Whitman College Fencing

 

 

 

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On the Whitman Fencing Club

 

On Classical and Historical Fencing

 

On Fencing in General

Also see the Martinez FAQ.

If your question is not addressed here, please ask one of the club leaders.

 

On The Whitman Fencing Club (top)

How long has there been a fencing club at Whitman?
While we do not know for sure how far back the club's history goes, nor how often it may have fallen to later be resurrected, we do know that there has been a fencing club at Whitman since at least the mid 1930s.
 

What style of fencing do you practice?
Currently the club practices classical and historical Italian swordsmanship, the specific school of which changes from weapon to weapon (see the next question).
 

What weapons do you study?
The primary focus of the club is on the study of the Italian Foil. The teachings of this weapon are in the tradition of those developed by the Millitary Masters School in Rome (Scoula Magistrale di Scherma), and arrived at Whitman by way of Andrew Telesca, trained by Maestro John Sullins, who received his certification from Maestro William Gaugler of the Fencing Masters Program at San Jose State University.

The foil is the traditional training weapon for the Art of Defense, and first appeared in nearly its current form in the early 19th century. It was developed to train fencers for the use of the Epee and Small Sword, civilian side arms and dueling weapons of that period. Foil fencing is subject to many rules beyond simply "put the pointy end in the other guy." These rules were developed to teach the fencer the proper form, techniques, and tactics in a restricted setting, greatly improving his eventual effectiveness with the actual weapons. These rules include a restriction of the area of the body a fencer can attack, forcing him to make his touches against only the difficult to hit, vital areas of the body - it also allows him to focus his defense on those same areas. Similarly, to score a touch offensively in foil it is required that the arm be fully extended before the attack begins, which keeps your opponent at the greatest possible distance, helps prevent carefully timed stopping actions, and allows your guard to block the largest possible area of your body. All of these follow the primary rule of fencing - to touch without being touched - in classical fencing the defense is always placed above the offense, as your ultimate goal is to survive the encounter. The result of these rules (along with others) is a beautiful and complicated exchange that provides fun and exercise for the fencers, as well as serious training for the use of the real weapons. We require students to study a year of foil before practicing with other weapons.

We also work with other weapons depending upon the interests and current training of club members. These have included Epee and Duelling Sabre according to the same school as above, and 17th century Italian rapier from mixed sources.
 

How often do you meet?
We currently meet 2 times per week (Wednesday and Friday) for approximately 2 hours per session. We also have occasional weekend events such as tournaments and full-day training sessions. Obviously since we are just a club here to have fun and learn, not a credit class there are no attendance requirements to be part of the club. However, certain attendance records and experience levels are sometimes required for weekend events, as well as open bouting sessions and progression to more advanced weapons and techniques. It is our policy not to allow poor attendance on the part of some students to restrict the learning of those with a greater interest in the art.

See also the meetings and events pages.

Are you part of the USFA?
Nope, and we consider that a good thing. The USFA (United States Fencing Association) is a regulating body of sport fencing and has very different goals from our club. If you are interested in what the USFA's goals are, you can find them here.

Do you compete?
Yes. However, unlike in sport fencing it is not our primary purpose or interest. In classical fencing we are interested in studying and recreating a martial art and a dueling style, and the emphasis is on training as if for a real encounter, not a tournament. However, competitive situations can be fun, and often serve as valuable learning experiences, as well as chances to go out and do what we love with people of similar interests from other organizations. If you are curious about what competitions we plan to attend please see the events page.

It should be noted that we consider competing completely optional; if you just wish to come train and not compete we are more than happy to have you.

Is previous experience necessary?
We do not require previous experience to join the club. However, if you do not have any (and most of our new fencers don't) it is preferable for you to join toward the beginning of the semester as that is when we spend the most time on basics. If you have some experience and want to see what we do in our lessons, check out the Lessons Schedule.

Do I have to be a Whitman student to join the club?
You do not have to be a Whitman student, however you do need to be part of the Whitman community. That is, faculty and staff are welcome to participate, but due to legal reasons we cannot have club members that are not affiliated with Whitman.

What if I know how to fence, but not in the Classical Italian style?
Then we ask you to take this as an opportunity to learn something new (old).

