Legends of the Sword: Satan fights a Mensur

The German novelist and poet Wilhelm Hauff (1802—1827) is more famous for his fairy tales than for his novels. Unreasonably so, because his Memoiren des Satan alone are better written and more enjoyable than all the semi-competent writage they throw at German literature students in college these days.

Hauff studied philosophy and theology at Tübingen. In 1826, he wrote Mitteilungen aus den Memoiren des Satan (Memoirs of Beelzebub), in which he works in some of the fencing activities of his brother, a member of the Tübinger Burschenschaft.

For the connoisseur of Gedecktes Hiebfechten, this is a rare monument of armament and strategy of the early Mensur…

Source: Wilhelm Hauff’s Mittheilungen aus den Memoiren des Satan, in Wilhelm Hauff: Sämtliche Werke in drei Bänden. Nach den Originaldrucken und Handschriften. Textredaktion und Anmerkungen Sibylle von Steinsdorff, München: Winkler, 1970; p. 392 f. (English translation and footnotes by J. Christoph Amberger, exclusive to FencingClassics.com)

The Memoirs of Satan

Chapter 8: Satan gets in trouble and fights

Meanwhile, something else happened that I must not omit, as it may serve as  commentary on the customs of the curious people among whom I lived.

For some time, I had studiously attended Anatomy, to get to know the doctors, when one day it came to pass that several friends and I were busy at a cadaver, where I tried to demonstrate the error of the belief in Eternal Life by dissecting the organs of the brain, the heart, etc.

Suddenly, I heard a voice behind me: “Pfui Teufel! [1] It stinks here!”

I turned quickly and saw a young Theologian, who had annoyed me previously during a certain dogmatic lecture [2] with the enthusiasm and enjoyment with which he had written down the nonsensical conjecture of the professor. When I heard “pfui Teufel! It stinks here!” from the Theologian’s mouth—which, at the moment, I couldn’t help but relate to me, the Lord of the Flies [3]—I responded quite forcefully that I wouldn’t tolerate such insults and insinuations.

According to the ancient code of laws of the Burschen [4], which is called the Comment, my response represented an affront that could only be cleansed with blood. The Theologian, a decent scrapper, had me challenged [5] the very next day. Such fun seemed entirely desirable to me, because if one wishes to maintain one’s good reputation among his fellow students, one had to fight back then, even though the duel as such was considered as something unreasonable, unnatural among my friends. I had notified [6] my opponent to fight at a place of amusement, an hour outside town, and both parties arrived there at the agreed-on time and place.

Ceremoniously, each of of us was lead into a room, stripped of his surcoat, and put into the Paukwichs, that is, the protective gear with which the duel was to be fought. This armament consisted of a hat with broad rim, which sufficiently protected the face, a monstrous, foot-wide kummerbund was buckled across the stomach; it was made from leather, padded, and decorated in the colors of the fraternity to whom it belonged; then a gigantic cravat, compared to which Student Würger’s looked like a string tie, stood stiffly around the area of the neck and protected chin, throat, a part of the shoulders, and the upper part of the chest. From the elbow to the hand, the arm was covered by a protective device made from old silk stockings, called a glove. I admit, the figure I cut, pressed into these off armaments, looked comical enough; but it provided great safety, because only a part of the face, the upper arm, and a part of the chest was accessible to the opponent’s blade. I couldn’t keep from laughing when I looked at my strange garb in the mirror; Satan in such get-up and about to fight because of the bad smell in the anatomy lab!

My friends, however, regarded my laughter as an expression of boldness and courage and thought this would be the proper moment, and lead me into the great hall, where people had marked the hostile positions on the floor with chalk. [7] A pledge considered it his great honor to be allowed to carry the Schläger ahead of me, just as they used to carry the old emperors’ sword and sceptre. It was a beautifully crafted weapon, made of polished steel with a large, protective basket and honed as sharp as a shearing knife.

Finally, we faced each other; the Theologian made a grim face and looked at me with such derision, that I was confirmed in my intent to mark him thoroughly.

We laid out according to old fencer custom, the blades were bound, the seconds screamed “los!”, and our Schlägers whirred in the air and fell rattling on the baskets. I conducted myself defensively, parrying the truly beautiful attacks—executed with great art—of my opponent, because my fame would be greater if I only defended in the beginning, and only cut him in the fourth or fifth round.

