In the early years of the sixteenth century, a sudden and extraordinary change in fashion took place. The sword, an implement previously restricted to the battlefield and the parade ground, became an item to be worn with everyday civilian clothes (provided, of course, that you were of appropriate rank). Thus was born the espada de ropera – literally "dress sword", a phrase which turned into the English "rapier". Inevitably, with high quality weapons being carried by large numbers of quarrelsome young men, they started to be used to settle disagreements, whence came an explosion in the teaching of the arts of (offence and) defence, which became "fencing".

The Wallace Collection's new exhibition, The Noble Art of the Sword, traces this change in fashion and its lethal aftermath, both through the weapons themselves and through books and documents of the period. To tell the story, curator Toby Capwell has chosen a selection of the best pieces in the Wallace's fine collection of Renaissance arms and armour and from the extraordinary collection of early fencing books in the Howard de Walden Library, adding a few choice borrowings from museums around Europe.

The scene is set by a painting of Robert Dudley, extravagantly clothed and wearing a magnificently hilted sword. Nearby, displays trace the transformation of the mediaeval broadsword – simple, heavy – into the longer, thinner and more ornate rapier. It is clear that the rapier rapidly turned into a fashion statement. Fashion conscious people of today may judge a person's wealth and status by an Armani suit or Prada shoes: in the Renaissance, their equivalents might have looked at the hilt of a sword made by one of the famous swordmaking houses – of which some of the greatest were also in Milan.

Some of the weapons show exquisite design and craftsmanship. The one which blew me away most was the rapier of the Elector Christian II of Saxony, wrought from silver with blue and white enamelling. It's a piece of great intricacy, as are many of the items in this exhibition, but what makes it stand out is the elegance of the design and the balance between metal and open space. Also exhibited is Christian's matching blue parade costume, which demonstrates how the fashion in weaponry was matched to the fashion in clothing: it's elaborately decorated and surprisingly ample (the Elector obviously enjoyed his food). The rapier of the future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, made in enamelled gold, is more showy – it perhaps lacks the purity of design of Christian II's weapon, but exemplifies the coming together of practitioners of different arts: goldsmiths, textile makers, enamellers and, of course, the swordsmiths themselves. Perhaps the most striking example of blade manufacture is a serrated blade from Toledo, a truly terrifying implement and a testament to exceptional skill.

The whole exhibition points to a particularly Renaissance fusion of beauty, violence and science. The science part is shown in the collection of fencing books, filled with anatomical illustrations and of treatises on the geometry of different forms of attack and defence. If you are a modern sport fencer, the whole thing looks very foreign: fencing weapons are light enough and short enough that a great emphasis is made on manipulating them quickly and dexterously with the fingers. Renaissance rapiers may have been lighter than the broadswords that preceded them, but modern speed of manipulation would have been quite impossible. As a result, defence would often have been made with a separate dagger, so several of the weapons exhibited are in sets. It's also surprising that fencing techniques were by no means agreed upon: a 1599 English treatise, Paradoxes of Defence, lambasts the new-fangled Italian fashion.

On the other hand, modern fencers would be thoroughly familiar with the emphasis on distance and angle of attack. There's also an interesting cabinet showing the development of the foil as a blunted practice weapon.

The Noble Art of the Sword is a relatively small exhibition: it tells its story simply and clearly without overwhelming you with an excessive number of examples. If you're interested in fencing and its origins – either because you are a fencer, or because you were seduced as a child by The Three Musketeers, Zorro or even Dune or Star Wars – it's a must see. If not, you may still find things to thrill you: the history is fascinating, and a select number of the weapons are of sufficient artistry to be worth seeing from a purely aesthetic point of view.

The Noble Art of the Sword, at Wallace CollectionDavid Karlin reviews The Noble Art of the Sword at the Wallace Collection.4