Essay on the origins of self-defense in Europe

“Each man hath to use his own power for the preservation of his own life.”

“Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes, 1651.

This is my third post published on Kung Fu Coffee Break – Martial Arts Culture and History. It’s the first in the Self-defense category. I’m going to talk to the origins of self-defense while specifying the terminology related to this purview. I have titled this article Essay, on the hand, because it is from my point of view, and on the other hand, I will focus mainly on the origins of the concept of self-defense in Europe.

About me, I am a martial artist. I practice Wing Chun and Eskrima. I’ve been practicing and teaching them for several years with the main purpose : learning to defend myself. Self-defense is for me a guidance that I give for my practices, a common thread that guides my teaching.


Self-defense : definition

In France, there are several terminologies to speak of the same thing : self-defense, auto-défense and défense personnelle. These 3 terms designate one and the same thing. A definition given in Protegor [1]  indicates that it is about the whole of the principles of combat aiming at allowing the physical defense of someone in situation of aggression.

The term self-defense is widely used in the world of martial arts. In French, a possible self-defense translation can be auto-défense. French people also talk about défense personnelle (personal defense). Self-defense, auto-défense and défense personnelle are therefore synonymous. For my part, I will use in this blog, the term auto-défense for posts in French and the term self-defense for posts in English.

The French landscape of martial arts and combat sports is represented by several practices with different objectives. There is something for everyone; competitive sport, self-defense, traditional practice, cultural practice, well-being practice… of course certain disciplines can put forward several of these objectives. A practitioner can also see his motivation changed over time and change his goal over the years. Without changing his style, he can develop his practice and change its orientation. Martial arts are living arts, expressed by those who practice them. For sure these practices evolve, at the same time as the person who exercises them.

However, one should not mix everything and it is important to compare what is comparable.

So let’s go back to self-defense. It’s a concept in itself, but it’s not a full-blown martial art. Rather, it is an orientation that you give to your practice, the way you train and use your martial art. While some martial arts and combat sports most often favor a sporting and competitive aspect such as Judo or Boxing, other focus more, or even completely, their training in self-defense. This is the case for Wing Chun, at least as it was transmitted to me and as I have practiced it for more than 15 years. This is also the case for the Combate Eskrima Maranga which I practice with Maestro Rodrigo Maranga.

Maestro Rodrigo Maranga, leader du Combate Eskrima Maranga at Philippines

” What’s the use of a martial art if it is not effective ? ” Maestro Rodrigo Maranga

A brief history of self-defense in our modern societies

Self-defense is a concept that was born in our modern societies. By this I mean, societies living in peace where the legislation in force does not allowed violence between citizens by duels or other reckoning. Societies where the carrying of weapons is prohibited or regulated and where the police force is in charge of protecting citizens. Societies where all citizens are equal, where there are no more social castes giving certain categories of people rights over others. The concept of self-defense only makes sense with the laws that go with it (see section Right of self-defense below).

Self-defense, as I defined it, was born in Europe towards the end of the 19th century. Edouard William Barton-Wright with his Bartitsu method was a pioneer in this purview. Barton-Wright was a British railroad engineer, born in India in 1860. During his career and travels, he was introduced to various martial practices such as boxing, freestyle wrestling, savate, fencing and Japanese jiu-jitsu 柔 術 (or ju-jutsu) schools ; Shinden Fudo and Kodokan Judo. Returning to London in 1898, he synthesized his martial knowledge and created a method of self-defense which he named “Bartitsu”; “Bart” from his surname Barton-Wright and “itsu” from the Japanese word jiu-jitsu. This self-defense system sought pragmatism and efficiency by covering 4 combat distances; long range with the handling of the cane, medium range with the kicks, short range with the punches, seizures, controls and projections, then on the ground with the immobilizations and completions [2].

Edward William Barton-Wright demonstrating a Bartitsu technique using a jacket.

So Bartitsu was a MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) before time !

In the various posts that Barton-Wright wrote to describe his method, he indicated that it was an urban defense method for men and women, to defend themselves from thugs and criminals in big cities. Barton-Wright opened the Bartitsu Club in London’s Soho district. He invited a large number of experts in their purview to extend his Bartitsu. So cane and savate (French boxing) were integrated into his method by Pierre Vigny. Influenced directly or indirectly by Bartitsu, many other followers of combat technique will be interested in self-defense; like Percy Longhurst, Emile André, Julien Leclerc, Georges Dubois or Jean-Joseph Renaud. Many books and poste in magazines on “defense in the street” were published as early as 1899.

Most of these experts have the same background as Barton-Wright; they practice several European methods such as cane handling, fencing, boxing, savate (French boxing) and wrestling (Greco-Roman style).

In 1905, Parisians discovered Japanese jiu-jitsu, which quickly became fashionable and became a benchmark for self-defense techniques in this time.

“Jiu Jitsu and Other Methods of Self Defense” by Percy Longhurst, 1906
“Certainly, from the point of view of combat “in the street” French boxing and English boxing contain gaps. But the jiu-jitsieur ignores both kicks and punches! It is only valid in close combat.”
1905, Jean-Joseph Renaud.

