“What are ‘canonical’ and ‘neo’ Bartitsu?”

Vigny stickfighting in Bartitsu Club

The explosive success of the Sherlock Holmes movies have embedded an awareness of Victorian-era martial arts into the popular imagination. In the wake of that success, it may be useful to offer some recent history and an explanation of the terms “canonical” and “neo” in the context of the Bartitsu revival.

Back in the very early 2000s, Bartitsu Society conversation turned from purely academic chat to considering how to bring the art back to life.  At that time, although the active participants came from a wide range of martial arts backgrounds, almost all of us had experience in the historical European martial arts (HEMA) movement.

The task of reviving Bartitsu was seen very much in HEMA terms, with several caveats; it was uniquely a cross-training method between certain Japanese, English and French/Swiss antagonistics, and, unlike many HEMA revivalists, we did not have a complete technical catalog to work from.  Thus, we would effectively be reviving an experimental work-in-progress rather than a finite system.

Many of the first generation of Bartitsu revivalists had been active martial artists long enough to have seen the worst of politics in other arts; friendships destroyed and long-running inter-group feuds arising over matters of technical interpretation, etc.  Forewarned is forearmed, and so we decided early on that the Bartitsu Society would remain an informal association of colleagues rather than a bureaucratic “governing body”.  To mitigate the chance of our efforts being sidetracked by tiresome politics, we proposed a two-tiered structure for the nascent Bartitsu revival.

The Bartitsu Canon

The first level or approach would be “canonical”, a term borrowed from Sherlock Holmes scholarship to describe “Bartitsu as we know it was”.  This included the formal self defence set-plays and techniques presented under the Bartitsu banner by Barton-Wright and his colleagues, circa 1899-1901.   Originally, the canon was restricted to Barton-Wright’s article series for Pearson’s Magazine, which had then only recently been publicly broadcast via the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences website.  As we continued our research, the canon gradually expanded to include:

* B-W’s four articles for Pearson’s Magazine, covering jiujitsu and Vigny stick fighting
* Mary Nugent’s article on the Bartitsu Club for Health and Strength Magazine, which included a couple of jiujitsu techniques
* Captain Laing’s 1902 article on the “Bartitsu Method of Self Defence”, covering Vigny stick fighting
* fragments from other sources including a single unarmed combat technique that appeared only in the American edition of Pearson’s, another that was specifically credited to B-W that appears in Longhurst’s Jiujitsu and Other Methods of Self Defence, B-W’s technical comments in other sources and what can be gleaned from incidental material (illustrations accompanying Bartitsu articles produced during the Club era, etc.)

The canonical set-plays from Pearson’s provided a “common language” for Bartitsu revivalists, offering a finite corpus of technical and tactical guidelines. They were also our most direct link back to the original art, as presented by its founder and original practitioners, comprising a body of “living history” knowledge. This was a crucial point, and of intrinsic value, from the HEMA perspective.


It was clear, however, that there was more going on at the Bartitsu Club than the set-plays that happened to be recorded on paper.  Barton-Wright and his associates had offered numerous clues and hints as to the full scope of the art via their interviews and demonstrations.  In order to fill in the gaps in the historical record, we also proposed a second, complementary approach, referred to as neo-Bartitsu. As with all HEMA revivals, the object was to recreate the original style as closely as possible, via highly educated guesswork.

Within the context of the Bartitsu revival, “neo” refers to using a body of “old” techniques in a new context; it describes both “Bartitsu as it may have been” and “Bartitsu as it can be today”.  Specifically, neo-Bartitsu refers to the modern practice of the canonical material augmented by the vast body of martial arts, self defence and combat sport lore recorded by Bartitsu Club instructors and their first generation of students, dating into the early 1920s.

In designing, compiling and editing the second volume of the Bartitsu Compendium (2008), we deliberately presented a set of interlocking resources for neo-Bartitsu, rather than a prescription of lesson-plans.  It was felt that establishing a single “unified curriculum” would stifle individual initiative and takemusu (martial creativity), homogenising the revival and ultimately leading to the political entanglements we all wanted to avoid. By leaving the curriculum open to experimentation and the revival movement unregulated, we hoped to foster a grassroots consensus of what Bartitsu may have been and could be.

Thus, the material in Volume 2 was very carefully selected from mostly “Bartitsu Club lineage” sources, edited to avoid redundancies and repetitions while offering great scope for individual variations.  It was unified by a set of principles and themes redacted from Barton-Wright’s own writings.

