Women’s Fencing Instruction, 1917

Mary C. Morgan

On this last day of Women’s History Month, it is fitting that we examine how many women in the United States were introduced to fencing in the early Twentieth Century. In 1917, Mary C. Morgan edited a volume that provided an overview of twenty athletic activities for women. It was published by the American Sports Publishing Company of New York as a part of the extensive Spalding Athletic Library, and is now in public domain. A member of the Bryn Mawr College class of 1915, as she proudly stated on her title page, the fencing instruction below undoubtedly sheds light on fencing as practiced by her and her fellow alumnae shown photographed in our post here a decade later. Below, Queen City Classical Fencing offers you Mary Morgan’s article on fencing in its entirety, excerpted from her volume, Girls and Athletics.

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Fencing

Morgan, Mary 1917 Cover

To some, the practice required to develop good form in fencing may at first seem tedious. This practice, however, not only rounds out the form of the fencer, but also is very beneficial in that it exercises the muscles of the entire body and in that it cultivates quick thinking and stimulates mental alertness. From the physical point of view fencing tends to develop symmetrically all the muscles of the body, to give a lightness and quickness of movement, gracefulness, and generally to strengthen the body. To fence well it is necessary to think quickly and act calmly. The fencer must judge what is best suited for her to do. She must divine her opponent’s attack. Thus she must be mentally alert all the time.

To some, the practice required to develop good form in fencing may at first seem tedious. This practice, however, not only rounds out the form of the fencer, but also is very beneficial in that it exercises the muscles of the entire body and in that it cultivates quick thinking and stimulates mental alertness. From the physical point of view fencing tends to develop symmetrically all the muscles of the body, to give a lightness and quickness of movement, gracefulness, and generally to strengthen the body. To fence well it is necessary to think quickly and act calmly. The fencer must judge what is best suited for her to do. She must divine her opponent’s attack. Thus she must be mentally alert all the time.

For the beginner and inexperienced fencer, it is necessary to have a good foil, one that is the proper weight for the strength of the fencer. Never use a foil that is too heavy; it is better to have a light than heavy one. A foil must also have the proper balance. To test the foil lay the blade across the finger about an inch below the hilt. If the weight is properly distributed it will balance. To avoid any accidents a fine-meshed mask and plastron or jacket should always be worn. If a glove is worn it should be loose enough to allow perfect freedom of action, but not so loose as to be cumbersome.

Rubber-soled shoes or a shoe that will not slip should be worn. 124

How to Hold the Foil.

The handle of the foil has two sides, the concave and the convex. The foil is held, generally in the right hand, so that the concave of the handle rests in the palm; the convex is then the upper side; the fingers are closed around the handle, the thumb rests on the upper or convex side, without touching the hilt; the fingers must not overlap the thumb. The foil is held correctly when, i. e., for the right-handed fencer, the thumb nail faces upward and the finger nails toward the left. This position of the foil is called supination.

Another position is pronation. For this the back of hand is turned up, the fingers are drawn closer together and the thumb is closer to the fingers.

Form and skill count for the most in fencing, hence strict attention is paid to the different positions until the form is perfect. Quickness and good judgment are acquired with practice and experience. It is of course desirable to procure the services of a competent instructor when a beginner.

The fencer should remember to use mainly the fingers and wrist; the part played by the arms is subordinate.

Think quickly. Thrust and parry coolly and make every movement count. If your movements become hurried and flustered, the result is slashing, which is not good fencing—good headwork counts. Try to fathom your opponent’s methods and take advantage of every opening she gives. Consistent practice and confidence will enable you to be ready for any situation which may come about. 125

On Guard.

This is the elementary position in fencing. Stand at attention, body turned facing opponent outwardly, feet at right angles, the left foot pointing forward, the right foot outward toward opponent.

1. Raise the arm holding foil lightly, extend toward opponent, hand at height of and opposite the eye.

2. Drop the arm and foil, point outward, until it is a few inches from the floor.

3. Sweep the foil across the body so that the foil is horizontal. Grasp the blade close to the guard with fingers of the left hand, palm up. The right hand is reversed.

