Archive for the ‘Fencing’ category

Choice Videos: Tai Chi, Aikido and Fencing

April 10, 2010

Recently I had a yen to see what good viewing I might find in martial arts videos around the web ( at least in the realms I’m acquainted with) and bring them back to this blog.

I’d like to start with a common perception of tai chi as a martial art in this presentation of …Tai Chi Masters!

I’m not sure what the mouthful of white milk is all about…

Moving on from the ridiculous to the sublime, here’s a video of Cheng Man Ching teaching and playing push hands many years ago in New York City. Senior student and teacher in his own right, Ed Young, stands by to translate with a microphone.

The video gives a sense of the Professor as not superhuman, but very poised and balanced.

I’ve admired other tai chi video chronicles of Mike Martello playing push hands with masters in Taiwan. Here’s one I hadn’t seen:

“Push hands” is really kind of a misnomer. It should be something more like “sensing hands” or “by touch I know you hands”…

In this next video, one can see power and relaxation working together. The demonstration does suffer sometimes from “too sensitive/anticipating” students.

It does bring up the matter of what push hands is for… it shouldn’t be thought of as fighting. It’s a kind of wonderful training that teaches your body and mind to listen and respond with right timing.  It’s a laboratory.

Alright, on to aikido, but first with a sort of push hands slant. An aikido group is using a kind of push hands or sensing hands to teach awareness of the other person’s balance:

I think they would benefit from a more standard form of push hands… the way they’ve chosen lacks connection, but you can see how much fun they’re having. The first time I did push hands, the laughter just bubbled out of me, the enjoyment was so huge…

This also highlights one of the difficult aspects of traditional aikido training. Typically, you pick up the sense of relaxed connection and awareness of your partner’s body only through many long hours of training as a kind of by-product of efficient movement.  It’s relatively easy to pursue the wrong path of using a lot of muscle; and bad habits are hard to change. The kind of sensitivity and awareness that push hands teaches is often left unspoken, although you see it regularly in the old senior teachers.

You won’t find undue strength at work in the next video, only a squirrel surprise:

Here’s a clip of O Sensei, the founder of aikido, moving very well at an advanced age. What I especially get out of this is how he immediately moves to blend with his partner as soon as his partner begins to advance.

You do have to remember that this is a demonstration and not a fight.

To show a little more of the dynamism of aikido here’s a clip that concentrates on the technique of irimi-nage (entering):

The demonstrator is Christian Tissier of France, considered a shihan or master teacher.

Moving on to my last martial art, fencing. Well, actually it’s nowadays more of a sport than a self-defence discipline, while also persisting as a theatrical art:

That has some of the best movie sword work I’ve seen. Basil Rathbone seems to actually be able to fence, although the script requires him to be run-through in the end.

Modern fencing has evolved (or devolved) into a kind of linear back and forth tag as the following shows.

Foil fencing in particular is so fast it is hard to follow and machines are necessary for accurate scoring of hits. As artificial as it is, though, I think it still can teach us martially, especially with respect to feeling the distance between the two parties.

There are those trying to return to the old ways:

There are a number of groups trying to revive aspects of traditional western martial arts.

Finally a comparison of the old and the new.

Unfortunately, human beings like to fight.


Secrets of Effective Offense — A Book Review

May 20, 2008

Secrets of Effective Offense: Survival Strategies for Self-Defense, Martial Arts, and Law Enforcement, by Marc MacYoung, The Lyons Press, 2005.


After scanning the martial arts section of our local library, my gaze slipping over the usual well-worn volumes on karate, jiu jitsu and taekwondo, I was surprised to find this fairly new hardback book by Marc MacYoung.

I was only very slightly familiar with MacYoung, recalling some street-fighting related books of his I’d once seen from Paladin Press, that survivalist, military and police tactics, firearms and shooting, or “action library” publisher (as they like to put it).

effectiveHe calls himself now an ex-streetfighter (he used to have “The Animal” in the middle of his name) and a martial analyst rather than a martial artist. He espouses no particular style or school, although he seems to have trained with a variety of fighters and masters. I was surprised to find how much of what he describes relates to my own experience of western fencing, aikido and t’ai chi ch’uan.