“Krav Maga (etc.) in straw boater hats”

For almost all practical purposes, every modern Bartitsu revivalist trains in a combination of canonical and neo- forms of the art.  “Neo-“, however, is not interpreted as carte-blanche license to promote any given melange of fighting styles under the Bartitsu banner.  Prior to the success of the Sherlock Holmes movies, members of the Society used to joke about that eventuality, on the assumption that the art would never become popular enough for it to actually happen.

The substantial addition of techniques from disparate, historically unrelated sources is sometimes justified by the assumption that Barton-Wright “would have” done the same thing if, for example, Krav Maga, Thai kickboxing or Filipino stick fighting had been available to him. Alternatively, it has been argued that, since Bartitsu was originally an eclectic method, adding considerable new (“neo-“) material from various sources is in the spirit of his original method.

This point of view is particularly prevalent in the context of Bartitsu-inspired classes and demonstrations at steampunk conventions, which (as fantasy role-playing events) typically prioritise amusement and creativity over historical accuracy or martial application.

The counter-argument is that the further one moves from the original, canonical and lineage sources, the less sense it makes to refer to the result as “Bartitsu”, neo- or otherwise. By the same token, since numerous effective arts combining stick fighting, kickboxing and grappling already exist, proponents of the “anything goes” school of thought run a strong risk of re-inventing the wheel.

While (neo-)Bartitsu does represent the art as it may have been and as it can be today, that presupposes a truly thorough understanding of what it probably was. The revival is, therefore, deliberately and specifically anachronistic, focussed on the Bartitsu Club of London circa 1901 and on the people who began the cross-training experiment that we have “inherited”, one hundred years later.

Ambidexterity in Bartitsu stick fighting

Ambidexterity from double-handed guard

Above: Bartitsu Club stick fighting instructor Pierre Vigny (left) demonstrates ambidexterity via several technical options from the double-handed guard.

The active use of ambidextrous attacks from the double-handed guard is one of the most characteristic features of the Vigny system of self-defence with a walking stick, which was incorporated verbatim into the Bartitsu cross-training curriculum. This tactic was unusual enough circa 1900 that it was frequently commented upon by reviewers:

A striking feature of the training is that in all the exercises the pupil must become ambidextrous; in fact, the rapid transference of the walking-stick from one hand to the other was, to the uninitiated at least, one of the most powerful factors in offence and defence, and one likely to prove most puzzling to the opponent.

– “Guy’s Hospital Gazette: A Student’s Journal of Hospital News, Medicine and Surgery”, Published by Guy’s Hospital, 1900.

Above: Ambidexterity demonstrated in academic stick sparring during the 2012 Bartitsu School of Arms event in Chicago, IL.

Then Miss Sanderson came to the attack, and the demonstration showed her to be as capable with the stick as the sword. She passed it from hand to hand so quickly that the eye could scarcely follow the movements, and all the while her blows fell thick and fast. Down slashes, upper cuts, side swings, jabs and thrusts followed in quick succession (…)

– J. St. A. Jewell, “The Gymnasiums of London: Part X. — Pierre Vigny’s” Health and Strength, May 1904, pages 173-177.

Above: From about 1:28 onwards; more possibilities of deceptive work from the double-handed guard in this video from the Alte Kampfkunst Bartitsu class.

This feature of the Vigny system also impressed Captain Alfred Hutton, who was the Bartitsu Club fencing instructor. In his book The Sword and the Centuries, Hutton noted:

(The Bartitsu stick fighter) can, and does, frisk his cane about from one hand to another, so that his opponent can never precisely tell which hand will deliver the attack, and careful practice of the various lessons will shortly make the student pretty nearly ambidextrous.

Captain Laing on adapting Bartitsu stick fighting to Army swordsmanship

Captain Laing

Frederick Charles Laing was born in India on December 5th of 1865, the son of Major Frederick Ernest Laing and Lucy Augusta Laing. The young Frederick attended an English boarding school and then underwent military training, probably at Aldershot Camp. He also learned foil fencing at two schools of arms, one in London and one in a South Coast town.

Returning to India in early 1887, Laing joined the Bengal Staff Corps and thereafter the 12th Regiment of Bengal Infantry. He made a determined effort to start a regimental fencing club, but this attempt was unsuccessful despite the enthusiastic support of his commanding officer.

