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The Traditional German Sword Fighting Art Called Mensur

Updated: Apr 19

Academic fencing, also known as Mensur, is a traditional form of fencing practiced by student establishments in several European countries including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Latvia, and Estonia. This regulated form of combat involves a strict duel between two male members of different fraternities, utilizing sharp weapons such as épées or rapiers. The term "Mensur," originating from Latin, initially denoted the specified distance between fencers during the 16th century.

During the 16th century in Germany, a noble form of duel known as mensur fencing became popular among young individuals, especially within the student community. Originating from the German term Mensurfechten, which translates to fencing in confined spaces, this practice involved duelists equipped with protective gear such as metallic netted eyepieces, leather chest guards, and thick scarves for neck protection. Armed with saber prototypes called "schlagers" with pointed ends, opponents faced off, aiming their hits at each other's only vulnerable area: the face. As fatigue set in or defenses weakened, one opponent would breach the other's guard, leaving a distinctive facial scar. In this unique tradition, both participants departed with a sense of fulfilment—the victor with triumph and the defeated with a mark of valour etched on his face.

Interestingly, the tradition of mensur fencing persists within the student community of Germany, defying categorisation as either a duel or a sport. Unlike conventional sports, mensur fencing lacks clear winners or losers and isn't utilised to settle disputes, differentiating it from duelling. While injuries are possible, the objective isn't solely to harm opponents. Remarkably, mensur fencing remains unprohibited by both the government and the church in Germany. In fact, the church formally approved it in 1988, while the government lifted its ban, enacted since 1933, in 1953.

The modern principles of mensur fencing emphasize the cultivation of courage and self-assurance, with its revival rooted in homage to ancestral traditions rather than regressive inclinations. In earlier times, mobility characterized the technique, allowing opponents to thrust at a distance, and defending oneself extended beyond weapon use to include evasive maneuvers. However, by 1850, new regulations altered the dynamics, making fencing static and restricting defensive actions. Despite these changes, the objective remained the same: drawing first blood, resembling a duel aimed at resolving conflicts.

The weapon wielded by the fencers is called the schlager. Essentially it is a "saber", but if translated verbatim, it can be called a "hitting stick", which is also synonymous with the German term for tennis racket. The modern German word for "saber" is "sabel". The schlager is a heavy weapon, three times the weight of the modern sport saber.

A Schlager Sword

During the first half of the 19th century and some of the 18th century, students believed the character of a person could easily be judged by watching him fight with sharp blades under strict regulations. Academic fencing was more and more seen as a kind of personality training by showing countenance and fairness even in dangerous situations. Student corporations demanded their members fight at least one duel with sharp blades during their university time. The problem was that some peaceful students had nobody to offend them. The solution was a kind of formal insult that did not actually infringe honour, but was just seen as a challenge for fencing. The standard wording was dummer Junge(German for "young fool.")

In the long term, this solution was unsatisfying. Around 1850, the Bestimmungsmensur (German bestimmen means "ascertain", "define" or "determine") was developed and introduced throughout Germany. This meant the opponents of a Mensurwere determined by the fencing official of their corporations. These officials were regularly vice-chairmen (Consenior) and responsible for arrangingMensurbouts in cooperation with their colleagues from other corporations. Their objective was to find opponents of equal physical and fencing capabilities to make the event challenging for both participants. That is the way it is still done today, and is the concept of the Mensurin the modern sense of the word.

Mensur Göttingen 1837

In the German Schläger combat the position is the same as inback-swording, save that the left arm is kept, as in sabre play, behind the body; commonly the waistband of the trousers is grasped by the left hand. The weapon is a long, narrow blade, like a pointless rapier, but much more flexible. It is sharpened for a length of twenty centimetres (say eight inches) on the true edge, and five on the false edge. For practice and instruction blunt and rather stouter blades are used. The mask is like an Englishsingle-stickmask, but stronger and heavier. A padded leather vest, coming almost down to the knees, covers the body, and the right arm is encased in a sleeve attached to a gauntlet, which may be compared to an elongated Rugby football. In the actual duel there is an even more elaborate system of defense; the right wrist is guarded with a ring of mail, and the arm with folds of silk, which, like the turban of the East, are enough to stop any ordinary cut. Practically, though not according to strict rule, the body is altogether covered. The eyes are protected by iron spectacles, with strong wire net instead of glasses.

Mensur protection for eyes and nose

During the Third Reich era, the Nazi leadership made the decision to outlaw academic fencing, recognizing it as a significant aspect of the remaining independent Studentenverbindung fraternities' internal solidarity by the late 1930s. As Nazi influence grew, fraternities were compelled to officially halt their activities, leading to the establishment of so-called comradeships. These clandestine groups enabled former fraternity members to practice and organise Mensur fencing while evading detection by the Nazi authorities.

One notable example was the SC Comradeship Hermann Löns, established by members of the Corps Hubertia Freiburg and other fraternities in Freiburg, Germany. Despite Nazi restrictions, Mensur "duels" persisted and even intensified from 1941 onward, with over 100 such encounters occurring during World War II in Freiburg alone. Following the war, many previously suspended fraternities were reinstated and resumed the practice of Mensur fencing, either continuing clandestinely during the Nazi occupation or reviving their traditions afterward.

SS officer with scarves from mansur

Modern academic fencing, the Mensur, is neither aduel nor a sport. It is a traditional way of training and educating character and personality; thus, in a mensur bout, there is neither winner nor loser. In contrast to sport fencing, the participants stand their ground at a fixed distance. At the beginning of the tradition, duellers wore only their normal clothing (as duels sometimes would arise spontaneously) or light-cloth armour on arm, torso, and throat. In recent years, fencers are protected by mail or padding for the body, fencing arm, fencing hand (gauntlet) and the throat, completed by steel goggles with a nose guard. In Austria and Switzerland a nose guard is uncommon. They fence at arm's length and stand more or less in one place, while attempting to hit the unprotected areas of their opponent's face and head. Flinching or dodging is not allowed, the goal being less to avoid injury than to endure it stoically. Two physicians are present (one for each opponent) to attend to injuries and stop the fight if necessary.

Preparations for a modern mensur duel in 2004

The participants, or Paukanten, use specially developed swords. The so-calledMensurschläger(or simplySchläger), exists in two versions. The most common weapon is theKorbschlägerwith a basket-type guard. Some universities in the eastern part of Germany use the so-calledGlockenschläger, which is equipped with a bell-shaped guard. These universities are Leipzig, Berlin, Greifswald, Dresden, Tharandt (in the Forestry College, which is now part of Technische Universität Dresden), Halle on the Saale,Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, and Freiberg. InJena, both Korbschläger and Glockenschläger are used.

The mark left by a strike, known as a "smite" (German: Schmiss), was once regarded as a symbol of pride, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, modern advancements in medical care make it difficult for outsiders to discern Mensur scars. Additionally, mandatory Mensuren have decreased since the latter half of the 20th century. Typically found on the left temple of the forehead, scars on the cheek and chin are rare today and may result from accidents rather than fencing engagements.



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