For those with Classical French experience you will find the style very different, but also the same in many ways, with similar traditions, formalities, and mentalities, and we welcome you with open arms, considering it a chance to continue 200 year old rivalries by attempting to convert you.

For those with Modern/Sport/Olympic style experience, you will find classical fencing very different. However, we think you will enjoy it as much or more than what you are used to, and welcome and encourage you to come to our weekly lessons and learn. If you do not wish to study Italian fencing, and just want to come poke people, we happily inform you that this is not the purpose of our club. If you wish to come to open bouting that is possible, however we require that you first make arrangements with a club leader, who will make sure you know how to bout safely, and to teach you the rules of the classical system.

Are observers welcome at club meetings and events?
Always. We simply ask that you follow the rules of social conduct.

Who teaches the club?
Whitman Fencing is a peer-taught club, wherein the the teachers change from year to year such that the most experienced students are teaching newer students. We hope to eventually find a faculty member interested in learning how to fence and teach fencing, believing the club would benefit from greater pedagogical stability.

Information about the current club leadership can be found here.

What does the quote on your patch say?
On our old patch (pictured), it reads "La Lamierina e il Nostro Pennello," meaning "the blade is our paintbrush."  The new version on our homepage, created by Nina Estep, reads "Retineto Longuitatas," which means "keep your distance."

Assuming we translated them right.

 

On Classical and Historical Fencing (top)

What is Classical Fencing?
There are many different definitions of classical fencing, and that can make life very confusing when you are trying to figure out what to expect from any particular school or event. In a broad sense, classical fencing references the study of the Art of Defense in Europe and America (more specifically the study of the Foil or Fleuret, Spada de Duello or Epee, and the Duelling Sabre or Academic Sabre) from somewhere around 1800 AD to around 1950 AD, and the mentality that fencing swords are weapons, and should always be considered as such during their study. It should be obvious however that the way those weapons were used, and even the weapons themselves, were subject to significant changes during such a long time-period. Moreover, the mentalities of their users, both across time and across political boundaries, varied and changed. Those three things together make it very difficult to put together a cohesive definition of classical fencing. So, instead of trying to lay a definition in stone, we will offer you some commonly used definitions, and perhaps a bit about their strengths and flaws; we will also try to tell you what we mean when we use the term.

Definition 1: From the Association for Historical Fencing

The second half of the 19th Century is historically the classical period, in which the are of fencing reached its highest development, be we may include the whole of the 19th century in this era, as this was the age when fencing was formally codified, systematized, and fully expressed in complete systems and styles. "Classical," in this sense, means "the golden age," the period when the art saw its highest peak. Clear distinctions between the French and Italian schools can be see in this era, and national "academies" were established. A "super-national" approach established commonality in fencing language, as well as codes and rules for dueling. It is also within the classical period that the great rivalries between both schools were constantly put to the test through professional bouts and, in some cases, duels between masters of each school.

The use of the sword as a sidearm, for personal self-defense, was no longer a concern of fencers during this era. Rather, they focused on training in fencing for its own sake as an art form and personal accomplishment, in addition to its use in personal combat. This age is distinguished by the art of the foil, which masters thought to be the fencing "weapons" par excellence. With this refined tool, the most sophisticated and artistic maneuvers are possible. However, the use of the sword as a killing weapon was always borne in mind, and the training was serious in nature.

However, earlier, more combative, techniques did not die out. In the early part of the 19th century, methods such as the use of the unarmed hand, strikes with the pommel, disarms, arm locks, and the like could be found in such works as Rosaroll and Grisetti's treatise of 1803 and Maestro Brea's book of 1805. It is also well known that methods of rapier and dagger, as well as other "historical" weapons were practiced through the 19th century and into the 20th.

Comments: This is one of the better definitions of classical fencing. One common point of contention with it is that it defines classical fencing as a period as opposed to a style, mentality, or method. However, one should note that this makes perfect sense when one considers that the organization deals with fencing from the 14th century to the 20th, and hence the most sensible way to establish a common language is by separating time periods. The shortcomings of the definition are discussed on their site. It might be considered sensible to ask, however, that if classical fencing is defined as a period, does the fencing of a Parisian journalist who provokes a duel with a politician, yet has rarely ever held a sword previously, constitute part of classical fencing? Or is it only the fencing of the masters of that period that fits the classification?