4. Bend arms over head in a circle, carrying foil upward so it is kept horizontal.

5. Lower right hand to height of the right breast, with foil directed outward toward opponent at the height of her eyes. Drop the left elbow, curving the hand over the left shoulder.

6. Bend the legs, separating them at the knees.

7. Advance the right foot in a direct line from the left heel to opponent. The right knee should be bent over the right foot, both feet should be flat on the floor.

After these seven movements have been practised and the position on guard reached quickly and accurately, the fencer may take up more advanced work. The natural instinct is to defend oneself, so a scientific means of defense is taught. Any movement that turns away an opponent’s foil is called a parry. As the fencing jacket is divided into different lines of engagement, there is a set parry for each. In all parries, it is important to 126 turn the point of the opponent’s foil away from your body. Parries are divided into two main classes, simple and counter. The following are the simple parries:

The Parry of Quarte.

Using the fingers and wrist, the foil is carried across body from right to left, turning the point of opponent’s foil away from the attack; the right forearm protects the left side, the elbow is close at side and in a line with the hip bone; the tip of foil points up; the foil is held in supination.

The Parry of Sixte.

The foil moves from left to right, protecting the right side. The hand is held in supination.

The Parry of Septime.

The hand is moved as in quarte; the hand is held in supination; the point is dropped to the waistline by a semi-circular movement outward.

The Parry of Octave.

With the hand similar to that of septime the foil is moved outward in a semi-circle and the point is dropped.

Parry of Quinte.

For this, the hand from quarte is lowered toward the hip, point upward.

Parry of Tierce.

The foil is held in pronation. The parry of Sixte covers the same line of engagement except in the difference in holding the foil. 127

Parry of Prime.

From quarte, the hand is moved toward the left shoulder, the point dropped, the back of hand is turned upward and outward.

Parry of Seconde.

The hand is in pronation; it covers the same ground as octave.

Besides these simple parries are counter parries, which are circles described with the tip of the foil around the opponent’s foil, holding the foil as close as possible to hers.

In all the parries it is practice, so that the movements are smooth and the recovery from the parry to the on-guard position is instantaneous. The fingers and wrist should be used mainly in the parries, the arm movement should be as slight as possible.

The Attack.

A fundamental of the attack first to be learned is the thrust. The tip of the foil is aimed at the point to be hit, the arm is straightened. Added to the thrust in the attack is the lunge. The right foot is carried forward (about twice its length), the left leg is straightened, the weight of the body is on the right leg, which is bent at the knee. The left arm is carried straight down at the side, palm of the hand turned outward. The thrust and the advance with the foot are simultaneous. The lunge requires much practice to develop a quick attack and recovery. One important factor to be remembered in the lunge is never to get the balance too far over the 128 right knee. Also never let any part of the left foot leave the floor. Immediately after the lunge and the thrust, the fencer should quickly resume the original position, i. e., the on guard position.

There are many different methods of attack, divided into two main classes, primary and secondary. Primary attack is one that is begun by yourself; secondary attack is one when you attack in an opening your opponent gives in her attack. Besides these are false attacks to decoy the opponent’s attack.

The Direct Lunge.—This is one form of attack, though the straight attack is generally preceded by disengages. A riposte is a thrust unaccompanied by a lunge; this is important in secondary attack.

The Disengage.—In order to attack in a center line, it may be necessary to raise the point of your foil over or drop it under the point of your adversary’s.

The Counter Disengage.—This is a disengage (or more than one) followed by a circling of the tip of your foil around your opponent’s foil, followed by an attack on your part.

The Coupe (cut over).—The point of the foil is raised by the fingers and carried down on the opposite side of your opponent’s foil, accompanied by the lunge.

In the attack the fencer should remember to keep the right arm straight, to aim at the line carefully, to always be in a position to guard closely.

In a match or competitive bout, the umpire decides the hits, but it is courtesy to acknowledge a hit yourself.

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Works Cited

Girls and Athletics, by Mary C Morgan—A Project Gutenberg eBook. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2021, from https://gutenberg.org/files/56134/56134-h/56134-h.htm#Fencing

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