Silence of the Sticks: Why wooden weapons fell out of favor in 19th-century Germany

stick fightingThe Irish beat each other with shilelaghs, the English drew blood with singlesticks and quarterstaves, the French wielded canne and baton. The Portuguese still play at jogo de pao and the Italians had the bastone. The Germans, however, showed no interest in wooden weapons, at least after the Fechtschul traditions of dussack and assorted staff weapons (most of which with a blade of one kind or another) had disappeared. How come?

Oh, alright, there are exceptions. Fechtmeister Josef Feldmann published a Leitfaden zum Unterrichte im Rappier-, Säbel-, Bajonet- und Stockfechten in 1882. But what was presented in his book was Italian bastone, much as Paschen’s slim 1660 instructions for the Jägerstock  were derived from French examples.

And yes, walkings sticks and staves are depicted as defensive weapons used by journeymen in some plates of Christmann, and we’ve seen Ziegenhainer used as seconds’ weapons in the Stoßmensuren of German students. But overall, even mere references to the systematic use of wooden weapons as training substitutes are hard to come by after the art of a pure cut fencing separated from cut-and thrust (but mainly thrust) fencing around the middle of the 18th century.

In his Die Fechtkunst auf Stoß und Hieb (Braunschweig: 1802), Georg Venturini provides a plausible reason—and a rare description of the weapons!—why this may have been the case. (Despite his last name, Georg Venturini’s approach and cumbersome sentence construction is strictly German.):

“To use wooden Rappiere (remember, Rappier in 18th- to 19th-century Germany means a practice weapon) to practice cut fencing—which usually are made of stout hazel sticks on which are affixed, instead of a guard (Stichblatt), two crossed wooden rods braided with willow, as well as a willow-braided knuckle guard—is not advisable for several reasons.

“Because of the complete protection of the fist, the fencer habituates himself to sloppy parries against cuts against the hand; he does not acquire the arm strength necessary required by the direction of the cut, and never learns to cut sharp. This is the reason why fencers used to wooden weapons usually hit flat with the proper Hieber, and open themselves up to dangerous time cuts of the opponent who notices this.” (Venturini, 152.)

Since his book is directed at Officers and military academies, Venturini had the soldier in mind, who may have had to fight rather than fence, and incapacitate an enemy —Venturini uses Feind instead of Gegner (opponent) throughout the book—with sharp hits. But his advice to start with a middle-weight basket- or bell-guard steel weapon with blunted edge was just as useful to the students who were in the process of adopting Meister Christian Kastropp’s Göttinger Hieber for their cut Mensuren.

After all, especially here, a flat hit is a wasted cut.

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