Swordwomen and Female Fencers
Ella Hattan (Jaguarina)
"Two women students duel in the gymnasium, Chatham University, Pennsylvania. 1908
That Kind of Woman
Women in a sword fight. Renaissance print.
Source: 'Picture-alliance/AKG images.' Kampf und Geschlecht
Long before fencing became a sport and training system, the ability to fight with weapons actually was a survival skills needed in wars, self-defense, in affairs of honor and just in armed fights which were not uncommon in the past.
However, until late Middle Ages, the art of fencing was mostly intuitional even though fencing schools and trainers were since time immemorial. It was impossible to participate in wars and duels without the knowledge of the sword and other kinds of edged weapons. So, the fencing is the science and the art of mastering of edged weapons.
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. It is derived from the Latin defence (while conversely, the Romance term for fencing, scherma, escrima are derived from the Germanic - to shield, cover, defend.)
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.
The first historical evidence from archaeology of a fencing contest was found on the wall of a temple within Egypt built at a time dated to approximately 1190 B.C.
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.
Numerous depictions of battles between Greeks and Amazons contain a lot of single combat scenes which can well help understand ancient sword techniques, in particular by female warriors.
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 armour 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
The oldest surviving manual on western swordsmanship dates to around 1300, although historical references date fencing schools back to the 12th century.
The fourteenth century manuscript "I.33'" depicts female sword master Walpurgis (left) demonstrating sword fighting techniques
Modern fencing originated in the 18th century in the Italian school of fencing of the Renaissance, and, under their influence, was improved by the French school. The Spanish school didn't become prominent until the 19th century. Nowadays, these three schools are the most influential around the world of oldies styles.
The need to train swordsmen for combat in a nonlethal manner led fencing and swordsmanship to include a sport aspect from its beginnings, from before the medieval tournament right up to the modern age.
The shift towards fencing as a sport rather than as military training happened from the mid-18th century, and was led by Domenico Angelo, who established a fencing academy, Angelo's School of Arms, in Carlisle House, Soho, London in 1763. There, he taught the aristocracy the fashionable art of swordsmanship which they had previously had to go the continent to learn, and also set up a riding school in the former rear garden of the house. He was fencing instructor to the Royal Family. With the help of artist Gwyn Delin, he had an instruction book published in England in 1763 which had 25 engraved plates demonstrating classic positions from the old schools of fencing. His school was run by three generations of his family and dominated the art of European fencing for almost a century.
Considering the history of fencing, expecially the history of women's fencing, Japanese school of fencing must be mentioned. From old times, Japanese noble women were taught how to defend themselves and to defeat attackers using some special weapon like naginata, which allowed them protecting their family and homes while their husbands and fathers were away.
Illustrations: Medieval manuscripts with female single combatants
Top: A monk and a nun jousting
in the French Arthurian romance.
Manuscript image from
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Bottom: Female jousting.
Image at the margin of the manuscript
Queen Mary Psalter (1310-1320).
From the article
Jousting with Distaffs and Other Women Tilting in the Margins
Female sword master Walpurgis (left)
demonstrating sword fighting techniques
The fourteenth century manuscript "I.33'"
Royal Armouries Ms. I.33. Wikipedia
Zweikampf zwischen Mann und Frau an der Matte
(Single combat between a man and a woman on the lawn)
Schilling Spiezer Chronik. 1484/85
Bern, Burgerbibliothek. Swiss Manuscript Collections
Female Knight and Black Horse
From Capodilista Codex, Manuscript Illumination
Biblioteca Civica, Padua
Probably, the oldest testimonies about female sword fighters are legends mentioning Amazons.
Russian author Nikolay Nemytov examined images of the Amazons in battle drawn on Ancient vases representing male warriors attacking female opponents. Looks like in a moment the Amazons will fall down under mortal Greeks’ attacks. This imagination is a spark of the special female sword fighting style, which misleads male attackers. He studied separately three combat episodes which, in his opinion, demonstrate the peculiar women's sword fighting style used by Amazons.
First episode (left vase, upper pair). The woman is stepping back turning her body by the right side to the opponent, threatening from above with the sword leaving her liver vulnerable. The male warrior aims directly there, his sword points from below. He encounters two problems though: it’s more difficult to hit the opponent’s body disposed sideways and besides, in order to strike the receded opponent he should either stretch ahead or strike with a step. The Amazon enticingly exposed herself; he can protect himself from her desperate strike by the shield, but her side is so close and the man makes a direct thrust. Possible Amazon’s actions: she shifts her center of gravity to the leg moved aside. She makes a move toward his shot with the 1800 turn; the right armored arm makes a sliding block against the opponent’s arm. Thus the woman’s chest turns out to be next to the right shoulder of the man and her weapon appears just next to his open belly - his shield is on the left and his right arm with the sword is stretched ahead in a vain attempt to touch the enemy.
