Sword Fighting Versus Fencing

A factor which goes completely unrecognised by most practitioners as we struggle to revive the lost fighting arts of Medieval and Renaissance Europe is the differenced between “sword fighting” and “fencing”. I’m going to try to explain the difference and show how knowing the difference shapes our practice. First, let’s define the terms.

Sword Fighting: battlefield or martial swordplay skills answering the question “what’s the fastest way to put the other guy on the ground and move forward to the next target?” The focus here is on efficiency and economy of action in an environment where skill-at-arms meant life or death. Techniques (such as the earlier German longsword style) concentrates on harnessing gross bio-mechanical motions. It is not concerned with delicate movements or subtleties.

Fencing: the skill of the salle d’armes or sporting arena concerned with technique, precision and the “conversation” of the fight. The focus here in on competition and play. In general (duelling may the be exception), the focus is not on putting an opponent down but on showing mastery of one player’s technique of that of another. It’s about feats of skill rather than feats of arms in an environment where honour or laurels are at stake rather than lives. Fencing technique is generally more subtle and relies to a much greater extent on fine motor skills.

This is not to say that one category is superior to the other, just that they have different goals.

What does this have to do with anything? The two types are fundamentally incompatible and should not be mixed when bouting. Mixing styles only leads to fear and loathing, something to be avoided in a community as small as ours.  Consider two hypothetical and very stereotypical fencers, one wielding a Highland backsword in a military manner, the other fencing with a late-Italian rapier.

  • The second will not find in the first an opponent willing to play with the blade in that subtle game of engagement and disengagement, first and second intentions, and sentiment de fer.
  • The first will be surprised that the second continually presents his weapon to be beaten away as the the first charges in to push the second to the ground.

A little over-blown to be sure but you get the picture. It’s only by understanding the purpose of the swordplay styles we learn can we understand how to mix with others in ways which meet our own needs and the needs of others. In this way, we build a stronger swordplay community.