By David Glasser

Modern fencing evolved from earliest forms of action with cut and thrust weapons. Archaeological evidence of special weapons for sword-play practice dates to the Minoan, Pharaonic Egyptian, and Classical Greek civilizations.

Throughout man's history, weapons practice would often be overseen by a veteran fighter who could advise, guide and direct the training. Such men that had a knack for teaching good weaponcraft could find it a lucrative profession. Deftness and skill with weapons was deemed very important to the average freeman in those long ago days. Ancient civilizations had their specialized instructors of swordsmanship. The Greek "hoplomashi" were special teachers that instructed young men in the use of weapons. The Roman "lanestae" taught in the gladiatorial schools. In a way, these gladiatorial schools, cruel and violent though they were, were the first fencing schools. Violence and cruelty were commonplace in the Roman Empire. In the Medieval era a marshal, seneschal, or sergeant might function as master at arms. As such they trained squires and men-at-arms within the household of the castle in the use of weapons.

The profession of fencing master dates back to the 13th century, when the traditions of the judicial duel and the joust led to the more sinister private duel. As dueling became more popular, so too did fencing masters find themselves in greater demand. Today, a fencing master is skilled in the use and instruction of foils, epees, and sabres, the last two of which were still being used in duels well into the 20th century. He may end up specializing in one weapon, but traditionally a master must pass his examinations in all three. Historically, a his skills also extended to various other weapons such as two-handed swords, broadswords, longswords, rapiers and daggers. Polearm craft and buckler use might also be studied. There was a time when he had to pass his practical examinations in four or even five weapons. Early fencing masters became so after many years apprenticeship to one master. Sometimes a group of three or more masters would examine a candidate on the recommendation of his mentor. This is known as becoming a master by feat of arms.

Beginning in the late 14th century methodologies were systematized and fencing manuals were published illustrating fighting techniques with a variety of edged weapons. The authors were all fencing masters of considerable reputation in their time. Because of a certain popular film familiar to most fencers, some of these great masters are again familiar today: Capo Ferro, Agrippa, and Bonetti. Their books and those of others are practical works for combat and include ideas for corps a corps actions such as bashing with the hilts, seizing and pinning the sword arm, choking, and kicking. Many cuts, thrusts, and parries as we know them today are represented also.

In 1512 Albrecht Duerer illustrated a beautiful book about fencing with cut and thrust weapons. Nuremberg, the city of his birth, was the site of a popular fencing school not far from his house. Public practices and assaults were held on fair weather Sundays and holidays in the Heilsbronnerhof -- to the great delight of the local populace. It must have been quite exciting to watch practice combats with two-handed sword, long sword, rapier, halberd, and dussak (a sabre-shaped practice weapon made of wood or steel).

Europe in the 15th century saw the chartering of the first fencing academies and master's guilds --associations whose aim was the monopolization and standardization of fencing instruction in their respective regions. Formerly, any veteran fighter that earned his living from teaching fencing might call himself a master. With the advent of guilds such as the "Marxbrueder" and "Federfechter" in Germany, the Spanish "Arte Palestrinae", the Academies of Paris, Brussels, Languedoc, Padua, and Strasbourg , the teaching of fencing was monopolized in many regions of Europe. This made it more difficult for charlatans to teach -- lengthy apprenticeships and rigorous examinations were required to earn the title. In England, teachers of fence were typically low born individuals. The social status of fencers suffered for it. Francis Bacon referred to the profession as "an ignoble trade." Many of them were regarded as little more than ruffians or assassins, and schools of fence were thought of as congregations of thugs and criminals. In many English cities fencing schools were legislatively banned or severely restricted. Nevertheless interest in fencing grew because of the many duels that were being fought. Eventually, the continental attitude that the complete renaissance man improved himself by serious study took hold in England and training in the noble use of arms became respectable.

The status of fencing masters in England changed considerably in the 16th century. Dueling was becoming more popular than ever. Many European monarchs tried unsuccessfully to stop the thousands of duels that were taking such a toll of the aristocracy. Dueling was made illegal and fencing schools in many cities were banned. Even so, perhaps one nobleman in ten perished in a given year as the result of single combat (indeed, dueling remained pervasive in the face of edicts and bans until the middle of the 19th century, when its popularity finally began to subside). Fearing foreign invasion, Henry VIII granted letters of patent to the Masters of the Noble Science of Defence, thus awarding them a monopoly on the teaching of fencing. One of the rules of the new English association was that all members must swear a sober oath not to teach men of disreputable character. Their society recognized four ranks of fencing teacher certification: scholar, free scholar, provost, and master. Seven years of study under a certified master were required before the provost's exams could be taken. A further seven years were required prior to taking the master's exams, then at least one more year of associate work before a new master could open his own school. The exams involved a preliminary private practical wherein the candidate would fence with a number of higher ranked men. Later, a public prize was played. This was a highly popular event that was so well attended that businesses often closed for the day.

On the continent of Europe, fencing masters were held to be men of quality. They were respected as arbiters on the finer points of honor and the code of the duel. In France, Louis XIV ennobled the six senior members of the "Compagnie des Ma=EEtres en fait d'Armes des Acad=E9mies du Roi en la Ville et Faubourg de Paris". Aldo Nadi reports that Louis allowed fencing masters to claim patents of nobility (knighthood) when they had been members of the Academy for 20 years. This ended with the French Revolution in 1789.