Second episode (right vase, upper pair). The Amazon’s position seems to be critical but, once again, it’s just at first glance. She disposes in a deep sitting and her opponent attacks her by the spear from above pouncing on her by all his men’s strengths. Indeed, the Amazon is like a string in such a stand. She turns her body around turning her shield toward the spear; she shifts the left leg ahead and at the same time stands up crushing the unprotected enemy’s head and chest by the shield whereas her sword (or the javelin) strikes the Greek’s open belly. The struck down warrior is sliding along the Amazon’s shield by inertia of his own stroke and he is thrown to the left from her. The Amazon might see an alluring temptation to chop off the supporting leg of the Greek by her leg as they do that in karate-do, then the enemy’s body would fall on her. But a hitch happened in a battle may cost the life.
Third episode (left vase, lower pair). The female warrior is also in a deep sitting while the male warrior exposed himself in fever of the battle and might be easily caught. The Amazon is supposed to shift from one leg to another exposing the shield under a stroke and appears on the right from the opponent, just next to his open belly. She also has an option to clip his vein inside of his thigh.
Thus the impression of the overwhelming Greek superiority would turn out to be their crash. It’s important to note that a defending warrior is in such stands during fractions of a second transferring from one combative move to another. So, the artist made the excellent snapshots of these quickly changing poses. The Greek artist killed two birds by one stone: he represented the triumph of his fellow warriors and, at the same time, he truly drew the Amazon’s perfect combat moves. But possibly the artist was a talent slave from a tribe allied to the Amazons and knew what he was drawing?
While Amazons were trained as battle warriors, Roman gladiators and gladiatrices were purely single combatants who had to be perfect in handling swords and other gladiator weapons. Romans who loved brutal spectacles, first realized that the female gender had a great competitive spirit and fury which could make a base for magnificent shows (on their concept). Ancient Romans worshiped gladiator games and considered female gladiators as especially attractive for spectators – women battled even more fiercely than men and died not less courageously than men. They were sufficiently rare that would be advertised up front as something spectacular that you were going to have in the show. Gladiatrices were regarded as absolutely a special treat.
The marble carved relief from Halicarnassus (Bodrum, Turkey), depicting two female gladiators is dating from the first or second century CE (see below left). The relief, currently displayed in the British Museum, is the most compelling piece of evidence for the existence of female gladiators.
The two women are clothed and equipped similarly to male gladiators (specifically secutors). The gladiatrices are heavily armed, each wears loincloth (subligaculum), greaves, and an arm protector (manica) extending from the wrist to the shoulder of the sword-wielding arm. Both are armed with a shield and a sword, and neither is wearing a helmet or a shirt.
The women are facing each other with their names inscribed in Greek beneath them, indicating incontrovertibly that these are both women because they are named ‘Amazon’ and ‘Achillia’. In Latin, the inscription translates as "missae sunt", meaning that the combatants (or one of them) received an honorable discharge (mercy or missio) from the arena (not discharge from service as a gladiator though).
In fact, the relief is a monument to the valiant effort displayed by these two female gladiators. The female gladiatorial combat was taken seriously enough to warrant commemoration in an expensive and durable medium.
Many written ancient records attest to the existence of female gladiators. The fact many of the references to gladiatrices were made "casually" throughout the ancient writings, suggests that female gladiators were more widespread than direct evidence might otherwise indicate.
Illustrations: Amazons and gladiatrices as swordwomen
Amazons fighting Greek men
Relief from Bassae.
Circa 450-420 BC
Amazons fighting Greek men
Relief from Bassae.
Circa 450-420 BC
Amazons fighting Greek men
British Museum. London
Gladiatrices. Relief from Halicarnassus.
British Museum, London
Gladiatrices. Artwork by Fastnerand Larson
Gladiatrices. Artwork by Joseph Tabor
Women in a sword fight.
This is how gladiatrices
were incorrectly imagined in the 17h century. 1604.
In feudal Japan 'Onna-bugeisha' (female martial artist) was a type of female warrior belonging to the Japanese nobility. Many women engaged in battle, commonly alongside samurai men. They were members of the bushi (samurai) class in feudal Japan and were trained in the use of weapons to protect their household, family, and honour in times of war. Onna-bugeishas also had to train children basics of martial arts.
In contrast to the katana used universally by their male samurai counterparts, the most popular weapon-of-choice of onna-bugeishas are the naginata, which is a versatile, conventional polearm with a curved blade at the tip. The weapon is mainly favored for its length, which can compensate for the strength and body size advantage of male opponents.
The naginata has a niche between the katana and the yari, which is rather effective in close quarter melee when the opponent is kept at bay, and is also relatively efficient against cavalry. Through its use by many legendary samurai women, the naginata has been propelled as the iconic image of a woman warrior. During the Edo Period, many schools focusing on the use of the naginata were created and perpetuated its association with women.
Besides naginata, ranged weaponry such as bows and arrows would also be used by onna-bugeishas, as the traditional masculine advantages like physical strength counted much less in ranged warfare.