Another point of interest with this definition is that of the ones we will mention here it reaches the furthest back in time, hence creating our starting date for the classical period. It also brings up the term "golden age," which we will see is a common cause of ambiguity. On that note:

Definition 2: The Golden Age

This is a general definition that comes up often when discussing classical fencing, usually as part of a larger definition. In general it states that, "Classical fencing references fencing as it was done during fencing's Golden Age."

Comments: Perhaps the biggest merit of this definition is that, in most cases, it says to the people who use it exactly what they consider classical fencing to be. It is simply the best fencing possible, or the best fencing yet produced. This is helpful in showing us how many people think about classical fencing. Unfortunately, it is obviously flawed, because what constitutes best is highly subjective. For different people fencing's Golden Age could be considered anything from when I.33 came into existence in the 14th century, to the last Olympic or World Cup event. More commonly, the debate rages between whether the Golden Age was the later half of the 18th century, possibly the peak of skill in the art of dueling and the use of the sword in personal combat, and the 1910s-1940s, when fencing as a sport was at its height of public popularity, the French/Italian rivalry was still strong, the fencers were extremely skillful, and the drama surrounding the sport intense, but some of the roots of swordsmanship had been lost, and the focus had begun to shift to a consideration of winning by rules instead of realities.

Definition 3: From Maitre Adam Adrian Crown

Classical fencing is simply fencing AS IF the swords were sharp. As if your life depended on it. It is the direct descendent of 500 years of swordsmanship and was the ONLY kind of fencing until after World War II. We continue that tradition keeping intact not only the techniques, tactics and terminology of real swordplay, but also the attendant code of honor.

I began using the term in around 1984 in order to distinguish fencing as it had always been practiced, from the hyper-stylized stuff that was the latest fad in what I referred to as "Olympic style" fencers. At the time, I considered that saying "classical fencing" and "Olympic fencing" was much more charitable than saying "correct fencing" and "stupid fencing."

Definition 4: From Michael Heggen at Salem Classical Fencing

Classical fencing is practiced by an increasing number of fencing clubs throughout the United States. It has no governing body as yet, but it does have a voice in the form of Fencers Quarterly Magazine (published by author and fencing master Nick Evangelista). Classical fencing (as defined here) is both a sport and a martial art. It maintains its roots in the traditions of European dueling, but also supports competition and purely recreational fencing. Classical fencing is an excellent spectator sport. And fencing is a great aerobic, co-ed activity that can be participated in by people from age 12 to 60+.

The weapons used are the standard (non-electric) foil, sabre, and epee equipped with French or Italian grips. The rules are essentially identical to those of modern fencing, except for the scoring system. All scoring is either on the honor system (recreational) or by a jury (competitive) - no electrical scoring apparatus is used. There is a strong emphasis on form and clarity. The principle of right-of-way (or the priority of touches) is strongly maintained. Touches must be properly made in a manner that is consistent with the use of a sharp weapon - even though the weapons are blunt and dull. The pace of classical fencing, which de-emphasizes pure athletic ability, is slower than modern fencing, but faster than historical fencing.

In short, classical fencing is fencing as it was done in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and well into the 60s. In the 1960s (and even more so in the 1980s), the USFA began to promote changes in fencing that are really only now showing results. And the results are not pretty. Modern fencing has become a very fast game of tag with 3-foot-long pieces of skinny steel and funny clothes. Modern fencing has divorced itself completely from its roots as a martial art, except for the fact that it uses "swords."

As a result, modern fencing has become a sport of the athletic elite, wholly focused on competition and winning at all costs. Classical fencing simply didn't change, and remains what modern fencing used to be. Modern fencing did change. The result is two different sports. To quote a fencing master I know, "I like lots of tennis players, too, without wanted to play their game."

What is Historical Fencing?
The current authority on what is commonly referenced as Historical Fencing is probably the AHFI. At Whitman we think of Historical Fencing as the studying of documented methods for using Western weapons prior to the 19th century. However, the main focus tends to be on the 16th-18th centuries, since the majority of available primary sources are from that period.