That’s right, western fencing… One of his key concepts is that of fence: an effective defense which automatically means effective offense. You are in position to take action without being exposed yourself. Let me use an example from modern fencing, the envelopment, since that’s what I’m familiar with, although MacYoung is looking more at the life-and-death use of the sword from before modern sport fencing.

The opponent threatens with his blade. Its point is directed at your chest. You engage your blade with his, and maintaining continuous contact, rotate your wrist, turning both blades, until you arrive at almost the original engagement position. Except your point is now in a dominating position at his chest and his blade in contact with yours is, perhaps ever so slightly, deflected harmlessly away from you.

MacYoung isn’t talking about making this an unarmed self-defense technique, but about the principle of responding to an attack in such a way that you are free to take action without being exposed to the attacker’s retaliation.

He ties the importance of fence to the different levels of aggression where you might have to defend yourself or others. Most of us, unless we’ve grown up and developed our skills in more deadly streetfighting circumstances, have an unconscious assumption of a limited offense with its own standards. MacYoung makes the point that this is the level of all sports martial arts.

In real life, a physical altercation can begin with a limited offense and escalate into an unlimited offense, where there are no rules, and serious harm or even survival is at stake. Or, the passing meth addict or career criminal can go all unlimited on you immediately…

MacYoung’s criticism of “reality-based” fighting systems is that by adopting the unlimited offense mindset we set ourselves up for unpleasant legal and moral consequences.

At the unlimited offense level, fence is crucial. You have to be “concerned less with what you are going to do than with what he can do to you.” MacYoung says he likes to deal with people who rely on the axiom, “the best defense is a good offense.” They are always so focused on what they are doing, they leave themselves open.

He likens fence to a base for action that you have to develop in your opponent’s position.

MacYoung says fence can only come out of the three components of effective power delivery: range, structure and body movement.

1) Range

fencing duelIn fencing, of course, this is crucial, and the distance between the combatants is called the measure. One’s sense of this distance becomes increasingly refined as experience develops. But in general for self defense and other martial arts situations, any technique has an optimum distance where it is most effective. A skillful fighter understands the effective range of any technique he might use and won’t attempt it if he’s not in that range.

Often in sports martial arts, the techniques become distorted because of the competitive rewards, where an out-of-range strike, for instance, may land sufficiently to score, but lacks power and takes the sports martial artist out of his body alignment. Correct range is determined by the vertical axis of your opponent. Manipulation of the vertical axis is the goal.

MacYoung says, “What few people realize is that moving into range is also body movement. In fact, it is the main source of your power.” (His italics.)

I’m thinking of the relevance to t’ai chi push hands here. Take this early video of Cheng Man-ch’ing, part of a TV show where Robert W. Smith is interviewed. At the push hands demonstration, and along at just under two minutes where the same is slowed down for us, watch Cheng’s feet where he adjusts his distance to his partner for the right range, and that adjustment becomes part of the power of his push.

You can see the same, if subtle, distance adjustments for correct range in this video (which I like a lot for his infectious laugh) of Master Wang Chieh. Not so much in the beginning sequence with a Chinese partner but when he begins to push with westerner Mike Martello.

MacYoung points out, “If you are in the wrong range for a technique, any attempt to either compensate for it by adjusting your arms or deliver more force by using more muscle will almost inevitably destroy your structure. (His italics).

2) Structure

Structure here means correct alignment of the body to deliver power. MacYoung does not spend much time on body details but I think we can see how body alignment in both t’ai chi and aikido, where there is emphasis upon a straight carriage and an internal sense of the vertical axis, might serve us well here.

FrankPush055-532x720MacYoung states that with the right structure both the generation and reception of force seem relatively effortless.

“Amazingly enough, this is often misinterpreted by people who don’t think they did anything because it didn’t feel like hard work. People often will train themselves to hit incorrectly because it feels as if they are hitting harder when they don’t have structure. (His italics.)

My aikido sensei always tells us when practicing, especially when first learning a technique, to not apply intentional power. “Just practice correctly and diligently, and the power will develop itself.” This helps to escape this kind of problem. Focussing on the end result too much distorts the process. People will still be thrown hard without much effort as practice develops and you maintain the correct structure.

MacYoung goes on to reiterate: “My point is that the old masters move into range and their structure then allows that body movement to be turned into force that is delivered to their opponent. It also allows them to handle incoming force from their opponent without being knocked over, which is another wonderful benefit of structure.”