Jean-Joseph Renaud himself a follower of jiu-jitsu, wants to be more nuanced than these contemporaries on Japanese martial art. He wrote several posts in the sports magazine La Vie au grand air from 1905 to 1912, then a substantial work in 1913, La Défense dans la Rue. Like Barton-Wright, Renaud recommends training specific techniques to defend himself over 4 combat distances. He admits that each martial method has its strengths and weaknesses, and that only a coherent mixture can effectively defend oneself in the street ; cane for long range, savate for medium range, boxing for short range and wrestling / jiu-jitsu for close combat and ground fighting. The way dates from the beginning of 1900 and is however similar to Jeet Kune Do of Bruce Lee in the 1960s, or more recently to MMA!

The savate used for longue range, Jean-Joseph Renaud. Source : La Vie au grand air (p29), le 6 octobre 1905.

It was also at this time that specialized self-defense techniques for women were born. Barton-Wright’s London Bartitsu even provided specialized classes there from 1900 [3].

Défense féminine, article de Jean Joseph Renaud. Source : La Vie au Grand Air, 1908

Bartitsu offered specialized classes in women self defense at the biginning of the 1900’s.

During the 20th century, many self-defense systems were created. The best known is certainly Krav Maga.

Imi Lichtenfld, the founder of Krav Maga, was born in Budapest in 1910. In his youth, he was introduced to several martial practices such as boxing, wrestling and Judo. He had the opportunity to use these martial skills several times to defend himself from anti-semitic Nazi sympathizers in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1948, he immigrated to Israel and became an official trainer of the army and police forces. He named his discipline Krav Maga from the Hebrew which means “close combat” [4].

Imi Lichtenfeld, founder of Krav Maga, uses a well-placed heel kick to subdue his adversary Source : Black Belt oct1992 (p57)

Most modern self-defense systems, such as Krav Maga and Bartitsu, are syntheses of principles, concepts and techniques of combat in so-called “traditional” martial arts or combat sports.

But whether one is an expert in the marital arts, in self-defense or a simple ordinary citizen, the use of violence against an individual to defend oneself is regulated by law. The Right of self-defense, specific to our modern societies, very often makes it possible to legitimize the ancestral warlike practices which mostly come from the battlefield.


Right of self-defense

To write this paragraph, I am mainly inspired by remarks made by Maître Thibaut de Montréal, lawyer specializing in self-defense, during the colloque de l’Institut pour la Justice, held at the Sorbonne University, in Paris in 2012 [5].

The concept of self-defense most certainly has its origins in the beginnings of humanity and life in society. This notion is universal and can be described as imprescriptible natural law.

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes already adressed the concept of self-defense in his major work Leviathan. He indicates at the biginning of chapter 14 : “The right of nature, which writers commonly call jus naturale, is the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life; and consequently, of doing anything which, in his own judgement and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.”

Control technique, taken from a work by Niclause Petters published in Amsterdam in 1674. Source : La Vie au grand air (p919), le 3 novembre 1905

In 1789, the concept of self-defense was also mentioned as a natural right in article 2 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The goal of any political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression.
Declaration the Right of Man and of the Citizen, Art. 2, 1789

It seems so natural that an endangered animal will instinctively do everything it can to stay alive. Fleeing or fighting are the natural responses that any animal will use to ensure its defense and therefore its survival.

For human it’s different. We have renounced this natural right and we have delegated it to the State which guarantees it in our modern societies. It is part of our social contract. However, the state is not omnipresent and the police or security forces, which are the guarantors of our safety, are sometimes not there in the event of an attack. This natural right we must then take back for the sake of our survival or that of others.

According to Maslow’s pyramid, this need for safety is the second need to be satisfied after physiological needs.

However, in a situation of aggression, we may be in conflict with ourselves and have difficulty to act lucidly. Defend yourself by hitting someone “it’s wrong” deep in your unconscious. According to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, the instinctual response “to fight” in the face of physical aggression is deeply rooted in the “Id”. This response is censored by our “Superego”, that is to say, by our education, our values, our ethics which guide our (good) behavior on a daily basis. The “Id”, here “to fight”, therefore comes into conflict with the “Superego”, here “do not fight, it is bad !” and prevents the “Ego”, our consciousness, from taking action. It’s that feeling of being red with anger, having your fists clenched but nothing is happening, except shaking, and sometimes even tears of anger. So it’s not easy to take action, even if we’re in an aggression where all the criteria of self-defense are met.

the Freudian unconscious

The concept of self-defense has evolved from the birth of our primitive human societies to our modern societies. Certainly implicit in the first civilizations, today self-defense is a legal concept. It is a supporting fact which will discharge from criminal responsibility the person in self-defense, during a defense committed in his interest or that of others. The notion appeared in French law as early as 1810 in the penal code of Napoleon 1st. Today in France, self-defense is regulated by article 122-5 of the French penal (criminal) code. It allows the use of violence under special conditions to defend oneself or someone else. In summary :

The assault must be imminent, real and unjustified.

The defensive response must be necessary, simultaneous and proportional to the attack.

