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Bartitsu: the “Mixed Martial Art” of Sherlock Holmes
An Interview with Tony Wolf
The last twenty years have seen a growing interest in so-called mixed martial arts - an eclectic approach to combat sports that seeks to combine the core elements of disparate fighting styles, such as kickboxing, wrestling and jujitsu. Many MMA practitioners see their antecedents in Jeet Kune Do, the fighting philosophy of “use what works” established by Bruce Lee, and expanded by his students into a comprehensive fighting art built around a combination of martial arts from many different cultures. But a nearly identical attempt to fuse Western and Asian unarmed combat with the use of weapons had occurred in London, several generations before Lee’s birth.
Bartitsu was and is an experiment in cross-training between various Victorian-era martial arts and exercise methods.  It was founded in London in 1899 by Edward William Barton-Wright, who had studied a wide range of combat systems, or "antagonistics" as they were known in his day.  Barton-Wright was one of the very first Westerners to have trained in jujitsu, and he developed Bartitsu as a combination of Japanese, Swiss/French and English fighting styles.  He defined it variously as meaning "self defense in every form" and as "Barton-Wright's art of fighting to the last".

After a brief heyday Bartitsu faded from popular memory until, about a hundred years later, it was rediscovered and revived. We sat down with Tony Wolf, one of the pioneers of this modern revival, to discuss this forgotten chapter in martial arts history, and the subject of a new documentary Bartitsu: the Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes.

How did you discover this “lost martial art”?

When I was a kid I came across an entry in a Sherlock Holmes encyclopedia that described Bartitsu as being "the Victorian version of jujitsu".  I wondered what on Earth that meant, and it stuck in my mind.  Over the years I very occasionally came across further references, but they were always brief and ambiguous. Bartitsu was one of the first Internet search terms I ever entered, but in the late 1990s there was almost no information on the art available online.

In 2002, martial artist and mystery novelist Will Thomas set up the Bartitsu Forum as a venue for online discussion on Victorian martial topics.  The following year I became the editor of the Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences' "Journal of Manly Arts", which was focused on the European combatives of the 19th century. We had the great good fortune to make contact with martial arts historians Graham Noble and the late Richard Bowen, and we showcased some of their pioneering Bartitsu research in the Journal. That included Barton-Wright's original technical self-defense articles for Pearson's Magazine.  For those of us who had been wondering about Bartitsu for decades, it was like finding buried treasure.

Over the next few years the Forum coordinated a number of research projects, with members ferreting out many more obscure books and articles relating to Barton-Wright and his activities.  Once we had a decent handle on the history, attention naturally turned to reviving the art at the practical level.

Q: Bartitsu has gained a lot of notice as “the Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes”. Can you detail what that connection was, and is there any likelihood that Doyle himself was a student of Barton-Wright?

Barton-Wright's School of Arms in London closed under mysterious circumstances in 1902.  Thereafter, Bartitsu was eclipsed by the pre-WWI jujitsu craze and was eventually almost forgotten, except for a cryptic reference in Doyle's "Adventure of the Empty House", in which Sherlock Holmes revealed that he had defeated his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, through the use of "baritsu".

No-one knows why Doyle misspelled the name.  It's possible that he had simply cribbed it from a London Times newspaper article of the previous year, which had also rendered Bartitsu as baritsu.  Anyway, as the decades of the 20th century passed, fewer and fewer people recalled anything about Barton-Wright's eccentric martial art, but of course the Sherlock Holmes stories remained hugely popular.  Because it was the scene in which Holmes simultaneously saved his own life, defeated Moriarty and then faked his own death, the "baritsu" showdown became something of a literary classic.  That one reference was actually the clue that sparked almost all of the modern interest in Bartitsu.

Although it's nice to think that Doyle might have been a student at the Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture, it's very likely that we would have come across any evidence to that effect by now.

Q: How did the DVD project come about?

Therein lies a tale.  My friend Ran Braun, who is a fight choreographer and also a prominent stage director of operas in Europe, first proposed a Bartitsu documentary in early 2009.  We developed some ideas but then both became busy with other projects.

In August of that year, Ran organized a three week Bartitsu and stage combat seminar tour for me in Italy.  I arrived at the first venue, which was a brand new sports center in the middle of Rome, and was surprised to meet a film crew there along with the students.  An opportunity had suddenly come up and Ran had contacted some cultural associations and production companies including the Digital Room, Cletarte and Broken Art.  They offered the basic technical and logistical means to start producing a documentary about Bartitsu. Because it had all happened so quickly, we didn't have a script or even a storyboard prepared, so we spent our downtime during the seminar tour brainstorming and improvising shoots at various exotic locations.

I remember wandering through the streets of Amantea one warm evening, gazing up at the ancient castles on the hills and trying to figure out how to tie location shoots in this beautiful Italian seaside resort in to our then-scriptless documentary about an obscure Victorian English martial art.  I realized that the best link was actually that sense of cultural heritage; the rediscovery and restoration of historical artifacts.  That inspired one of the major themes of the documentary.

