Jonathan Green spends time with Germany’s blood brothers, the members of its still active fencing fraternities, where they duel with live blades:
Drawn mostly from the German upper classes, the men wear uniforms denoting their allegiance to a fraternity. They live together, eat together, drink together, sing songs about honour, women and Germany. And they fight together. Despite the risk of permanent disfigurement, the rewards are great, they say.
The duel is a highly specialized affair:
The duel I am watching takes place at the house of a rival fraternity, the Brunsviga Corps. Strapped tightly on to the sweating faces of the two fighters are black steel goggles, with discoloured, steel-mesh lenses, modelled on 200-year-old designs. A steel guard covers the length of the nose.
Wound tightly around the neck, guarding the carotid artery, is a thick cotton bandage. Each man wears a chain mail shirt weighing about 7kg (15 pounds) and chain mail gloves under leather gauntlets on their right hands. The right arm is reinforced with a leather padded arm guard.
All this is intended as protection from the schlager, a sword based on the rapier and sabre. Modelled on a traditional European duelling weapon, it is 86cm long and weighs only 360 grams. With this sword the fighters will attempt to slash, cut or whip anything above their opponents’ eyeline line — skull, forehead and ears are all fair game.
Clumsily, a wooden box is brought for the shorter man to stand on so he can fight his opponent on a level. They place their feet square on, a sword’s length apart.
Only the right arm moves during a fight. To the left of each fighter is a figure in a fencing mask wearing a black padded apron. He too wears chain mail and clutches a schlager. He is the duellist’s “second” and will protect his fighter in the instance of foul play. To hit below the eyeline is to fight “deep” — the equivalent of punching below the belt as a boxer, but to do that here means not only disqualification and shame but a scar and injury for life.
On the fighter’s right is another ally, also wearing a neck brace and a butcher’s steel-mesh glove. In his hand is a yellow cloth soaked in surgical spirit. After each round — which comprises four blade movements — he cleans the sword with surgical spirit to minimise the risk of infection. He also looks for nicks in the blade — a blemish may create a jagged cut that is harder to stitch.
For centuries, a scar has been a sign of good breeding in Germany, and the mensur was seen as a way to test and build character.