Bout image translation via artistic fencing

Bout image translation via artistic fencing


PhD, Associate Professor V.V. Lobanov
Tomsk State Pedagogical University, Tomsk

Keywords: artistic fencing, stage fencing, competitive fencing, fencing history, antiquity, modernity, bout.

Background. A historian who studies origins of the art of fencing may find that fencing traces its roots to swordsmanship that first emerged as a combat art and only then “acquired one more hypostasis focused on self-portrayal” [6, p. 38] by a variety of means including those offered by artistic fencing.

In Russia, artistic fencing is now formally defined as a simulative stage fight or exercises with sport analogues of cold steel. The definition needs to be perfected from the standpoint of common logics, since any stage fight cannot but be simulative by definition. Moreover, the definition is applicable in the Russian Federation only, whilst foreign academies of weapons apply their own definitions.

Furthermore, there is a special provision in the Russian definition on the performance being “compliant with the rules of competitions”. However, rules and their interpretations are broadly different across the world and, hence, there comes a dilemma: either the very “core” of the competitive fencing on the global arenas is indefinite or the definition fails to embrace the phenomenon on the whole and refers only to its Russian domain. In the former case, no fair refereeing service is expectable for the reason that the application specifics of the key performance criteria are non-reproducible. And the latter case requires specific aspects of artistic fencing being identified in some clear format different from the valid rules varying from one country to the other. The uncertainty of the standards that the artistic fencers are supposed to reproduce, makes uncertain the sport development prospects on the whole. Only unambiguous rules of the sport will help put in practice the statement “Content of a fencer training process is always dictated by the rules of competitions” [7, p. 13].

The one who is interested to explore the missions of artistic fencing should not be governed by only the valid rules for the reason that there are specific rules and techniques for every weapon in modern fencing. As indicated by E. Castle, “complicated attacks and defences” with light epees will never be successful in bouts with other weapons [2, p. 18]. However, a good guidance for the theoreticians may be found in the words of famous novelist J.B. Moliere who called fencing the art of making hits and touches and avoiding responses. This phrase still holds true for the modern fencing a few centuries later.

Objective of the study was to identify the resources of artistic fencing for translation of fight images.

Methods and structure of the study. A theoretical basis for the study was provided by the works [1-11]. The work by E. Castle was applied to clarify the mission of “fencing for spectators”. The method by S.B. Kulikov made it possible to demonstrate specifics in translation of the images created by different fencing cultures. Ideas by I.V. Melik-Gaykazyan were applied to analyze the impacts of the fencing history on the modern artistic fencing styles. And the study reports by A.D. Movshovich and D.A. Tyshler were used for consideration of modern fencing in the context of the historical process on the whole.

Study results and discussion. It should be stated first of all that artistic fencing is specific in the sense that it is for the first time in the history that a simulative fight has evolved into a competitive discipline as opposed to the stage one that still remains a particular case of “fencing for spectators”. If we consider a competitive fight as a dialogue with an uncertain outcome composed of phrases of the opponents, an artistic fencing bout may be viewed as a monologue of an individual or collective performer who is never disguised and, moreover, openly demonstrates his intentions to the audience.

The above contemplation emphasises the similarity of stage fencing and artistic fencing. But what is their difference then? It might make sense to find the point of the latter in the fencing images being translated into the culture. Generally, an actor never strives to attain a total authenticity since his/ her goal is only emotions as such. If an artistic fencer, on the contrary, will seek to bring home the right fencing images to the spectators, the demonstration of the conflict will be complemented by one more, elucidative task – that is to show the fighting techniques and tactics of the relevant historical epoch.

It should be noted that the foreign artistic fencing styles are proposed today to restrict their toolkits by the “music of epoch” and toughen their requirements to the costumes and weapons. Albeit these steps, if implemented, will make it possible to consider competitive fencing as one more archive to preserve the heritage of the past, measures of that kind are unequal to the fencing technique differentiation initiatives. As things stand in the Russian practice, the light weapon fighting canons are dominated by the modern styles, whilst the “old school” static positions are considered no mistake. This is due to the difficulties in the refereeing service when it comes to different techniques of fighting with similar weapons including the ones that, in the historic past, were not put into a system governed by uniform rules. The problem is further complicated by the shortage of study reports exploring the versatility of the fencing art at a higher image-verification level than the purely competitive one. And only diversification of the fencing images may give a chance to enrich the bouts with technical innovations rather than plots only.

