Whenever we engage in conversation, we fence, using words instead of weapons. We parry awkward questions and respond with ripostes.
By the same token, whenever two fencers fight, they converse. The clash of the blades is known as a “conversation.” Every attack is effectively a question. Every defensive move is an answer.
Our lives are underpinned by combative instinct. Talking or fighting, we employ reflexes as old as humanity. Both activities have been refined over millennia, modified by the rules of grammar and honor. But stripped to the basics, talking is a form of fighting, and fighting is a form of talking.
In Renaissance Europe, words and swords were elevated to new heights of cultural significance. Poets and playwrights crafted work that resonates to this day, while sword fighting ceased to be primarily a function of war and became a popular leisure activity for the gentry. Rules were drawn up and buttons were added to the tips of the swords to render them relatively harmless.
The term “fencing” evolved from the word “defense,” and for young European men it was more than a sport: It was a vital survival skill, either on the battlefield or in the formal duels that were the favored method of settling quarrels when words alone were not enough.
Firearms eventually replaced swords as the weapons of choice for battle or personal disputes, but the tradition of swordsmanship endured. Fencing was inevitably included in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and is one of only five sports to have featured in every subsequent Olympics. (In 1924, the Hungarian and Italian teams became embroiled in a row that led to the buttons being removed from their swords and duels being fought. Fortunately, honor was satisfied without anyone being killed.)
In modern fencing, there are three disciplines, each employing different weapons and specialized techniques. Top fencers tend to dedicate themselves to one particular fencing discipline rather than attempting to master all three.
The foil is the lightest weapon, and only the opponent’s torso is deemed to be a scoring area. The épée is directly related to the traditional dueling sword, and the whole body is in play, though only a hit with the tip of the blade scores points. The saber, which is primarily a slashing weapon, evolved from the cavalry sword — the entire blade can be used to strike all parts of the opponent’s body from the waist up.
The seemingly absurd fencing garb — resembling a white romper suit, topped with a metallic, fine-mesh mask — is essential for protection. Prior to electronic scoring, sword tips were dipped in soot, and scoring was determined by the soot marks on the white uniforms of each fencer. Today, competitors are wired directly to a computer, and each scoring hit registers automatically.
Bouts take place on a long, narrow platform known as the piste. Fencers are penalized if they stray from the fighting area. A fencing match consists of three three-minute bouts separated by a minute of rest. The first fencer to reach 15 points wins. If the contest goes the distance, the competitor with the highest points tally is awarded victory.
Despite its long pedigree, fencing is never likely to become a mainstream modern sport. The specialized clothing and equipment can be prohibitively expensive, and a considerable amount of training is required to reach a competitive standard.
Yet whether we are aware of it or not, we fence every day; and when, in the course of repartee, we are skewered by someone’s rapier wit, we inevitably respond with a fencing term: Touché.
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