3) Body movement

MacYoung says there are five components to effective body movement: 1) moving into range, 2) weight transference, 3) eliminating unproductive movement, 4) coherent movement or right timing, and finally only if these conditions are met, 5) acceleration.

Just the simple matter of weight transfer is not so straight forward if you haven’t focussed on it. Fortunately, if you practice t’ai chi or aikido, you will have brought some attention to this.

female-aikidoCorrect movement brings you momentum. I think of the Cheng Man-ch’ing form I practice, which sometimes feels like one pulse of momentum carried from one end of the form to the other.

“What many people fail to realize is that the simple act of stepping into range is your freight train,” MacYoung reminds us. In effective offense you enter into range and continue to press attacks without stifling your momentum. This is also part of finding the positions to use your opponent’s momentum against him.

This is important on the defensive side as well: it is important to practice destroying an attacker’s effectiveness through movement. Many people, including martial artists, fail to move when an attack is incoming. They might block, but they won’t move immediately. This can’t lead to fence.

In aikido, we are taught that the first requisite of meeting any attack is to get off the line of the attack. Immediately improve your chances of surviving that first assault and begin to find the fence position where your counter cannot be met. (This video offers excellent examples of aikido movement, structure and range.)

There is more in MacYoung’s book, much more, with simple exercises, photos to illustrate many of his points, and chapters on blocking and deflecting, parrying and countering, and reconsidering what you already know.

But I think this gives you a sense of his approach, which I found refreshing. I’m not very interested in fighting as such but I’ve always felt that defending yourself and those around you is a basic right and obligation. In that context, I found it a valuable read.



Notes on images:

The fencing image comes from .

The push hands photo can be found at .

That wonderfully photographed aikido image is from .

By the Sword – A Book Review

April 19, 2008

By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions, by Richard Cohen, 2002, Random House, New York.


As a boy in northern British Columbia, we lived in an old log cabin on a section of hilly land with a creek and a river.

The first winter we lived there in the early 1960s, my mother and father and three boys endured each other in the original 20 x 30 foot building with its shingle roof. The snow was heavy that winter, and my father decided that among his many modifications to the cabin come spring and summer, we should put on an aluminum roof the better to induce snow to slide off.

Before the aluminum went on, thick tarpaper had to first cover the roof planks. And to keep that tarpaper there without tearing itself off the nails we hammered in, we put lath down, two-inch by maybe 1/4 inch slices of wood, perhaps three or four feet long.

Now you take a piece of that lath and hammer on a short crosspiece as a guard, and you’ve got yourself a nifty little sword. At least I thought so, and I managed to talk my younger brothers into a short period of enthusiasm about sword-fighting with these impromptu weapons as well.

bigswordfightingBy short, I mean perhaps less than half an hour before my mother discovered us and used that ultimate rationale of parental control: “Stop that, you boys! You’ll put an eye out!” A pause to see if that took hold, and when it didn’t, she took steps. “Give me that!… And don’t you do this again. You’ll put an eye out!!”

And such was her power, and the fear she instilled about our eyes, that we didn’t dare take up lath fencing ever again. And she was right, of course, although my dismay at this rude interference was long lasting.

Research indicates that there are real differences between the toys (and the activities they generate) of girls and boys. Boys prefer wheeled contraptions and weaponry, apparently. Studies of primates and monkeys leads me to think this difference is hard wired and not just socialization.

zorroIn any case, by the time I got to university in the southern part of the province years later, I hadn’t lost the romantic yearning to take up the sword. Years earlier, one summer after my father died, we had travelled to the States to visit a variety of relatives and for some reason watched a lot of TV with old black and white movies of Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and others bashing blades. Ever since, I ached to take some kind of sword in hand again.

fence4I joined the university fencing club and took lessons. Over the years, I went on to fence foil and a little epee in New York and Vancouver, and I still fence occasionally at a community centre in Richmond in the Lower Mainland. Fencing has always been a recreational pursuit for me, rather than a serious competitive one, but I’m experienced enough now and still spry enough to hold my own with most, at least with the foil. And it’s still fun and a work-out…

I Finally Get to the Book Review

bytheswordSo I come by my interest in Richard Cohen’s book By the Sword naturally. Cohen is an Olympic level sabre fencer (the third modern fencing weapon, after the foil and epee, and the only one that uses the blade edge as well as the point to score), who decided to write this history of sword fighting to tell how fencing became the sport it is today.