Significant icons such as Tomoe Gozen, Nakano Takeko, and Hojo Masako are famous examples of Onna-bugeisha.
Tomoe Gozen has impacted much of the warrior class, including many traditional Naginata schools. Her actions in battle also received much attention in the arts plays such as 'Tomoe no Monogatari' and various ukiyo paintings. As time passed, the influence of Onna-bugeisha saw its way from paintings to politics.
The Tale of the Heike describe legendary heroine Tomoe Gozen: Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.
A woman trained in naginata was supposed to be soft but strong, willing to be selfless but decisive, and above all, patient and enduring. The strong body she developed from training was necessary to keep healthy and active to carry out all her work. She was said to have a "full spirit" and strong beauty. One teacher's manual, written in the middle of Japan's war years, states, "The study of naginata, home economics, and sewing would develop the perfect woman."
Naginata methods are said to be derived from a combination of bojutsu staff fighting methods and sword fighting techniques.
The Edo period (1603-1867) was a relatively peaceful period in Japanese history. As men trained Kenjutsu (sword techniques), women trained in Naginata as self-defense. A functional naginata was often a traditional part of a samurai daughter's dowry. Persistently training in Naginata, and adhering to the etiquette of practice was a way of cultivating the character. Thus Naginata became a way for women of Samurai families to study morals, honour and so on. Although women did not typically fight as normal soldiers, women of the samurai class were expected to be capable of defending their homes while their husbands were away at war. The naginata was considered one of the weapons most suitable for women, as it allows a woman to keep a male opponent at a distance, where his greater height, weight, and upper body strength offers less of an advantage. Naginatas were also used as ornaments for the entrances of homes of high ranking Samurai and as an ornament in Daimyos’ processions, and has become a decoration customarily used in wedding ceremonies.
In the early Meiji period (1868-1912), there was another impetus for the development of competitive martial sports. This was the phenomenon of roving martial "carnivals" known as gekken kogyo. Some former samurai, down on their luck, joined forces in traveling exhibitions, giving demonstrations and taking challenges from the audiences. The most popular spectacle was a woman with a wooden naginata against a man armed with a wooden or bamboo replica of a sword.
From 5 Mujeres-Samurai
Onna-Bugeisha fights a man
with a naginata
From 5 Mujeres-Samurai
Onna-budeisha with a naginata
From collection Women Warriors
Famous British fighter Elizabeth Wilkinson-Stokes was not only fist fighter but also a great fencer. She and some other British fmale fighters fought with different types of weapons, including longsword, backsword, cudgel, foil, single rapier, rapier and dagger, sword and buckler, sword and gauntlet, falchion, flail, pike, halberd, and quarterstaff. Although such fights were not intended to end in death, the wounds received were often serious enough to incur it. So, Elizabeth Wilkinson-Stokes can be considered as one of the founders of swordwomenship.
A duel is considered the prerogative of the men; they often engaged in order to fight for honor of a king, a lady or their own honor. And women either watch a contest from grandstands in a knight’s tournament or late learn about victory, wound or death of husbands or sons. But this opinion is incorrect. Women sometimes would not mind to fight each other. In fact, duels between women were not uncommon and usually much bloodier and sharpened.
Probably, it is true that women have rarely fought or dueled, they mostly settled quarrels. But it doesn’t take much to surfing on the net to receive evidence that there are certainly plenty of historical records reporting dueling women. Woman fought, like their male counterparts, over lovers, insults (perceived and real), gossip, and ultimately, for their honor. They fought with all kinds of pistols and a variety of swords and knives. There is a long, long list of dueling women in history.
A lot of depictions with dueling ladies have been appeared since 18th century. Feminists were happy to jump on the emancipatory implications of women usurping the sphere of the patriarchy, its notion of honor and martial resolution of conflict. The most known dueling sequences involving women took place in a women-only environment. Until the 19th century, however, women’s roles in affairs of honor were pretty much restricted to that of spoilsport - breaking up a fight before it had begun or having hard time, cheering or grieving - depends on the fight result. Typical one: "A pretty girl crying over the mortal coil her lover was about to shuffle off". It was only in the late 18th century that the women started taking a more pro-active role in artistic dueling.
Six most famous ladies sword duels
Isabella charges Diambra
ISABELLA DE CARAZZI VS. DIAMBRA DE POTTINELLA. MAY 25, 1552
Weapons of Choice: Maunted battle with lances, maces, and swords
Isabella de Carazzi and Diambra de Pottinella were Neapolitan noblewomen and good friends until a man came between them. He was a handsome gentleman named Fabio de Zeresola who was very popular among the ladies of 16th century Naples. Isabella and Diambra had no idea he was seeing both of them until all three of them attended the same society wedding. Fabio cast a single glance at Isabella, a glance so ardent and penetrating that Diambra, who was next to Isabella at the time, immediately realized something was going on between them.