The most commonly studied weapons from this period are the Smallsword, Rapier, Heavy Sabre/Broadsword, Spada de Filo, Backsword, Single Stick, Dusack, and Longsword. So far at Whitman we have only had the opportunity to study the Italian Rapier, but hope to work with some of the other weapons in the future.

What is Sport Fencing?
The term "Sport Fencing" is usually interchangeable with the terms "Modern Fencing" and "Olympic Fencing." At Whitman we consider it to reference the styles of mainstream, competitive fencing after about 1940. It is extremely different from Classical Fencing, both in techniques and mentalities. One primary difference in mentality is that the purpose of Sport Fencing is usually to compete, whereas neither Classical or Historical fencers consider competition a major focus. Another difference--sometimes thought of as the defining difference between Classical Fencing and Sport Fencing - is that in Sport Fencing the focus has changed from "what would I do if the weapons were sharp," to "how can I best score a point?" Similarly, rather than focusing on fencing's roots as "The Art of Defense," Sport fencers are usually more concerned with offense, and take unimaginable risks as a result, because when bouts are fenced to 15 points and 15 to 14 is a win as much as 15 to 0 is, fencers can afford to risk being touched. This change to the offensive mentality is also very obvious is the semi-resent (1980's) change in FIE/USFA fencing that caused points to stop being scored against a fencer, and instead started recording points for a fencer. The idea stopped being to have a low score because that meant you were more likely to have lived, and started being to have a high score, i.e. to kill your opponent.

As for technique differences, these stem primarily from changes in judging and changes in technology. Since Sport fencers are no longer concerned with real combat, the only standard for what should be a good technique is what scores a point. This--coupled with modern electric scoring that requires a good touch to have only 500 grams of pressure and a penetration depth of about 1mm--causes some major changes in techniques. The most commonly cited of these is the infamous "flick." This technique combines the minimal penetration depth with the fact that weapons have become continually more flexible over the years, and is performed by whipping the weapon such that the end of the foil bends and the point touches against your opponent, even though the rest of the blade is pointed elsewhere. This technique is extremely useful as it allows you to send your tip around an opponent's parry (making defense essentially useless) and also to score points on otherwise difficult to hit areas such as your opponent's back, by flicking the tip over his/her shoulder. More on this subject can be found in A Hit, A Palpable Hit by Maestro John Sullins.

In general, we tend to think of the Sport of fencing as something entirely different from what we do at Whitman, representing different techniques, mentalities, and a different time period. While it is certainly a valid sport, and requires a great deal of athleticism and skill, it in no way represents the arts we are trying to study - the art of swordsmanship, and the Art of Defense.

Are C&H Fencing dangerous to practice?
Not if they are done correctly. As with any martial art, and especially an art involving steel blades, there are certain risks involved in practicing fencing. However, many safety precautions are taken to avoid these risks. The use of rubber blunts on the tips of all weapons, thick fencing jackets, leather gloves, and steel-mesh masks make practicing the art of defense a great deal safer than it was during previous centuries. The biggest risks to fencers come from individuals fencing out of control, and broken blades. Emphasis on good training in proper form deals with both of these by teaching fencers to be in control of their actions at all times, which not only helps prevent them from breaking blades by keeping proper distance, but also gives them the control needed to stop their actions in the event that a blade does break, or another dangerous situation arises. Finally, by training in foil before any of the larger weapons (especially cutting weapons where heavier impacts are likely), fencers in our club gain the necessary control before participating in assaults with any weapons that can pose a significant risk.

Far more common than blade-related injuries in our club have been injuries resulting from straining muscles or slipping on poor ground. However, a combination of a good stretching routine, proper control and training keep both of these types of injuries to a minimum.

What are the benefits of studying C&H fencing?
Fencing can benefit people in many different ways, depending primarily on how seriously the student commits to its study, and what they are trying to learn from it.

On the first level, everyone who fences regularly can expect to experience physical benefits. All types of fencing develop strength, suppleness, and agility in the legs. At Whitman every lesson is accompanied by a 15-20 minute stretching routine, which increases flexibility in the legs, shoulders, back, and neck. The arm positions - particularly when using the older and larger weapons - increase strength in the muscles of the forearm, bicep, and shoulders, though one must make sure to balance this development for the non-weapon arm. Cutting weapons such as Sabre and Backsword will develop great suppleness and flexibility in the wrist and strength in the hand. Finally, as was noted by one journalist at a tournament I fenced in back in NY, since the ‘guard’ position is very similar to a deep squat most fencers develop good rear ends.

