Dueling Scar

Academic fencing

Dueling scars have been seen as a ‘badge of honor’ since as early as 1825. Known variously as ‘Mensur scars,’ ‘the bragging scar,’ ‘smite,’ or ‘Schmitte,’ dueling scars were popular among upper-class Austrians and Germans involved in academic fencing at the start of the 20th century.

Among university students, it was seen as a mark of their class and honor. It is an early example of scarification (body modification) in European society. The practice of dueling and the associated scars was also present to some extent in the German military.

The sport of academic fencing at the time was very different from modern fencing using specially developed swords. The so-called Mensurschläger (or simply Schläger, ‘hitter’) existed in two versions. The most common weapon is the Korbschläger with a basket-type guard. In some universities in the eastern part of Germany, the so-called Glockenschläger is in use which is equipped with a bell-shaped guard. The individual duels between students, known as Mensuren, were somewhat ritualized. In some cases, protective clothing was worn, including padding on the arm and an eye guard.

The culture of dueling scars was mainly common to Germany and Austria, to a lesser extent some central European countries and briefly at places such as Oxford and some other elite universities. German military laws permitted men to wage duels of honor until World War I. During the Third Reich the Mensur was prohibited.

Within the duel, it was seen as ideal and a way of showing courage to be able to stand and take the blow, as opposed to inflicting the wound. It was important to show one’s dueling prowess, but also that one was capable of taking the wound that was inflicted.

As the scars were gained in this particular elite social context, associated with status and an academic institution, the scars showed that one had courage and also was ‘good husband material.’ The dueling scars, while obvious, were not so serious as to leave a person disfigured or bereft of facial features. The scars were even 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. In 1874, William Osler, then a medical student on a visit to Berlin, described ‘one hopeful young Spanish American of my acquaintance who has one half of his face – they are usually on the left half – laid out in the most irregular manner, the cicatrices running in all directions, enclosing areas of all shapes, the relics of fourteen duels.’ Some Jews in Germany saw the scars as a signifier of a socially healthy individual.

Because Mensur swords are wielded with one hand and most fencers are right-handed, Mensur scars were usually targeted to the left profile, so the right profile appeared untouched. Experienced fencers, who had fought many bouts, often accumulated an array of scars. A duelist who died in 1877 ‘fought no less than thirteen duels but had 137 scars on head, face and neck.’

The wounds were generally not that serious, ‘wounds causing, as a rule, but temporary inconvenience and leaving in their traces a perpetual witness of a fight well fought. The hurts, save when inflicted in the nose, lip or ear, are not even necessarily painful, and unless the injured man indulges too freely in drink, causing them to swell and get red, very bad scars can be avoided. 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, for examples, as is brought about by the loss of an ear.’

Sometimes, students who did not fence would scar themselves with razors in imitation, and some would pull apart their healing cuts to exacerbate the scars, although this was generally frowned upon. Others paid doctors to slice their cheeks. The number and extremity of scars was reduced in more recent times, and the custom of obtaining dueling scars started to die off after the Second World War.

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