A short conversation later all was out in the open, and Isabella had cast the die when she insisted that Fabio loved her more and therefore, by the law of love, he belonged to her. Diambra claimed he loved her more and that Isabella was a liar. She was willing to die on that point, Diambra said, and so challenged her now-former friend to meet her six days hence in a field and to pick the weapons. Isabella chose full war gear: swords, lances, maces, shields, and armor-clad horses.
On the day of the duel, everyone who was anyone at the Naples court, including the Spanish viceroy, was present to witness this extraordinary event. Isabella arrived clad in blue wearing a helmet with a diamond in the crest, her horse's velvet mantle matching her clothes. Diambra wore green, the crest on her helmet a serpent of gold.
Each lady took up her lance, and when the war trumpet blew, they charged each other with such ferocity that spectators could only marvel at their courage.
After the initial lance clash the women took up the maces, raining blows upon each other's shields. Isabella lost half her shield from a mace hit so powerful her horse stumbled and fell. Diambra dismounted her destrier and loudly demanded that Isabella surrender and admit Fabio de Zeresola was hers by right. Isabella took up her sword and charged Diambra, knocking her to the ground and cutting the straps of her helmet. How the fight eventually stopped is unkown but finally Isabella conceded that Diambra was the victor and to her belonged the spoils. Probably the decision in favor of Diambra as made by "referees". Fortunately, the young ladies stayed unharmed but it is also unkown if the victor got the young gentleman.
The news of this remarkable encounter spread like wildfire through the courts of Europe and the story was told for generations. Around a century later, Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera painted it like a scene from ancient history or mythology. The subject matter of the painting has also been held to be an allegory of the fight between Vice and Virtue.
PRINCESS SOPHIA AUGUSTA FREDERIKA OF ANHALT-ZERBST-DORNBURG VS. PRINCESS CHRISTIANE ANNA OF ANHALT-KÖTHEN. JUNE 1743
Weapon of Choice: Swords
Sophia and Christiane were German princesses, second cousins, and still teenagers when they developed a beef that could only be quashed by blood. The insult that drove them to lock swords in Sophia's bedroom when she was 14 and Christiane 17 has been lost to history, and the outcome of the challenge is unknown other than that both parties survived. Otherwise, teh world could not know Katharina II The Great.
Ekaterina Polesova stabs Olga Zavarova
Artist: Mikhail Yurko
OLGA ZAVAROVA VS. EKATERINA POLESOVA. JUNE 1829
Weapon of Choice: Sabers
Olga Zavarova and Ekaterina Polesova were wealthy property owners and neighbors with a long history of neighborly disagreements. One of those disagreements escalated to the point where they decided to have it out once and for all and see who was left standing. Armed with their husbands' cavalry sabers, Olga and Ekaterina met in a birch grove. Their daughters, both 14, were present, and their daughters' governesses acted as seconds.
As per the protocol of the Code Duello, the seconds asked the combatants to reconcile. Not only did they refuse, but they were so riled up they threatened the governesses with violence for trying to stop them.
The duel was short and brutal. Olga took a blow to the head and died on the spot, but not before she stuck Ekaterina in the stomach. In the way of most gut wounds at the time, it too was fatal, but it took Ekaterina a long, painful day to die from it.
Five years after the deaths of Olga and Ekaterina, those girls who had witnessed the violent deaths of their mothers picked up where their mothers had left off. Alexandra and Anna met in the same place, the birch grove, and had the same seconds, their own governesses. This time there was a clear victor: Alexandra Zavarova slew Anna Polesova and redeemed her dead mother's honor.
ROSA CROSBY AND HER NAMELESS RIVAL. 1833
Weapon of Choice: Rapiers
English Rosa Crosby stabbed to death her rival who was unfortunate to steal her husband. Crosby battled for first time whereas her opponent has a good experience in fencing. But the winner was inspired by righteous anger, which withstand the skills.
MADAME MARIE-ROSE ASTIÉ DE VALSAYRE VS. MISS SHELBY. MARCH 1886
Weapon of Choice: Rapiers
Madame Marie-Rose AstiÉ de Valsayre was notorious in France for her vocal advocacy of feminist causes, which included women being allowed to wear trousers, get the vote, and have equal access to all professions as well as equal pay. She was also a doctor, inspired to learn the profession after serving as a nurse during the Franco-Prussian War (1870), an author—and an accomplished fencer. She founded a fencing club for women which dovetailed neatly into another favorite cause of hers: encouraging mothers to breast-feed their own children rather than employing wet nurses. The sport, she noted, is great for the pecs and thus great for nursing moms.
The American Miss Shelby was a doctor too, and it was a discussion over the comparative merits of French and American women doctors that sparked the animosity between them. Each considered their compatriots superior and things got heated. Miss Shelby may or may not have called Madame de Valsayre an idiot. Whatever the precise nature of the provocation, Astié gave Miss Shelby the classic glove slap to the face and a duel with swords ensued. They faced off in Belgium on the battlefield of Waterloo. In the second pass, AstiÉ de Valsayre lightly wounded Miss Shelby on the right arm, drawing first blood. Miss shelby dropped her sword and Astié de Valsayre was declared the winner; so, the honor of France was restored.
