A new day, a new thing

My goal to learn something new every day

Day 76: Fencing: A martial art?

During one of my 1-to-1 classes today, we were talking about the topic of sports. The student (female, late 20s, an office worker) had the task of ranking different sports based on a number of criteria. One of the sports was martial arts, which the student had not heard of before. She asked for its meaning, and I started by saying that it is a type of fighting sport. I asked the student for an example to check whether she had understood, and to see whether needed to give any more explanation. The student came back with Muay Thai and Taekwondo. “Good”, I said. Then she asked whether fencing was a martial art. I stopped to think for a minute, before admitting that I wasn’t 100% sure, but that I didn’t think it was. In my mind, at the time, I was thinking of the style of fencing found in the Olympics, because that’s the only style I knew of. But I told the student that I wasn’t sure why I felt it wasn’t a martial art, because to my mind, Gumdo is a martial art. What’s the difference? I thought. Both are styles of fighting, and both use a sword-like weapon.

Martial arts

It’s probably best to start with a definition of martial arts.

OxfordDictionaries.com says this:

Various sports, which originated chiefly in Japan, Korea, and China as forms of self-defence or attack, such as judo, karate, and kendo.

Merriam-Webster says this:

Any one of several forms of fighting and self-defense (such as karate and judo) that are widely practiced as sports.

Collins says this:

Any of various philosophies of self-defence and techniques of single combat, such as judo or karate, originating in the Far East.

It’s clear from these dictionary entries that the belief is that martial arts comes from East Asia. However, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word martial was first recorded in the 1530s meaning warlike. It comes from the Latin martialis, which is from Mars, the Roman god of war (for one of my favourite posts on this blog so far about the planets and Roman gods, see here). So it appears that the term was originally used to describe the fighting styles popular in Europe and later became synonymous with the styles in East Asia. Something that Wikipedia seems to agree with.


Image courtesy of uwdigitalcollections on Flickr

Image courtesy of uwdigitalcollections on Flickr

So where does this leave fencing? Well, as it turns out, there’s not just one style of fencing, as I had naively thought. The fencing that I knew, and probably the one most familiar to others (that is other people who might assume there’s one style) is also known as Olympic fencing. Olympic fencing comes from Italy from the 18th century. Olympic fencing is an adaptation of the style of fencing that was first found in Spain.

There seems to be a lot of debate both online and offline from what I can see as to whether fencing is a martial art. A lot of articles discuss ‘fencing as a sport or a martial art’.

The essay on this page says:

On the one hand, as these weapons and skills were originally intended for battlefield, judicial combats, and earnest self-defence, they are clearly fighting arts. Yet, in their study and practice today these concerns are far from their purpose.

It goes on to ask several questions that people should consider to decide whether their style of fencing is a martial art or combat sport. Questions such as “Is it practiced as a method of self-defense?” & “Is it a tool of learning or an end in itself?”

And this article on ClassicalFencing.com asks the question of whether it is an art or a sport. The page lists a number of differences between a sport and a martial art, including:

The goal of a sport is to achieve mastery over others; the goal of a martial art is to achieve mastery of yourself.

In a sport, winning is the end; in a martial art, winning is the means.

In [O]lympic fencing, the emphasis is on touching the opponent, in Classical Fencing, it is on not being touched.

It appears to me then, that from many Classical fencers’ points of view, Classical fencing is a martial art, where the purpose is to study the style, and to learn about the reasons behind the methods, whereas Olympic fencing is a combat sport, where the purpose is beating your opponent in competition.

The site HistoricalFencing.org seems to suggest that Olympic fencing could be classified as a martial art however, stating:

All variants of fencing may be considered martial arts.

Looking at the International Fencing Federation’s (FIE) site, the governing body of the Olympic sport, there is very little mention of it being a martial art. Throughout the site, it’s commonly referred to as an Olympic sport. However, I was able to find a handful of press releases from the FIE that do refer to it as a form of martial art at least. This one (pdf), for example, says:

Fencing in its essence is a combat sport and a form of martial art and the World Combat Games provide an excellent platform to reach out to a new audience

And deep down in the website’s glossary it makes another brief mention of it being an art, saying:

Whether we consider fencing as an art of enjoyment or as a science of arms, a method of education or a sport, its wealth emerges from its study.

I guess therefore, that the question of whether fencing can be considered a martial art will first depend on your definition of martial art and secondly, how you perceive Olympic fencing. All that’s clear (to me at least) is that the question of whether fencing is a martial art or not is going to be promoted by some and contested by others.

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This entry was posted on March 17, 2015 by in Sports and tagged , , , , , .


March 2015

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