General admiration followed each round; no-one had seen anyone attack so boldly and fast, defend with such quiet and sang froid. My art of fencing was praised to the heavens by the older students, and now everyone was curious and eager to see me attack; but nobody dared to encourage me to do so. [8]

Four rounds had passed without a bloody cut being dealt. Before I walked up to the fifth, I showed my friends the place on the right cheek where I intended to hit my Theologian. He may’ve seen what I was after, because he laid out as covered as possible and abstained from making an attack. I began with a magnificent feint, followed by an “Ah!” all around, executed a few regular cuts and clap! my Schläger lodged in his cheek.

The good Theologian didn’t know what had hit him, my second and the witness jumped in with a ruler and pronounced with dignified voice: “It is more than an inch, it gapes and bleeds, hence, Anschiß!” [9]; that signified: because I had made an inch-long hole into the good boy’s flesh, his honor was satisfied.

Now my friends crowded in, grasped my hands,  with awe the younger ones contemplated the weapon with which this historically unique and unheard-of deed had been performed; because who, since the time of the Great Braggart [10], could boast to have indicated the place he intended to hit, and then hit with such accuracy?

With a serious look, my opponent’s second approached and offered reconciliation in his name. I walked over to the wounded man, who was being stitched up with needle and thread, and buried the hatchet with him.

“I owe you a great gratitude,” he said, “that you have marked me thus. Totally against my will, I was forced to study theology; my father is a country pastor, my mother a pious women who wants to see her son in the cassock. You have decided  at once, because with a scar from my ear to my mouth I must not climb a pulpit.”

The fellows looked with compassion at the brave Theologian, who may’ve been thinking with secret melancholy about the pain of the old pastor and the grief of the pious Mama when they heard of this accident; but I considered it the greatest fortune of the young man to have been returned to the world by such a short operation. I asked what he was planning to do now and he openly confessed that the trade of a cavalryman or an actor had always attracted him most.

I could’ve hugged him for these sensible thoughts, because most of my friends and followers belong to these estates; I thus advised him most seriously to follow the call of his Nature, promising him the most glowing letters of introduction to significant generals and the greatest theaters.

I threw an excellent feast for everyone who had attended the memorable duel, not forgetting my opponent and his companions. Discretely, I paid all the debts of the former Theologian, and, once he was recovered, I provided him with money and letters that opened a happy and glorious career for him.

My generosity remained secret as little as the glorious ending of my duel. People regarded me as a higher being, and I knew many a young lady who shed tears over my magnanimous sentiments.

The doctors had a delegation present me with a magnificient Schläger because I, as they said, “stood up for the good smell of their anatomy.”


[1]—Lit.: “Eeewww, the devil,” a standing phrase denoting disgust. Satan, i.e., the Teufel, may be excused for taking this general expression a tad too personal.

[2]—Attended by Satan in Chapter 7.

[3]—in the text, “Herrn im Kot“—lit. Lord in the mud or excrement. This refers to a particularly ridiculous etymology of beelzebub that poor Satan suffered through in the seminar of Dr. Schnatterer (“quacker”) in Chapter 7.

[4]—Burschen are full members of student fraternities.

[5]—The passive form here denotes that the challenge was not presented by the Theologian himself but by his Kartellträger, who’d also double as his second during the actual fight.

[6]—bestimmen, lit. “determine”, is a technical term denoting the determination of place and time for a duel. It survives in the modern student terms Bestimmungsmensur and Bestimmtag.

[7]—A chalk cross on the floor marked the starting positions and, at the same time the outer limits that the fencer was permitted to retreat to in this “piede fermo” system. If a fencer allowed himself to be pushed beyond, he’d be considered “geschaßt” (lit.: chased off), which would end the bout for him in a dishonorable way.

[8]—This early version of the Mensur still encompassed “reactive” fencing, in which attack and defense were distinct. Still, the “rattling of Schlägers” on the baskets indicates that cuts were returned, at great speed no less—defensive fencing in this system does not indicate a passive waiting and parrying of cuts, only an intentional lack of offensive “dessins” aimed at cracking the opponent’s Tempo.

[9]—Anschiß (lit.: “shat on”) is the continuation of the Fechtschulen’s Rote Plume, or the Old Gamesters’ “broken” head: A bleeding wound at least an inch in length which provided the seconds with a justified reason to terminate a duel. The student’s song still states “hat ein Schimß gesessen, ist der Tusch vergessen“—once a bleeding cut has been scored, the insult is forgotten.

[10]—Allusion to Justus Friedrich Wilhelm Zachariae‘s poem Der Renommiste.

One response to “Legends of the Sword: Satan fights a Mensur

  1. Christoph Amberger

    Reblogged this on Die Deutsche Hiebfechtkunst.

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