He quotes the 19th Century historian of the sword Egerton Castle on fencing: “… a superior kind of pastime, combining mental excitement and bodily exercise — the excitement of a game of skill not entirely independent of chance, together with the delight — innate in all healthy organisms — of strife and destruction — and an exercise necessitating the utmost nervous and muscular tension while it affords the refined pleasure of rhythmical action.”

The book’s subtitle gives the organization — and the omissions — of this history intended for a general audience. There is much on the Western history of swordsmanship, and a chapter on the Japanese and the samurai, but there is no more than that of the sword in the East, and many threads of its Western history are necessarily bypassed as well, as the author readily admits.

capo-smallThe beginning of the book covers much the same ground, although in more detail, as Barbara Holland’s Gentlemen’s Blood. There is something about fencing, and duelling, that often borders on the ridiculous, and collects to itself absurd stories. Holland’s book brought this to the reader’s notice again and again, and Cohen often bemusedly notes the same tendency.

There was that time, for instance, when duels were used by the courts to determine who had the right of the matter at hand.

“Before long, expert duellists were committing all manner of crimes, confident that they could ‘prove’ their innocence simply by defeating their accusers — for the right to call for trial by combat was not formally repealed in England until 1819.”

Fighting at one point became so widespread in England in the 1500s that one would find while walking the streets at dawn, “dead men, with holes in their breasts…, pale faces resting on doorsteps or merchants’ houses, or propped up and still bleeding, hid away in church porches.”

Ben Jonson, the writer and playwright, for instance, was working on a play when he killed a fellow actor in a rapier duel. He pled guilty and throwing himself on the mercy of the clergy, forfeited all possessions and was branded on his left thumb.

Shakespeare learned to fence under the tutelage of an Italian master. Elizabethan audiences took stage fights very seriously: it was not unusual for unruly members of the audience to join in the action on-stage, and eventually an ordinance was passed banning the wearing of swords to the theater.

FencingMasterCohen says there are 437 references to sword in the Shakespearan canon. Many of the Bard’s plays have swordfighting central to them.

Cohen’s book is full of fascinating detail, stories and photographs. Unfortunately I can’t even begin to cover many of them here. So I will use the shorthand of describing some of the highlights, and lowlights, that I found while reading Cohen’s work, before this post becomes like an oversized sword, lengthy and unwieldy.


  • There is much here on the early history of the transition from the duel of law to the duel of chivalry and “honor.” Cohen, for instance, tells of the celebrated duelist, James Crichton (1560-1583) who by the age of 20 spoke eleven languages, sang and played all kinds of musical instruments, and had what we might call today a photographic memory. Crichton served in the French army for two years, and travelled in Italy, where he built a reputation as a great orator. In Mantua, the home of “a much-feared Italian bullyboy” who often toured Europe challenging all comers, Crichton came up against this fellow just after this worthy had killed three opponents in three days. Crichton so completely overwhelmed this opponent, while wearing a sweet countenance, no less, that the Duke of Mantua rewarded him by making him tutor to his dissolute son. Crichton was attacked by masked thugs one evening while making his way home. He disarmed the ringleader who, begging for his life, turned out to be the Duke’s son. Crichton apologized. He handed his sword as a peace-offering to his pupil, who promptly took it and killed Crichton, not yet 24.
  • “Dueling as a partial substitute for ambushes, gang warfare, blood feuds and assassinations was by now an accepted fact of life throughout Europe. No law had more than a transitory effect: it was like trying to ban adultery.”
  • The chapter on the great swordmakers and the famous swordmaking cities of the Middle East and Europe — Damascus, Toledo, Solingen — is fascinating in its account of the relatively advanced technology involved.
  • There was a time when swordsmen believed there might be a magical special perfect thrust that could win all their fights for them. Cohen gives amusing accounts of how certain fencing masters took advantage of this quest to gather students around them.
  • Also fascinating to me was the story of fencing and swordplay in the cinema. Douglas Fairbanks, the short leading man of five foot five, was apparently the best actual athlete to have fought with a sword in the movies. Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn may not have been very good fencers, but they knew how to look dramatic as they lunged.
  • Several actresses also have wielded swords, from Grace Kelly to Lana Turner to Catherine Zeta-Jones.
  • Presidents as different in temperment as Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman were fencers. Even Lincoln fought a duel.
  • And then there is the whole fascinating custom of the German Mensur: in secret locations, students to this day in Germany, Austria and Switzerland whack at each other’s heads with heavy sabres, and the scars are greeted with great pride.


