Before the gun became the standard weapon of preference for warfare, the edged weapon held ascendency over all other means of dealing with one's enemies. The sword is today firmly associated with many cultures around the world, not least among them Japan, Arabia, and pre-1900s Europe. I must admit a fascination with the sword myself, as witness the following commentary.
A Student of the Sword
My interest in the sword as a weapon of personal combat was first stimulated by the discovery of my father's regulation U.S. Army saber (model 1902) in a closet, about 7 years after he passed away in 1950. It was a standard officer's dress sword, commonly worn on ceremonial occasions (parade dress) by all U.S. Army officers throughout the first 4 decades of the 20th Century. The sword had been made by a sword manufacturer in Cincinnati, Ohio, and had a tip that was slightly misaligned, due, I was told by my mother, to the fact that Dad would frequently flex the blade (tip to the floor) to demonstrate the fine Damascus steel used in it. The intricate folding process used by Syrian sword-makers to create extremely flexible tempered steel swords was famed throughout the western world, just as a similar technique used by classical Japanese sword-makers was held in equal repute in the Far East.
Regrettably, at some point during my initial Buddhist, anti-materialist phase of the Berkeley early 70s era, I decided that my father's sword was just another materialistic burden and sold it at the Alameda 'Penny Market'. Today, I look back on that act as one of the saddest things I have ever done, since not long thereafter the sword gained a whole new importance for me as a symbol of considerable importance. This loss was ever keener later in the 70s when I began to study Japanese sword and practice the Bushido art of sword draw (Iai-Do).
When I went to the Middle East for the first time in 1983, this vestigial interest in the sword as a symbolic weapon was substantially increased with the discovery of the importance of the sword to the Arabs (logically, I should have seen that dawning awareness develop well in advance, had I but put "sword" and "Damascus" together in reality, as well as intellectually).
I would later briefly join the Americanisch Mensuren Verbindung, earning my saber scar in the early 90s with a group of proto-“burschen” based in Germany. Upon finally returning to the US from my overseas professional work in 1997, I was able to better reflect on the unique tradition of the German student dueling fraternities which a period of time in Germany (especially to Heidelberg) and Austria (Salzburg & the Salzkammergut region) had heightened my awareness of. The essential male bonding rituals of the classic student 'Mensurfechten verbindung' fascinated me, not least because they were such a strong part of the overall traditions of the classical German university experience throughout the late 19th and early 20th Century.
Part of my interest in the history of warfare (and combat with the sword) stems from the fact that I have always had a deeply ingrained anxiety over being seriously cut by a sharp-edged blade. I suppose some of this exaggerated aversion to sharp edges developed in childhood when I accidentally cut my finger to the bone with a very sharp Boy Scout knife, before I was completely indoctrinated in how to handle blades properly (in the 50s, this was a very important part of standard Boy Scout training). I still have the scar on my finger as well as a less obvious one imprinted on my brain today.
As I progressed in my studies of the Japanese sword (as used by Samurai of the Bushido in classical Japan), my figurative fear of injury by sharp blade gained considerable substance, since Sepuku (literally, "belly-ripping", perhaps better known as ritual suicide) is a particularly painful and (to me, at least) ghastly way of ending one's life. The sharpness of Japanese swords has always been near-legendary, thanks to the intricately complex folding and forging process that Japanese sword-makers use to produce their extremely sharp and highly tempered cutting blades. However, simultaneous with the strengthening of my dislike of sharp-edged instruments, a strong attachment to their history grew with equal intensity. This is not as irrational as it may seem, since history is full of examples whereby objects of ultimate loathing exert an inexplicable fascination, concurrent with the nature of their more repellent aesthetics.
Given the intense power of that duality of fear and fascination, my interest in swords and their use by human combatants has simply continued to grow over the years. Part of this is attributable to the fact that I am a fearful (abject) coward when it comes to engaging in personal combat with another. I seem to have a strongly built-in disinclination towards taking on another person in close, personally aggressive interaction (which is just as well, since almost all seriously aggressive acts against another human being are both harmful and highly illegal; one might speculate that I have been socialised properly!). That the history of humanity is filled with malevolent violence of the most extreme interpersonal variety is, however, a fact not lost on me, hence my interest in something that is simultaneously repellent and attractive. (The Japanese might consider this sort of extreme, polar contradiction the mark of a 'superior' or exceptional person, wherein otherwise irreconcilable opposites are reconciled amicably against all logic and reason.)
Be that as it may, I have always had a healthy dose of the latent romantic in me, feeling that I would have perhaps been better suited to living in the late 19th Century when institutions like the German dueling fraternities were in full flower (they are still active today, but I'll come to that latter). Most individuals who even deign to reflect casually on such a thing as German student dueling, typically regard it as irrational, disordered, out-of-place, and socially anachronistic. This is largely because they have no understanding of the subject (or the customs underlying it) at all, except that which a brief mention somewhere may have brought to their attention. The superficial analogue is, of course, closer to the Japanese parallel of the Samurai's regard for his blade (which is actually a terribly complex and convoluted thing in and of itself). What might seem to be anachronistic to the casual observer, glimpsed bereft of any deeper contextual understanding, is in fact a very finely attuned and appropriate outer structural process, within which greater (but far less visible or easily understood) ends are achieved.
In Germany, the traditional student dueling fraternities were (and are) inextricably bound to customs and traditions that lead far back to the earliest European history of crafts guilds, military customs, and social organisation. They are therefore as alien and incomprehensible to a contemporary American as many of the customs of today's Middle East are. As a result, a highly culture-linked institution such as German student 'Mensur' dueling could not possibly take root in the United States today and one would be as likely to find such an institution established on an American campus as a terrorist cell of student anarchists.
A few older Americans today may still recall Sigmund Romberg's classic musical play, 'The Student Prince', which was popular in the early 50s. The plot centered around the story of a German prince who was anonymously enrolled at the University of Heidelberg in the early 1900s as an ordinary student. Younger Americans for the most part are so completely historically dissociated from the past that any such awareness of Romberg's production (or the part of European history it alludes to) is a virtual impossibility. Without understanding the historical context of Europe's cultural development, and especially its evolving history of education and crafts trades, it is difficult to see any deeper meaning in the customs that grew up around the German university student dueling fraternities.
Student fencing (in Germany) developed in the later Medieval Period of European history. Early in that epoch only very distinct elements of the upper classes were permitted by royal decree to carry weapons (aristocracy, highly placed dignitaries, military officers, some tradesmen, etc). Due to the unique system of universities that developed in Europe, students frequently had to travel long distances to study. Since highwaymen were common and lawless elements roved the countryside (their incidence varying with the degree of constant warring between nobles and small aristocratic states that was common), students needed to be able to protect themselves against such threats as were encountered in their travels. Even as the firearm came into use, use of the blade as a personal weapon (outside the army) was consigned by the bourgeoisie largely to the nobility. It wasn't long before informal schools for the purpose of teaching proper use of the blade were established. As trained and paid companies of armed men were formed to fight professionally (these came to be today's standing armies), students, granted the right to carry blades, quickly seized upon the royally conferred privilege of carrying bladed weapons as a distinction to set them apart from the rest of the bourgeoisie. Thus swords quickly became incorporated into the academic scene as symbols of privileged status. Subsequently, antagonist dueling, or the art of individual combat with a sharp blade, also began to develop formally in the universities. Since society of the period was largely rough and ill-mannered, personal insults were common at all levels of society and in the higher classes they were frequently answered with the blade. In the case of German universities, the students formed associations ('Burschenschaft') that adopted the use of the sword as part of their honor system, as well as for purposes of self-defense, and of course for displaying social class status.
Elaborate etiquette developed around use of the sword and varied with the nature of the contention. Most commonly, a duel was the typical response to a personal insult to one's honor that could not be ignored or overlooked. The desired intent of a duel challenge could be as simple as 'first blood', although it could as easily result in a fight to the death by the two combatants. By the late 1700s, influenced by the wicker nature of the Italian rapier and the 'Paris impact sword', "impact" fencing (use of a blade to pierce mortally) became separated from "blow" fencing (use of a blade to strike) due to the frequently grave danger posed by the former. Fencing with sharp blades was of course inherently dangerous and even innocuous, restrained sword practice carried the same level of danger with it as genuine antagonist combat. Up until the late 1800s, dueling typically consisted of fast, mobile thrusting and parrying, with no fixed distance between the duelers agreed upon or specific limitations levied upon their interactions. Several types of weapons were commonly used, including the sabre, the epee, and the foil.
In about 1850, sabre dueling in German universities underwent substantial change as the practice twained into serious dueling (for honor) and ritual contests (the "Mensur", which in Latin means "Measure"). With the Mensur came protective clothing that included reinforced leather aprons, arm coverings, neck protection, and steel 'goggles' to protect the eyes for the slower, more ritualised 'Mensur' (this sort of protection would have been severely hindering in faster, combative dueling). Further, elaborate rules evolved that regulated every aspect of the duel and the "Mensur".
The weapons used for the 'evolved' form of 'blow fencing' ("schlaeger fechten") known as the 'Mensur' came to be commonly known in Germany as 'racqueten'; these blades had characteristic basket-shaped (or bell-shaped, as used at some universities) hand guards. These two parallel forms of individual sword interaction thereupon grew largely side by side, the first consisting of actual dueling with sharp, pointed sabre blades, the other consisting of the 'Mensur' (or ritualised sabre fencing), with the 'basket racquet' ("Korbschlaeger") or the 'bell racquet' ("Glockenschlaeger").
Although both forms of sword play were specifically forbidden (by both church and civil authorities, and in fact were regarded to be equally reprehensible in character), they were considered historically and culturally indispensable by the student organisations. Thus, by 1850 both the duel and the Mensur were undertaken in secret and both were performed to very specific and formal conditions, mutually agreed upon by the respective student fraternities. As decades passed, the Mensur no longer served to reconcile disputes (or resolve matters of honor) and the terms and conditions of the Mensur became even more highly ritualised.
As opposed to actual antagonist dueling, where a fluid, ever-changing combative stance was the norm, the Mensur was performed at close range (participants typically stood about a meter apart, a distance known as the "Mensurabstand") and the two participants were not allowed to move, back-off, or shift their position. Typically, the Mensur was undertaken with the left hand held behind the back and the 'racquet' held basket up, blade down and angled laterally at about 45 degrees. Only the racquet arm was allowed to move; otherwise the two participants were required to stand unmoving and show no sign of anxiety, fear, or trepidation. To do otherwise in the Mensur was looked down upon as unseemly, and a display of uncontrolled anxiety could even be deigned as sufficient cause to stop the contest.
The dueling sword differed from the Mensur racquet only in the nature of the blade, which on the former was curved and somewhat heavier. Since the sword was used to settle disputes of honor and to redress grievous insult only, the sword is no longer in use today by student organisations. Now, the 'Korbschlaeger' ('basket racquet'), and the 'Glockenschlaeger' ('bell racquet') only are used for the Mensur. The elaborate set of rules and regulations governing the Mensur are referred to as (the) 'Comment' (from the French definition). Originally (in the post-Medieval period), as in all forms of dueling, actual antagonist sabre duels were fought with seconds and thirds, and sometimes a whole party of individuals accompanied the participants (since not all men in those brutal times were gentlemen, and it was not uncommon in earlier times for a challenger to deceitfully ambush his opponent at the field of honor before the duel took place). For this reason, duelists were frequently accompanied by several of their own cohorts (these came to be known as the 'seconds', 'thirds', etc.). As dueling became more refined, the use of a 'second' came to be purely ritualised, stemming from these precedents. In the case of the Mensur, the 'second' was charged with an important and specific function in the conduct of the contest.
Traditional antagonist dueling with sharp sabres in the German universities came to an end in the early 1900s, more or less concurrent with the advent of the First World War. Although even by the early 1800s antagonist duels were exclusively governed by decisions of a student 'honor court', by 1918 the entire process of redressing questions of honor by antagonist dueling with the sabre was relinquished in favor of decisions made in a civil court of law.
One needs to remember that traditional German student organisations (fraternities) were highly political by nature, a characteristic going back centuries and related to the amalgamation of what became the German nation from hundreds of scattered, smaller duchies and kingdoms. Many of the student 'Burschenshaften' were of strong nationalistic sentiment, but a significant number held polar political viewpoints. It was for these reasons that student dueling and Mensur were banned (1940) after the Third Reich came into power. This political censure was strengthened by parallel opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, which had always held that dueling of any form was immoral behavior. At the end of the Second World War, the victorious Allied Powers continued the ban on student dueling and/or Mensur, however in 1953 the German Federal High Court declared the "Bestimmungsmensur" (the ritualised Mensur) did not equate to a duel with deadly weapons. The German penal codes were thus revised and all provisions dealing with student 'Bestimmungsmensur' were thrown out. In 1983, the Roman Catholic Church also revised its Codex Juris Canonici to no longer proscribe the student Mensur.
Today, the student Mensur has been reinstated at many German universities by the student 'connecting' fraternities ('Korporation') and the Mensur has been characterised as having important character-building qualities that are worth noting here. Among the justifications given for today's highly ritualised 'Schlaegermensur' (the German word 'Schlaeger' means literally 'striker') by the common convent of the student corporations are the following. 1) The Mensur obliges each participant to face his own fears and anxieties directly and bravely, and confront calculated risk in a calm manner (since although serious injuries are literally now impossible, the Mensur may still cause some pain and minor injury); 2) by agreeing to participate in the formalised Mensur, the 'Paukant' (participant) learns to abide by normative conventions and general sanctions (a character building exercise); 3) the participant demonstrates commitment to a greater communal cause (in this case, the student social group, fraternity, organisation, region, and nation), which in turns initiates and promotes a lifelong association with the student group (and by extension, those causes they espouse); 4) commendable individual qualities such as a sense of fairness, emotional balance, mature reflection, and broader awareness are fostered and strengthened; 5) manly qualities useful in later adult life are formed and cultivated.
It should be noted that the Mensur is not by any means a 'fight' in the common or conventional sense. That is, there is no 'winner' or 'loser' as there are in sports competitions (in the traditional antagonist duel there was of course BOTH a winner and a loser). The Mensur is undertaken willingly as an act of personal self-development and group-identity affirmation. It should be noted here that the Mensur requires more than mere physical courage and emotional control, since it cultivates a sense of gentlemanly conduct, personal responsibility, and refined awareness of how the individual fits into the larger patterns of life. All of these in turn promote personal growth in ways that will carry over into mature adult life.
Today, most Americans have no real sense of what the Mensur is historically, or what its social context means to German students. Most often an American thinks of Sigmund Romberg's period musical ('The Student Prince') or recalls the vaunted 'sabre-scar' (known in German as the 'Schmiss') that was always seen on the actor playing the German bad-guy in movies dealing with the Imperial German period. The truth is that in today's Mensur, the sabre-scar is not regarded as a high-status trophy (although that definitely was the case in pre 1900 times); today the Schmiss is unintended and coincidental, although the Mensur's formally designated target area is indeed the exposed head and face.
Author J. Christoph Amberger, who is today one of the world's acknowledged authorities on the sword, has written extensively on use of the sword in all of its applications (including antagonist dueling, sport fencing, and the German Mensur). In his writing (one particularly excellent book by Amberger is his 'The Secret History of the Sword: Adventures in Ancient Martial Arts', ISBN 1-892515-04-0, 1998), he includes detailed insights into the complex German 'Bestimmungsmensur'. Amberger participated in 9 Mensur himself, whilst studying in Germany in the 80s. Amberger delves deeply into the complicated psychology of individual combat and its extensions in ritualised Mensur. Since human beings are vastly complex organisms, with wide-ranging combinations of response possible to equally varied and wide-ranging stimuli, a subject such as this can be exhaustive in its philosophical reach.
Among the fascinating lateral associations Amberger connects with are feelings and sensations that any combatant would face (whether a student fencer or a battle-hardened soldier), since the raw human response of fear is virtually universal at a certain level in all confrontations with the prospect of sustaining severe personal injury or death. One fact that soon becomes apparent is that no how skillful, how practiced, how well-trained a combatant may be, the effects of personal fear can never be underestimated in a full-proof prognostication of the end-result. For these reasons (among many), Amberger is recommended reading for any student of the sword.In modern German Mensur, the range of regulations ('Comment') governing Bestimmungsmenur ('Fechtkomment') is quite broad and the Coberg Convention (the governing body of rules for all student Mensurfechten) contains no less than 100 paragraphs of commentary on the practice.
The typical 'Korbschlaeger' ('basket racquet') used is specified as having a blade about 85 cm long and at least 1 cm wide. It has a conspicuous 'basket grip' that protects the hand and that is typically decorated in the 'couleurs' of the student Korps the 'Paukant' belongs to. In contrast to sport fencing, the two participants stand and remain fixed at a meter apart, with a second on each sinister side. An impartial observer stands within immediate viewing and the spectators range about, without striking distance, but within viewing distance. In the Mensur, a participant always goes up against a member from another student association (never his own).
A Mensur consists of a standard number (40) of 'courses', each consisting of 8 blows (4 by each Paukant). The courses are determined and called out by the seconds, who start, intervene, and end each course. The 'Paukant' must try to strike his opponent while simultaneously covering himself from receiving blows. Clearly, the more daring the offense, the more likely one is to be hit; conservative, largely defensive strategy is looked down upon as timorous and unbecoming, despite its safety. Much weight is placed upon the perfect maintenance of stance of the participant, since moving to avoid blows with the body or foot is forbidden; moreover, such movement is considered extremely poor form and may be cause for premature cessation of the Mensur (only the sword-arm is permitted to move). 40 courses are considered the norm for completion of the Mensur, although if either of the 'Paukant' receive 'Schmisse' that are particular bloody or serious, the contest may be considered at an end at the discretion of the attending seconds and physicians (known as 'Bader').
In that event a Mensur may be deemed satisfactorily completed and the 'Schmisse' will be sutured on site, although without local anaesthetic! Typically, a new 'Burschenshaft Fuchs' (fraternity) pledge is not allowed to participate in the Mensur until after having completed one and a half to two terms of study, involving about one hour of fencing study daily instructed by the student organisation's 'fencing master'.
As might be expected, today's German student organisations are far more casual and informal than they were a century ago. Back in the late 1800s, student 'Korps' more often resembled paramilitary units in the degree of their ritual pomp, tradition, and display. Each organisation had (and still has) its own distinctive 'couleurs', 'Mutzen' (cap), uniform (for special occasions), and other traditional accoutrements. Today, the student Korps ('Burschenschaft Verbindung') is more reflective of the casual nature of contemporary world-wide 'pop-culture' that predominates widely among today's youths, although discernibly less so in German universities than in other countries. Once a student becomes a member of a particular Korps and graduates, he remains associated with that Korps for life as an 'old gentleman' ('Alte Burschen'). A new pledge is known traditionally as a 'Fuchs' (Fox) and becomes a full 'brother' ('Bursch) after completing his requisite Mensur contests.
While today's 'Bestimmungsmensur fechter' is a vastly different animal from that which one found on the typical German university campus of the late 1800s (and in Sigmund Romberg's 'The Student Prince', at old Heidelberg University), he is still a fascinating product of a system that incorporates martial sword arts into the rituals of manly maturity and growth that are unique to the German university system. As a life-long romantic, as well as a not-very-proficient student of the sword myself, I cannot but occasionally reflect upon the fact that I was probably born a hundred years too late and in the wrong nation! The added fact that I am by nature a rather base coward simply augers that much more strongly for the attraction of the Mensur as a personal test of manhood.
One final comment appears to be in order. Today's etiquette and established forms of courteous behavior grew up to replace the use of weapons to resolve conflicts in Western society. Far too many adults in the United States fail to impress this fact upon their offspring as part of the basic 'core learning', that all children need to acquire in order to successfully mature. In other words, there are distinctly valid reasons for encouraging and promoting a display of courteous behavior on the part of adolescents.
Attendant to today's growing trend towards casual juvenile lawlessness and gratuitous disregard by adolescents for social norms, it is interesting to reflect briefly upon an often quoted admonishment of the 'gun lobby' that "An armed nation is a polite nation". While I do not agree with the idea that individuals should be allowed to go about openly armed in today's American society (as they did in the 'Old West'), there is no disputing the fact that casually insulting someone who can clearly do great harm to you is not something one undertakes lightly--no matter how young and disrespectful one is. Participation in the German Mensur, aside from its other positive social qualities already mentioned, confers a greater sense of respect in the individual for the larger society, with all the incumbent responsibilities and obligations requisite therein. Perhaps America would benefit from adoption of a similar 'character-building' custom? Of course, we'll never find out, but it's fun to speculate.
Realistically, there is no simple solution to the widespread civil lawlessness and disregard for common social courtesies and politeness that characterises modern America. Guns, knives, swords, or any other weapon openly carried are not the answers we seek, when the fact is that the very nature of American democracy's much ballyhooed attempt to promote harmonious 'diversity' is a prime contributing current underlying much of it! Still, for those of us who are aware of the mechanisms of social disintegration that exist in the USA, such interesting character-building institutions as the German 'Mensur' (which could only exist in a strongly homogenous society) are an attractive (if categorically impossible to achieve) reminder of how things might be, in a different world.
Finally, although today there is much posing and posturing, often combined with the same sort of fantasizing inspired by ‘historical re-creator’ types (one of the best examples is the Society for Creative Anachronism), the blade in real life is never drawn in jest or in play. Nowhere is this lesson better exemplified than in Japanese Iai-Do, where traditionally once drawn the blade was required to be blooded before it could honorably be re-sheathed. Further, personal arrogance and self-aggrandisement has no place in the genuine world of martial arts, whether of the Japanese or other variety. In truth, the actual essence of all martial arts is to achieve such a high level of centering with the Universal Emptiness that there is no need to draw the blade. The classical Japanese Sensei of the Katana, Musashi, would be the first to affirm that central truth, were he still alive. As the Japanese say, a sword without kokoro is no sword. And what is the sound of no sword striking? Nothingness……..