Dueling scars

Dueling scars
Otto Skorzeny with prominent dueling scars.

Duelling scars have been seen as a “badge of honour” since as early as 1825. Known variously as "Mensur scars", "the bragging scar", "smite", "Schmitte" or "renommierschmiss", duelling scars were popular amongst upper-class Austrians and Germans involved in academic fencing at the start of the 20th century. Being a practice amongst university students, it was seen as a mark of their class and honour, due to the status of duelling societies at German and Austrian universities at the time, and is an early example of scarification in European society.[1] The practice of duelling and the associated scars was also present to some extent in the German military.[2]

American tourists visiting Germany in the late 19th century were shocked to see the students, generally with their Student Corp, at major German universities like Heidelberg, Bonn or Jena with facial scars: some older, some more recent, and some still wrapped in bandages.[3]

The sport of academic fencing at the time was very different from modern fencing. Rather than foils, participants used heavy sabres. This resulted in more extreme scarring than one would normally have from standard Olympic swords. The individual duels between students, known as Mensur, were somewhat ritualised. In some cases protective clothing was worn, including padding on the arm.

The culture of duelling scars was mainly common to Germany and Austria, to a lesser extent some central European countries and briefly at places like Oxford University and some other elite universities. Other cultures, including American tourists at the time, found the practice barbaric and the scarred faces of the duelists unpleasant.[citation needed] German military laws permitted men to wage duels of honor until World War I, and in 1933 the Nazi government legalized the practice once more.

Within the duel, it was seen as ideal and a way of showing courage to be able to stand and take the blow, as opposed to inflicting the wound. In fact, the victor was seen as the person who could walk away from the duel with an obvious scar. It was important to showing one's duelling prowess, but also that one was capable of taking the wound that was inflicted.


Social significance

As the scars were gained in this particular elite social context, associated with status and an academic institution, the scars showed that one had courage and also was "good husband material". The duelling scars, while obvious, were not so serious that they left a person disfigured or bereft of facial features.The scars were even judged by Otto von Bismarck to be a sign of bravery, and that a man’s courage could be judged "by the number of scars on their cheeks".[4]

Minority groups in Germany also indulged in the practice, some seeing it as an aid in their social situation, including some Jews who wore the scars with pride. In 1874, William Osler, then a medical student on a visit to Berlin, described “one hopeful young Spanish American of my acquaintance who has one half of his face – they are usually on the left half – laid out in the most irregular manner, the cicatrices running in all directions, enclosing areas of all shapes, the relics of fourteen duels." Some Jews in Germany saw the scars as a signifier of a socially healthy individual.[5]

Nature of the Scars

Scars were usually targeted to the left profile, so that the right profile appeared untouched.[6] Experienced fencers, who had fought many bouts, often accumulated an array of scars. A duelist who died in 1877 "....fought no less than thirteen duels but had 137 scars on head, face and neck".[7]

The wounds were generally not that serious, "wounds causing, as a rule, but temporary inconvenience and leaving in their traces a perpetual witness of a fight well fought. The hurts, save when inflicted in the nose, lip or ear, are not even necessarily painful, and unless the injured man indulges too freely in drink, causing them to swell and get red, very bad scars can be avoided. The swords used are so razor-like that they cut without bruising, so that the lips of the wounds can be closely pressed, leaving no great disfigurement, such, for examples, as is brought about by the loss of an ear."[8]

In a sort of anti-cosmetic surgery, the wounds were sometimes packed with horsehair and left agape, so as to make them more extreme in appearance. The horsehair acted as an irritant to the wound.[9]

Sometimes, students who didn't fence would scar themselves with razors in imitation[1] and then exacerbate the wound by rubbing it with wine or sewing in horsehair. Others paid doctors to slice their cheeks. The number and extremity of scars was reduced in more recent times [10] the custom of obtaining dueling scars started to die off after the Second World War. The scars are still considered attractive by some older folk, and the practice still continues in smaller numbers today.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ a b DeMello, Margo "Encyclopedia of body adornment" Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007 p 237
  2. ^ http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2009/05/04/real-men-have-dueling-scars/ "howstuffworks real-men-have-dueling-scars"
  3. ^ "Where students fight. Scarred Faces are common sights at Heidelburg." Daily Bulletin Supplement - Jul 12 San Francisco 1890
  4. ^ "Duelling in Berlin" The Galveston Daily News November 9, 1886.
  5. ^ Gilman, Sander "Making the body beautiful: a cultural history of aesthetic surgery" Princeton Press, 1991 p 123
  6. ^ McAleer, Kevine "Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Germany" Princeton University Press; First Edition (October 3, 1994)
  7. ^ "Dueling in Germany :The Bane of the Universities—Burial of a Student Victim to the Brutal Practice" Daily Evening Bulletin, (San Francisco, CA) Saturday, March 31, 1877; Issue 149; col F
  8. ^ "Scarred Dueling Heroes," St Louis Daily Globe August 15, 1887
  9. ^ Turner, J. Scott. "The Tinkerer's Accomplice. How Design Emerges from Life Itself" Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. I 2006 p36
  10. ^ http://wiki.bmezine.com/index.php/Dueling_Scar "bmezine - Dueling_Scar"

External links

  • McAleer, Kevine "Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Germany"
  • Mangu-Ward, Katherine "Reading people's faces: tattoos, dueling scars, and other rational acquisitions" Reason Dec 2009, v41 i7, p64(2)
  • Gay, Peter "Mensur: the cherished scar.: (German student duel)" Yale Review April 1992, v80, n1-2, p94(28)

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