Seattle devotees study what is known as Bartitsu, gathering twice weekly to practice it and other forms of Victorian “antagonistics.”
BACK IN 2010, when Seattle writer/playwright/director John Longenbaugh was researching for his play-in-progress, “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol,” he came across a curious passage in “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Empty House” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me.”
It turned out that Conan Doyle misspelled the name, and that the correct term — Bartitsu — is an English neologism rather than a Japanese word. Bartitsu incorporates principles and techniques of jujitsu, but it’s more a form of cross-cultural mixed martial arts. Longenbaugh calls it “the world’s first mixed martial art” — invented by Victorian-era British engineer and world traveler Edward William Barton-Wright. Combining techniques from jujitsu, judo, boxing, wrestling, savate (French kickboxing), sword fighting, and other forms of close combat he had learned in his travels, Barton-Wright humbly named the new form of conditioning and self-defense after himself. He set up shop in London to teach “how to remove a troublesome man from the room.”
Now a group of Seattle devotees studies Bartitsu, gathering twice weekly to practice it along with other forms of Victorian “antagonistics.” Longenbaugh, an enthusiastic (and frequently bruised) group member in long standing, describes its regimen as “a hybrid of fitness training and creative anachronism — silly, good fun.”
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The group meets Tuesday and Thursday nights in a loft at the School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts in South Seattle. The loft is equipped with swords, canes, face guards, a library of works on Victorian antagonistics (anchored by Tony Wolf’s “The Bartitsu Compendium, Vols. I and II”), medicine balls, clubs and other pieces of weaponry and fitness equipment. Much of the equipment was invented at the close of the 19th century to provide “a most exhilarating and graceful exercise,” in Barton-Wright’s words.
The group’s members are, by turns, serious and self-mocking, combining rigorous exercise with Victorianesque banter, playfully formal turns of phrase and a loosely observed dress code requiring them to work out in black slacks, black shoes and a white shirt. A subset of the Lonin Club, which studies historical European martial arts, they call themselves the “Barton-Wright/Alfred Hutton Alliance for Historically Accurate Hoplology and Antagonistics” (BWAHAHAHA) and conduct their workouts with studied courtliness. (Barton-Wright’s co-eponym is Captain Alfred Hutton, the foremost swordsman of the late Victorian era and co-founder of the Kernoozers Club, which researched ancient forms of combat.) There is a great deal of bowing and saluting to one another with a free (that is, non-weapon-wielding) forearm, crossed diagonally over the chest. When paired off for sparring sessions, opponents bow, salute, and shake hands before and after, addressing one another formally (“Mr. Longenbaugh” . . . “Mr. MacIntosh” . . . “Mr. Creech” . . . “Dr. Lowrey.” Although the group claims some female membership, there was not a Miss or Mrs. to be seen on the occasions this reporter was present). They habitually stop to mutely apologize whenever one of them inadvertently strikes a serious blow to the head.
Occasionally, a participant steps out of the workout for a moment to check messages on a smartphone. In such an over-the-top Victorian context, this can be a little jarring.
BEFORE GETTING DOWN to detailed instruction and sparring, every session begins with 30 minutes of group work with “Indian clubs” — 25-pound weights shaped vaguely like bowling pins, used in a detailed set of exercises that, in the words of pugilism instructor Tim Ruzicki, “are all about kinetic energy, movement, being athletic — very fluid, kinetic exercises.”
These routines — a blend of stretching, flexing, whirling and holding in place — prove to be surprisingly intricate and invigorating. They leave one with a subtle, pleasant feeling of muscle exhaustion, and are considerably more intellectually challenging and physically pleasurable than the drudgery of modern weightlifting.
One exercise in particular is considerably more challenging: the balancing of a 10-foot-long “slosh pipe,” 60 percent filled with water, on your shoulders. It tends to reduce you to staggering around as if you were . . . well, sloshed.
Next up is a punishing medicine-ball session, the group arranged in a circle and randomly tossing an extremely heavy medicine ball around until everyone’s strength more or less gives out.
After these preliminaries, the participants are tired, perspiring, panting and ready to get down to formal instruction: on Tuesdays, cane-, grand bâton-, and sword-fighting, and on Thursdays, 18th- and 19th-century bare-knuckle boxing, or Victorian “pugilism,” also called “fencing with the fists.”
For Ruzicki, one of five Victorian pugilism instructors in the world (“We all know each other, the ones who have really studied and researched it, learned it.”), the sport is a mix of art and sweet science.
“People like me,” he says, “never quite clicked with modern boxing. This is a much better martial art. The point of martial arts, which has sort of been lost over time, is that you defend yourself while essentially imposing your will.”
Indeed, his instruction is very much about “causing harm to someone else while defending yourself.” As he circles his students, constantly making tiny adjustments in their physical posture and defensive stance, he teaches the fine details of leaning just out of reach of a thrown punch, of parrying a punch with an elbow, then in either case quickly counterpunching while the opponent is relatively defenseless. “My goal as a teacher,” he says, “is to teach them the art of pugilism and get them to the point where they can spar with each other usefully and safely.”
