Swords have been in use since the Bronze Age, and nearly all people of antiquity practiced swordsmanship. Fencing as a contest has existed at least since 1190 B.C., as shown in a relief carving in Upper Egypt from that time depicting adversaries with covered swordpoints and padded masks under the observation of spectators and judges. In the Middle Ages, swords were essential to civilians and soldiers. England's Henry VIII ordered fencing displays. Not until the 16th cent., however, when the light Italian rapier replaced the heavy German sword, did the sport become widespread and the subject of scientific theory. Fencing schools, or salles, frequented by young aristocrats, soon sprang up all over Europe, and fencing duels often settled matters of personal honor. In the late 19th cent., after many countries had outlawed the duel, fencing became an organized sport. Fencing has been a part of the Olympics since the first modern games in 1896, though women did not compete until 1924 and still compete in foil and épée only.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.