Secondly, fencing is an excellent mental exercise, often likened to chess. Any fencer who makes a serious effort to learn the art cannot help but develop greater powers of observation and a greater understanding of strategy. This development of strategically thinking can be applied not only to fencing and other forms of combat, but to any situation of conflict or competitive interaction with other people, from business to politics to arguments with your parents. A fencer, to become a good fencer, must learn to develop a complete understanding of a system, and learn how to judge and determine their opponent’s thoughts and character so as to anticipate their actions. This ability is essential in life, and the fencer must learn not only this skill of prediction, but also how to take advantage of the knowledge it produces and move into what fencers call ‘second intention’. The fencer must learn to use this ability to yield to the opponent, letting them think they are in control of the bout, meanwhile the fencer already knows everything that the opponent will do, and is in fact setting them up, controlling all their actions without appearing to.

Once the fencer has developed the first two attributes they have obviously developed a third - martial skill. While fencers use protective gear, and sometimes odd-seeming rules for safety and to enforce good fighting habits, in the end fencing is a martial art. Even if a fencer is never in a real conflict sword in hand (and this is a good thing), many of the skills a fencer learns transfer directly to empty hand techniques, and in fact to the use of any weapon. This is why military academies around the world have required students to train in fencing, and continued to do so for centuries, even after the development of guns and weapons of mass destruction.

Some of the attributes trained by fencing are not so obvious though. Fencing is often seen as stuffy because it is saturated with customs and traditions. These traditions - even those which do not directly develop the above - serve a purpose. Classical fencing instruction teaches a fencer honor, integrity, respect for your opponent, yourself, and your teacher, control, discipline, and grace . . . and maybe a little bit of over-polite stubbornness. It also teaches how to judge an opportunity, and when it is real, to act.

Are C&H fencing sports or martial arts?
I can't explain it any better than Maitre d'armes Adam Crown, so I would forward you to his reply: Art or Sport?

Where can I find out more about C&H Fencing?
For all that C&H Fencing are not very widely practiced right now, the movement is definitely growing. As a result, many great resources are becoming available on the internet for those of us who spend too much on books for our classes to buy books on fencing as well. I would start by checking out our articles and links pages.

If you are specifically interested in the Italian school, I would recommend picking up copies of The Science of Fencing by Maestro William Gaugler for Foil, Epee, and Duelling Sabre, and Italian Rapier Combat translated by Jared Kirby, original text by Capo Ferro di Cagli (1610) for rapier.

 

 

On Fencing in General (top)

Does it hurt to get stabbed by a foil?
Similarly to some other aspects of fencing, it shouldn't, but sometimes it does. A properly delivered attack arrives with the arm supple, not stiff, using the force of the body to power the attack, not the force of the arm. As a result, the blade bends smoothly on impact and the fencer hardly feels it. However, when fencers are first learning there is a tendency to "jab" with the arm, stiffening during or after the lunging action, and the resulting impact can be rather hard and sometimes bruise. Luckily, from a realistic standpoint this type of attack is actually less effective at penetrating an adversary, and so it is highly discouraged and fencers usually learn quickly to avoid it.

All in all I believe I have received an average of about one bruise a year from foil fencing (though this number definitely varies from person to person, depending on how easily you bruise), so I would answer that getting hit with one does not hurt.

Is it a problem to fence if I am left-handed?
Most certainly not. While many pieces of fencing equipment are geared towards right-handed individuals, as a club we make sure to also have proper left-handed gear available - just make sure to tell the instructor at the first lesson so they give you the right gear!

What sort of clothing should I wear for fencing?
Durable and comfortable. Your clothing needs to allow you complete freedom of movement, but also offer some protection from a stray blade. Since jackets are worn, t-shirts or similar are fine for the top. Jeans are not recommended, though some people seem to use them without difficulty. Sweat pants or similar sports pants work fine, and the club also has fencing knickers for anyone who desires to use them. The only other serious clothing consideration is footwear. Ideal fencing shoes should have relatively flat soles, no heels, and some amount of gripping ability. Hiking boots, high heels, cowboy boots, platforms, sandals, and similar are not recommended. Most everyday sneakers, while not ideal, will work fine as fencing shoes.

