This post originally appeared on the Dashing Duchesses blog.
An affair of honor, a dawn appointment. For many readers of historical romance, the automatic assumption is the matter will be settled with pistols at ten paces. But there was a time when such a matter was just as likely to be settled at sword point.
Thus fencing lessons were considered a proper part of a gentleman’s education. For our English hero, until the mid-18th century, he might well have had to learn the art of swordplay in France. The 1755 arrival in London of Dominico Angelo Malevolti Tremamondo, better known as simply Angelo, changed all that.
A foil fencer and riding instructor, the Italian-born Angelo founded a fencing academy after impressing the sporting gentlemen of the day by besting another duelist. His feats even drew the eye of the Prince of Wales (later George III) among other members of the royal family, who engaged Angelo as their fencing master.
His school passed on to his son, Henry, and later to Henry’s son, and educated the elite gentlemen of the time period in not only fencing but also horsemanship and deportment.
While the modern sport of fencing, as seen in the Olympic, is comprised of three weapons, the foil, the epee and the saber, the epee is a more modern invention. Foil competition is governed by strict rules of right-of-way (in other words, for your hit to count, you have to have initiated your thrust before your opponent or have parried your opponent’s thrust first) and limits the target to the torso. Even since the advent of electronic scoring, a referee is required to follow the intricate blade motions and decide whether or not to accord a hit.
The epee, on the other hand, disregards right-of-way and allows you to score a hit anywhere on your opponent’s body, even his hand or toe. Both foil and epee are thrusting weapons. The saber is a bit wilder. While right-of-way is taken into account, the weapon can be used to thrust or slash. Anything above the waist, including the head, is also considered a valid target.
Of course, considerations such as right-of-way fly out the window when honor is at stake. Who cares who initiated the attack once blood is drawn? As well, in past times, other types of swords such as rapiers and spadroons were used.
The wild, wide arm movements you see in choreographed sword fights on TV or in the movies bear little resemblance to actual fencing bouts. Fencing can be likened to a chess match with the opponents taking the time to size each other up—if they don’t already know the other’s style through having faced him before. Movements tend to be subtle, and control is key. A wide sweep of the blade, while looking good on camera, leaves too great an opening for one’s opponent to sneak in and score a hit. True masters are swift, their lunges fluid, silent and lethal, leaving little indication of their next move. Watch these epee fencers, filmed in slow motion for an idea. There’s a real poetry to it. Makes me want to write some swashbuckling. Anyone have any favorite scenes that involve sword-play?