Between 1895 and 1897, Captain Laing’s regiments saw a good deal of action. His experience in numerous armed skirmishes, both mounted and on foot, spurred him to seriously re-consider the quality of close-combat instruction that had become standard for both officers and enlisted men. As Laing wrote in his essay “The Encouragement of Fencing” for the Journal of the United Service Institution of India:

There still appears to be some doubt in the minds of the authorities as to the advantages of the new sword exercise of 1895, and the first thing to do is to determine on some method, French, Italian, English, or any other which seems best all round, for a method, even if defective, can be rectified by degrees as time and experience point out, and, any way, some system is better than none; and the next thing is to induce officers to become proficients. This cannot be done by merely issuing orders, nor by Inspecting Generals; and we already know what a farce the “toasting fork drill” is as usually shown to the latter under the misnomer of Infantry Sword Exercise; as a spectacle it is possibly not devoid of humour, but for teaching a man how to defend his own life is worse than useless.

It is only in England and on the Continent that experts can be found to teach, and consequently it is in England chiefly we must induce officers to learn the art. Considerable expense is incurred in attending the various schools of arms in London, and this also contributes largely to the reluctance displayed by most officers when at home on leave to take lessons. I would therefore venture to suggest that the following plan be adopted, or at all events tried :—Let one officer at least from all regiments, British and Native, be granted a free return passage from England on the production of a signed certificate that he is capable of instructing efficiently in fencing.

In 1901 Captain Laing trialed a version of this scheme himself. Returning to London on furlough, he spent several months in intensive training at the Bartitsu Club in Shaftesbury Avenue, specialising in a combination of jiujitsu and stick fighting.

Laing’s April, 1903 essay on the latter subject, titled “The Bartitsu Method of Self Defence”, was published in volume 32 of the Journal and is reprinted in the second volume of the Bartitsu Compendium. Illustrated with simple line drawings, it presents Laing’s impressions of the Bartitsu Club together with a selection of basic stick fighting techniques and some more advanced “combined exercises” or set plays.

Laing stick figures

… it may be necessary to explain one or two details about which I am frequently asked when mentioning walking stick defence: one usual question is, what difference is there between it and ordinary single-stick?

Every difference: the guards are different; but its chief difference and also advantage lies in the fact that it is ambi-dexterous, the left hand being employed in the same way as the right and alternately as required, and further the butt or short end of the stick is used for close fighting; it must be remembered that although throughout the whole of “Bartitsu” it is possible to practice without injuring one another, the final object of the system is directed towards rendering your assailant not only powerless, but, if necessary, of so severely injuring him that he is at your mercy.

Laing finished this article by stating his intention to write a further essay setting forth some “combined exercises” blending stick fighting with jiujitsu, but unfortunately that essay appears not to have come to pass. Curiously, he did not refer to having met Captain Alfred Hutton, the Bartitsu Club fencing instructor, who was famous for his own efforts to reform Army swordsmanship via an infusion of skills from Elizabethan fencing.

In the same edition of the Journal, Laing proposed a novel cavalry weapon which he referred to as the “sword-lance”. A year later he followed up with another article, expanding his ideas about the sword-lance in considerable detail and including his vision for a new type of cavalry sword, designed to pair with the lance:

Laing's sword

… a straight thrusting weapon with a triangular section from the hilt towards the point, perhaps a rapier in its nearest approach, with a double cutting edge of some twelve inches up to the point, say the length of the “feeble”; a light steel guard, and instead of the usual button, a sharp spike two to three inches in length.

The reasons for having a sword of this pattern are as follows:—

(1) In the blind fury of a hand-to-hand combat there is small chance of even a fair swordsman guarding a blow in the orthodox way; instinct will make him put up his sword, but it must be strong enough to bear the blow at any angle, and this is only possible with a blade of triangular or round section if the thickness and weight are to be kept within moderate bounds.

(2) The blade is made straight because the thrust is the most deadly, and also to enable it to fit into the lance shaft.

(3) The cutting edge is useful because the average man will be tempted with excitement of a hand-to-hand combat to make a “slog” at anybody or anything which comes before his half-dazed vision, and he may be able to inflict some damage on his adversary.

(4) The “spike” is for close fighting where there is no room for cutting or thrusting, or if unhorsed he is assailed by two or more opponents at the same time, or again if he is locked in a death struggle with a man and unable to get free; in this case it takes the place of a dagger and can be used as such even if the blade is broken off short.