Is fencing hard on the joints?
Some fencers complain of joint trouble, but this is usually only after decades of fencing (when using classical form; I believe sport fencers often have problems much sooner). The only real problem area is the knees, and this can be avoided by using proper form in the lunge. However, it is generally not recommended to be a serious runner and a serious fencer at the same time. Then again, as far as your knees are concerned, I don't recommend being a serious runner at all - you can make much better use of that time fencing anyway.

What do all those non-English words mean?
That's a good question! The following chart ([] indicate modifications, accents missing) was produced by Luigi Barbasetti in 1932:

English

Italian

French

Attack

Attaco

Attaque

Beat

Battuta

Passement

Bind or Engagement

Legamenta

Liement or Engagement

Circular Feint [Deceive]

Circolazione e fente

Feinte de degager

Circular feint and parry

Finta e controcavazione

Degage et double

Circular parry [counter parry]

Circolazione

Tromper le contre

Circular parry and feint

Contro cavazione e finta

Double et degage

Contretemps [countertime]

Controtempo

Coup de temps

Coup de temps

Imbroccata

Coup de temps

Cut over

Coupe

Coupe

Disengage

Cavazione

Degage or Degagement

Disengage into tempo

Cavazione in tempo

Trempement de fer

Distance [measure]

Misura

Mesure

Double Touch [bad fencing]

Incontro

Coup Double

Epee

Spada de Duello

Epee

Feint

Finta

Un-duex

Feint into Tempo
Time disengage

Finta in tempo

[?]

First intention

Prima intenzione

Attaque simple

Flanconnade

Fianconata

Flanconnade

Foil

Spada d'exercizio

Fleuret

Glide or Graze

Filo

Coule

Graze feint [feint by glide]

Finta de filo

Feint de coule

Guard

Guardia

Guarde

Inquartata

Inquartata

Inquartata

Invitation

Invito

Invit

Lunge

Affondo

Fente

Opening

Bersaglio

Jour

Parry

Parata

Parade

Passato sotto

Passato sotto

Passata sotto

Remise

Rimessa or Appuntata

Remise Redoublement

Reprise [redoublement]

Raddoppio
Ripresa d'attaco

Reprise
Reprise d'attacque

Second intention

Seconde intenzione

Contretemps

Slinging Parry [Beat Parry]

Parata di picco

Parade de tact

Stop Thrust

Colpo d'arresto

Coup d'arret

Straight Thrust

Botta dritta

Coup droit

Thrust into tempo
Time Thrust

Botta in tempo

Coup de temps



Why are fencing outfits all white?
Well, first of all, in fact not all fencing outfits are white. Traditionally, Maestros (fencing masters) wear black jackets and pants, and Provosts (would-be masters in their final stage of training) wear black pants, but white jackets. In sport fencing the dress-code is changing along with the techniques and mentalities, and they now allow jackets to have sleeves of different colors, and I believe I have also seen an assortment of different color masks.

As for the origins to this tradition, to the best of my knowledge it is actually from the early 20th century (though I hear it may have ancestry in 17th century duelling custom). At that time, as fencing was becoming standardized, rather than relying purely upon the integrity of the fencers or the judges, a dot of vinegar-soluble dye was placed in the point d'arret. As a result, when a fencer was touched with any force the dye would transfer to his white outfit, helping the judges confirm the touch. Vinegar was then used to remove the dot and the bout would continue.

Prior to this, as can be seen in these 1891 AFLA rules, dark jackets were worn to allow the prior touch-confirmation tool to be visible - chalk.

At Whitman we use neither chalk, nor dye, nor an electrical scoring apparatus to judge touches. Instead we rely upon the integrity of the fencers, the ability of the judges, and the fencers' ability to make clean, obvious touches. We believe that fencers learn more from trusting their own perceptions, and those of their opponent, than they would from relying on a machine or a dot of dye to tell them when they've been killed.

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