Copyright Hammerterz Verlag, P.O. Box 13448, Baltimore, MD 21202 USA
"Soll ich fr Ehr' und Freiheit fechten,
auf's Burschenwohl den Schl?ger zieh'n
Schon blitzt der Stahl in meiner Rechten,
ein Freund wird mir beiseite stehn."
***German student song, about 1800
"To face an adversary in armed combat is one of the most exciting
experiences in life."
"Und nimmer irrend in der zitternden Hand regiert,
Das Schwert sich selbst, als w?r' es ein lebend'ger Geist."
***Friedrich von Schiller, Die Jungfrau von Orleans, Act II
A last command, like a Rottweiler's bark, a brief clash of steel. Then
glasses clink and cigarette smoke and fragments of conversation swirl
through the dimly lit room. A half-hundred men push toward the counter in
the corridor to have their beer mugs refilled by the stocky bar tender. A
pledge wearing a blue cap starts vigorously cleaning splatters of bright
red from the hardwood floor.
I listen to the muted buzz of the crowd through the high glass doors that
separate a small winter garden from the Fechtsaal or fencing hall of the
Corps Brunsviga in G?ttingen, Germany. Then the doors burst open, and a
dozen or so of my Corps brothers lead in one of the combatants. ***
drips from underneath his blond hair into a thin rivulet down his neck,
his face is sweaty and puffy, but he is grinning from ear to ear. Waving
to me, he disappears behind a gaggle of agitated dark blue suits.
It is my turn now. I am already wearing the long-sleeved black Kevlar
shirt. Knof, my second, enters the room, carelessly dropping his heavy
helmet on the ground, nestling with the buckles that keep his long padded
gauntlets fixed to the tattered leather plastron. An oblong apron protects
his loins. Three horizontal strips of colored felt are sown to it:
red-blue-red, the ancient colors of the Corps Hannovera. Nonchalantly,
Knof pulls a pack of Marlboros and a Zippo lighter from a hole in the
felt. For a moment, I wonder what else he has hidden in there.
Attention, along with the chain mail shirt, shifts from the wounded fencer
to me. The awkward fingers of my Corps brother Frisch start wrapping my
neck with stiff silk bandages. I ***and cough, but the expert wrapper,
a medicine student from Emden in Eastern Frisia, remains unimpressed:
bandages have to sit tight to prevent blades from getting caught in
between cloth and skin.
The chain mail is pulled over the Kevlar and velcroed shut. What an
improvement over the old silk-padded leather plastrons that I fought my
first couple of bouts in! But that fleeting feeling of comfort and
mobility doesn't last long. A broad, stiff bandage is strapped to my neck.
My chin juts out, my eyes nearly pop from their sockets under the
pressure. Am I turning blue? Slowly, the *** pressure subsides. A
leather apron with inch-high ridges is hooked into the chain mail and tied
around my thighs. Helping hands thrust my right arm through a padded cuff
and connect it to a steel-reinforced glove. A black leather square is
buttoned to my left shoulder. I am ready to go!
My opponent, a fleshy G?ttingen local, is already sitting on a chair in
the center of the hall. The backs of his Corps brothers shield him from
inquisitive glances from our side.Leisurely, the spectators are taking
their places. All of them were gaudy caps, and most have woven silk bands
in the color combinations of their respective Corps across their chests.
There are Saxons with dark blue caps, Brunsvigians with black caps,
Hildeso-Guestphalians with lime green, Baltic Curones with forest green
caps and the somewhat grimey white headear of the
Hercynian Teutons. The bright red patch of Hannoverians' heads is visible
at the far end of the hall. One by one, most of my companions leave me,
tapping my shoulder and wishing me "Waffenschwein!", luck at arms.
They seat me on a chair opposite my opponent. In the center of the
battlefield, Knof and the other second are selecting an umpire from among
the more experienced and respected fencers in the crowd. Weapons in hand,
helmets tucked underneath their arms, they announce the combatants and
type of encounter in ritual phrases. The umpire, a Saxon who goes by the
nickname of "Silver Curl" requests Silentium. The room falls mute.
At the center of a hall crammed full with people -- some standing on
tiptoes, on chairs and tables just to catch a glance over the closed ranks
and shoulders of the men in the first rowswith a hundred interested eyes
directed at me; with close and trusted friends in touching distance to my
left and right, I suddenly experience a feeling of solitude such as a man
left alone in the woods must feel at nightfall. It is oppressing and
dense, a primal emotion of apprehension and instinctive alertness that
drains all learning and art from the mind and only leaves a tiny voice of
reason piping in the void. It is like the feeling you have right before a
big exam, only much more intense and on a more existential level: I am not
going to face a board of eductaion bureaucrats who'll bounce questions off
me. But within a few moments, a razor sharp blade will flick at my head,
six times in two seconds, for round after round after round. And it is
only myself, being the examiner and the examined at once, that will get me
through, not by spooling off some body of theoretic knowledge, but by
taking ultimate control of myself, of my body, of my mind, of my reflexes,
of my blade. At that moment I know I cannot fully rely on the skills and
techniques I have mastered with the Schl?ger during the past two years.