These criteria of the French penal code are almost equivalent in all European countries : immediacy, necessity, reciprocity/proportionality.


Through the readings of self-defense magazines and manuals from the beginning of the 20th century, one can see the richness of these methods, which are over a century old. Objectives of self-defense methods have hardly changed over time : efficiency, pragmatism, diversity of techniques and global combat are at the center of modern practices like those of the past, to respond to the complex issues of aggression of street.

The development of large European cities like London or Paris, conducive to economic development, trade and cultural exchanges but also to the development of delinquency and crime, has allowed the emergence of self-defense methods sought after pragmatism and efficiency.

As early as 1900, there was this idea of ​​wanting to combine several martial arts to make a complete method capable of responding to the diversity of a street fighting situation. Practitioners of the time already considered martial arts (or combat sports) such as boxing, savate or jiu-jitsu as incomplete depending on the combat distance used or according to the different situations encountered.

In short, it is necessary to study several combat sports for one, in order to combine their employment, if necessary, but also to employ one or the other in isolation, depending on the circumstances.

L’Art de se défendre dans la rue, (p8) by Emile Andre, 1929

From Bartitsu to Krav Maga, passing by more modern methods having as objective self-defense, all these disciplines are the fruit of a mixture of different martial arts or combat sports. Any reflection on street fighting situation seems to lead to a mixed martial arts (MMA) method. Of course, I’m not talking about modern sports here, but rather the concept of mixing different martial practices to improve the effectiveness of the method used.

What is the point of view of the more singular styles, like Wing Chun or the Systema for instance, which claim to be effective in self-defense without mixing with other methods ?

I suggest a beginning answer for Wing Chun, the martial art I practice.

We can first consider that Wing Chun is also a mixed martial art (MMA). Let me explain. Wing Chun was created probably in the first half of the 19th century and according to the most current theories, several styles of Kung Fu are at the origin of this martial art. Wing Chun would then be a hybrid Kung Fu style, influenced by the theories and techniques of other martial arts. So we can say that Wing Chun is a Chinese MMA, dating from the 19th century! I agree that the formula is completely anachronistic.

Actually, most martial arts have been shaped during an evolutionary and perfecting process where very often external influences have modified the original martial art. In my opinion this is completely normal because as I said above, martial arts are living arts that evolve with the people who practice them.

Regarding my own experience of Wing Chun, honestly, I thought that this martial art was not going to satisfy my need to learn to defend myself. Seduced by the writings of Bruce Lee and his Jeet Kune Do philosophy on the art of combat, I thought I would have to enrich myself with several methods to find my own way of fighting and to be a complete practitioner. Wing Chun, however, offers a wide variety of techniques and great adaptability in its practice, making it possible to respond to a multitude of situations with fluidity. I will never pretend that this style is the best self defense system, I just say it suits me personally. Wing Chun is a system governed by concepts and principles, that is to say that it is able to adapt to the unexpected and to all situations that one may encounter.

“The theory of Wing Chun has no limit in its applications.”

Kuen Kuit (saying) of Wing Chun

However, we can see many Wing Chun schools practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a method known to be effective in ground fighting. Indeed, in the traditional Wing Chun curriculum, ground fighting does not exist. Yip Man certainly never taught ground fighting because this dimension of combat was simply not part of his world. However, as my Sifu once said: “Wing Chun is like a big tree on which some branches have grown a lot and have given good fruit, while other branches have not yet had time to flourish.” Beautiful metaphor that illustrates the process of evolution of the system and its adaptability to current problems.

Therefore some Wing Chun lineage, like mine, have developed a strategy for ground cfighting using the techniques and principles of the system. Even if it is certainly not as complete as the specialized methods of ground fighting, it is enough to resolve standard situations during an assault against a ordinary person. And after all, do you really want to put a choke, a immobilizer or an arm wrench in the street on an opponent on the ground, when other attackers beat you up? Not sure.

Robert Downey Jr on guard in “Sherlock Holmes”, by Guy Ritchie, 2009.

To end this post, I would like to make an allusion to the film “Sherlock Holmes” because it stages both Bartitsu and Wing Chun.

In 1901, Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, evokes Bartitsu, under the term “Baritsu”, in the short story The Adventure of the Empty House featuring the famous detective. Played in theaters in 2009 by Robert Downey Jr, Baritsu is honored at several points in the film. However, it was Eric Oram, instructor of Wing Chun and Sifu of Robert Downey Jr, who was a consultant for the combat scenes of the film Sherlock Holmes (click on the image above to see the video on the choreography of the “boxing” fight scene).

Therefore, the pragmatism of Wing Chun was able to reincarnate Sherlock Holmes’s Baritsu on screen !


[1] Protegor – Guide pratique de sécurité personnelle, self-défense et survie urbaine, p364, MOREL Guillaume et BOUAMMACHE Frédéric, AMPHORA, 2017

[2] magazine Budo international, n°320, sept 2016

[3] magazine Budo international, n°320, sept 2016

[4] magazine Black Belt (p56), oct 1992

[5] > Me Thibaud de Montbrial – La légitime défense


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