Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bartitsu: Sherlock Holmes's martial art

In Arthur Conan Doyle's story The Empty House, Sherlock Holmes -- previously missing, presumed dead in The Final Problem -- explains to Watson how he was able to evade his nemesis's clutches on the edge of Reichenbach Falls, before disappearing for a bit of a breather from detective work:
I had little doubt that I had come to the end of my career when I perceived the somewhat sinister figure of the late Professor Moriarty standing upon the narrow pathway which led to safety. I read an inexorable purpose in his grey eyes. I exchanged some remarks with him, therefore, and obtained his courteous permission to write the short note which you afterwards received. I left it with my cigarette-box and my stick and 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. But for all his efforts he could not get his balance, and over he went. With my face over the brink I saw him fall for a long way. Then he struck a rock, bounded off, and splashed into the water. [my emphasis]
Holmes and Moriarty grapple on the precipice
It turns out that the mysterious art of "baritsu", was a probable mis-remembering of an actual composite martial art of circa-1900: bartitsu, a mix of jiu-jitsu, judo, savate and boxing, popularized by Edward Barton-Wright.

Although there is (too the best of my knowledge) no surviving film footage from the era, here is a reconstruction from cinematograph images in a 1905 book:

Hmmm: looks familiar!


Anonymous said...

You forgot la canne (French stickfighting, usually practiced as an add-on to savate) and Swiss wrestling (schwingen) as influences on Bartitsu. In my view this martial art is a good model of what a modern self-defense art should look like: a hybrid of at least a few systems and styles that complement eachother well and compensate for the inevitable weaknesses in individual styles. In my view at least three arts should be represented, according tot the theory of the combat ranges:

1) an art that focuses on kicking & punching so medium to longe range.

2) a close-quarter grappling art that also includes a fair amount of groundwork.

3) a weapon art that teaches the practioner to wield almost anything as a weapon (with skill as opposed to the wide swings commonly found in amateurs) and, even more importantly, teaches effective emphy handed defenses against weapons. Can't defend against a weapon you don't know, at least not effectively or against someone with the least bit of skill.

In my view fights are usually won close-in and one should focus on effective entries into the trapping/grappling range where the opponent can be quickly neutralized with locks, throws, chokes, takedowns or impact techniques like elbows and knees. In a way this is equivalent to a predominant strategy in MMA with the exception of a wider range of targets and the caveat that all throws, locks etcetera should end with the defender in an upright position so as to retain mobility and a clear view of possible threats. This is why I like JJJ so much: once a throw or lock is succesfully effected (usually through the use of atemi as a distraction) and he's down he's basically at your mercy and you can choose to a) get away, b) finish him by means of strikes or breaking or dislocation of joints or c) control him through a pain-compliance technique such as a jointlock or pressure point application.

As always just my two cents,


Karate Depot said...

Ahh yes, I've always found bartitsu to be historically interesting!

It envokes a feeling of gentleman's defense, and often features participants in full european garb.

Great stuff.

Jason Woodward said...

Great Blog love it. I was quite happy to see the use of Wing Chun in the recent Sherlock Holmes movies especially. Really adds that element of excitement.