  • Cohen’s account of the political intrigues of modern fencing bog down for me. His descriptions of the personalities involved obviously have meaning for him, as he fenced or at least knew many. But I think this is a case of a writer being too close to his subject and treating it as more fascinating than anybody reading is likely to find it. (Perhaps like this post!)
  • I was disappointed at the lack of a more technical history, which could have been done here or there without losing the intended general audience. I’m thinking about the importance of the measure, the distance between the fencers, which is left almost totally undiscussed, or more on the change in techniques such as the fleche and disengagement as we move to the modern weapons.

But on the whole, Cohen’s work is both enjoyable and informative. It left me, oddly perhaps, with pride that I too fence, and that I have participated in the mystique of the sword in the very limited way I have.

theatrical lungeMy relationship to the sword, though, remains that of a boy. When I once held an authentic samurai sword and struck experimentally through the air with it a few times, the experience of its stark killing menace disturbed me.

I much prefer to strike a pose and wave my lath in the air for fun.



Notes on images:

The historical images come from either this medieval martial art group or this gallery (which also had the Zorro photo).

The sabre fencing photo came from

The last photo by Merlin Hendy is from an online article about a ballet production showing Jonathan Byrne Ollivier in Northern Ballet Theatre’s The Three Musketeers.

On the Road Via Green Tortoise, Part One

January 19, 2008

I decided it was time to leave New York City not long after I was attacked in the subway.

It was the late 1970s. I lived up on West 92nd Street in Manhattan, sharing an apartment with a tai chi teacher and friend and various other guys enthused about kung fu and karate and music and even God. (One young fellow from the South who stayed with us for a short time was a lay preacher struggling with what he really believed. I still remember his bearded face, his plain, articulate manner, and his genuineness.)

The core group of four or so of us used to go around Manhattan visiting different fencing salons to see how we stacked up. Or else we’d go over to Riverside Park and work out, play push hands or practice fencing.

NYsubwayBut I did need to earn enough money to live. Five nights a week just before midnight for about a year I took the subway down to West 23rd Street near Avenue of the Americas. I worked the “lobster shift” at a large ad and art book printer and typography house called Zimmering and Zinn. That name amused me, named after the two middle-aged proprietors, who often disputed in raucous and loud tones, to the hidden amusement of staff, about the right way to do important jobs.

The lobster shift ran from midnight to six in the morning for me. I negotiated a six-hour shift, since that gave me all the money I needed, and because the intense, painstaking scrutinizing of every tiny letter and space for correctness wore me out. I did good consistent work, and it was hard to get people for that shift, so they accommodated me.

[Nobody seems quite sure where “lobster shift” comes from. One source attributes it to the early morning hours being the best time to catch that critter, but another theory has it that the term comes from early newspaper production:

“(The term) comes from the red hands the typesetters had after setting the morning “red banner” headlines. When they went for their coffee, with their red-stained hands, they were often heckled as “lobster men” by the early morning workers.”]

subwaygrafOne early morning on the way back uptown to home, I foolishly sat in one of the last cars in the subway. These cars were prone to …problems since they were the farthest away from the operator or the conductor.

Sure enough at one stop a group of teenage boys moved up loudly through the car to where I sprawled bleary eyed. The largest of them waved a hatchet in my face and demanded my wallet. I remember thinking that hatchet looked just like the iron headed, worn wood shafted one I always used to cut kindling with back home in northern British Columbia. And it looked almost as dull.

Damned if I was going to give these jokers my wallet…

Somehow I leaped up and positioned myself with my back at the far end of the car against the internal door.

The biggest and bravest of this crew attempted to punch and kick at me, and I returned the favor trying to keep them back until the next stop. Nobody actually connected.

The stop came, the doors slid open, and I flailed aggressively enough to slip out the doors and onto the subway platform.

The fellow in the token booth looked on, unsurprised.

The subway whined back into motion and the last sight of my recent companions was of them high-fiving, laughing and waving the hatchet triumphantly out the window.

