It’s London, 1900. Midnight. You’re walking home from a post-theatre gin with your wife. A little merry but otherwise well. You’ve been unable to get a carriage home, so you take the short walk through the park to get home. It’s late, but a summer’s eve and warm enough.
As you reach the middle of the park. You have an ominous feeling. Followed? Maybe. You advance further and begin to hear the unmistakable sound of drunken louts. Angry, bitter, drunken louts.
Next thing you know. There’s four of them. Pushing you. Mocking you. Knocking off your hat. Leering at your wife. Are they armed? Perhaps. Are they dangerous? Certainly. Their intentions and actions become more visceral and intense. A robbery? Likely. Something worse? Perhaps…
You’re now in real danger…
And this is where Bartitsu goes a bit wrong….
Because for many people, even those who train in Bartitsu. They train for and imagine a dramatic Vigny pose. A few dramatic moulinets (twirls) and handy dispatching of the ne’er do wells.
This is the Bartitsu that’s in many people’s minds when they walk in the doors of the dojo. Many instructors I’d wager, also enjoy this more sterile, sepia-tinted view. But is it.
What you think Bartitsu looks like…is not what it looks like…
In the real world. Our Gentleman (if canny enough to strike first) would be throat punching, head butting, nose biting. He’d be going for nasty impact throws on the hard floor. He’d be ramming the pointy end of his cane into sternums, eye sockets and clavicles. He’d be firing that fouetté into the groin. Crushing larynxes with strangles and probably swearing, shouting, screaming all the while.
He’ll have no doubt suffered injury. A broken nose. Cuts on the arms. His wife will be in shock, screaming and traumatised – if not equally battered.
If our protagonist made it back home at all, he’ll have been lucky.
That messy, nasty, animalistic foray – is what Bartitsu would really look like. And in my opinion, it should be at least part of how your Bartitsu is trained if it’s to retain an alignment to what Bartitsu exists for…
Realistic civilian self-defence.
To my mind, Bartitsu should equip you with skills in:
- Striking Grappling
- Awareness, avoidance and self defence theory
These elements should be as aligned as close to the attacks of today as possible. A bit like the Jeet Kune Do movement, we should seek what the founder sought, not just do what he did.
A cunning formulae
What makes Bartitsu great (in my eyes), is that it’s an art that mixes tried and tested “sporting” disciplines (like Boxing, Proto Judo, Wrestling, Singlestick and Savate) with the “martiality” of Ju Jitsu.
Combat sports have techniques we know work. We know they work because we can see them work. Time and time again. We know a jab works. We know that the o-goshi works. We know that a chassé direct to liver works.
We have typically fewer techniques in combat sports. Drilled to a razor-sharp edge of efficacy. And that’s why they dominate fighting sports. And indeed, many techniques used in self-defence systems such as Krav Maga.
Bartitsu is very wise in using those techniques, and adding to that the self-defence mentality of an ‘Itsu’ art. By wrapping tried and tested techniques, in the psychology, awareness and philosophy of self-defence – we get something at that time, very special.
Naturally there are cross overs and parallels to Defence Dans La Rue too. But we typically don’t see that open minded and scientific approach to self-defence until the late 20th century.
I try to take this approach forward in the work of the Bartitsu Lab.
To be very frank, no one really knows what “proper” Bartitsu looked like. Or how it would have changed.
We’ve got a few canon sources. Which are basically “Advertorials” using the most exotic and unique selling points to attract interest and sales.
And we have the work of first-hand students. And we have the broader “antagonistic” the guides, manuals etc of the era (or thereabouts). What would it look like today, if it had an unbroken lineage? We can only guess.
Much of the club was made up of Gentleman Athletes. Boxers, Wrestlers, Fencers etc. They would have embraced fitness. Healthy living. Competition. All important things today in both the combat sports and self-defence world.
Can you defend yourself on technique and awareness alone? Well yes. But is it easier if you’re fitter, have fought and are used to physical rigours? Absolutely.
I believe our responsibility as martial artists is to, as far as we’re able, try and be holistic and factors in as many of these facets as we can, or able to do.
Even in old age, these approaches and arts stand you in perfect stead. Take for example the case Gregory McCalium, former boxer and soldier. Even in advanced age and declining health, the holistic approach in his youth gave him all he needed.
There’s room enough in Bartitsu for all sorts.
From those who only stick to the limited canon, those that like it as a form of living history, those that have a gentler view and those that go for a ‘harder’ self-defence take. What’s great about HEMA is that it really is Open Source. People can take from it, whatever they want.
For me, The Bartitsu Lab is about making Bartitsu an art that’s not a weird novelty. A 6 toed HEMA cousin of self-defence. Or a version of Krav Maga in tweed. It’s neither of those things. I want to make something that I can share with other martial artists and they say – “I like that – that works”.
I think in all honesty, Bartitsu would have eventually taken a route not dissimilar to today’s combatives programmes. But we’ll never know. I only know that today it’s a vibrant, rich and diverse scene that people of all types, ages, sizes, sexes and martial ability enjoy.
And that’s amazing.
In my mind, how I try and make my Bartitsu authentic as I see it:
- The art is designed for civilian self-defence, against HAPV (habitual acts of physical violence)
- Practioner’s should be able to perform well under press with sporting arts (boxing, grappling etc). Perform well, not experts.
- The art should be able to blend seamlessly the use of striking, grappling and weapons
- Practioner’s should be aware of and cognisant of self defence theory such as awareness, law, de-escalation and conflict avoidance
- Core content should, where possible, to the techniques and approaches of the age. BUT where these are clearly outdated, irrelevant or inferior, should evolve. As the nature of Bartitsu is about “forward thinking” and not looking back
But that’s just my club, and each will have its own ways of working. Like the Pirate Code in the films, these are however, more guidelines than rules ;)!
I hope dear reader this article has been of some use. If you’re already doing Bartitsu, thank you for keeping something special alive. And if you haven’t started yet – there are so many amazing ways to get going. So dive right in!
Article by Tommy Moore, Founder of The Bartitsu Lab