Rarely do cinematographic displays capture the ruthless efficiency that is the hallmark of English bare-fist fighting. No fancy moves or complex manoeuvres, just undeniably bio-efficient methods which reflect so well the belief of our pragmatic ancestors that efficiency is best served by simplicity. Perhaps the first thing that should be explained is that the term barefist fighting is, grammatically, something of a misnomer since the system includes kicks, throws and joint-locks. However, the English are taking no greater liberty with their terminology than many Asian cultures which use terms such as empty-hand fighting to describe systems which also make use of the above methods. Bare-fist, like empty-hand, simply means ‘without weapons’.
Unarmed combat has an extremely long history in Europe, for example, the Greeks were including boxing in the Olympics as long ago as 688BC.
Twelve hundred years before Bhodidharma (the oft supposed founder of Shaolin Kung Fu) set foot in the now famous temple, pottery of the
Halstatt culture was being decorated with fist-fighting scenes. Over a millennium later, but still a century ahead of Bhodidharma, the industrious quill of Ammianus Marcellinus recorded that the Gauls, ‘swelled their necks, gnashed their teeth, poised their arms and rained blows mingled with kicks like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult’. The early history of the English is difficult to trace because so much of it belongs to the time when they resided in mainland Europe, none the less it is recorded by the English chronicler
Holinshed that Alfred the Great (871-899) had his warriors trained jpJ)oxing and wrestling as well Maister Terry Brown (56), founder and senior teacher of Company of Maisters of the Science of Defence depicting the first position (ready stance) of English Barefist Fighting as weaponed fighting in order that they might better fight the Vikings. Saxo Grammaticus (c1200), keeps the theme going when he informs us that
Starkad killed an enemy warrior with a single blow of the fist. The epic English poem Beowulf also relates that the hero, after whom it is named, was also skilled in unarmed combat. Beowulf was followed by other famous Englishmen such as Richard III (1483-1485) who was reputed to be ‘particularly distinguished with a clenched fist’. (The above information is taken from English Martial Arts 1977 by Terry Brown. Published by Anglo-Saxon books Ltd.)
The System And Its Methods EBF, like the indigenous arts of many countries, has different styles. The one portrayed in this article is sometimes referred to as the ‘Fencing Style’, because its basic stance is similar to that employed by sword fighters and indeed, in certain of the defensive movements, it can be said that incoming blows are ‘fenced away’. However, this depends to a degree on the distance between the Agent (attacker) and Patient Agent (defender).
At close range there is insufficient reaction time to deflect or block all incoming blows therefore the Patient Agent would cover vulnerable targets, such as temple, jaw, neck, kidneys and take the blow on the arms and less vulnerable parts of the body. Now, if you are one of those people who believe you should be able to block or avoid every single attack then your opinion is in direct variance with the views of the pragmatic guys who did this stuff for real and on a regular basis. This approach will be clearly demonstrated in the sequences that follow.
It will be noticed in some of the photographs that both Agent and Patient Agent aim blows at ‘hard targets’, for example, temple and forehead.
In this light it is worth bearing in mind that English barefist fighters hardened their hands in a similar manner to Oriental practitioners.
Employing such agents as brine, alcohol or walnut juice. In addition it is known that not only did they employ punchbags but that they also used to suspend hard root vegetables, such as turnips/swedes, from ceilings and proceeded to punch them with bare knuckles, this exercise not only hardening the knuckles but also serving to develop timing and co-ordination.
The Female Fist
There is a tradition of female involvement in English martial arts stretching from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day. Not only in weaponed combat but on the pugilistic stage. For example a bare-fist fight that took place in 1722 between one Elizabeth Wilkinson and Hannah Hyfield, the records show that these were every bit as tough as the men’s bouts.