Along with being deeply angry and scared, I knew that I was fortunate that dark morning. And it put the seal on my growing restlessness about the dead end I was at in New York. It was time to move on.

I told myself if I went out to San Francisco, with the little bit of money I put aside, I could take another crack at the novel writing in a garret there, and I’d always had a hankering to go see the Golden Gate Bridge. And since I’d been reading a lot of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, somehow it seemed appropriate.

Over a few weeks I wound up my affairs, gave away most of my stuff, said goodbye to my friends, took a duffle bag and a backpack with clothes and books and made my way to where the Green Tortoise bus was waiting.

To be continued…

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Gentlemen’s Blood – A Book Review

March 11, 2007

genblood.jpgGentlemen’s Blood – A History of Dueling from Swords at Dawn to Pistols at Dusk (Bloomsbury, 2003) is a witty, well-written look at this historical reality which remains embedded in the masculine psyche.

Not only of historical interest, dueling is central to an understanding of human, or at least male, social response. Written by an elderly woman, Barbara Holland, who expanded an article she originally wrote for The Smithsonian magazine, it is a non-academic look at the subject.

Some reviewers thought they should be reviewing a different book. They said there are not enough footnotes (although there is a bibliography) or it didn’t promulgate some currently fashionable social agenda. In its keen and penetrating way, the book eviscerates these criticisms with the dance of its blade upon the foibles and attitudes that men, especially, are still subject to and promote. At the heart of dueling are the same impulses that lead to the social acceptability of war.  Some men, many men, don’t feel fully alive unless they are threatening their own lives or the lives of those around them.

I emphasized the age and gender of Barbara Holland above, not as a way of discounting what she says, but as a way of appreciating that those personal facts allow her exactly the right position for the incisive, and often funny, commentary she makes. She is able to look at dueling as if it were the odd, violent, and nonsensical display of another species. It took me a few chapters into the book to get there, though. At first, I was nonplussed at such a history being written by someone who’s never even been in a bar fight.

But then I’ve never been in a bar fight either, despite practising a variety of martial arts over the years, including fencing, the sporting descendent of sword dueling. The other martial arts I’ve practised come from Oriental tradition. There is a recognition in the Oriental tradition, at its best, of the need for transcendence. The sword must be transformed into an inner sword, and the only cuts that ultimately matter are those you use to free yourself from your bonds of fear and hate.

But in the West, that tradition never seemed to arise, or if it did in the rare master or inspired swordsman, it always fell back without enduring cultural significance. And certainly nothing of the sort ever occurred to anybody firing at each other with pistols.

To start at the beginning, in the West dueling as a social institution seems to have arisen out of trial by combat as a way to adjudicate disputes.  In a pious climate, if you won God was obviously on your side, and if you didn’t, it was God’s judgement.  For instance, in England in 1096, one noble accused the other of conspiring against William II.  They fought in front of the king and court.  The accused noble lost and was castrated and had his eyes poked out.  God had chosen.

With this kind of result a possibility, obviously the noble dueling class sought to give God the right view: they hired proxies to battle for them.

Holland writes, “The principals in the fight were kept out of sight of the actual fighting, with ropes around their necks, and the man whose proxy lost was notified of his guilt and hanged on the spot.”

These trials by combat eventually became tied into chivalric tournaments, and the purely judicial trial by combat grew rare after the fifteenth century.  Duels moved from being solely ordained and sanctioned by royalty to an occasion all the classes could enjoy.

A masculine sense of honor began to rise to the fore.  As Holland puts it, whatever honor was, only gentlemen had it.  I was surprised to understand that our notion of “being a gentleman” little resembles its original meaning.  In those days, having good manners had nothing to do with it, and actually indicated that you probably deserved any lack of respect shown you.  You were a gentleman because you were born one, and your son would be too.  It was a status bequeathed by your bloodline.  You had been gentled to the service of your king.

“Gentlemen were careful not to enter into duels with non-gentlemen because, if they lost or got killed, it stained the family honor backward and forward for generations.”

Courage, not manners, distinguished a gentleman. “As the duel epidemic spread, courage came to mean a thin skin and an unruly temper, the thinner and more unruly, the more gentlemanly. … An easygoing temperament meant your blood was slow, and cold, and lowly.”

