The recorded history of occidental fencing (originally from the word defence in the older spelling) dates back to Egyptian times where there are temple paintings showing men practicing swordsmanship with masks and safety-tipped weapons as well as grappling with inscriptions urging them to fight with skill and courage. The next major references are from Roman times. De Rei Militari of Vegetius details training exercises given to Legionaries with wooden training swords both against each other and practicing cuts against a pell (wooden post used as a practice target).
Very Few concrete references come from the Northern Europe over the next thousand years, but there are some tales of heroes going off to receive formal martial training. CuChulain for example traveled to the famous swordsmanship school of Scatha in the Orkneys where he studied the use of the sword, shield, spear and hand to hand combat under this noted female instructor. There are also records of Alfred the Great hiring close combat instructors to help his men stave off Scandinavian raiders.
The next notable references are to the del Serpente brothers. They were swordsmanship instructors who wrote the first known instruction manual in the mid 1200s. This was unfortunately lost during WWII and its contents remain unknown. The next manual was written in 1295 by and seemingly for monks and contains a series of techniques for single handed sword and buckler (a small hand shield). This manual in Latin and German also depicts a woman being trained.
Things remain quiet until the 1360s when a fencing master called Johannes Lichtenauer from Franconia in Germany traveled all around Western Europe and as far east as Poland and Hungary learning from any masters her could find. He then synthesised his own system and wrote it down in obscure rhyming couplets. This system was commented on, expanded and modified by other instructors for hundreds of years, remaining as a sporting discipline into the early 1800s. This tradition would over its history include the use of the langeswerd (a long sword for use in one or two hands), sword and buckler, grappling, knife fighting, armoured combat, mounted combat and spear techniques. During the transition from a martial art to a sport during the 1600s however it lost most segments apart from the unarmoured longsword. Some other systems grew in Germany that had far less connection with Lichtenauer and included other weapons such as long and short staves and messer, essentially machetes.
The Italians got back in the game in 1410 when Fiore de Liberi, fencing master to the court of the Duke of Ferrara was persuaded to write his teachings down into what is in possibly the most impressive single text on combat in the world. This begins by teaching unarmed combat, proceeding to dagger fighting, longsword, single handed sword, spear and armoured combat with many combinations of the above. These teachings would also remain in evidence, although you would have to look very hard indeed, in martial and sporting activities into the 1800s. There are also English texts from this period but they are cryptic in the extreme and little information can currently be gleaned from them.
The particular line of development that leads us to the modern game has its next jump in Spain, where the fall of the sword as a battlefield weapon as a result of a number of factors led to the development of the espada robera (dress sword). This was a single-handed sword with a relatively slim, long blade intended for easy carry by a gentleman of the court. This would develop further in Spain and in Italy during the mid-Renaissance period. In Spain it developed the cup hilt seen in modified for on the modern sporting epée, here the most philosophical of the fencing systems developed. This was La Verdadera Destraza, sometimes called the Spanish Circle. This was a complex and elegant system, taking many years to master and bearing no resemblance to the bizarre abortion seen in The Mask of Zorro.
In Italy the next step was taken in the late 15th century by Neppo Bardi, a fencing instructor and professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna. He founded the so-called Bolognese school of sidesword. This was a descendant of the Spanish espada robera and showed the beginnings of the complex and beautiful hilts that would later mark the rapier. This was a single handed sword allowing both cutting and thrusting, used with dagger, buckler, shield or on its own. Two generations later Achille Marozzo, considered by some (erroneously) to be the father of fencing as an art and master of the Bolognese school wrote two magnificent treatises which combined innovation and the lessons of the past. The sidesword was further modified by Camillo Agrippa, the guard positions simplified to the modern forms among other things.
Next in our history is the rise of the rapier. Far from its popular image as being the light and agile weapon infinitely superior to the crude weapons of the past, it was a rather awkward and limited weapon. Here the sword truly moves away from a battlefield weapon to one designed for civilian dueling. Masters such as Rudolfo Cappoferro and Salvatore Fabris truly made it their own and prepared it for export.
The rapier then moved across Europe into England with the Elizabethan fascination with all things continental and especially Italian. These foreign instructors served as sword instructors, teachers of dance and etiquette and also brought European dueling culture with them, for example His Practice, a rapier text by the Anglo Italian instructor Vincentio Saviolo is shorter than his On Honourable Quarrels, a work on the duel itself. These men met resistance from masters of the traditional English system of backsword, and the local men killed several of them in challenges. Men like as George Silver who spends almost as much time slating the rapier as he does detailing his sword system. This backsword is a short (blade some 30 or 35 inched long) single edged sword with an enclosed basket hilt. Eventually however the fashionability of the rapier with the wealthy set fragmented backswording into a rustic sport called singlestick using ash staves with wicker hand protection and its truest descendant into the military broadsword and heavy saber systems of the 17 and 1800s. With the fall of the sword as cavalry weapon in the 1800s, singlestick was the last remnant of this tradition and remained taught in fencing salles d’arme (lit. Halls of weapons. Fencing schools) until the 20th century.
The rapier remained dominant through the 1600s, becoming shorter and lighter for greater speed but also more fragile. The French made the next jump by doing away with the edge entirely as they were not used any longer and strengthening the blade by making it triangular. This was the smallsword or court sword. The Italians never adopted it entirely, keeping the strisica, a short rapier. During this period even the sword as a weapon of personal defense was dying and duels were increasingly ending before death but rather displays of composure under pressure and excellence in the art. For this reason, so-called rough play, disarms, kicks and hand techniques were taught less and less often, though they remained until the 1870s as an emergency tool and a historical curiosity.
With lives depending on the sword less and less often, sword training became more of a sport and personal expression in the classical period of the late 18th and the 19th century. The foil, a training tool for the sword, became a target of excellence in itself, and many of its conventions are derived from exercises originally designed to teach good fencing technique. The smallsword eventually became lighter and the body made grooved for weight and flexibility, becoming the epeé du combat, used in training for and in the duels still fought, usually to the blood. With safety becoming more of a concern, the mask was introduced during this period as well. In Italy, Giusseppe Radaelli took the military saber and made a lighter variant of it for sporting and dueling purposes using many of the foil conventions and, while classical Italian saber has largely died out in the modern game the descendant of the weapon is still used.
So at the end of the classical period, around 1890 or 1900, the weapons taught in most salles were foil, epée, saber and, in England especially, singlestick. There were still remnants of older forms though. In Italy, the grand baton used some of the principles of the late medieval longsword, some older rapier and dagger techniques were being taught in a few salles in France and some sporting longsword was still evident in Germany. The other German weapon used then and still used today, though nowhere else is the schlaeger this is a cutting sword used standing square on to ones opponent ad trying to draw blood from the face and head as an expression of courage. Those schlaeger practitioners I have spoken to say this typically involves lots of drinking strangely enough.
Most of this came to an end around WWI and the modern game can be said to have truly begin with the formation of the FIE (International Fencing Federation) which oversees the sport today governing the foil, epeé and saber.