Review: Schools and Masters of Fencing

Egerton Castle - Schools and Masters of FencingTitle: Schools and Masters of Fencing: From the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century
Author: Egerton Castle
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Dover Publications, 2003. Originally published 1885.
Language: English

This book fills me with nerd rage. It’s such an arrogant and ill-informed Victorian age view of the history of fencing. The author is so thoroughly caught up with the nineteenth century idea of progress that he cannot see anything beyond what he wants to see. Sadly, the book is still the best history of fencing from the Middle Ages to the present day. Here’s a sample:

It seems, therefore, paradoxical that the management of the sword should be better understood now than in the days when the most peaceable man might be called upon at any time to draw in defence of his life. (p.3)

Yes, paradoxical indeed. How can someone who has a good chance of living or dying by the sword not understand the weapon and its use better than someone for whom the downside of losing a sword fight is buy the after-match drinks and cucumber sandwiches? After all, we all know people who play paintball make better soldiers than veterans and those who watch medical documentaries on the Discovery Channel make better brain surgeons than those who have studied for five-plus years. Perhaps the paradox has another solution – you’re wrong, you dumb fuck.

Castle is caught up in a kind of straight-line Darwinian idea of the history of fencing which progresses from “unschooled brawling” of the Middle Ages to the mathematical precision and refinement of Castle’s time. For him, there is nothing to be learned from the past other than as the source of a long list of foolish and muddle-headed errors to be avoided. Castle’s review of the different periods and weapon styles including the longsword, sword and buckler, rapier and small sword show nothing more than the man’s bias against any form of swordplay which is not modern sport fencing. His portrait of national fencing styles is nothing more than Victorian-era racism. His understanding of the schools and masters he reviews is woefully inadequate at best and more often just plain incorrect. It is obvious that he has not done more than flick through the fencing treatises he had access to from Alfred Hutton and look at the pictures.

Unfortunately, there is no other history of fencing which has the breadth of this book. Castle looks (like a one-eyed football referee) at the significant turning points and periods of fencing and the change and development of the sword as a battlefield then sporting weapon. The greatest misery of this book is that there is nothing else like it around to dispel the  prejudice, half-truths and lies perpetrated by this work. More than anything else, this book explains the attitude towards historical swordsmanship shown by the average modern sport fencer.

Regardless, this book is a must for the bookshelf of anyone with a serious interest in fencing, sword and swordsmanship.