Just about any Game of Thrones fan can tell you the name of Arya Stark's diminutive sword ("Needle") and how she got it (Jon Snow, her supposed half-brother, had it forged for her when her father Eddard Stark refused to allow her to learn to fight). Being small and female, Arya can't fight using a heavy broadsword, so her rapier-like sword -- very like a fencing foil -- is well suited to her. And once her father sees that she's determined to learn to fight, he employs a Braavosi master swordsman to teach her the "Water Dance" style of swordfighting.
lthough Arya's owning a sword and learning to use it are portrayed as rebellious acts (on the part of a daughter of a noble house, anyway), you might be surprised to learn that women have been fencing for a long time. Foil fencing was one of the first sports in which women were allowed to compete in the Olympics (in 1924), but these photos show that women had already been learning fencing for decades at that point.
In the above photo, from 1885, two women are fencing while wearing corsets and the full Victorian getup in addition to their fencing vests and masks. (We're impressed.) But possibly because the corset and other women's clothing of the 1800s-early 1900s was very restrictive, there was a period in which women's fencing went topless: Women would fence naked from the waist up and wearing a full skirt.
The little heart patch you see in this and other photos on this page is not there to be cute -- it's a way of scoring points.
As women's fashions in general became less restrictive after the Victorian and Edwardian eras, women had more fencing uniform options, more safety gear, and less of a need to compete topless.
Today, female fencers can compete in the Olympics in women's fencing using the foil, epee or saber -- the three weapons used in modern fencing. And topless fencing and little felt hearts are long gone from the sport.
If you've ever watched one of Buster Keaton's silent films, you've probably been amazed by his grace, agility, strength (especially for such a wiry little guy) and his brilliant sense of comedic timing. But you'll probably be most impressed by his absolute fearlessness: Buster choreographed and performed all his own stunts with an accuracy that usually kept him safe from harm -- but not always. Case in point? The time he broke his neck and didn't know about it until 10 years later.
It happened when he filmed this scene for his film Sherlock Jr.:
At the very end of that scene, the water tower unleashes a torrent of water on Buster and knocks him to the ground. He gets up and continues the scene without missing a beat, but reportedly suffered from headaches for several days afterward. In the 1930s, Buster discovered that his neck had been fractured and figured out that this very scene is when it happened. (He and his crew had grossly underestimated the amount of force of the water.)
But usually, Buster Keaton's sense of space and timing were impeccable -- allowing him to do impossible-looking stunts that could go horribly wrong if his calculations were off by a second or an inch. For example, just consider the following scene that gave Buster Keaton's film crew fits. This famous clip of a house falling around (and almost on) Buster is from Steamboat Bill Jr.:
Happily, Buster wasn't injured in that stunt (despite a very near-miss by the house facade that weighed two tons). But the story goes that half of his film crew walked off the set before that scene was filmed, and of the remaining half, none of them could bring themselves to look until the dust had settled!
Although many of today's film fans have never seen a silent film, it's truly worth it to check out some of Buster Keaton's best work -- movies like the ones mentioned above, or The General, the movie that Orson Welles called "the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made."
Even if silent movies aren't your thing, Buster Keaton's legacy lives on in the work of actors he's inspired, like Jackie Chan. But that's another story for another day...
The posts on this blog are conceived of and written by various members of a homeschooling family. We're lifetime learners who delight in finding odd bits of history, obscure practices that were once commonplace, and forgotten cultural icons tucked away in books and on the Internet.