Let us consider the role and place of artistic fencing in translation of these images in the context of considerations of I.V. Melik-Gaykazyan. Based on her interpretation of the A.N. Whitehead’s ideas, she introduced [4] the notions of the “event-in-actuality” viewed as the spontaneous emergence of semantics in the codes of genuine epoch of the relevant culture, and the “event-in-reality” as the variable formation of pragmatics of these codes, implemented in the spectrum of social phenomena. The functional differences of these “events” give a basis for the method to diagnose transformations of texts [5] and artefacts [1] in the process of their translation from the past epochs to the modern reality. Practical application experience of this method gives grounds to say that images of the past fencing cultures apply to the senses of “life and death, duty and desires” [5, p. 36] that manifest themselves in the symbols of the rules of the fights, whilst the modern fencing images refer to the “variety of competing interpretations” [5, p. 36] within the frame of this symbolism. Historical images, for instance, are variably transformed in the modern models and, due to the lack of a conventional fencing code in the competitive practice, these models may unlikely help preserve the symbols of the past; and even result in these symbols being degraded or lost. This negative outcome may be due to the fact that the popular integrated image of the art of fencing is largely influenced, among other things, by the historically non-authentic bout scenes.

Historical authenticity has not been ranked among the top priorities as far back as in the XIX century, as verified by the works by fencing art historian E. Castle. He mentioned that even the popular novels by W. Scott gave descriptions of duels attributed to the XVII century that were “obviously borrowed from the modern fencing styles” [2, p. 13]; while in the theatrical performances Laertes and Hamlet take and return salutes with perfect calm, albeit this tradition is no more than fifty years old...” This means the period of 1830ies since the book was published in 1885 [2, p.14]. The same applies to the modern practices – both the theatrical fencing and the artistic fencing ones.

Swordsmanship has always been a part of a general culture of one or another epoch. It means, among other things, that in ancient times the art of fencing in its progress should have been governed by the ideas dominating in the society, including, for instance, the idea of harmony. Although the ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans in the art of fencing have not been preserved in modern cultures, some prerequisites for artistic fencing may be found in the residual sources: for instance, modern solo performances are somewhat similar to the Greek “pyrrhic dances” with elements of the-then fighting styles.

In the middle ages, the tournament fencing styles were largely influenced by the chivalrous ideals and behavioural norms [11, p. 26]. In the XVIII century, for instance, the “noble fencing art” was subject to some restrictions that now may look ridiculous in the context of the modern competitive fencing styles. For example, response thrusts were allowed only after the opponent was back to defence after his thrust – to avoid him being occasionally wounded in the face [7, p.209].

These and other facts should be considered in the context of the ethics and missions of the ancient fencing styles that were largely different from the modern ones. The old-style volts, for instance, were effective for disarming purposes, whilst the reciprocal touches acceptable in the modern sabre fencing techniques were unlikely desirable then. These and other differences make the athletes refer to the original sources. For example, S. Dryannykh and A. Naymushin, 2012 World Champions, referred to the original texts by Gomer rather than the fantastic fighting styles featured by “Troy”, American epic adventure war film.

Therefore, it is highly important for artistic fencing to find, conditional on the audience and referees being duly elucidated and prepared, prudential forms to implement the historical traditions in every nomination other than the “freestyle” and further adjust the fencing images based on findings of the sport professionals and the relevant cultural phenomena. And this will be the way to emphasize the difference between the art of fencing (as it is perceived by the modern society) and the real historic fencing styles.