Today, fencing masters still represent many centuries of tradition. As a group they have always striven to preserve and protect the art of fencing, and they continue to this day. Their proper titles are as follows: "maestro" for Italian masters, "maitre" for French, "Meister" for German, and "master" for English speaking countries. There is the lesser title of "provost," a master's assistant, who is often skilled in only two weapons. A provost could teach fencing independently if his services were able but no longer required by his master. One sometimes hears the appellation "grand master" or "professor of fencing," which may sometimes be used to refer to the chief master of an academy, or a teacher of masters, or an eminent master and author, or perhaps a master that in some other fashion makes a profound contribution to the art.

Masters' uniforms are traditionally black or some dark color. It helps distinguish them from the students in a salle d'armes and doesn't show the stains and dirt that quickly accumulate in the many hours of sweaty use.

It is not intended to be a vain affectation, it is a matter of practicality. Few fencing masters are wealthy. Their work does not generate a large income. In America and Canada, most are obliged to seek employment with a college or university that has a fencing team. As I recall, American NCAA rules restrict a college coach's work to members of his team. Thus he may not freely go out into the community and give lessons for added pay. This is unfortunate because many coaches would love to give lessons in a broader venue, promoting the sport and supplementing their income. However, their coaching position earns a salary and brings employment benefits. Without it they must charge relatively high fees for lessons so that they can support themselves and their families and provide their own health insurance, etc. Alternatively they can seek secondary employment, but then they do not have as much time and energy for fencing. A good full-time load for a fencing master is about six lessons per day. If he works harder than that his lessons tend to suffer in quality and duration. Of course this is just a typical average. Aldo Nadi's father, the great Giuseppe Nadi, would daily give twice that number of lessons. He was noted for his severity.

There are a variety of ways to become a legitimate fencing master today. There is an international governing body of masters called the Academie d'Armes Internationale. The professional fencing associations of many nations are members. The United States Fencing Coaches Association is a member of the A.A.I., and I believe Canada must have a professional association that is also. 15 years ago neither France nor any eastern bloc countries were members, however. I do not know their status today. The USFCA has a masters certification procedure. The USFA also has a program to train and certify coaches. There is a masters certification program at San Jose State University. In Europe, a fencer who wishes to study for a master's certificate/diploma can attend a technical college for sports pedagogy, and specializes in fencing. The course of study usually takes two or three years, full time. This assumes the student already fences proficiently. Many European nations also have similar training programs for military fencing masters. The three masters I apprenticed to in Bonn earned their diplomas while serving in the Belgian Army. If you live in country that has no professional accrediting body, I think you could legitimately be named a master by successfully completing an apprenticeship to another master, but such a title would probably not be recognized by professional fencing organizations of other countries. Many fencers wonder how good a particular master may really be. Much depends on where he was trained and who trained him. More depends on how long he has been active and what he may have focused on. Masters can differ widely on their approaches to fencing. As a group they tend to have a reputation for gruffness and are often quick to speak their minds. They are often thought to be perfectionists. Well, that rather goes with the job, wouldn't you say?


I place the above text in the public domain as of 12 March 1995. David Glasser

On a more personal note:

I myself studied fencing under several masters both here and abroad over a period of seven years before I was afforded an opportunity to test for a license. During my stay in Bonn I found that the Deutsche FechterBund (their amateur organization) was essentially licensing masters. This puzzled me somewhat at the time and I inquired as to why there was this apparent usurpation of the traditional authority of the German professional fencing association. I was told that certain individuals within the professional fencing masters association had been accused of graft and corruption in that some certifications had allegedly been "purchased" for a certain sum of money. The Deutsche SportBund, part of the Ministry of the Interior, had then stepped in and authorized the DFB to set up a certification program of their own. In early 1977 the Deutsche FechterBund was testing the first batch of candidates that were just completing a two-year part-time training program and I, as the junior member of the DFB coaching cadre was helping prepare these candidates for their final practical. There were about fifteen candidates, and they came from all over West Germany, as I recall. They had already had two years of theory, pedagogy, methodology, presiding, and sports physiology by then. I got to sit in on their last week of course-work. Except for the sports physiology, much of it was already familiar to me, although the German terms were different. I must say, I learned quite a bit from the candidates I worked with, particularly in the area of presiding/directing and also specialized pedagogy for working with young children. I in turn helped them with methodology and technique. Later I functioned as their "student" during practical examinations in foil, epee, and sabre. I thought most of them did quite well. After the panel (two national coaches and the DFB vice president) had finished the practicals they surprised me by asking if I would care to take the practical myself. Of course I did, thinking it was to be just for the fun of it. I remember exuberantly holding forth about Scandinavian innovations to epee technique during that portion of my exam. Well, to make a long story short, they were so well pleased with my practical and the strong recommendations of the national coaches I'd been assisting, that they waived several other requirements and offered me a lifetime German license on the condition that I stay a few months longer and complete an apprenticeship requirement. Of course I was happy to do so and was later issued license #11, the first non-German to earn one.

David Glasser   
fencing master %DFB:BLZ/LLZ Bonn  NFF:BSI/BF/NSKS Bergen
Department of Kinesiology, University of Wisconsin -- Madison