Miss Shelby on the arm
There were no hard feelings. Astié gave Miss Shelby a shoutout as her "loyal adversary" a month later when she wrote to Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, informing her that unless she took her "pernicious doctrines" back home to England, AstiÉ would be forced to demand satisfaction at arms. Mrs. Booth, then 57 years old and a pacifist who was against shedding blood even in self-defense, refused to respond to the provocation.
PRINCESS PAULINE METTERNICH VS. THE COUNTESS KIELMANNSEGG. AUGUST 1892
Weapon of Choice: Rapiers
This is arguably the epitome of duels between high society women of the Victorian period. Princess Pauline Metternich was the granddaughter of statesman and Napoleonic-era giant Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich and the wife of his son Prince Richard von Metternich. (Yup, she married her uncle, her mother's half-brother.) A trendsetter, patron of the arts, and fixture of society in Paris and Vienna in the second half of the 19th century, Princess Pauline was of course involved in many charitable organizations. It was in her capacity as Honorary President of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition that she quarreled with the Countess Kilmannsegg, wife of the Statthalter of Lower Austria and President of the Ladies Committee of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition, apparently over the flower arrangements for the exhibition. By the way, Countess Kilmannsegg was of Russian origin; her maiden name was Lebedeva.
Whatever was said about those flowers could not be unsaid, and the Princess, then 56 years old, challenged the Countess to settle their dispute by blood. The two adversaries and their seconds, Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky, traveled to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, and took to the field of honor. Presiding over the encounter was Baroness Lubinska who, unusually for women of the time, was a medical doctor—and a Listerite one at that. Her modern understanding of infection proved pivotal. Having seen many superficial battle wounds turn septic and fatal because fragments of dirty clothes were driven into them, the Baroness insisted both parties remove all clothing above the waist.
So the Princess Metternich and Countess Kilmannsegg, both topless, took up their swords to fight until first blood. After a few exchanges, the Princess received a small cut to the nose and the Countess was cut on the arm practically at the same time. The seconds called the duel and Princess Metternich was declared the winner.
None of the contemporary news stories mention the topless thing, but the combination of ladies, swords, and bare breasts was already an established subject for risqué postcards in the late 19th century. The tale of the Vaduz duel—with its all-female, all-aristocratic participants—made them even more fashionable. Ladies fighting with their tops off featured in sticky postcards, stereoscopic views, and nickelodeons. Here are some ladies stabbing it out to the death in a filmed scene from the 1898 Drury Lane stage play Women and Wine.
Artworks: "The Swords and Flowers" Duel in 1892 between Princess Pauline and Metternich Kielmannsegg inspired artists.
From collection Atstoy
"An affair of honour"
Artwork by Emile Bayard
Artwork by Ivan Myassoedov.
Artwork by Olga Costa. Oil on canvas.
Artwork by 'Nile Crocodile'
"Liechtenstein 'Flower' Duel" by Domenico Mastaglio. C.1905
First Olympic championess
During the classical period, fencing was used both for sport and preparation for the duel. Fencing as a sport was one of the original events in the Olympic Games and widely practiced at schools and domestic competitions. Additionally, there were professional fencers competing for prize money. Fencing tournaments were extremely popular events, with spectators flocking to see the most celebrated swordsmen battle it out on the piste (fencing venue). In many cases, fencers of the period trained for sport fencing the same way they trained for duels—indeed, many fought highly celebrated duels.
Dueling went into sharp decline after World War I, following the wartime deaths of many members of the classes that practiced it, and the social changes following the war's mass carnage. After World War II, dueling went out of use in Europe except for rare exceptions. Training for a duel, once almost mandatory for males of aristocratic backgrounds, all but disappeared, along with the classes themselves.
Fencing for men and women continued as a sport like boxing or karate, with tournaments and championships. However, the need to prepare for a duel with "sharps" all but vanished.
In fact, real progress in the female sport of fencing in Europe and North America occurred late in the 19th century. In 1888 'Fencing AAU' holds its first fencing championships. Professor J. Hartl of Vienna tours America with a women's fencing demonstration; women begin to fence at private clubs.
From an 1891 New York newspaper: "Of young ladies in society who practice fencing the members of the Berkeley Ladies' Athletic Club must be given the first place. The committee on fencing is headed by Miss Margaret S. Mellen, and under its supervision daily classes in the art will meet in the gymnasium at 23 West Forty-fourth Street. The club has 375 members, and the foil classes are attended by a large proportion of them. All women wear a snug-fitting waist with a buckskin-padded plastron over the breast. The best dress is an accordion pleated skirt, reaching to the knee. The leg covering must reveal to the instructor any false movements of the limbs, and high stockings or loose tights are usually worn. The shoes have leather or kid uppers and flexible rawhide soles. They are without heels, and the sole of the right pump, sometimes of both, projects an inch beyond the upper. They cost from $3 to $7 a pair - it was quite expensive then - only wealthy ladies were able to practive fencing. The gloves are of doeskin, and cost from $4 to $10 a pair. They have stiff gauntlets of patent leather, and the right glove has a padded back and fingers - to protect the hands."