The next few months were a blur of activity, because at that stage we were hoping to release the documentary coincident with Guy Ritchie's movie, Sherlock Holmes.  I returned to the USA for about two weeks, wrote the script, bought equipment and started organizing second-unit shoots and interviews, re-enactments, image archives, animations, etc. I then returned to Europe and traveled with Ran to Meiringen in the Swiss Alps for a shoot at the famous Reichenbach Falls, where Holmes used his "baritsu" against Moriarty. Then I went on to London and the Northern English village of Haltwhistle to film further location shoots and interviews.

It quickly became obvious that, even given the terrific run of enthusiasm and luck that carried us through that initial production period, there was simply no way we could produce the entire documentary before Christmas of 2010.  We were, however, able to develop a successful trailer for the project.

Then, unfortunately, we suffered a series of logistical and technical problems that stretched on through early and mid-2010.  These were the same sorts of issues that arise in most media projects, but they were compounded by the fact that we were producing an independent documentary, staffed entirely by volunteers spread between several countries. There would be intense bursts of activity followed by long delays as DVD packages of raw footage went missing in transit, personnel left the project, etc.

Around September of last year it really started to come together again. In Rome, our colleagues and co-producers at Broken Art, Paolo Paparella and Angelica Pedatella, collaborated with editor Emanuele Pisasale during post-production, and there was a very great deal of communication back and forth between Italy and the USA.

Now we're just delighted to be able to say, "here it is - we hope you like it".

Q: Considering the popularity today of Mixed Martial Arts and cross-training, why bring back Bartitsu? What does it bring that other MMAs don’t?

That's something that we've put a lot of thought into.  The Bartitsu Society favors two closely related approaches to reviving the art at the practical level.  First you have the Bartitsu "canon", which we usually gloss as "Bartitsu as we know it was".  This is the historical/cultural preservation side of the revival and it includes all the material presented as "Bartitsu" by Barton-Wright and his colleagues back at the turn of the 20th century.  As such, it's finite, easily agreed upon and quite easily revived.

Barton-Wright didn't detail every aspect of his art, however.  We have specifics in many areas but only intriguing clues and hints in many others.  Furthermore, Bartitsu itself was basically abandoned as a work in progress when his Club closed down in 1902, so we are in the unusual position of having "inherited" an incomplete experimental process, rather than a fully codified system.

That's where "neo-Bartitsu" comes in; we think of it as "Bartitsu as it may have been and as it can be today".  That concept allows considerable freedom to fill in the canonical gaps with the vast body of associated material produced by Barton-Wright's colleagues and their students up until the early 1920s.  Neo-Bartitsu also includes a healthy level of individuation; the ideal is that every practitioner eventually develops their own neo-Bartitsu approach.  Overall, the object is to continue Barton-Wright's experiments, rather than necessarily to complete them, while maintaining the form and spirit of Edwardian antagonistics.

Q: You’ve said elsewhere that Bartitsu was closely tied to the 19th c attempts to reconstruct historical European martial arts, could you elaborate on that here?

Shortly after Barton-Wright arrived back in London from Japan, he started performing self-defence demonstrations for various gentlemen's clubs and charity benefits. Captain Alfred Hutton, who, along with his colleague Egerton Castle, was among the prime movers of the late-Victorian revival of Elizabethan swordsmanship, was also performing exhibitions at that time, and I think it's very likely that Hutton and Barton-Wright first met in that connection.  They were evidently both fascinated by exotic arts of personal combat and they collaborated on several exhibitions that showcased Bartitsu alongside Hutton's "ancient swordplay".  Hutton later became a promoter and board member of Barton-Wright's Club in Shaftesbury Avenue.  He also taught classes there; in his book The Sword and the Centuries, he described the Bartitsu Club as being "the headquarters of ancient swordplay in England".
Q: Would you say that historical weapons and fighting systems were part of the Bartitsu tradition, or something that ran in parallel, with overlapping practitioners?

That really depends on which of Barton-Wright's descriptions of Bartitsu you take as being gospel - for the record, we tend to use all of them.  He would sometimes include fencing under the rubric of Bartitsu, which also comprised jujitsu, fisticuffs, kicking, wrestling and the Vigny method of self-defence with a walking stick.  Other definitions include physical culture exercises and even various forms of physical therapy.

On the whole, though, I'd say that given Barton-Wright's strong self-defense orientation, he probably wouldn't have considered Hutton's revived play with the rapier and dagger, two-handed sword etc. as being aspects of Bartitsu per se; more like an interesting adjunct study.  We know that several members of the Bartitsu Club cross-trained between Bartitsu and historical fencing, and Hutton himself evidently learned some jujitsu and Vigny stick fighting there.

Q: Do you see Bartitsu, then as a “Western” martial art, despite the influence of jujutsu?