All that is left is the mechanical imprint of the drilland a latent
desire deep in my throat to sell my hide as dearly as possible.
For a moment I am wondering what the hell I am doing here. I am hot and
uncomfortable. My mouth is dry and a whole colony of butterflies seems to
populate my stomach. Still, I am free to leave even now. I could wrestle
off the bandages, and make for the exit, and that ocean of curious eyes
and bright caps would part before me like the Red Sea did for Moses. But
for me it's too late to reconsider. After all, I have been through all
this before. This is my seventh Mensur. And definitely my last one, I
Once again, I feel clumsy hands take charge. The Paukbrille, or fencing
goggles, are pressed over my eyes. They look like a small iron skiing
mask, with a beak-like projection for the nose. Inch-high steel ridges are
soldered around the eye openings, jutting out from the notched surface.
Instead of clear glass or plastic, steel mesh protects the eyes.
"Talk about tunnel vision...," I start thinking, but then the leather
straps are tightened so hard I feel my skull sutures creak and thought
grinds to a standstill. A small circular leather pad is strapped to the
crown of my head, where a previous opponent's blade had left a *** scar.
The lower part of my face, my forehead and scalp remain unprotected.
Someone thrusts my Schl?ger into my right hand. My index finger gropes for
the leather sling inside the red-blue-red basket hilt, pulls it tight.
Ring finger and pinky nestle into the curve of the D-shaped main quillon,
the pommel pressing into the root of my thumb to establish something
resembling a pistol grip. The shark-skin handle and glove seem to merge. I
am ready. There is no way in hell I could be less comfortable.
In my rather immobile state I am placed, pushed, moved, like a piano,
opposite the enemy. A blade's length distance is measured from sternum to
sternum by the seconds. Like a prison inmate, a captive of my own body and
its outlandish gear, I can only see my opponent through the wire mesh of
my goggles. The protruding black beak of his goggles gives him a
nightmarish, a predatory appearance. His double-edged Schl?ger is razor
sharp and for all I know he will go for the gusto, that is, my face. Brown
eyes flicker from behind the mesh. Good, he seems nervous. Time for some
psychological warfare. I stare into his eyes and affect an arrogant smile.
If only my mouth wouldn't twitch like that ... and could I have a sip of
water to peel my tongue off the roof of my mouth?
Meanwhile, the seconds have gone into position. My right arm and Schl?ger
point straight in the air, the point at a slight angle toward the head of
my opponent, as is my habit. The padded cuff over my right bicep is
pressed to my ear. I thrust up my head. It is less a gesture of defiance
-- although it sure must look like it. Its a necessity: I have to be able
to watch the forte of his blade.
Knof's blunt blade locks mine right above the basket. Then there is a
second that lasts for minutes, in which I can only feel my stomach and my
adam's apple, both pulsating and slightly unstable. Through the current
inside my ears, I hear the commands:
"Legen sie aus?"
"Sie liegen aus!"
The seconds dodge. Time freezes. Then the moment races on: Blades clash,
my weapon taking on a life on its own: One, two, three, six slashes in
rapid succession, heavy as lead at first, then lightly cutting the stale
air with vicious hisses. Baskets clank and leather thuds. I feel something
cold flick at my left cheek; try to cut under my opponents parry. Then, a
blink of an eye after the last command:
The seconds jump in. My blade is knocked off-balance as Knof's Schl?ger
and swordarm shoot up to provide a protective umbrella against cuts after
"Halt." Extending arm and blade upward from the*** guard I finished
in, I slowly lower my weapon to the right in a wide arc. Roether, my room
mate, catches the descending sword just below the hilt. He starts rotating
my hand at the wrist to relax the sword arm: A well-intentioned
superstition. Another attendant, wearing a butcher's chain mail glove,
disinfects my blade with a sponge and Lysol. Tiny scraps of yellow,
sheared off by the razor edge, have to be picked from the steel with
caution after he is done. Upon brief examination, my cheek seems to be
intact, only slightly nicked by my opponent's flat hit.
This time I try to break his time with a Schleife, a combination of
sweeping moulinets. I get under his guard, pull through and ... my blade
leaves a red welt across his cheek. Unfortunately, I, too, occasionally
hit flat. My opponent appears shaken. His associates request a brief
intermission for him to sit down for a moment. I watch him examine the
bruised cheeck with his bare left hand, checking for ***. I fully intend
to take advantage of this blow to his fighting morale.