It should be mentioned, however, that historically fencing has not always existed as a consistent system. In the XV and early XVI centuries, for instance, fencing trainers mostly helped the trainees master a variety of “tricks” rather than a systemic fencing technique [7, p. 55]. Therefore, modern artistic fencing may rightfully demonstrate both the historical fencing systems and the relevant sets of actions sorted out only in recent times. Nevertheless, only top professional referees may duly rate the quality of a bout based on the comparisons with the relevant variable models rather than a summarized model of a competitive fencing bout. Top priority will be given today to the appropriate referees’ training and skill building system in view of the multiple national and local versions of the same fencing techniques – and in the context of weapons being chosen by fencers at beginner stages of their careers. This generally means that a referees’ qualification is normally limited by the regional traditions and concrete foil/ epee/ sabre fencing techniques – albeit it was as recent as in 1950ies that fencers normally mastered every kind of the fencing weapons [8, p.342].

As things now stand, referees consider only “light weapon” competitive fencing techniques and turn a blind eye to the fact that, for instance, sabre fighting styles were different in different historical periods. Even the sabre holding styles were subject to serious evolution in the period of the XVI-XVII centuries [79 p.96] and this fact gives no way for some uniform “canon” being established for the “after the XVI century” nomination. Furthermore, even the vertical body position in the fighting stance is debatable for that period. As was rightfully noted by K.T. Bulochko, prior to the XX century French teachers recommended a stance with the trunk pushed back [10], the posture being viewed as aesthetically inappropriate nowadays. As far as the movement techniques are concerned, it should be noted that shuttle jumps play no significant role in the modern artistic fencing styles. However, J. Silver reported back in 1599 that Spanish fencers “make such leg movements as if they dance” [2, p.131]. Every offensive and defensive action needs to be duly described and analyzed. The responding hit out of the first defence, for instance, was first described in literature only in 1633 [2, p.185]. This means that this technique may not be widely recommended for the bouts styled in the XV-XVI century fencing traditions.

Therefore, a fencing style will be viewed as a heritage of certain historical ideals and traditions, albeit it is important to bear in mind that modern artistic fencing has been formed under influences of the contemporary ideas of sport specialists [7, 9]. Modern artistic fencing cultivates modern senses in the images created by the art of fencing, and the historical techniques actually differ from the actual fencing styles of those days.


First, the study made it possible to define the art fencing mission as the translation of the images of fencing bouts free of actual fights [3]. The study found that the wide-spread public perceptions of fencing are largely influenced by a variety of fencing images including non-authentic ones, and these perceptions should be countered by the duly harmonized historical truth and aesthetics with the relevant improvements in the bout refereeing standards.

Second, the study verified the assumption that the modern mission of artistic fencing may include competition in authenticity of the fighting images created by fencing schools. It was found that the artistic fencing tradition has failed to come to agreed positions in the matters of the artistic merits being duly combined with perfect techniques, with their due interaction and the relevant refereeing standards applied. It should be noted that modern foreign tournaments tend to subjectively rate only the “wow-effect”, and this is of negative effect on the value and representation level of their outcomes – even compared with the contradictory results of the Russian championships.

Third, our analysis under the study disproved the hypothesis that the consistent artistic fencing culture has been formed in Russia to implement a sustainable image of the art of fencing in public concepts. We rather consider modern fencing as a diverse and evolutionary phenomenon that fails to fully create authentic and appealing images of the art of fencing in the modern national culture.

Fourth, lets us forecast a few scenarios to promote and employ the resources of artistic fencing as the art translating images of swordsmanship, as follows: (а) Make the variability of the fencing images legitimate under the rules of competitions with the competitive fencing standards being applied as a “foothold”; and (b) Reduce the fencing images to a few standards processed by mathematical tools.

The (b) scenario appears to be more competitive, albeit it will give birth to parallel initiatives to promote  unrecognized versions of artistic fencing. As a result, the public will never receive consistent and high-quality information about modern artistic fencing.

Fifth, the need in the technical basis of modern artistic fencing being made more diverse, in the context of the consistent sport discipline development needs, may be addressed by a hierarchy of fencing images rather than a “fencing field” only being created. The modern artistic fencing may be then recognized a sport discipline based on the relevant commonly accepted definition of the latter. The sport will be supported by a conceptual image of standard bout supported by the key rules equally applicable to every nomination. The above images shall come in no conflict with the images under specific nominations that can give the floor to specific images of specific fencing cultures. It should be emphasized that the cultural images may not come into conflict with the higher-level images. However, in case that some cultural image evolves with time to a self-sufficient style, it may be beneficial to sever it to a special nomination, the image of the latter being duly harmonized with the superior image of the sport.