Women's fencing has been present at the Summer Olympic Games since the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Foil was then the only weapon used by women (while the other ones were considered as not feminine) and Danish Ellen Osiier became the first female Olympic champion in fencing. Much later, épée and sabre were also included into the women's Olympic programme:
- Foil, 1924 Paris
- Épée, 1996 Atlanta
- Sabre 2004 Athens
Three oustanding female fencers of all times (Pre-Olympic era)
Three big names can be commemorated as the greatest female fencers and swordwomen: Julie D'Aubigny (La Maupin),Elizabeth Wilkinson-Stokes and Ella Hattan (Jaguarina, or Jaguarine). These three women bravely defied traditions and made the history. First two of them have already their article in the cycle "They Made the History".
Julie d'Aubigny (1670/1673–1707), better known as Mademoiselle Maupin or La Maupin, was a 17th-century prominent French opera singer, fencing master and duelist. She was a pioneer as a woman contralto and performed nightly shows on the biggest and most highly-respected opera stage in the world. Being a bisexual, she participated in numerous romantic adventures, both with men and women; she provoked many fights and duels (with men only), having killed or wounded at least ten men in life-or-death duels.
She is said to have been born with masculine inclinations as well as having been educated in a very masculine way. Certainly, she often dressed as a man and when she did so could be mistaken for one. She also seemed to have at least as much an eye for members of her own sex as for men. Her skill with the sword, either in exhibition or duels fought in earnest, seems to have been absolutely exceptional among the best male fencers of her time.
Mademoiselle Maupin was, excepting her sex, the very image of the swashbuckling romantic cavalier: tall, dark and handsome, one of the finest swordswomen or swordsmen of her day. She was athletically built, had very white skin and dark auburn curls with blonde highlights, blue eyes, an aquiline nose, a pretty mouth and, it is said, perfect breasts (or perhaps just a lovely throat). She was also a star of one of the greatest theaters of her day - the Paris Opera. She had a lovely contralto voice and a phenomenal memory. She is said to have been "born with masculine inclinations" as well as having been educated in a very masculine way. Certainly, she often dressed as a man and when she did so could be mistaken for one. She also seemed to have at least as much an eye for members of her own sex as for men. Her skill with the sword, either in exhibition or duels fought in earnest, seems to have been exceptional.
Her father was Gaston D’Aubigny was the Grand Squire of France and secretary to the Count D’Armagnac, one of the seven great officers of the Crown. Actually, he was the number-one person responsible for training King Louis XIV's pages and maintaining the Royal Stables, and he didn’t let his little daughter grow up without learning the finer arts of dishing out knuckle sandwiches to her enemies or running would-be suitors through the small intestines with the pointy end of a rapier. He trained young Julie the same way he trained the King's Squires: dancing, singing, painting; and as a young woman she also learned the finer points of necessary life skills such as horseback riding, horse maintenance and repair, drinking excessively, gambling, fistfighting, avenging your honor, and stabbing people in the face when they don't have the good sense to step off when you're threatening them. Surrounded as she had been all her life by men and boys, she had learned, it would seem, the art of seduction as well as arms. So, this tall young beauty with the dark auburn hair and piercing blue eyes was forged into an instrument of badassitude.
Mademoiselle Maupin also worked in the most famous French theaters - Paris Opera, as a contralto. Being in the opera she againproved herself as an badass intriguant, and a duelist.
This outstanding woman has proved to everyone that women are not always weak and powerless as it was considered to be but some of them can be violent and cruel and inflict serious damage.
Elizabeth Wilkinson-Stokes was a 18th century outstanding female prize fighter who is considered as the first recorded female boxer. Besides bare-knucked fistfighting, Elizabeth practiced fencing with several types of weapons, including longsword, backsword, cudgel, foil, single rapier, rapier and dagger, sword and buckler, sword and gauntlet, falchion, flail, pike, halberd, and quarterstaff. At that time, fighing with different times of weapon was called mixed martial arts. Usually she acted along with her husband James Stokes - men and women fought MMA dual against one another. They acted in the main London venues including Figg's ampitheatre. London's newspapers called her "the bold and famous city championess".
