The Origins of Epée
To examine the origins of épée fencing, one must first – briefly – look at the development of foil. The conventions of foil were introduced in mid-17th Century France as a means of demonstrating skilled swordplay in safety, before the invention of the wire mask. By the time the mask appeared at the end of the 18th Century, fencing had become a formal academic exercise involving an increasingly intricate series of movements.
It was the adoption of the mask that led to épée fencing. Although duelling had been outlawed for centuries, it continued to take place, particularly in France, where fencing masters would adapt their foil lessons to the practical preparation for a serious encounter with swords. The two forms of fencing, were of course quite different, but the more mobile and dynamic form of foil that evolved after the invention of the mask blurred this distinction and led some fencers to believe that foil technique was sufficient preparation for duelling. By the mid-19th Century a group of Parisian fencers began to rebel against conventional foil teaching, which left many competent foilists dead or wounded when involved in a duel. The Baron de Bazancourt in his entertaining book Les Secrets de l’Epée, published in 1862 and translated nearly 40 years later by Epée Club member Felix Clay as Secrets of the Sword, put forward the revolutionary argument that fencing should represent real fighting as closely as possible.
Writing in The Sword (Summer, 1949), Luke Fildes, then President of the Epée Club, said “Had it not been for this strictly practical purpose [preparation for a duel], there is no reason for thinking épée fencing would ever have come into existence.” In the last quarter of the 19th Century, the Parisian fencing master Jules Jacob found himself increasingly called upon to prepare men for a duel and soon attracted a following of discontented foilists keen to practise a more realistic form of swordplay. The weapon used was exactly the same as a duelling épée of the period, except for the flat tip. Once invented, this new kind of fencing was found to have merits quite apart from its practical uses. The épée became a weapon of sport as well as of combat and its practitioners had to develop the duellist mentality: hit without being hit.
Fencing was for a single hit, but the difficulty of judging whether a hit was good or not led to the invention in 1883 of the single point d’arrêt, a sharp tip protruding 2mm from its cord binding. This tip proved rather dangerous and in 1906 – the year the single point was first tried at an Epée Club pool – the triple point was introduced in France, a design that was to be used for over 50 years.
One-hit épée sometimes allowed the less skilful fencer to score a fluke hit and led to an over-cautious approach that spectators found boring. In 1909 the Epée Club introduced the best-of-three hits system and then the best-of-five when electrical apparatus was first used in Britain in 1932, one year after its introduction on the Continent. In order to reproduce as closely as possible the conditions of a duel, most épée tournaments before the Second World War were fenced in the open air on gravel paths.
However, as soon as scoring moved away from the single hit and competitions were decided on a count of victories, the duellist mentality began to fade. The leading French épéeist René Monal was one of the first to take electric épée to its logical conclusion, changing forever the weapon’s golden rule from ‘hit without being hit’ to ‘hit 1/25th of a second before your opponent hits you’. His speciality was the flèche to body and in the 1937 World University Games in Paris he ran on to his opponent’s blade which snapped, the broken stump penetrating his heart. Monal dropped dead after the electrical apparatus had recorded his winning hit.
It was not until another fatal accident in 1951 that the four-pronged electric tip, which tended to destroy clothing, was changed to that of a pineapple shape and then, in 1968, to the familiar bevelled-edge flat tip used today.
Author: Malcolm Fare