The officer classes of the military took up this code of honor with great fervor.  As just one example, in Russia until 1894 the czar ordered that army officers must fight not just when they felt themselves insulted, but when anybody else felt that they were.  As Holland puts it, “The possibilities for mischief from bystanders were rich.”

The requirements for starting a fight and a gentleman’s ensuing conduct, the whole matter of honor, were codified and made official.  The most famous of these codes arose in Ireland in 1777.  It became quite technical: “I.  The first offense requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult. …”  And so on.

Holland tells many good, and ridiculous, stories about duelists and duels.  Most are too long and involved to describe here.  But the tenor of things may be indicated by this quote from a distinguished Irish duelist: “No young fellow could finish his education till he had exchanged shots with some of his acquaintances.  The two first questions always asked as to a young man’s respectability and qualifications, particularly when he proposed for a lady wife, were ‘What family is he of?’ and ‘Did he ever blaze?'”

The times had moved on, civilization became modern.  That meant dueling with pistols rather than old-fashioned swords.  Now you didn’t have to be particularly skillful to participate, although of course it helped to survive.

320px-hamilton-burr-duel.jpgDueling was an important cultural institution, ignored and downplayed now, in the history of the United States.  There’s the famous Aaron Burr – Alexander Hamilton duel, of course, all bound up in the presidential politics following the birth of the nation.  Both men expected to be president one day.  Thomas Jefferson wasn’t too keen on either of them, and made little effort to intercede.  Burr shot Hamilton to death.  As was the usual result with duels, although he was charged with murder in two states, the case against Burr was ultimately dismissed or he was acquitted.

The places where duels were fought themselves became famous.  Outside Washington, DC was located the Bladensburg Dueling Ground.  The brook beside the preferred spot was called Blood Run.  Naval hero Stephen Decatur died in a duel at Bladensburg.  The navy didn’t forbid dueling until 1862.

New Orleans had The Dueling Oaks, where under their wide canopy, space for 20 duels at once could be contemplated.

“Sometimes two or three hundred people hurried from the city to witness these human baitings.  On the occasion of one duel the spectators could stand no more, drew their swords, and there was a general melee.”

Many duels were over political points of honor, and insult; but increasingly the press became involved.  That is, an editor had better be a fair hand with a pistol because he would be challenged.  For example, a dispute about whether or not to send aid to the snowbound Donner party caused General James Denver, secretary of state of California, to kill Edward Gilbert, editor of the newspaper Alta California.  Denver continued with a successful political career.

In Europe, they had the apocryphal legend of the “American duel.”  This was accomplished, it was said, by the combatants drawing straws and the loser shooting himself.  No doubt this permitted the Europeans to imagine their dueling customs to be far advanced beyond the suicidal colonials.

As Holland notes, the Germans saw the duel as preparation for war and for their warrior class.  In the 1840s in Leipzig, 400 duels were fought in a single year, although with only two deaths.  This lack of mortality was partially due to the use of sabres, an edged weapon which often provided more cuts and bruising than vital organ puncture.

Students at university had the curious custom of the Mensur.  Groups of students would slash away at each other, two at a time.  Without scars, says Holland, you were nobody.

“Apparently the combatants mostly wanted to mark their opponents’ faces as a sign of their prowess and to have their faces marked in turn as a sign of participation. A Renommierschmiss, it was called or ‘bragging scar,’ and it took you a long way in government and the professions; it was rare to meet an unmarked man of any importance.”

So where does all this leave us?  Rather than our usual notion of dueling as a quaint and vaguely criminal social custom of bygone eras, dueling was often central to the conduct of government and business.  And Holland, paradoxically enough, after long and often caustic retelling of the irrational causes and ludicrous results of this formal violence, at the end of her book comes to the conclusion that, if properly regulated, a return to dueling might serve a social purpose.  She recommends a return to the use of the sword.  “Under supervision, it need cause no more bloodshed… than we inflict on each other with road rage.”

She pleads her case: “Politicians would save untold sums of money by facing each other at the appointed place instead of buying television time to trade insults.”

Holland notes that in 2002, the Iraqi vice-president challenged the American president and vice-president to a duel with himself and Saddam Hussein.  The vice-president said: “A duel takes place, if they are serious, and in this way we are saving the American and Iraqi people.”

“Neither of the challenged Americans replied,” Holland says.  “Still it was a thought.”


[Note: For a review of a similar book, see this post on By the Sword by Richard Cohen.]