James Peter Malcolm, 1810 quoted the following newspaper ad: "In Islington Road, on Monday, being the 17th of July, 1727, will be performed a trial of skill by the two combative pairs which have exchange with messages: “We, Robert Barker and Mary (Welch), from Ireland, having often contaminated our swords in the abdominous corporations of such antagonists as have had the insolence to dispute our skill, do find ourselves once more necessitated to challenge, defy, and invite Mister Stokes, and his bold Amazonian virago, to meet us on stage; where we hope to give a satisfaction to the honorable Lord of our nation, who has laid a wager of twenty guineas on our heads. They that give the most cuts to have the whole money, and the benefit of the house. And if swords, daggers, quarter-staff, fury, rage, and resolution will prevail, our friends shall not meet with a disappointment." The reply: "We, James and Elizabeth Stokes, of the city of London, having already gained an universal approbation by our ability of body, dexterous hands, and courageous hearts, need not perambulate on this occasion, but rather choose to exercise the sword to their sorrow, and corroborate the general opinion of the town, than to follow the custom of our repartee antagonists. This will be the last time of (Elizabeth) Stokes performing on the stage..." Then the announcement said: "Attendance will be given at three, and the combatants mount at six. They all fight in the same dresses as before."
Ella Hattan (1859 - after 1907) was a bright personality and a fascinating female character in late 19th-early 20th centuries. Of humble Midwestern origins, she completely reinvented herself as “La Jaguarina, Champion Amazon of the Age” and set about challenging male champions in the bizarre sport of equestrian sword fencing. Her personal beauty, at least early in her career, seems beyond doubt which allowed her to work as a model.
She was a student of the colorful “Sword Prince”, Col. Thomas Hoyer Monstery. She also ran a physical culture school and worked as an actress and model. Essentially, Jaguarina was a real-life Victorian-era American super hero. Unfortunately, there are still gaps in her biography.
Jaguarina was adept with knife, rapier, foil, saber and broadsword. She was a superior horsewoman in an era when nice girls still rode side-saddle. However, her acting talent seemed to be not so great.
She had, for years, defeated just about every male opponent she could find, usually with broadswords. On horseback!
Born in 1859 at Zanesville, Ohio, this fantastic, enigmatic athlete was known for the first two decades of her life as Ella Hattan, the eighth of 10 children whose father, a tailor named William Hattan, died in the Civil War. Ella moved to Cleveland with her mother and one brother in 1875. Still in her teens, she began appearing in plays with Cleveland’s famed Ellsler stock company, where she performed with Laurence Barrett, Edwin Booth and Dion Boucicault, among others. By 1880 she had moved on and was playing small roles in New York, Philadelphia and on tour.
Then came one of several completely unknown periods in Ella Hattan’s life. Much of it probably was spent in Chicago, where she studied fencing with Col. Thomas Monstery, a colorful master-at-arms who had taught for many years in Manhattan, following a gaudy career as an adventurer in South American revolutions, a friend of Mark Twain in Gold-Rush California and both the subject and the author of dime novels.
Apparently, Col. Monstery taught Miss Hattan very well because, in the spring of 1886 she turned up in San Francisco as “The World-Renowned Jaguarina, the Ideal Amazon of the Age.” At that time, San Francisco, probably inspired by the popularity of medieval romances such as Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” was flocking to see a series of weekend jousts and sword conflicts between an assortment of captains, colonels, barons and other bully heroes from various 19th Century wars. The dominant champion of these events was one Duncan C. Ross, a professional wrestler and sword-fighter in an era when the gifted amateur was the ideal. Ross, who had defeated nearly every opponent since he and “Col. Lenon, a Texas Ranger” had invented the sport six years earlier in Louisville, Ky., was offered to fight against an 'invincible woman'. Ross promptly announced that he had no intention of fighting against a woman and left town on an Eastern tour.
Jaguarina, under the shrewd management of Fred J. Engelhardt, quickly became the toast of San Francisco, winning bouts with all weapons against all comers, first afoot and eventually on horseback. The Olympic Club of San Francisco presented her with a special gold medal on May 20, 1886. Besides participation in fencing duels, Jaguarina appeared in plays and participated in benefits.
Jaguarina established herself through skilled use of the sword from 1884 to 1900; audience was taken with her mounted combat with the boroadsword. In her career genuine athletic talent combined with exotic costume melodrama, and allusions to paganism wedged open a special niche of tolerance beyond Victorian respectability.
Jaguarina met – and usually defeated – a string of male opponents. On July 4, 1886 she defeated Captain J.H. Marshall in mounted combat in San-Francisco, though the man prevailed in the second outing. Her biggest and the most publicized victory came against Sergeant Owen Davis of the U.S. Cavalry, whom she defeated on February 9, 1887 in a combat covered extensively by all the San Francisco papers. Then her noticiable victories were over Captain E.N. Jennings and Xavier Orlofsky. She also managed to defeat in a sword fight her trainer Fred J. Enhelhardt.
The challenge posed by such exceptional woman to their male athletic counterparts appears to have been a key to their commercial attractiveness. Newspaper's accounts of Jaguarina's efforts lavished attention on her physical features, emphasizing her grace and marking her power and force as quite unexpected. Such accounts demonstrated not only the fascination with Jaguarina but the fact that there was ambivalence in the fascination itself, rooting in ambiguity of Jaguarina and of her career. Praise of her beauty confirmed to stereotypes of the time. But her ability to defeat men was provocative. For example, the San-Francisco Chronicle noted that Sergeant Owen as he was losing to Jaguarina, felt that "it was bad enough to be beaten, but to be beaten by a woman was more than Presidio champion's blood cold brook." Sergeant Owen lost self-control and charged the referee, hurled insults, and threatened him before returning to defeat in the competition.
