News & Blog

Bartitsu/Baritsu Antagonism

David McCormick  May 16, 2013
Categories: Bartitsu, Sword News

What’s in a name?

There’s a discussion in the Bartitsu Society about the naming of Bartitsu, a point of contention and a topic I mention at the start of my workshops.

Sherlock Holmes Said Baritsu

Our rediscovery of this martial art started with a reference in a story called The Adventure of the Empty House by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes explains to Watson what happened at Reichenbach Falls:

I walked along the pathway, Moriarty still at my heels. When I reached the end I stood at bay. He drew no weapon, but he rushed at me and threw his long arms around me. He knew that his own game was up, and was only anxious to revenge himself upon me. We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip, and he with a horrible scream kicked madly for a few seconds, and clawed the air with both his hands.

Once we investigate this story, we discover that there was an actual place called the Bartitsu Club that operated from 1899 to 1902 in London. Baritsu must be a variant on Bartitsu, especially since Bartitsu was based on jujitsu and fits the description in the story.

One can justify this misspelling in many ways, and I’ve heard many explanations:

  • Watson is occasionally unreliable as a narrator, and one should remember that the Sherlock Holmes stories are couched as Watson’s chronicles. The mistake is the character’s.
  • The Bartitsu Club was already closed when this story was written, and Doyle could not immediately verify the name, and jotted it down from his imperfect memory.
  • A lot can happen between the writing and the publishing of a manuscript. It’s possible that the Strand Magazine made the error that was preserved in later editions and reprintings.

Whatever the reason, we probably would not know Bartitsu today without the mention in the Empty House.

The Bartitsu Club

There is ample evidence of what was studied in the Bartitsu Club, and how Barton-Wright invented this fighting form. But he was not alone. The discussion about the name was prompted by Keith Myers who wrote:

I’ve been reading Percy Longhurst’s Ju Jitsu book. He has many instances of combining Ju Jitsu with Boxing but never seems to really refer to it as “Bartitsu.” He does mention Bartitsu as the art taught by Barton-Wright, but doesn’t seem to refer to what he is doing as “Bartitsu.” When Pierre Vigny left London and the Bartitsu School to set up his own academy it seems he still taught the Bartitsu curriculum, but again, doesn’t seem to have referred to it as “Bartitsu.” So the impression I form is that the term “Bartitsu” was used mostly to refer specifically to what Barton-Wright was doing and was not necessarily used more “generically.” Does that seem accurate, or am I reading too much into things?

The spin off question to this is….can we today now use the term “Bartitsu” generically to refer to any combination of bare knuckle boxing, savate, ju jitsu grappling, and self-defense/”street tactics”? Barton-Wright was a pioneer in bringing these elements together, but others later took up the banner and did the same thing and gave it a different name and perhaps put a different emphasis on the various elements. But can we consider something like Defense Das La Rue as a form of “Bartitsu” in a generic sense?

Tony Wolf, author of the Bartitsu Compendiums and the originator of answered:

for almost all practical purposes, “Bartitsu” was specific to what was going on at Barton-Wright’s school between 1899-1902; no-one appears to have perpetuated the name beyond that date, other than B-W himself continuing to use it as a business name for his electrotherapy institute.

I don’t see any advantage, and do see the potential for confusion and some hard feelings, if the name “Bartitsu” was to be applied to historically related but distinct systems such as Longhurst’s method, Renaud’s DDLR (Défense Dans La Rue, ed.), etc. Not that these other systems can’t be useful resources for neo-Bartitsu, but they were their own entities.

Similarly, although it’s almost become a cliche, IMO the further you get from material within the Bartitsu canon and the Bartitsu Club lineage, the less sense it makes to refer to what you’re doing as Bartitsu. A combination of, say, Cunningham’s stick fighting with Graeco-Roman wrestling and capoeira kicking would be fascinating to watch and probably great fun to practice, but I can’t imagine any good reason to call it Bartitsu.

Neo-Bartitsu and Variants

There are essentially three levels of Bartitsu practice, by strictness:

  1. Canonical Bartitsu: We have pictures and descriptions of Barton-Wright himself and the techniques he espoused. Although he says that it is composed of “over 400” methods, we actually know of a few dozen that comprise the core that we can be certain of.
  2. Bartitsu: We have historical manuals of the arts that compose Bartitsu that existed in 1899, and that were widely known. Boxing is especially well documented in England, so we can extend Bartitsu to these historical forms as well.
  3. Neo-Bartitsu: The spirit of Bartitsu is a mixed martial art for the gentleman’s protection. We know from Barton-Wright’s writings what his aims and tactics included. Therefore, we can form out own modern practice by incorporating new combat strikes, novel holds and throws and means that the original practitioners were never exposed to.

In my view, these additions must conform to Bartitsu’s existing shapes and intentions, but we should not limit ourselves to the merely historical if your aim is the best personal protection whether unarmed or using an umbrella or other non-lethal weapon.

Défense Dans La Rue is the name of a book by Jean Joseph-Renaud and the name for the branch of savate that dealt with defending oneself in the street (that’s the literal translation). It includes cane, kicks, punches and jujitsu, and is therefore very close in spirit to Bartitsu.

Many practitioners refer to the larger combination of historical and modern unarmed combat as “antagonistics” and one school in Seattle is called the Barton-Wright/Alfred Hutton Alliance for Hoplology and Antagonistics (BWAHAHA).

There are also American Heritage Fighting Arts, that may include the Bowie knife, Tomahawk, and variants of combatives that were particular to the North American frontier days.

A Rose By Any Other Name

In the end, it’s important to remember that martial arts are nearly continuously branching, renaming and categorizing themselves when a self-appointed master wants to brand a new school. This is equally true of Bartitsu, Aikido and Arnis. Every village in China has (or had) their own Kung-Fu.

This Saturday, our guest instructor Lew Cottell will teach our Bartitsuka the practice of Modern Arnis as an alternative way to use the stick. Our Neo-Bartitsu continues to take shape as each member develops their own style while understanding our core concepts and goals.

David McCormick Head of Stage Combat at Academie Duello and certified Instructor with Fight Directors Canada. Head of Bartitsu at Academie Duello, the longest continuously running Bartitsu program in the world. Read more from David McCormick.