Bartitsu was and is a Eurasian martial art, or rather a cross-training process between diverse Eastern and Western arts as they were practiced circa 1900.  There are strong parallels between Barton-Wright's approach and Bruce Lee's, and we sometimes explain Bartitsu as "Edwardian Jeet Kune Do".

Barton-Wright demonstrably founded Bartitsu on the Western scientific model of testing hypotheses. He even promoted challenge matches between his champions and challengers from diverse European wrestling styles.  As Graham Noble put it, B-W was not a Japanese budoka (martial artist), he was an Edwardian English gentleman with a practical frame of mind.  Thus, he wasn't bound by the traditional protocols that were at least the general rule in Japan, nor by the strict specialization and segregation of combat sports that had become fashionable in the West.  Bartitsu was a truly radical concept, and Barton-Wright deserves credit as a martial arts pioneer and visionary.

Q: What role do you see for Bartitsu in the modern HEMA movement? In the larger martial arts community?

Before the Sherlock Holmes movie, none of us could have anticipated the present surge of interest in Bartitsu; we were pretty much resigned to being a tiny fringe group forever.  Now, we're a slightly larger fringe group with an unexpected, pop-culture fan base.

It's still very early days for the practical revival.  As recently as five years ago, there was only one ongoing Bartitsu course anywhere in the world, and a few intensives taught each year via stage combat and martial arts conferences.  We have made a lot of progress quickly, and I think that will continue as long as the re-envisioning of the Victorian period continues via the Steampunk movement, the Sherlock Holmes film franchise, etc.

Almost all the first generation of modern Bartitsu enthusiasts were members of the historical fencing community and we certainly made use of the revivalist protocols that had been developed in that sphere. The next generation is coming in from a wide range of backgrounds, including combat sports, traditional Asian martial arts, etc.

Q: You are a founder of the modern Bartitsu Society. Can you explain what this organization is, how it came about, and what its current mission is?

The Bartitsu Society is very much an informal, almost open-source association.  We decided early on not to politicize the revival, so there are no elections, official hierarchies nor dues to pay.  One joins the Society simply by joining Will's Bartitsu Forum email group. It's a collegial environment and people essentially decide their own "stations" through initiating or contributing to our various projects. The flexibility offered by the canonical and neo-Bartitsu concepts and the anti-bureaucratic ethos has kept politicking, etc. down to almost nil.

Currently, we are organizing our first international conference and the commemoration of Barton-Wright and his achievements through various memorial schemes, including the Blue Plaque scheme in London. We're also continuing with our historical research, etc.

Q: How is the art currently being revived? Is there a curriculum, a certifying body, a central hub for “clearing” instructors or schools?

Typically, someone will host a local seminar and then set up a club or study group working from the Bartitsu Compendia (books published by the Society), communicating with other enthusiasts via the Forum, video, etc.  The website is our default repository for articles and news.

The canonical curriculum serves as a sort of shared technical and tactical language between practitioners, while everyone is free to come up with their own training methods and decide their own points of emphasis.  Some people move strongly in the direction of practical self-defence, others simply teach it as a recreational martial art, the study of tactical movement with a funky Victorian twist.

We embrace both the formal club/school and the study group models, and individuals can develop their own grading procedures, ranks etc. if they wish.  The Society doesn't mandate anything of that kind, both because we can't demonstrate that historical Bartitsu ever included formal ranks and also because that way can lie the bickering that we happily avoid by keeping things open at the organizational level.

Q: The world has changed a lot since the Edwardian era. Since Bartitsu was meant to be an eclectic and “modern” fighting art, how is the modern Bartitsu community making it relevant to today?

There's a general consensus that there is no point in re-inventing the wheels of Jeet Kune Do, MMA or reality-based self defense.  My own feeling is that the further one moves away from the "lineage" material of Edwardian antagonistics - old-school fisticuffs, Pierre Vigny's cane and umbrella self defense, etc. - the less sense it makes to refer to what you're doing as "Bartitsu".  On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with taking Bartitsu as far as you want and then changing it into something else.

I think that deliberate anachronism inevitably casts us as a niche interest group, sort of a boutique/eccentric alternative to the more mainstream approaches.

Q: Considering all you have told me, if there is any one “take away” message you want to impart to viewers of the film, what would it be?

That the most obscure and unlikely events can reverberate though history in very strange, interesting and even valuable ways.  I mean, if not for Barton-Wright, I'd never have found myself climbing up to Reichenbach Waterfall with an Israeli opera director ...

Q: What’s next? Looking into your crystal ball, what do envision for Bartitsu ten years from now?

We're developing a relationship with the Steampunk/neo-Victorian subcultures that mirrors that between, say, historical fencing and medieval/Renaissance re-enactment.  I expect that to become stronger over the next decade.  As our numbers increase, however modestly in comparison with less esoteric systems, I'm sure that we'll see the establishment of many more schools and clubs, which will lead to Bartitsu-specific tournaments, etc. Eventually, someone is going to bite the bullet and open a fully-fledged Edwardian-style martial arts and physical culture studio.  We're also starting to see serious academic interest, and I think that will continue.
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