Bartitsu: Sherlock Holmes does martial artsBy
When I was a young boy, we had a bookcase filled with a wide variety of literature. Most of it was well beyond what could interest me at the time but there was one book that would always draw my attention: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I eventually ended up reading it and liked it a lot. As I grew up, I read the other books and one of the things I enjoyed about them was that Holmes was a gentleman but also a fighter. He could kick ass if he needed to because he practiced boxing, fencing, stickfighting and as it turned out, martial arts:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mentioned in one of the books that Holmes practiced a martial arts style called “Baritsu”.
Years later I would find out the style had actually existed but Doyle either misspelled it on purpose or made a mistake as the correct name is “Bartitsu”.
Bartitsu was created by a certain Edward William Barton-Wright who lived in Japan for several years and learned martial arts while he lived there. When he returned home, he created his own art, which was a mix of Western and Eastern practices. In many regards, he was a pioneer:
- He was one of the first (if not the first) to teach Japanese martial arts in the West.
- He cross-trained and could perhaps even be called the mixed martial artist of his day.
He had some commercial success with it at first but eventually ended up in financial trouble and the art died out. Barton-Wright died a broke and lonely man.
Bartitsu was re-discovered in the early 2000′s but only really shot back into the limelight when Robert Downey Jr. kicked some butt in the Sherlock Holmes and the Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows movies. Here’s a fight scene from that second movie:
Today, you can once again find a growing number of people practicing and teaching the art. You’ll also find books and videos on the subject by these experts. Here’s the thing:
Where did they learn the art?
Barton-Wright seems to have died without leaving many students who went on to teach the system. So unless somebody suddenly steps out of the shadows with such claims (and preferably some proof…), the lineage is broken and dead. So there are no actual people around who can claim to have learned the art through the generations in their family or anything like that. Again, if I’m wrong, I’ll gladly admit to it but so far, no luck.
If there are no teachers, then perhaps these new practitioners studied a library of manuals or perhaps some video footage of those times? Alas, again no luck. As it turns out, Barton-Wright did not leave a huge body of work behind. There is indeed some written material but it is both very limited and not all that impressive by today’s standards. If you’d like to know more, use Google a bit and you’ll quickly find those original pieces. Both the pictures and explanations are severely lacking to form a comprehensive curriculum.
So again I ask, where did these people learn the art?
I’ll answer it this way: they didn’t. They re-invented it.
From what I’ve seen (which admittedly isn’t everything), practitioners are just grabbing those old texts and then start studying and practicing to make the techniques come to life. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. However, there are limits to this method, which a friend of mine calls “necromancy”:
- You’ll never know. As there is no teacher alive who learned the art, no in-depth documentation of the curriculum, you can never be sure if your interpretation is right or wrong.
- Your knowledge limits your results. Martial arts styles and self-defense systems are nor created in isolation. They are formed because of a need in that specific day and age. In other words: when you start interpreting the techniques, you also need information on how crime happened back then in London as Barton-Wright apparently geared his system specifically to that city and as a system of self-defense (not a sport). So to make an even half-way decent attempt at re-creating the system, you need to do an extensive study of both the history of England in those days, the specific types of violence people faced, the way citizens viewed both violence and self-defense and much, much more. There are sources for this kind of information, but they aren’t necessarily available on the Internet. E.g.: how many current Bartitsu teachers have had access to (let alone made an extensive study of) the archives of Scotland Yard to form an educated opinion?
- Is it worth it? Before you embark upon such a quest, you need to ask yourself a question: how good was the system to begin with? Are there records of tons of practitioners using it successfully in self-defense? Or was it just a passing fad for the rich, as history seems to suggest? In other words, is this system even worth the time and effort it takes to recreate it, without ever knowing if you’re doing a good job or not? These are uncomfortable questions to ask but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored.
Here’s an example of somebody teaching pugilism from the curriculum. Now I’ll let you be the judge of the effectiveness of these techniques but personally, I think there are many issues with them. Not the least of which is that in the first two punches shown, he’ll break his knuckles every time he strikes using that specific angle with that specific wrist position unless he hits his target perfectly…
Another problem is the on-guard position. It is an antiquated one that, though it has benefits and made sense back then, is no longer used today. Not in competitive boxing gyms, and certainly not as a self-defense oriented boxing style. There are reasons for that but I’m not going to go into them here. What I’d like to point out is this:
Though there is very little documentation on Bartitsu, there is plenty of information available on the boxing from that era, as well as the evolution it went through from then until now. There are reasons for the change in on-guard position (and it’s not only about fighters wearing bigger gloves than back in those days) so it would make sense to implement these changes when using those techniques. But doing that invariably changes the curriculum. The way these things work, making one change can affect the entire system and before you know it, you’re re-engineering everything. Eventually, you’ll have something very different than what Barton-Wright taught. Which only goes to prove that no matter how strong a necromancer you are, you can never resurrect a zombie so well that it is the same person as in life. Unless you count Dominga Salvador of course, but I digress…
Along with all these problems, there is another one: the very human tendency to fill in the blanks or patch the holes with information from other sources. Given the problems I listed earlier, it’s common to run into problems while trying to make the system work. Instead of abandoning the whole issue, people often look at other arts for solutions. E.g.: at least one instructor who produced an instructional video on Bartitsu acknowledged that he is using his background in another Japanese martial art to interpret the curriculum. Which is not wrong per se but it is one more ingredient added to the mix that was not in the original recipe. Given as there’s nobody alive with 100% accurate knowledge to comment on this inclusion, there is no way of knowing if this is a good thing or not.
I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m saying it’s difficult and there are no guarantees you will succeed.
Practitioners of Eastern martial arts styles have faced these problems for a long time. Some have found successful ways of handling them whereas others have done more harm than good. Still others are hypocritical bastards who don’t care about any of it. The only thing they see is an opportunity to make money by trying to develop “the next big thing” in the martial arts and self-defense market. These opportunists will always exist. However, in today’s world of 24/7 global communication, social networks and accessibility of records and sources, those pirates have an increasingly difficult time spreading their lies. It has just become too easy to check and verify their claims.
Given the only very recently renewed interest in Bartitsu, it’s bound to run into the same problems Eastern arts faced several decades ago. Here’s hoping they can learn from the mistakes that were made back then.
I understand this article may offend or annoy some people so in an effort to be clear, some more points:
- I didn’t say that all Bartitsu teacher are crooks.
- I didn’t say they all suck.
- I didn’t say they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
- I didn’t say their systems cannot work for self-defense.
What I did was point to a couple of problems that come with the territory of re-creating an art that was lost in history. If that is something you choose to do, isn’t it better to know these things upfront?