The commercial viability of the event, then, was not an endorsement of equality of access to sport and athletic competition; indeed, it may even have exploited strong reservations ad discriminatory instincts. Nonetheless, marveling with something unusual is understandable – in their everyday life, people didn't meet women capable to overcome men physically. Nowadays, nobody would be surprised by that.
Later, apparently, she ran out of willing opponents. So Engelhardt arranged a vaudeville tour through California, pairing her with a magician named MacAllister. He and Jaguarina would fight an exhibition match before MacAllister’s act, then follow with “living pictures,” a series of classic poses by Jaguarina and other actresses from the company, scantily clad in order to illustrate classical sculpture. The show was successful everywhere but the bulk of the coverage dealt with Jaguarina’s physical beauty.
For a couple of years Jaguarina and Engelhardt were in a civil marriage travelling and living together even though he seemed to be married another woman. By the end of 1887, Engelhardt and Jaguarina moved to Ensenada, on the west coast of Mexico, then in the midst of a land boom. Both of them ultimately bought property there and they didn’t really emerge again until mid-1888, when Jaguarina (as she then became known) agreed to fight a major combat in San Diego against a German master-at-arms, Captain Conrad Wiedemann. She was again the toast of the town and the betting was heavy. After she won the mounted contest, she agreed to a more conventional match with her opponent at a local theatre and won that one too.
For the next couple of years, Jaguarina split time between Ensenada, San Diego and Los Angeles, where Engelhardt struggled to launch a mounted combat scene such as the one in San Francisco. But, though fencing was growing in popularity, the broadswords on horseback seem to have lost the public’s attention. And it didn’t help that few opponents could be found for the woman who always won.
The swan song of the sport of mounted dword fighting probably came in late 1893 with an international tournament at Madison Square Gardens won Dec. 3 by Duncan Ross. (A football game between Yale and Princeton was part of the program, according to The New York Times.) Jaguarina obviously was not invited. Engelhardt returned to his wife and family in Manhattan while Jaguarina, over the next decade, toured the country in shows such as “The Spider and the Fly,” “The Fairy Well” and “The Devil’s Auction.” She also presented exhibitions of mounted combat against a variety of opponents, mainly in Eastern cities, including Baltimore, where she established a school; Chicago, where she met again with Col, Monstery; and Washington, where she was presented by her new husband, a Broadway promoter. Although periodic interviews such as the one in Godey's Magazine appeared over the turn of the century, Jaguarina apparently did indeed retire. When she re-emerged, after her marriage failed, she was cast in a Broadway musical “The Vanderbilt Cap,” using her real name in public for years. Newspapers, magazines and publicists quickly found out about her past and, although she was merely a supporting comic actress in a show starring the popular Elsie Janis, she gathered a considerable load of publicity including conflicting reports about her fencing career and whether or not she was in fact retired.
The last trace of Ella Hattan's performance is a clipping from the Toledo Blade in Ohio, December 27, 1907. She was a featured actress in a second-rate tour of something called “Lottie, the Poor Saleslady, or, Death Before Dishonor.” No certain trace of her has been found after that date.
Despite what might be considered a spectacular career, very little is known about Ella Hattan. What information there is comes mainly from newspaper reports and some scraps of public records. Not only was she retiring in private life but she seemed actually to delight in telling conflicting stories in her many public interviews. At various times she said she was learned knife-fighting from gypsies, that her father was English and her mother Spanish, that she grew up on a ranch in Mexico and that she had served as a “military rough rider.” She never seems to have returned to, or even mentioned, Ohio. Professor Lynne Emery of California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, one of the few people who has done research on Ella Hattan, considers her one of the premiere professional athletes in American history prior to the 20th Century and probably the best-paid. (Mounted bouts often were fought for winner-take-all purses of $1,000 but it was the betting where the real money was to be made.) But Prof. Emery also believes that many, if not the majority, of Jaguarina’s bouts were fixed. However, if this is so, then a lot of people had to be in on the conspiracy: promoters, other athletes, referees and judges, reporters and, of course, the gamblers. Considering the length and breadth of her sword career, this seems unlikely. Apparently, Jaguarina was adept with knife, rapier, foil, saber and broadsword. She seems to have been a superior horsewoman in an era when nice girls still rode side-saddle. Besides, her personal beauty, at least early in her career, seems beyond doubt.
The unmistakable conclusion is that Ella Hattan was the very talented student of Col. Thomas S. Monstery, considered to be one of the country’s leading fencers prior to 1880, and that she left Monstery to find a career as a professional swordswoman under the management of Fred Engelhardt. But her timing, like that of her teacher, was unfortunate. Had she been born 25 years later, she might have been the world’s first great woman fencer.