To that end, he has them pair off, once the instructional segment of the evening is over, to fight one another. He always has them don protective headgear “mainly because we aim straight at each other’s noses. There would be a lot of broken noses, busted teeth, black eyes, otherwise, because we don’t have gloves to protect each other.”
Circulating among the combatants, he calls out encouragement and instruction. “Turn your hand out . . . keep your upper body straight . . . just focus on getting out of the way . . . that’s where the beauty is — you stay just out of range, then hit him on the return . . . OK, good! Now punch each other in the face!”
THE TUESDAY LESSONS with weaponry, which are similarly detailed and intricate, are laced with nonstop, entertaining narrative. Instructor Nathan Barnett, coaching his pupils on the proper technique of fighting with the cane, says at one point, “Functionally speaking, the thrust is not my favorite technique with this weapon. The objective with this in a practical context is to find targets that will hold the weapon: eye sockets, throat, underbelly . . . These would be your targets.” He pauses, possibly for dramatic effect, then cautions: “Obviously, we don’t want to do that here.”
Barnett, who works by day as a technical writer on enterprise software for Microsoft, and on weekends helps his wife run a Victorian-themed bed-and-breakfast in Port Townsend, is equal parts gym instructor and performance artist at BWAHAHAHA. He exhibits a wide array of comically ferocious facial expressions when sparring with his students and peppers his instruction with satirical turns of phrase. “You want to be sure to keep your back heel on the ground,” he says one night, demonstrating the proper way to bury a sword in an opponent’s midsection. “That way, you can put all your MANLY GIRTH into the thrust.”
I picked up one of these swords one night to examine it. It looked from a distance to be made of wood painted black, but upon close examination proved to be made of a super-hard, heavy substance that might have been some kind of plastic. “What is this made of?” I asked Barnett.
“DARK MATTER,” he said ominously, his eyebrows arching.
For all of that, Barnett takes the Bartitsu regimen very seriously. “Some come to these classes for fitness,” he says, “and some want to learn a martial art but also have an interest in history. I think that what they’re doing in the class is fantastic from the fitness perspective. I see people getting into better shape. The weight training and the core work that we do is fantastic. And frankly . . . any activity is better than our normal lives.”
THIS IS AN INTERESTING echo of the concerns voiced at the birth of Bartitsu and other manifestations of the Victorian physical culture movement, which arose in response to fears at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution of “Degeneration Amongst Londoners,” as James Cantlie titled an 1898 editorial in The Strand magazine. This “gradual degeneration,” he wrote, was advancing because “in place of our hands and arms we use machines now-a-days, and in place of our legs, we have railways, omnibuses, cabs, etc., to supplant the necessity for their use.” In order to combat “physical retrocession,” the Victorians called for “wholesome athletic activity,” “physical culture” and “muscular Christianity.” An unnamed editorialist wrote in Spirit of the Times, “The object of education is to make men out of boys. Real-life men, not bookworms, not smart fellows but manly fellows.”
Most of the manly men in this present-day group are bookworms by day, drawn to the sessions by a mixture of desire for exercise, desire for fun, fascination with Victoriana and hanging out with like-minded folks. “I’m not doing this to get ripped,” says Geoff Lowrey, a physician. “I’m doing this to fence and have fun.” Having lettered in sport fencing as an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University, he was looking around for “something fencing-related” when a friend told him about BWAHAHAHA. “If I was here five days a week or had the Indian clubs at home like some of these guys do, it would make a significant difference. But even at this level, I’ve seen some improvement in my strength, doing the clubs and medicine balls.”
For Longenbaugh, BWAHAHAHA — which he terms “body-friendly fitness” — is an infinitely more pleasant alternative to our era’s grim, solitary custom of working out alone in crowded gyms. “It’s hard to take this too seriously as a martial art when you show up in dress shoes and a white shirt,” he says. “People into releasing their inner tiger aren’t going to gravitate toward this. When you’re learning the patterns and everything, it feels kind of silly at times. But there’s no question it’s a good workout. And physical therapists are coming out now with all this stuff about correct posture, chest out, chin down . . . we’re doing apparently precisely what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Or, in the words of the group’s website, “Our group places a heavy emphasis on physical conditioning, using techniques popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Far from being obsolete, these are enjoying a revival in today’s fitness clubs, and so we can say in all honesty that we were into them before they were cool.”
BWAHAHAHAians are no less devoted to their post-workout workout, convening after every SANCA session at Georgetown’s Jules Maes Saloon & Eatery (which, having opened for business in 1888, officially — and appropriately — dates to Victorian times) to down a few pints and talk matters Victorian. A great deal of their talk revolves around the value of their workout regimen. “Pugilism,” says Ruzicki one night, “is more appropriate for modern street defense than the swordplay is. It really does have application in modern defense.”
“Maybe so,” ripostes sword-fighting enthusiast Lowrey. “But if I had to fight off a 17th-century pirate, I could do it!”