Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mark Twain and Dueling Scars

Mark Twain visited Heidelberg in Germany and described the culture of dueling that pervaded German universities.  The following is from his book, 'A Tramp Abroad', published 1881 describing dueling in H


The dueling spot...

... a large whitewashed apartment perhaps fifty feet long by thirty feet wide and twenty or twenty-five high; a well-lighted place with no carpet, and across one end and down both sides extended a row of tables, and at these tables some fifty or seventy-five students are sitting, sipping wine, playing cards or chess, chatting and smoking cigarettes while they wait for the coming duels.


The duelers

The students belong to one of five corps with colored caps representing the corps to which they belong.  They neither bow to nor speak with students whose caps differ in color from their own. It was considered that a person could strike harder in the duel if he had never been in a condition of comradeship with his antagonist; therefore, comradeship between the corps is not permitted.


The swords

In the windows at the vacant end of the room stand six or eight, narrow-bladed swords with large protecting guards for the hand, and outside is a man at work sharpening others on a grindstone.  When a sword left his hand you could shave yourself with it.


Protective clothing

The duelers eyes are protected by iron goggles which project an inch or more.  The leather straps of the goggles bind their ears flat against their heads and these straps are wound around and around with thick wrappings which a sword could not cut through.  From chin to ankle they are padded thoroughly against injury; their arms are bandaged and rebandaged, layer upon layer, until they look like solid black logs.  They resembled beings one sees in nightmares. Their arms which projected straight out from their bodies are so heavy that fellow-students walk beside them and help to support them.


The duels

The instant the word is given, the two duelers spring forward and begin to rain blows down upon each other with such lightning rapidity that it is not possible to tell whether you see swords or only the flashes they make in the air.  Every few moments the quick-eyed seconds would notice that a sword was bent — then they would call "Halt!" strike up the contending weapons, and an assisting student would straighten the bent one. 

In time the fighters began to show great fatigue.  At intervals they are allowed to rest a for a moment, and they get other rests when they wound each other, for then they could sit down while the doctor applied the lint and bandages. The rule is that the battle must continue fifteen minutes if the men can last that long; and as the breaks do not count, the duel normally lasts twenty or thirty minutes.



           An 1896 picture of Adolf Hoffmann-Heyden, a German Corpsstudent, showing an             extensive fresh fencing scar and some minor old ones.

Scars were usually targeted to the left profile, so the right profile appeared untouched.  (This may sound counter-intuitive since, because most people are right-handed, it is usually the right profiles of the duelists that face each other, which is where you would expect the scars to be.   The right profile however is also the profile that is protected by the sword of a right-handed swordsman.)

Dueling scars were seen as a badge of honor.  They were known as 'Mensur scars' or 'bragging scars'.

American tourists visiting Germany in the late 19th century were shocked to see the students at major German universities such as Heidelberg, Bonn, or Jena with facial scars - some older, some more recent, and some still wrapped in bandages.

German military laws permitted men to wage duels of honor until World War I, and in 1933 the Nazi government legalized the practice once more.

Within the duel, it was seen as a way of showing courage to be able to stand and take the blow, as opposed to inflicting the wound.  In fact, the victor was seen as the person who could walk away from the duel with a cut that would become an obvious scar.  It was important to show dueling prowess, but also that one was capable of taking the wound that was inflicted.

The scars showed that one had courage and also would make 'good husband material', because they implied strength of character and were an indicator of social standing insofar as dueling occurred in the better universities; and the wounds were not so serious as to leave a person disfigured or bereft of facial features.

The scars were judged by Otto von Bismarck to be a sign of bravery, and men’s courage could be judged "by the number of scars on their cheeks".

Minority groups in Germany also indulged in the practice, some seeing it as an aid in their social situation, including some Jews who wore the scars with pride. 

The swords used are so razor-like that they cut without bruising, so that the lips of the wounds can be closely pressed, leaving no great disfigurement, such as would be brought about by the loss of an ear.

Sometimes, students who did not fence would scar themselves with razors in imitation.  Others paid doctors to slice their cheeks. 

Face wounds from dueling are so prized that youths have even been known to pull them apart from time to time and put red wine in them to make them heal badly and leave as ugly a scar as possible.


A colored silk band or ribbon worn diagonally across the breast signifies that the wearer has fought three duels in which a decision was reached — duels in which he either whipped or was whipped — for drawn battles do not count.  After a student has received his ribbon he is 'free'; he can cease from fighting, without reproach.  He can volunteer to fight if he wants to, or remain quiescent if he prefers to do so; but most volunteer to fight again and again. 

Prince Bismarck fought thirty-two of these duels in a single summer term when he was in college.  So he fought twenty-nine after his badge had given him the right to retire from the field.



I had seen the heads and faces of ten youths gashed in every direction by the keen two-edged blades, and yet had not seen a victim wince, nor heard a moan.  Such endurance is to be expected in savages and prize-fighters, for they are born and educated to it; but to find it in these gentlemanly bred and kindly natured young fellows is matter for surprise.  It was not merely under the excitement of the sword-play that this fortitude was shown; it was shown in the surgeon's room where the doctor's manipulations brought out neither grimaces nor moans. 


Bismarck's wisdom:

A statesman... must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment.

Never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied.

When a man says he approves of something in principle, it means he hasn't the slightest intention of putting it into practice.

When you want to fool the world, tell the truth.

The most significant event of the 20th century will be that the fact that the North Americans speak English.  How true!

He who is not a socialist at 19 has no heart.  He who is still a socialist at 30 has no brain.

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