Saturday 9 May 2015

Review: Self-Defence for Gentlemen and Ladies, Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery (1877-8), ed. Ben Miller (2015)

This week’s post proves there’s a book out there for any combination of interests. While I blog as the Secret Victorianist, writing about nineteenth-century literature and culture, I trained throughout my childhood in martial arts. So when I heard about Self-Defence for Gentlemen and Ladies – the first compilation of an 1870s treatise on armed and unarmed fighting styles – I was intrigued to check it out.

The writer, Colonel Monstery, seems to have been a fascinating character and, for many readers, the first section of this text, in which Miller takes us through his life and the work’s genesis, will no doubt be the most interesting. A Danish-American, who established a New York fencing academy, Monstery toured the world, mastering various fighting styles, fighting in numerous conflicts, and competing in over 50 duels. In his treatise, his instructions come most to life when he draws on this vast experience, casually slipping into anecdotes about moments when he escaped death:

Suddenly, without a world of warning, he whipped out his knife and made a furious stab for my heart over my left arm. I knew it by the flash of the blade in the starlight, and, with the common instinct of humanity, I shrunk back and half raised my bent arm as a shield.

A left-cross-parry in boxing
His views on the various arts discussed here – boxing, natural weapons (i.e. the hands, feet, and head), the cane, the quarterstaff, fencing – first appeared as a series of articles in New York publication The Spirit of the Times, with these words of introduction:

In this number appears the first of an important and valuable series of articles, entitled Physical Education for Gentlemen, prepared by the celebrated master-at-arms, Col. Thomas H. Monstery.’

Guards with a cane
Miller’s change of title reflects his exclusion of the chapter on swimming and Monstery’s own (admittedly brief) references to how women can defend themselves in the text:

A lady can defend herself from outrage with her parasol in the same way. If she struck a ruffian over the head with it, he would laugh at her, but I remember a certain girl who killed a ruffian who assaulted her by a stab with the point of her parasol.’

Monstery’s style is eminently readable and the technical aspects of his instructions made clearer through the inclusion of some of the original illustrations, and nineteenth-century photographs. For anyone with an on-going interest in these sports, there is a lot of continuity between his thinking and contemporary practice, but what stands out as remarkable is his focus on the real-life application of these skills – this is certainly not an instruction manual for how to win a refereed boxing match.

Monstery had a high sense of honour. He rarely killed opponents in duels, but was unflinching in his commitment to self-defence and in his belief that all honourable men should learn to defend themselves:

Be civil to all, and never seek a quarrel, but if one is forced on you, strike quick and surprise your opponent.’

Of course, at times this takes on a class dimension (being a gentleman is not just about chivalry!) and, despite Miller’s opening note in which he lays out the ways in which Monstery was progressive (in his instruction of female pupils for instance and in his enthusiastic comments about mingling with people of various races and nationalities in Paris), there are passages which may well make a modern reader uncomfortable. There is a section in which he elucidates defending against ‘unscientific Negro-style head-butting’ and another in which he describes the unfair tactics employed by ‘men of the criminal classes, butchers, frontiersmen, and determined, desperate characters of that sort’. As a Victorianist, his views are fascinating to read, but, if you’re looking for instruction in martial arts, you might find such asides frustrating.

Overall though, I was struck personally by just how much of Monstery’s writing chimed with what I had been taught in the Asian tradition of martial arts. His explanations for striking, standing, and parrying (blocking) in certain ways meshed with things I’d been told and aspects of his personal ideology and codes of conduct for his classes could well have a place in a modern martial arts school. Miller leaves us with some of Monstery’s maxims, and, this week I’m happy to sign off with the same:

He who lives by the sword, lives long.’

Follow nature in your living. Don’t eat too much, but eat enough. Avoid dieting, and exercise in the open air when you can.’

Above all things, never lose your presence of mind.’

Which book would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

1 comment:

  1. In Germany fencing was an important part of student fraternities