Next round, the same again. But I have become too***y, to the detriment
of my cover. My sword arm veers to the right during the first moulinet,
leaving the left side of my head open and setting the stage for an even
less-covered low quarte. My mistake is punished immediately: Within a
second, two horizontal quartes hammer into my left temple, a bit more than
an inch apart. Oddly detached, I feel the double tap of the blade; then
Knof jumps in. Something cold runs down my face. I can taste ***. My own
***. A doctor moves up in front of the two meshed tubes that constitute
my range of vision, gently dabbing a piece of gauze at the wounds. Slaps
my shoulder and grins. Not bad enough to be taken out. The Mensur goes on.
An infinity of rounds later I am exhausted. I feel like I have entered a
dream, a dream in which my actions are as futile as trying to fend off
rain drops by waving a stick over my head. But this is real: The chain
mail drags my shoulders down and I nearly have to push from my legs to
raise my sword arm. Knof keeps whispering combinations into my ear that I
should try. But I've stopped listening: What does he know. Every action of
mine hits leather or steel, is parried intentionally or unintentionally by
the blur of my opponent's arm and weapon. I feel I am scraping the bottom
of my barrel. I am bleeding from three cuts in my head, and I can't tell
if it is *** or sweat that runs down my face to splatter into a puddle
on the floor. Viscous red stalagtites of coagulating *** seem to be
forming on my chin and I think my opponent even nicked the fringe of my
ear! And he himself hasn't received a scratch. Only a purple smudge on his
cheek marks the place where my blade hit flat a millenium ago.
This time I try a dessin I learned from the swashbucklers of the Corps
Normannia in Berlin. It is called a "Stirnzieher," a relatively basic
pattern of cuts, high quarte, a high tierce with incomplete recovery, and
a pulled-through horizontal quarte into the angled tierce. Timing is
crucial. If timed right, this combination breaks his tempo after the high
tierce and would lay open his entire forehead to my blade for the fraction
of a second.I try. I succeed. I miss. A tuft of hair gently whirls, then
floats through the air like dandelion parachutes. My energy level suddenly
is sky high again: Explain that to your hairdresser! My opponent seems
confused, doesn't know where it came from. A good sign. For me, at least.
I know I have to forcefully maintain this state of alertness. Its a matter
of time now. My face is burning. I can't wait to hear the seconds'
command. Inside my head, I repeat the syncopated rhythm of the
combination, over and over again:
Two rounds later I try it again. His aggressive power appears to be
decreasing, leaving his face pale, with large red blotches on his cheeks.
Apparently he stops breathing for the duration of the round, for two,
three seconds at a time, that is. This eats into one's oxygen reserves. I
also notice he stopped using more sophisticated combinations and dessins,
and is brutally pumping quartes and tierces against my surprisingly stable
and high guard. His sword arm is dropping toward me, the black-white-blue
basket hilt rotates only a foot away from my head. That's bad for his
cover. And bad for me because the force of his cuts makes the full length
of his blade whip flat over my arm, hitting the back of my head and my
shoulders, no matter how high I set up my guard. The force of the whipover
twists steel: His second already had to straighten his blade twice. It is
painless, given the insensitivity that comes with fight, but
disconcerting. One of us will snap. Soon. I focus on my dessin again:
Then the seconds pick up where they left:
Again. Pom: High quarte, Pom: high tierce, ka: a quick turn of the wrist,
a *** moulinet into the horizontal quarte pulled through while
pushing my arm to the utmost left ... WOOM ... and -- I've got him. That's
it. The "boom," an afterthought in the dessin, already hits padded
leather: The seconds have simultaneously burst into action, all but
knocking me over backwards. But I still can see my opponent's
sweat-drenched face. A hair-fine line appears across his forehead, five,
six inches long. Then a red curtain falls, turning his face into a mask
of oily scarlet, from which the inch-high rims of the goggles stick out
black and ghoulishly.
Commotion. My opponent disappears behind the tattered leather back of his
second. The doctor approaches, looks and shakes his head. A moment later
the second will turn around, request silence while unhooking his
gauntlets, and courteously thank for a fair fight.
Suddenly all the tension that has drained my energy for an hour has
evaporated, my lungs expand, and a cool breeze of spring air seems to cool
my face. My own face and body dripping red ***, I am experiencing the
cathartic adrenaline high of a fighter at the end of the match. And not
even the prospects of having needles shoved through the gaping fringes of
my cuts can dim the elation. I know I won't feel a thing: the combination
of wound shock and adrenaline will take care of anaesthesia.
At that moment, an invisible bridge links me to generations and
generations of men of all ages and races and creeds who realized the true
core of their humanity in combat -- undistorted by the layers of fads and
culture that civilisation has deposited on the surface. I know that for
the rest of my days, my outlook on life and its challenges will reflect
that one primal experience, of facing a hostile opponent with steel in my
The Mensur, my last one, is over.
Similar versions of this article appeared in American Fencing and The
Sword. Reprint subject to written permission by Hammerterz Verlang, P.O.
Box 13448, Baltimore, MD 21202 USA.