The English term fencing, in the sense of "the action or art of using the sword scientifically" dates to the late 16th century, when it denoted systems designed for the Renaissance rapier. The first known use of defens in reference to Renaissance swordsmanship is in William Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor: "Alas sir, I cannot fence." This specialized usage replaced the generic fight.
The verb to fence derived from the noun fence, originally meaning "the act of defending", etymologically derived from Old French defens "defense", ultimately from the Latin. The first attestation of Middle English fens "defense" dates to the 14th century. The origins of armed combat are prehistoric, beginning with club, spear and axe. Fighting with shield and sword developed in the Bronze Age; Bladed weapons such as the khopesh appeared in the Middle Bronze Age, and the proper sword in the Late Bronze Age. Homer's Iliad includes some of the earliest descriptions of combat with shield, sword and spear, usually between two heroes who pick one another for a duel. Roman gladiators engaged in dual combat in a sport-like setting, evolving out of Etruscan ritual. Tomb frescoes from Paestum “4th century BC” show paired fighters, with helmets, spears and shields, in a propitiatory funeral blood rite that anticipates gladiator games.
Romans who frequented the gymnasia and baths often fenced with a stick whose point was covered with a ball. Vegetius, the Late Roman military writer described practicing against a post and fencing with other soldiers. Vegetius describes how the Romans preferred the thrust over the cut, because puncture wounds enter the vital organs directly whereas cuts are often stopped by armor and bone. Raising the arm to deliver a cut exposes the side to a thrust. This doctrine was exploited by Italian fencing masters in the 16th Century and became the primary rationale behind both the Italian and French schools of fencing.
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