The study was performed with support from the Russian Research Foundation Project Grant #15-18-10002).


  1. Gorbuleva M.S. Mech i skal'pel' (Sword and scalpel) / M.S. Gorbuleva, I.V. Melik-Gaykazyan, T.V. Meshcheryakova. – Tomsk: Tomsk State Pedagogical University, 2013. – 260 p.
  2. Castle E. Shkoly i mastera fekhtovaniya. Blagorodnoe iskusstvo vladeniya klinkom (Fencing schools and masters. The noble art of fencing) / E. Castle. – Moscow: Tsentrpoligraf, 2007. – 331 p.
  3. Kulikov S.B. Protsessy transformatsii filosofskikh obrazov nauki (Science philosophic image transformation processes) / S.B. Kulikov. – Tomsk: TGPU (TSPU), 2012. – 160 p.
  4. Melik-Gaykazyan I.V. «Sobytie-v-deystvitel'nosti» i «sobytie-v-real'nosti» ("Event-in-fact" and "event-in-reality") // Vestnik Tomskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta. Filosofiya, sotsiologiya, politologiya (Bulletin of Tomsk State University. Philosophy, sociology, political science). – 2009. – № 3 (7). – P. 53–67.
  5. Melik-Gaykazyan I.V. Klyatva Gippokrata: transformatsiya semantiki i vozrozhdenie pragmatiki (Hippocratic Oath: transformation of semantics and pragmatics revival) / I.V. Melik-Gaykazyan, T.V. Mescheryakova // Scholae. Filosofskoe antikovedenie i klassicheskaya traditsiya (Scholae. Philosophical study of antiquity and classical tradition). – 2015. – V. 9. – № 1. – P. 35–44.
  6. Mishenev S.V. Sozvezdie D’Artanyana (D'Artagnan Constellation) / S.V. Mishenev. – St. Petersburg, 2008. – 96 p.
  7. Movshovich A.D. Fekhtovanie na shpagakh. Nauchnye dannye i sportivnaya trenirovka (Sword fencing. Scientific data and sport training) / A.D. Movshovich. – Moscow: Akademicheskiy Proekt, 2008. – 119 p.
  8. Revyakin Yu.T. Fizicheskaya kul'tura i sport v Tomskom gosudarstvennom pedagogicheskom universitete (Physical education and sport in Tomsk State Pedagogical University) / Yu.T. Revyakin, V.I. Revyakina, A.N. Vakurin. – Tomsk: Tomsk State Pedagogical University, 2014. – 376 p.
  9. Tyshler D.A. Iskusstvo stsenicheskogo fekhtovaniya (Art of stage fencing) / D.A. Tyshler, A.D. Movshovich. – Moscow: SportAkademPress, 2004. – 272 p.
  10. Fekhtovanie uchebnik dlya institutov fizicheskoy kul'tury (Fencing: textbook for institutes of physical culture) / Ed. by K.T. Bulochko. – Moscow: Fizkul'tura i sport, 1967. – 280 p.
  11. Hutton A. Mech skvoz' stoletiya. Iskusstvo vladeniya oruzhiem (The sword through the centuries. The art of fencing) / A. Hutton. – Moscow: Tsentrpoligraf, 2006. – 334 p.

Corresponding author:

The study demonstrates that artistic fencing may be viewed as a method to implement the historically motivated mission of the fencing art that is to present bouts in a wide historical context “from antiquity to the non-linear future”, and this objective is attainable by stage fencing. Consequently, the grounds emerged to essentially sever artistic and stage fencing and thereby create prerequisites for the refereeing service improvement and for clarification of the social values of this sport discipline. Furthermore, the study shows that the modern artistic fencing development process is under influence of the obvious contradictions in the historical and modern swordsmanship cultures, and this is the reason why it is so difficult for the referees to assess every aspect of the images created by the artists. The study also found that the artistic fencing variability range is limited by the perceptions of the bout images in the refereeing practices as trustworthy and deserving being staged.