They may not have been fencing on balance beams or monkey bars. But the spatial dimensions of early fencing strips imprinted footwork and tactics.
Why are modern “Classical” (or, more accurately, reconstructionist) foil fencers so reluctant to move their feet? The answer may lie in the history of the area used for fencing in the late 1800’s at an influential military academy—whose graduates proselytized their peculiar “space saving” style of fencing all over the world.
Fencing, both in drills and in bouts (assaults), requires an even surface for the fencers to move on. The wooden floors, covered with fine sand or saw dust, of a salle or Fechtboden were ideal for practice.
Less ideal, the meticulously groomed surfaces of sanded or graveled walkways and paths in gardens or parks would provide fencers with reasonably firm attachment to the ground. But frequent back and forth, as in drills or assaults, quickly disrupted the evenness and created the danger of rolling an ankle.
Historical photographs show a variety of options that were used to provide a firm footing to outdoors fencers in the years between 1890 and 1914. Many of them survive as mass-produced postcards, sent home by French soldiers attending the military schools of Joinville-le-Pont and other establishments.
The largest contingent of photographs originated in Joinville, where stock poses were struck, if not every year for every class, then with a similar frequency as those assumed by Heidelberg fraternity students at the Hirschgasse.
The most frequent backdrop for fencing drills and instruction is a stretch of dirt road that leads past barracks and utility buildings:
This area appears to have been ideal to accommodate a large group of fencing students within a relatively contained space. The dimensions of that road dictated the practical distance that fencers were able to move in.
Outdoors fencing was subject to the vagaries of the weather: Puddles could severely compromise the already limited space:
After a few rounds, the sandy ground would provide indications of how far the fencers actually moved. The area of engagement, where most fencing action occurred, would have been marred by shuffling feet far more than the areas behind:
The staged photographs of single fencing pairs were arranged against a somewhat more attractive backdrop… like under the trees lining part of the street:
But the best-groomed, tightly packed sand surface creates dangerous ruts and unevenness after only a few passages of arms—not to mention puddles that may have been left from the previous night’s rain.
Wood, however, remained patiently even.
The solution was obvious: Bring the indoors floor outside!
Foil: Walking the Plank
The original French word for fencing strip, planche (lit., plank or board), encapsulates the nature of the original strip and points at its inherent limitations, which required adaptation of the footwork by the fencers.
The planche was initially conceived as an outdoors device: It could easily be placed on sand, gravel, or grass, and provide instant even ground. Voila:
Initially, it was a large plank sawed from a tree-trunk (above), about 5 meters long and between 40-50 cm wide. The weight of these boards must have been considerable. Multi-segment planches therefore appear relatively soon… like here in Italy:
It soon required a more complex assembly that not only provided the required even surface, but also some knee-saving flex:
While the humor remains opaque, the above cartoon clearly shows that the planche by 1906 had come to consist of around four boards or 1×4’s. The length remained around 5 meters, the width appears to have varied between perhaps 50 cm and less than one meter. This device was in use as early as 1896 (below):
The placement of the planche above—on top of an already even paved surface—may indicate that its role had already expanded from merely providing a firm footing to include demarcation of the fencing area. (Then again, it could have just been placed there for the picture.)
The advantage of a mobile fencing floor is clear: You could place it even on slippery long grass and were able to have a firm footing:
Military fencing masters and their scholars provided solid documentation of gear and grounds in the souvenir photographs of the various regiments, intended to hang in dedicated rooms at the barracks to document permanency, line, and tradition… or to decorate the walls of the aging bourgeois with mementos of bygone martially mustached youth…
It probably took one or two men to carry these planches, but they allowed quick installation of even surfaces both inside and outside.
The picture below shows a military fencing demonstration around 1900. These strips are mobile units, probably 5 meters wide, and perhaps less than 50 cm wide. The identical postures of the fencers indicate synchronized group drills, not actual assaults.
A year before the above event, in 1908, the exhibitions also featured single pairs on the planche:
Maybe the mobile planches could become part of a semi-permanent installation:
It is obvious that the limited space would have had an immediate effect on the footwork and tactics involved:
If there were only 2.5 meters behind the central point of engagement, the options to use distance both defensively and offensively were tightly rationed. And if, after a few retreats, you ran the danger of literally falling off the planche, you would naturally choose to stay mostly at a distance that required you to engage the opponent’s blade. And if all you had to move on was 50 cm or less of lateral space—the width of three balance beams—your footwork would be strictly linear, with little to no temptation to change the angle of attack laterally,
This would explain why “classical” foil (imprinted by the school at Joinville) looks more like “push-hands with sticks” than actual adversarial fencing — and it’s all due to the artificial space limitations imposed by a piece of wood used for just a few decades in the late 1800’s…
Board walk inside
Once you had your planche at the ready, it seemed like a good idea to not limit their use to the outdoors. To keep them from warping or getting slippery in the rain, they needed to be kept inside.
Unfortunately, moving the five meters of wood inside imposed the outdoors limitations on the indoor space: If all you had to accommodate were a couple of 5-meter strips side-by-side, pretty much any indoor space could be converted into a Salle. So fencing could be allocated to secondary spaces that make your average modern multi-purpose room at the Y look like a palace.
Fencing itself remained the cribbed, claustrophobic affair it was outside.
Given the limited space dedicated to fencing, the original outdoor floor modules became a series of workable indoor fencing strips. Like here in Bordeaux…
…or in Moulins…
…or in Mézieres,…
… be it for saber practice in Fontainebleau…
… or epee at Vendome…
… no matter of military or civilian:
In fact, planches became so popular indoors, you’d sometimes put planche on planche (be it only for a picture):
The attraction of fencing outdoors becomes clear when you look at the dimensions of a typical military or civilian Salle.
