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With rain beating against our windows, going inside for some physical recreation may be safer than slipping on a sidewalk, even if it involves swords.

To fence, you must don a particular uniform: a suite of clothes, actions and words collated from European traditions hundreds of years old. Originally, the art of swordsmanship was formally taught in order to allow men to duel whenever honor needed satisfying—though these face-offs usually ended when one side drew blood, rather than ending in death.

Over time, fencing was taught more for sport than combat and became fashionable in an age of uncertainty and revolutions—American, Industrial and French—as something that spoke of an earlier, prouder time. The history and rituals of fencing have quietly resonated through the centuries.

To start, you’ve almost certainly sparred with some fencing lingo at some point: The sport has gifted English some particularly sparkling words such as riposte, feint, parry, foible and lunge. The uniform hasn’t changed much—the traditional garb was white to reveal blows from red-tipped swords, though hits are now often recorded electronically—but the wire masks were only introduced in the 18th century by French fencing masters.

  • Words:
    John Stanley
  • Photography:
    Mark Sanders
  • Styling:
    Rose Forde

“The sport has gifted English some particularly sparkling words such as riposte, feint, parry, foible and lunge”

Before that courtly, blade-happy time, masks were often regarded with unease: Putting one on suggested you didn’t regard your opponent as skilled enough to not accidentally hurt you when sparring, which was deemed insulting. Cut from murderous roots, it took another century or so for the various strands of European swordsmanship to cohere into a modern Olympic sport that still captures modern imaginations with potent notes of chivalric history and quick, bloody violence.

In an age of global unease about the future and endless digital distractions, people seek things gone missing: romance, self-discipline, epic challenge. Now that people carry smartphones instead of swords, many thrill-seekers are turning back to this ancient art form. The lure of the blade never goes away.

Assistant Styling Indigo Goss and Marina Pamies
Special thanks to Darling Creative

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