Friday, March 12, 2010

Where the Boys Are: Playing with Sharp Things

In our continuing search to learn what the dashing young men of nineteenth century England were up to, we don’t have to look very far from Gentleman Jackson’s Boxing Emporium, which we covered here. If you tired of pummeling your fellow man, you simply waited a day and punctured him with a sword instead!

You see, Gentleman Jackson had originally been invited to share the rooms of another fine figure of a man, Henry Angelo the younger. Angelo was from a family well known for its fencing prowess. His father had come from Italy and used his considerable skills to defeat a number of England and Irish fencing masters. He’d tutored Prince George and his brothers in the fine art of fencing before establishing a School of Arms that his son took over early in the nineteenth century.

It may seem odd that, as the Industrial Revolution was beginning, less advanced weapons like swords were still so popular. Part of it has to do with the elegance of the sword: there’s something manly and classy about walking around with a length of steel strapped to your waist. Pistols, on the other hand, were rather bulky and still quit chancy when it came to self-defense. They weren’t very accurate, even in the hands of an expert; you couldn’t keep them primed and ready to go without risking blowing off some important body part; and getting them ready to shoot was a bit of a challenge when someone was rushing at you with deadly intent. So, swords were still the choice of many gentlemen when it came to dueling or self defense, and education in fencing was seen as an essential part of a gentleman’s education.

On alternative days from Jackson, the Angelos taught the proper way to fence: elegance of style, economy of movement. Students went through a series of training movements and then fought against the fencing master and finally each other. Like Jackson, the Angelos and their students fought in exhibitions and frequently came away with the prizes. The Angelos also sponsored fencing matches between noted experts from around the world.

Swords used at the school were mostly cutlasses (slicing and some thrusting) and foils (thrusting). During practice, those learning the cutlass might use a wooden sword instead; those learning the foil would work with a leather button on the tip. Students usually practiced with jackets off. (The tailored jackets of the early nineteenth century didn’t allow for much athletic movement.) Gloves were the only protective equipment used by the students. Although masks were available (introduced in 1780), many refused to wear them, and more than one fencer suffered scars and nicks as a result.

But the sword wasn’t just for amateurs. Being able to use the sword was a requisite for doing well in the military. In fact, Henry Charles Angelo, the son of Henry the younger, went on to become the fencing master to the British Army, developing an entire system of movements that was said to give officers an advantage on the field.

In 1857, Betrand Baptise, a French fencing master, set up a school in London that would eventually eclipse the Angelo school. He encouraged women to fence, and a number of ladies joined his school. It appears, however, that women fought women, and men fought men, and even the training times were coordinated so that never the two should meet.

Bummer! There’s nothing like going after the guy you’re sweet on with something sharp, and winning.


Rachel said...

LOL Thanks for the article on fencing! I always wanted to learn how to fence....not that many classes available though.

I think I'd rather fight with a sword than a pistol that might not work!!!

Medieval Shield said...

Its really very fine and informative post. thanks for the information.

Regina Scott said...

You are both very welcome! I must admit to fencing in college, but I've had a lot more fun the last few years with boffer swords (pvc pipe and duct tape). Fewer rules and a whole lot less likely to get skewered. :-)