They’re barely more than sheds, even when compared to a Holiday Inn conference room, the modern classicists’ favorite convention space to ply their show-motion trade:
Even Joinville-le-Pont’s facilities left much to be desired:
The length and width of the strips could vary considerably depending on the weapon, country, or character of the encounter. The picture below shows the saber drill practice of Belgian lancers, on planches less than 3m long but close to 1m wide. Note the painted strip in the center, which could have been used for foil practice.
While some photographs create the impression of indoor fencing areas that provided plenty of space… like St. Cyr, here in 1896…
…indoor fencing quarters could be tight:
The density of group instruction would make a narrower planche plausible:
On the mat
The inconvenience of the old-style planches must have been considerable and the need to place them, possibly before each class or lesson, made them especially cumbersome. Some later varieties make it difficult to determine if thinner boards were used, or other materials were more convenient.
There was a period where stiff mats were used as fencing strips, conceptually not unlike modern portable metal strips:
Since they fit the same space that previously had been occupied by the planche, this had no effect on the length of the strip.
This fencing room (below) is probably smaller than Emil Beck’s initial space inside the furnace room of the Tauberbischofsheim city council building. Here, mats are placed on a tile floor.
Are those convenient mat hooks on the wall (left)? Both pictures date around 1908.
By the end of the first decade of the 19th-century, indoor fencing practice was conducted on strips that were painted on the floor:
Perhaps these mats could be semi-permanently installed, as seems to be the case at the publishing house of the Grand Echo du Nord, where editorial staff had a separate room to cross blades:
Of course, military fencing was just one aspect of fencing. Parallel to its military practice, fencing flourished in private schools, salles, societées, and clubs. Or, as shown above, newspaper editorial rooms.
Schools are frequently depicted practicing outside, in street clothes, wherever there was space. Below is an educational institute that had invested in mobile flooring:
Or here, in Rouen:
Civilian fencing salles could be as dank and pitiful as their military counterparts:
As the years went by, these civilian associations established permanent, specially appointed spaces indoors, with no need for additional flooring substitutes.
Canvas or paint, you be the judge…
The picture below shows either the dour members of a French foil équipe (or, perhaps, the competitors of a mustache grooming competition) around 1910. Masks and foils are hung below what appear to be name plates: The setting just exudes permanence! As do the strips: The floor is painted to show at least two parallel fencing strips of roughly modern width.
The planche — or at least its spirit — had returned indoors for good, at least for foil fencers!
Epee: Terrain to fencing strip
Epee at the beginning was an outdoors weapon.
Duels, by and large, were fought au grand aire. Unless they involved expert, well-matched swordsmen, they could be over in a matter of minutes or even seconds: Even if conducted on packed sand, the cautious proceeding and less ambitious footwork of the fencers would not create enough wear on a surface to create a combat-inhibiting nuisance.
In addition, the spatial dimensions of a duel were negotiable. A fixed center point was created by the regulated engagement of the blades, usually tip to tip.
In military practice — and in amateur circles — the space available dictated the distance, just like at Joinville’s foil practice:
Of course, that space could be (relatively) unlimited:
While fencing with the epee was part of an officer’s education, the duel between expert fencers was the penultimate purpose of the weapon.
Like in the drills, the director would place himself where the tips touched, which could be marked by a line in the sand, or simply by the director’s extended epee or walking stick:
Prior to the event, the witnesses, or témoins, had negotiated the distance a duelist was permitted to retreat:
In his duel against Berger in 1913 (below), Breittmayer had demanded “cinq mètres de terrain derrière chacque adversaire“—i.e., a distance equal to an entire contemporary foil planche behind each opponent, for a total of between 12-14 meters!
Reports of other duels indicate as much space as 9 meters behind each duelist, reports of a 1913 duel between Breittmayer and Torkom speak of a “fifteen-yard limit”, although it is unclear if there were 15 yards behind each duelist, or if the total length was 15 yards.
While foil competitions were primarily conducted inside, competitive epee retained its outdoors character throughout the early 20th century. Its venues were flexible:
Exhibition or competitive bouts required no artificial demarkations: An appreciative crown would take care of that:
The dimensions of military contest are reflected in civilian contests of the time.
The following sequence from the 1900 tournament at the Terrasse de Tuileries shows contests on sand without any noticeable markings.
Toward the end of the first decade, however, epee, too, drifted indoors. First were the compromises:
Or here in Marseilles in 1908.
Then, they moved it inside entirely:
Even the occasional duel — perhaps in response to their increasing crowd-drawing popularity — moved inside:
By 1914, it appears that even in Germany — for obvious reasons a late adopter of the French epee — epee contests took place indoors even in the pentathlon.
But around 1910, even the most deconstructionist epee fencer had made peace with foil’s despised méthode conventionelle — which itself has been rejuvenated by the competition-based ideals of de Coubertin and his Olympic idea and liberated from the confines of ritualistic dance to become a sport again.
Here, 1900 epee fencers are posing as stiffly as classical fencers on a narrow foil strip:
International competition, ignited by the Olympic Games and spreading like wildfire throughout Europe, called for regulation and clear definitions to create a fair environment for all fencers. Much like weapon lengths and guard diameters, the fencing strip itself underwent a number of changes after 1910. But it was not the 5-meter board of “classical” foil: Foil and saber ended up adopting the more expansive epee strip as the norm.
Between the wars, epee became the first electrified fencing weapon. Early scoring apparatus was customized to fit both 12- and 14-meter fencing strips in the 1930’s: