Wednesday 31 May 2023

A Cut Above the Chest

   Dat gotta Hurt

I'm sure my readership on this esteemed beacon of insanity is aware of the cliched German officer of the past Great Wars: monocle, a proud haughty demeanour and of course, facial scarring. Usually, and in passing comment, these facial adornments are casually described as 'Duelling Scars'. O gentle reader they are much more than just a scar; so much more. Read on and be amazed- or at least, well-informed, a bit.

I am about to enter the fascinating, and perhaps invigorating world, of Mensur. Please note: this brief essay into the combat sport is not supposed to be particularly erudite or even a full exposition. This is, of course, impossible in a short blog post. In addition, I know very little about this Teutonic activity and thus do not expect academic rigour in what follows. After, the usual caveats, I shall begin.

Toward the end of the 15th century, European nobility and upper-class folk began to sport small swords as part of their normal daily attire; as a means of protection and to advertise their status. The general population, that is lesser folk, were forbidden, by law from carrying a sword. Inevitably, squabbles, minor and otherwise, occurred between gentlemen and because they had ready access to sharp pointy things, the problem was resolved in blood, often resulting in the demise of one, or rarely, both combatants. From this contagion, the formal duel evolved. As this post is about something other than 'classical duelling' I will not dwell on the aforementioned topic here. However, I will mention that the peculiar form of Teutonic duelling I'm about to discuss derived from its less stylised brethren.

In Germany and Austria beginning in the 1700s, university students were allowed to wear swords for personal protection. As only noble folk could afford to attend institutions of higher education, this situation did not violate the social injunctions of the time. As noted earlier, the bearing of weapons does not bode well for the wearer and consequently, many a good and potential academic went straight to Valhalla. And yea, behold, the Rulers of the various Teutonic Principalities decided that senseless honour duels were devouring the 'cream' of their respective young men and therefore an outright ban was warranted. However, the banning of duelling did not detract from the martial ardour of the student body and the testosterone-driven and zealous members found ways to overcome meddlesome prohibitions. Therefore, and by degrees, by the early 19th century, a ritualised and formalised system of personal combat evolved, culminating in the practice of Mensur. The name, 'Mensur', is derived from the Latin word, meaning, 'dimension'. I will now describe the event, as it became at its height of popularity in the mid to late 19th century.


The fraternities formed in the universities of Gross Deutschland circa 1850 rallied around the usual male brotherhood activities of drinking large quantities of beer and talking in a loud rowdy manner (hurrah/Arse!). Part of the fun was taking part in Mensur. Traditionally, the activity of Mensur would occur between students of opposing institutions. Although this did not stop the occasional bout between members of the same fraternity. 

The bout would involve the protagonists adorning protective leather and padding. The upper torso was protected as also the neck area. In addition, protective padding was added to the fencing arm. Although the face was the main target of the sword's 'kiss', the eyes and nasal area remained inviolate through an elaborate protective mask of metal and leather. It appears that the warrior instinct was not so engrained that the nose should be removed by an ill-judged slice. I am sure my readers are aware of the eminent Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe (1546 - 1601), who lost his nose during a duel. Apparently, he replaced the displaced member with a prosthesis made of pure gold. Actually, Tycho Brahe is a gentleman worthy of a post. His death is particularly noteworthy/odd, and I will add him to the list. 

Thus adorned, the students would stand stalwart, and but a yards width apart. Each student would hold a thin straight-edged sword honed to razor sharpness. A martial would preside. He would stand close and adjacent to the duellists, sword in hand. His sword's position would indicate the commencement of the bout and intervene as deemed appropriate. The swordplay was directed above the chest area and toward the face. Unlike a duel in the usual manner, the protagonists were forbidden to utilise 'foot play' and consequently were riven to the spot. And then the fight would begin and a rapid flurry of blows would be exchanged. The majority of cuts would be parried, but not all. The bout finished when one of the fencers received a slice to the face, usually on the left cheek. There were no winners or losers in Mensur. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate the student's stoic, courageous nature. A physician in attendance would dress the wound and the resulting scar, or smite (Ger, schmiss) was considered a badge of honour and an indication of a man's steadfast character. Such was the prestige associated with the 'smite' that those unworthy of a university education would pay physicians to slice their cheeks to simulate the enduring mar of the sword's caress.  

At various times, government edicts were put forth to limit or ban the sport but usually, the students managed to continue stabbing each other with undiminished vigour. Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859- 1941) was actually a fan although he was way too delicate to partake. He would much rather use his sword, undrawn, for rattling within the scabbard. Hitler, however, was not a fan and the Nazis chose to forbid the bloody practice. This was not due to any innate revulsion to the shedding of blood. It had more to do with preventing 'Student Associations' from competing with the established brotherhood of National Socialism. The ban proved ineffective and 'Academic Fencing' was driven underground. After the war, student fraternities became overt and the tradition continues to this day. In fact, it is estimated that over 400 academic institutions are involved, in the now, almost bloodless 'sport' in Germany alone. And indeed, duelling scars are virtually unknown. Methinks the woke/wank brigade would approve.        

'The most Dangerous Man in Europe' sporting  a whole  number of duelling scars

1 comment:

  1. Hi Flaxon, the Germans have a strong tendency to go insane and to follow psychopathics and/or idiots. I live in this strange country for decades and can report honestly, that the worst thing you can do to Germans (and their neighbours) is to let them govern themselves. I miss the wall very.
    p.s.: Mensur is done in Switzerland as well. Seems to correlate somehow with the language.