that time, M. Gillet gave us an exam. We had to write a thesis. Took a written test as well as a practical exam. He then presented us with a fencing master diploma. Then we trucked down to Princeton to take another exam, the certification exam* from the then-US Academy of Armes. (There is no longer a professional association of, by and for fencing masters in the United States).
If I recall, there were five fencing masters on our examination board. I didn't know any of them. They all knew Maître Gillet. From the questions they asked us, and the way they asked them, I was pretty sure that if there was any way—any way at all—that they could possibly fail us, they'd have been very pleased to do so.
We all passed.

That's all there was to it.

* for some strange reason this has always been referred to as the "accreditation" exam.

Do you have any connection to the SCA or any other group?

I got a great sword out of a catalog. Can I fence with it?

Depends on the catalog. Chances are you're better off hanging it on your wall. There are only a few good equipment suppliers out there and a whole lot of complete junk.
Where can I buy good period swords?

I happily share my sources with other professionals. I do not supply this information to everyone who asks because I have no way of knowing whether the inquiry is from a competent, conscientious person or from one of the far more numerous lunatics who've apparently slipped out the asylum window. I'm not in the business of arming idiots with deadly weapons. But once I know you're all right, I'll gladly guide you in your weapon selection and purchase.
I really want to learn this. How do I start?

The first thing to do is to find a qualified fencing master to teach you. Unfortunately, there aren't many of us. Most are "coaches" whose practice is limited to the olympic sport approach and most of them are connected to colleges or universities and are too over-worked to have much time to take on outside students.

We do have some listings in our links section you can try.

But if there's no one near you and you either can't or won't relocate, you can start with the course we're putting up on the web. It will at least get you going and give you a solid command of the basics.

How do I find people interested in classical fencing in my area?

Apart from our links, you might try asking around your local schools and colleges physical education and theatre departments—or anywhere incurable romantics are known to hang out.
Do you ever travel to do workshops?

We sometimes do out-of-town workshops. To host one, you need to get a good space (dance studio or gym) and the people. We can supply instruction and equipment. Most workshops are over a week-end.


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This file was last modified Sunday, Mar 26 2006, 17:15:09 EST