If you associate fencing with the Olympic sport and immediately think of the foil, épée and sabre, think again. Over the weekend, 22 associations from 13 countries converged at Fort St Angelo, using some very different kind of weapons.

They were in Malta to take part in the Malta Historical Fencing 7th International Meeting, which saw them involved in various demonstrations and workshops.

“Sport fencing is a game with many rules and restrictions with a point system and the aim is to score before your opponent,” says the Malta Historial Fencing Association president Andrei Xuereb.

“On the other hand, in historical fencing, the aim is to defend oneself properly as if the weapon were really sharp and life-threatening, hence making fencing – as many people also describe it – a historical European martial art.”

‘Fencing’ or scherma in Italian originally referred to the art of defence and its origin can be traced to ancient civilisations. The need to know how to defend oneself and one’s family and nation forms part of humankind’s DNA. Tribes fought other tribes and empires rose and fell.

In times of battle, a soldier had to know how to use all weapons. These ranged from various types of swords and sometimes were accompanied by shields, daggers and cloaks, pole arms like partisans, halberds and pikes, archery and a good solid base of wrestling and grappling.

After swords stopped being used in battle, the discipline of fencing remained a gentleman’s pursuit and then became a sport.

“Typically we associate fencing with the sword and historians can trace and compare the hundreds of types of swords that developed through the ages and in different cultures. The knowledge of how to fence was traditionally passed from master to pupil.”

Passing knowledge in this traditional way carried a disadvantage: that many of the teachings and techniques were lost through the ages. However, a number of these masters left written treatises of some of their teachings.

“One of our main tasks is research and practical experimentation to fully understand the teachings of these masters of the past,” points out Mr Xuereb.

Members of the Malta Historical Fencing Association during a demonstration at Fort St Angelo in Vittoriosa.Members of the Malta Historical Fencing Association during a demonstration at Fort St Angelo in Vittoriosa.

The oldest European treatise shows fencing techniques dating to circa 1300. Many other masters in Europe published similar works showing a variety of weapons and styles.

The Malta Historical Fencing Association focuses on the period from the Order of St John up to the 20th century.

A soldier needed to be knowledgeable in all the weapons available at his time and even those used by the enemy

“Archives of the Order of St John reveal that a soldier needed to be knowledgeable in all the weapons available at his time and even those used by the enemy,” remarks Mr Xuereb.

In this list are swords, shield, daggers, pole arms, bow and arrow, muskets and even wrestling.

A few treatises, dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries, are found at the National Library.

Besides contributing to a strong army and self-defence, knowledge of good fighting techniques was perhaps the only way to prove one’s innocence in a trial by combat, says Mr Xuereb.

“This is not to be confused with fighting in a duel for honour, which many times was done out of sight, were banned and heavily punished.”

Fencing also had a demonstrative and competitive aspect, when it was presented in tournaments to show fighters’ skills in front of rulers or noble peers.

“These types of fights could be classified as sport as, very often, there were rules and specific non-mortal weapons.”

In the international event held over this weekend, participants from as far as Norway and the US were exposed to various workshops in a variety of weapons and fighting styles led by qualified instructors.

These included workshops in the longsword, both in the German and Italian style; the 16th-century side-sword, as used on its own, with a dagger and even with a shield; the 17th-century rapier and dagger; the 18th-century French small-sword; World War II close quarter combat and unarmed combat.

Mr Xuereb believes that such a meeting attracts a different kind of visitor to Malta.

“When possible, we organise lectures and tours to venues of military or fencing relevance, such as the Palace Armoury and Fort St Angelo which hosts the event,” he says.

Members of the association also get the opportunity to travel abroad on other such meetings. In the past years, members attended events in Italy, England, Scotland and Greece. Other destinations are planned for next year.

How to join the association

Anyone above the age of 16 can join the Malta Historical Fencing Association. It runs regular three-month beginner courses, with the next one starting early next year. Details will be announced on the association’s Facebook page. For more information, visit www.historicalfencingmalta.org.

The Malta Historical Fencing 7th International Meeting was held under the patronage of President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca and in close collaboration with Heritage Malta and the support of the Malta Tourism Authority.