fn “oeal jean­ing of cis­ticuffsI” a con­tribut­ing editor re­searches a term that’s fre­quently used in ref­er­ence to mus­ta­chioed bare-knuckle fighters putting up their dukes but that has a much more col­or­ful con­nec­tion to the pastK

Fis­ticuffs — now there’s a word we’ve all heard. It con­jures up vi­sions of old-timey bare-knuck­lers go­ing at it from up­right long- guard poses while wear­ing tights and sport­ing waxed mus­taches.

T hat im­age re­veals the cur­rent con­no­ta­tion of the word: a syn­onym for box­ing or an ar­chaic word for fist­fight. Orig­i­nally, how­ever, there was a bit more to it than that. To get to what that “more to it” was‚ we will have to di­gress into a short his­tory of fash­ion.

TAKE A GAN­DER at wood­cuts, paint­ings, lith­o­graphs or what­ever medium from the 17th, 18th and 19th cen­turies that hap­pens to move you. Don’t look for de­pic­tions of roy­als and courtiers loung­ing and feast­ing and dal­ly­ing. Look for im­ages of soldiers, of the work­ing class. I want you to look at — sur­prise — men’s cuffs.

With the mid­dle class and the aris­toc­racy, you’ll find frilled cuffs, lace cuffs and loose, bil­lowy cuffs. If you look hard enough at the lower and work­ing classes, you’ll see that th­ese men more of­ten than not sported short sleeves, and if they were sleeved, there was a greater like­li­hood of tighter cuffs.

Why? Well, be­cause they were work­ing men and loose, bil­lowy fab­ric tended to get in the way of man­ual la­bor. It also tended to im­pair one’s safety when work­ing with mov­ing parts — mills, turn­stiles and the like.

If we con­tinue our con­tem­pla­tion of men’s cuffs, we be­gin to no­tice that th­ese same work­ing men sported va­ri­eties of leather cuffs, brass bracelets and, in some cases, two or three ban­gles on each wrist.

Now, when we see this, are we see­ing fash­ion or util­ity? It’s ac­tu­ally a lit­tle of both.

LEATHER OR METAL cuffs were stan­dard wear in many cul­tures and na­tions. We see them in Amer­i­can­fron­tier West­ern wear in the form of leather “cow­boy cuffs‚” which pro­tected the arms against brush, wind­ing rope, brand­ing irons and other haz­ards. Cow­boy cuffs were es­sen­tially for the fore­arms what chaps were for the legs.

It was for th­ese same pro­tec­tive rea­sons that leather and metal cuffs ap­peared in other so­ci­eties from those of shep­herds in Cat­alo­nia and herders in Si­cily to those of whalers near the Grand Banks and archers in Burgundy. But just as with the shoes that pro­tect our feet, we didn’t mind a lit­tle dash or splash of fash­ion.

Cow­boy cuffs of­ten fea­tured in­tri­cate de­signs. Leather wrist­bands of­ten had gor­geous en­grav­ings or at least an or­na­men­tal buckle or two, and metal bracelets or ban­gles pro­vided glints of light in their re­flec­tions. OK, util­ity and fash­ion. Got it. But what does this have to do with hurt­ing peo­ple?

Have a look at stud­ded leather wrist­bands, the kind you might pic­ture in your mind’s eye when you think of a stereo­typ­i­cal biker. Now, time-ma­chine that stud­ded wrist­band back­ward to the Five Points gangs of the 19th cen­tury. Look at the metal bracelets of some mer­ce­nary soldiers in Old Spain. Study the ban­gles in im­ages of Gyp­sies in their car­a­vans.

Fash­ion, util­ity and, as it turns out, aug­men­ta­tion of the hu­man weapon.

I’VE AL­READY noted that wrist­bands were used as pro­tec­tion in one mar­tial pur­suit — archery — but there are more than a few men­tions of wrist pro­tec­tion be­ing vi­tal in blade cul­tures be­fore the use of per­sonal firearms be­came wide­spread. And we must not for­get that knife and sword du­el­ing was ram­pant in the past. Pro­tect­ing the wrists was vi­tal.

When one has a look at the stud­ded wrist­bands of some Five Points gang mem­bers, the “toughs” of the wa­ter­fronts of New Or­leans, it re­quires no stretch of the imag­i­na­tion to see the im­por­tance of such pro­tec­tion in rough-and- tum­ble, down-and-dirty fight­ing, which ex­plains why it was used.

Over time, the re­in­forced wrist be­came ac­tive as both a defensive weapon and a strik­ing weapon, and an of­ten-used one at that. To get a better idea of this, imag­ine what a well-stud­ded, or well-buck­led, wrist­band might add to your clinch and grap­pling game.

Even if modern mar­tial artists de­cide not to rein­tro­duce such “fis­ticuffs” into their train­ing pro­gram, it’s nice to know how this bit of old­school mean­ness came about. It’s also a way to view the word — and wrist­bands, cow­boy cuffs and ban­gles — with more ap­pre­cia­tive eyes.

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