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Published Monday, March 9, 2015

Renommierschmiss – Academic Fencing Scars

image: An example of a dueling success, from Strand Magazine.

“My honour has at last been satisfied. A week ago, a ‘dummer junge’ named Schwartz stepped on my dog’s tail and I challenged him. The fight took place yesterday. Schwartz got a bad slash on his left cheek, and I got two cuts, one just under my eye and the other on my head. The cuts were very painful, but they will make beautiful scars.” – The Strand Magazine, 1897


It’s the late 19th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II (AKA, the Kaiser) is the King of Prussia, which is like Germany on steroids because it includes half of Europe and a chunk of Russia. It is a land of machismo, but it’s also a land of arts and learning. That’s right, the Kaiser spent a lot of time and money promoting science, engineering, and art. Not enough to secure an art scholarship for a young Adolph Hitler, or to prevent World War One, but nobody’s perfect.

Students in this world were in a bind. Universities were expanding and becoming great halls of learning, but there was also a strong warrior culture that demanded fighting and showing bravery. How were students supposed to do that while also studying engineering and painting?

The answer was to take swords and cut each other’s faces.

The resulting scars,

Called schmiss or renommierschmiss, were the result of two kinds of duels. The above type, which witnesses of the time put down mostly to posturing, was a duel fought for honor. Basically, if you were new to university and didn’t have any scars yet, you would go to the beach and wait for someone to kick sand in your face. Or go to the coffee shop with your dog and wait for someone else who’s looking for scars to step on its tail.

According to The Strand, the fashionable dog at the time was a Great Dane. In case you were curious.

So someone steps on your dog’s tail. What then? Well, you’d stand up, say some affronted things, a time would be arranged, and you and this dummer junge would politely exchange cards and then go duel. A dummer junge, by the way, is a ‘stupid boy’. While we’re translating, schmiss is German for scar, and renommierschmiss is often translated as ‘bragging scar’, but it really means renowned, or ‘famed scar’.

How into it were people at the time?

image: These guys look so happy. Also from The Strand.

“Of the various kinds of scars got in dueling, parabolas were the most popular, with rectangles second, ovals and “frat” initials about a tie for third place and other geometric figures following.” – Tales of a German University, 1901

That’s a story from a British university student in Germany, talking about his first scar. His scar, unfortunately, did not fall into one of the best categories and so he’d have to continue dueling until he managed something better. Still, he counted his duel a victory, since his opponent got no scars at all.

The second type of duel...

image: Scar examples, also probably from The Strand. Probably.

Involves a sport known as Academic Fencing, which is like modern fencing with less protective gear and real swords, and also if dodging a sword blade made everyone you know call you a coward. Seriously, if you didn’t have your guard up and the other guy’s sword was coming, you were not allowed to flinch away. You had to stop it with your face.

In this sport, protection was worn over the sword arm and the torso, and goggles were worn to protect the eyes, but the rest of the face was left wide open. Battle was done with razor sharp sabers that often resulted in gashes across the face and sometimes in the loss of part of the nose or ear.

Aside from honoring your family,

The main motivator to the scarring was to attract German lady students. Everyone who writes a contemporary account of the fencing scars says that if you wanted a date with a lovely lady, you’d better have a face covered in scars.

The best part was that your handsomeness wasn’t totally wrecked, as many sources said the cuts tended to be on the left side of the face (presumably, no southpaws were allowed in the door), leaving the right side to show off how good looking you still were.

And in terms of life and career, the scars were no joke. Many of these students were part of Germany’s elite and would go on to become prominent figures. Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of Germany, had a prominent dueling scar on his own cheek, as did many later German officials. In other words, if you didn’t have the scars, you might miss out on a sweet job, political advancement, etc.

But what if you were a scared punk who didn’t want to fight with real swords with your entire face exposed? You used razor blades, or even paid doctors to make the cuts for you. Rub some salt in, or even stick a piece of horsehair in the cut to wreck the healing process and boom! You’ve got yourself a big scar.

Then, presumably, you had to tell all your friends that you dueled a guy from out of town. He’s from Leipzig, you guys totally wouldn’t know him.

The earliest record...

image: These guys are ready to duel. Look how close everyone is standing. They’re all going to lose an eye.

Of academic scarring dates to 1825, and the practice continued well into the 20th century. At it’s height, around the turn of the century, visitors to German universities said that students everywhere were covered in scars, or bandages over face wounds.

Somewhat terrifyingly, both the British and American students who took part in the practice and wrote about it said that Academic Fencing wasn’t nearly as dangerous as American football. They weren’t wrong. During this same time, American footballers in college were punching each other in the face and using drop kicks, all without getting called for fouls. In 1905 alone, 20 people died playing football, a year that the Chicago Tribune at the time called a “Death Harvest”. And it wasn’t all done for the glory of touchdowns. Contemporary sources say that American ladies were quite partial to football scars as well.

Just remember that if your grandpa gives you any flack about stretching your lobes. Don’t say it out loud though, there’s no telling what kind of “sports” he was involved in.