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Historical fencing? - An "Approach"

What are you doing? What do you call that? These are probably the typical questions people ask us when they see us practicing our sport. In order to be able to explain this authentically to people, it is very important that we ourselves know what we actually mean by historical fencing and what our personal goals are. I would like to explain to you today my approaches to this, which have also changed again and again over the past 20 years.

1. What does historical mean?

The proper name of our sport is composed of two terms, historical and fencing. Let's start with the former. As a historian, I would like to give a more profound but not too detached interpretation. I will basically stick to the definition of history that Stefan Jordan points out in "Theories and Methods of Historical Science"[1], since this helps me myself very well to work critically with the object of history. Historisch comes from Historie and is equated with the German word Geschichte. Historical fencing, after all, sounds very strange. History is basically used as a term to "designate past events and the personalities involved." The word is derived from the Greek-Latin "historia". Historia referred in its basic meaning to the "res gestae", that is, the "deeds and things that happened". In addition, "historia" was also understood as "historia rerum gestarum", i.e. the "narration of the deeds and things that happened". Historia has therefore basically two meanings. First, the "happened deeds and things" themselves and second, the "narration of happened deeds and things."[2]

The most important thing we need to understand here is the relation of history or historia and the past. When we work historically, we refer to objects of the past. But we ourselves do this in the present, in which the past is no longer there. History refers to the past, but it is not the past. We must be aware that history is part of the present. So if we deal with the fencing of the past, we do this in the present. To do this, we use objects, reports or the like, which provide us with information about events and personalities of the past. These remains of the past we call sources in the science of history. Many remains can be sources, from written records to architectural remains and archaeological finds. In relation to historical fencing, these can also be many different sources, from fencing manuscripts, pictures, to documents, to preserved swords or even premises. These sources are the basis on which we historians create our picture of history. But it always remains only a "picture" of the past, which can determine how it actually was.

We "develop an idea of what it [the past] might have been like.". [3]

2. What is Fencing (german: "Fechten")?

As I do research on the german words around "Fechten" (english fencing) this article describes the history of the german words "Fechten", "Schirmen" and "Kämpfen". This may be very different to the wording history in other countries. The question above may be surprising. But just in the historical context, the concept of Fechten and its synonyms should be discussed quite briefly. When we speak of Fechten today, the term is occupied in the collective memory of Olympic fencing, that is, modern sport fencing with saber, epee and foil for competitive purposes. However, the word Fechten has gone through other meanings in the past, which can still be found in the military today. In the Bundeswehr, for example, we still speak of "Gefecht"(combat), "Gefechtstraining" (combat training), "Gefechtsdienst" (combat service), etc., instead of "Kampf"(combat). Of course, the terms Kampf(combat) and Gefechts (skirmish) are becoming more and more mixed in the present.

The word Fechten was used by the contemporaries of the late medieval fencing books of the 14th-15th centuries as a generic term for violent combat. In particular, they used it as a generic term for their art of armed combat and, from the 14th century onward, speak of "Kunst des Fechtens" (the art of fencing with), for example, the long sword or the knife.

The much older term for armed combat is "schirmen". The verb schirmen is already used in high medieval courtly literature, such as the epics of Tristan, Parzival and others, and this mostly in connection with other physical requirements of a knight, such as running, wrestling, shooting, or jumping.[4]

When exactly the term Fechten appears and whether a detailed difference to "Schirmen" can be identified requires more intensive research, which could not be done within the scope of this article but should be a lucrative goal of new scholarly work. In any case, the term "Schirmen" is still used in the 16th century and the most successful fencing master of the 15th century, Paulus Kal, calls himself an "Schir(m)meister" (master of defense) and not a Fechtmeister (fencing master).

By the end of the 16th century at the latest, the word Fencing had completely replaced Schirmen and was used until the late 19th century at least as a generic term for armed combat and, in some cases, as a generic term for fighting in general.[5]

The term "Kampf"(fight) in the late Middle Ages means preferably the "duel". Here in particular the honor fight at the fighting courts. These duels are not to be confused with the judicial duels, the so-called ordals, for divine judgment. Two very well-known fighting courts of the 14th and 15th centuries were those of the city of Hall in Swabia and the Burgräflich Nürnbergische Kampfgericht.

3. So what is historical fencing(Historisches Fechten)?

Historical fencing as a contemporary movement is, according to this derivation, the practice of fencing with reference to past fencing arts using preserved contemporary remains, the sources. I speak here intentionally of "reference" and not of reconstruction or others. Because reference remains neutral and includes all the reasons that someone may have. It should be important to note that the term "reconstruction" already seems very questionable. For as I have described above, it can only be an approximation to the past. Accordingly, approximation would be the correct term. Doesn't sound so good, of course. So just keep in mind the term "approximation".

If one wants to deal with the subject without movement, e.g. to research historically or Germanistically on the fencing of the past, then it is questionable whether one should speak of historical fencing. I rather use the term fencing history or the historical fencing arts here, i.e. with a small "h". As my colleague Cornelius Bertohold rightly instructed me a few years ago, "Historsches Fechten" in german is a proper name, while "historisches fechten" refers to fencing in(!) the past. Accordingly, it is quite correct to speak of "Historisches Fechten" in the case of the sport and of "historisches Fechten" in a scientific paper. But this is a point for the german language. I don´t know how you fix it in english. ;-)

4. What is historical fencing for me?

Probably the most important question to answer now, however, is what historical fencing means to myself. This question is strongly connected to my own goals that I would like to achieve with fencing. I personally have many references here. As a historian, of course, I want to research the past around fencing arts and fencing masters as much as possible, that is, to achieve a great approximation around the events through scientific work.

As a fencer I again have two goals. The first goal is to get as close as possible to what the masters and fencers tell us. However, I do not want to become a copy of the historical figures. Therefore, as a fencer, I have a second major goal, which is to become the best fencer I can possibly become. In the weapons in which I fence. Of course I use the historical sources for this. But I also include all my own experiences and knowledge, which I could and can acquire in other ways. Because, as I said, I am not interested in becoming a copy of a deceased person, but in experiencing, using and applying the knowledge of these persons in order to develop myself further. A philosophy, by the way, that the masters themselves already held at that time. Further development instead of standstill.


The sport or art "Historisches Fechten" as a proper name that recombines two words with its own interpretation, thus means the reference to the fencing art of the past using historical sources. Accordingly, historical fencing is always a modern, present phenomenon, that is, a modern sport that establishes a reference to the past through history. How everyone establishes his reference, what goals he pursues with it, however, remains just as diverse as in any other art of movement or sport. In the end, it is what you make of it. So have fun with this great thing, the historical fencing !

You still have questions or want to have a further topic addressed? Then write me and I will complete the article or maybe make another one about your topic.

[1] Jordan, Stefan: Theorien und Methoden der Geschichtswissenschaft, 4. Auflage Paderborn, Stuttgart 2018, S. 19f.

[2] Ebenda.

[3] Ebenda.

[4] Marold, Karl[Hrsg.]: Gottfried von Straßburg Tristan, Band 1, 2. Auflage, 4. Abdruck, Berlin 2004, S. 38. Vers 2111f.

[5] Vergleiche dazu die Werke von Jacob Happel aus der zweiten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts, der das Fechten als Oberbeggriff für alle Kampfesweisen vom Ringen und Boxen über das Stock-, Stab- und Gerätfechten bis hin zum Gewehrfechten nutzt. Als Beispiel sei genannt Happel, Jacob: die Boxkunst, Leipzig 1863.

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