Captain Laing further mentioned that he was having a prototype sword made to this design and that he hoped it would soon be available for testing by experts. He went on to advocate Bartitsu stick fighting as his ideal model for military swordplay:

… I quite admit that the expert swordsman stands a good, if not the best, chance of coming out of a fight alive, but I fear that the average man is never likely to be an expert, and we must therefore train him to do well what his instinct teaches him to do badly. The expert swordsman has his nerves, his eyes, and his muscles all working together, all under control and all helping one another, and he can perhaps even in the excitement of battle have sufficient command over himself to be able to utilise his previous knowledge, but this is not the case with most men; the skill of the great fencer cannot be attained without years of incessant toil, and few soldiers, officers or men, can hope to become great fencers.

In place then of the swordsmanship taught in the army at present I would suggest a form of it based on the “stick defence” described in this Journal last April, and my reasons for doing so are, that it is fairly simple to learn, it comes more instinctively to a man, it is ambidextrous and the “spike” is a formidable adjunct to its offensive powers. The sword must in fact be used in a way similar to the stick, and if the reader will refer to the article mentioned, he will see the principles of its use described and all that is necessary is to substitute the sword for the stick. In support of my suggestion I may mention that when Mons. Vigny, the instructor and inventor of “stick defence” met the best military exponents of single stick, his system enabled him to defeat them with ludicrous ease.

In his 1901 stick fighting articles for Pearson’s Magazine, Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright had omitted to detail any techniques corresponding with Laing’s use of the “spike”, though Barton-Wright did mention that he had been asked by his editors to remove certain particularly dangerous techniques from the article. Captain Laing, writing for a presumed audience of soldiers, was operating under no such restrictions. His “combined exercises” of Bartitsu stick defence included several techniques in which the butt of the stick was driven into the opponent’s throat at close range, strongly implying that this was one of the types of techniques omitted from Barton-Wright’s articles.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the system that Laing broadly outlined would have had much in common with that advocated by Captain Hutton and his protégé, Cyril Matthey, for the reformation of military fencing; an emphasis on simplicity and “natural movement” from predominantly high, hanging guards, considerable attention to close-play with the butt of the weapon and an aliveness to the possibilities of grappling and disarming. As it happened, though, neither the Laing nor Hutton/Matthey systems ever gained much traction; by the advent of the Great War, army swordsmanship had been almost entirely relegated to ceremony and sport.

“Ladies Night at the Bath Club”

A short account and illustration of the famous Bartitsu and historical fencing exhibition at the London Bath Club, courtesy of the The Sussex Agricultural Express, 17 March 1899:

Ladies Night at the Bath Club

One of the most popular clubs in the West End is the Bath Club, which has been holding its Ladies’ Night, when a curious and amusing entertainment was provided. Swordsmanship, swimming and Bartitsu were the special features. The great bath, with its clear water shining beneath the lights, the platform extending across it and roped round to form a ring for athletic display, the galleries crowded with fashionable people in full dress, all made up a picturesque and unique scene such as cannot be witnessed elsewhere.

Bartitsu is a new style of self defence, which embodies all the best and most practical points in boxing, la savate, the use of the dagger and of the walking stick, combined with a most scientific and secret style of Japanese wrestling. The whole principle is based upon balance and leverage, and the art of throwing an adversary by yielding, and not by resisting; in other words, to make use of your adversary’s strength against himself.

“A knowledge of many curious fouls”

From The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 29 August 1901:

We confess to grave misgivings with regards to the Japanese system of self defence known as Bartitsu, which a Mr. Barton Wright has been privately booming in London for some time, and has now introduced to the music-halls. It consists in a knowledge of many curious fouls. This kind of thing might be defensible if it were taught only to gentlemen of unimpeachable character and poor physique who live in dread of garroting and burglary. But these do not constitute the whole, or perhaps the mass, of music-hall patrons.

It seems possible that, here or there, a burglar or garroter may mistake the purpose of the exhibition in spite of Mr. Barton Wright’s assurances, and admire some ingenuities of the system for his own use. It will then, we believe, be easy for him, having asked a passer-by for a match, to throw him down, however strong and big he is, by the hand with which he generously offers half-a-dozen; or to overturn in an instant the six foot policeman who takes the exponent of Bartitsu with both arms firmly by the collar. We should have much preferred if Englishmen were left to do their best or worst in the light of Nature.