Many of those who live in the Czech Republic may tell you that they have met or at least seen someone who is involved in medieval reenactment. From musicians to swordsmen, there is a sizeble group of middle-ages enthusiasts in the country. One group however has taken things to the next level. Looking for the real medieval combat experience, a group heralding largely from swordfighters decided to join an increasingly popular sport, which pits fully armoured fighters against each other in competitions resembling medieval tournaments.
Hidden in an old Žižkov factory building is a small gym. Frequented by both men and women between the ages of 20 to 30 and sporting the standard gym equipment such as dumbbells and mats. Upon closer scrutiny however, one starts noticing signs that this is no ordinary exercise hall, but rather the training centre of Prague’s Medieval Contact Fighting Sports Club [Sportovní klub Středověkého Kontaktního Boje]. A travel bag near the windows reveals what is clearly a breastplate, while next to it lie a shield and helmet. The training gear also starts to reveal its purpose. Hung on one of the benches is a vest filled with weights, obviously intended for getting used to wearing the armour and placed in rows near the entrance are dozens of trophies.
Some of the members, dressed in standard gym clothing, start explaining which ones they are most proud of. Although the team has stood on the podium many times in its six year history, the most revered cup, is not for a victory. Rather, it is for ‘Best Newcomer‘ from a tournament in Russia. The respect of these Czech medieval fighters to their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts is obvious and for understandable reasons. The two East European teams place regularly in the top podium spots during the Historical Medieval Battle world championships, known as the ‘Battle of the Nations‘, and the region they come from is seen as the father of the sport itself, which started emerging sometime in the late 1990s.
Suddenly one of the club’s founders, Tomáš Gajdošík, walks in, as the others start warming up, he explains what training usually looks like.
“The guys are now warming up with a normal dodgeball game, except if you get hit you have to do some pushups or squats. So we warm up, after that we do some stretching and then we are going to work out with weights. Mostly we work out with our own weight, but its good to have some additional weights because in battle we wear around 30 Kilograms worth of weight on us with armour, so i tis better to be strong. Then we will do something like fighting without armour or weapons, mostly wrestling in teams, like 5v5 or 3v3 with those falling down losing.“
The wrestling focus makes sense. Despite the presence of blunt but authentic medieval weapon replicas, ranging from falchions to axes, anyone who has ever seen an HMB battle either in real life or through one of the many YouTube videos, knows that these fights often descend into desperate wrestling contests. As heavy metal music accompanies the training, Mr. Gajdošík takes me outside to get me better acquainted with the armour HMB fighters use.
“This one, as I look at it, is late fifteenth century.“
So I would fit into the Wars of the Roses?
“Yes, you should, but when you get hit [strikes with falchion]! You survive.“
It’s bearable. Kind of like falling when you’re skiing.
I have to say the visibility is actually much better than I had thought. These helmets are reputed to be much less visible. What are your impressions? Or does it get worse?
“No it is actually always getting better. Every time I get a new helmet, I for example play computer games in it or just walk around in it in the house, or do standard labour jobs and I get more and more used to the visor. Actually why people think that you couldn't see from the helmet is because they are not aware that there is padding inside. When this padding is not made for you, or a similar sized person, your head either slips in too much or does not fit in enough, which reduces visibility of course. But this helmet fits you quite nicely, so I would say it suits you.“
The complete armour suit is worn over gambeson and trousers just as a medieval knights would. Although mail is not worn underneath and the modern jockstrap replaces the old codpiece. While training was in progress, I managed to steal some of the modern knights. One of them, is a girl called Pamela. I asked her if it was normal to see women partake in these medieval fights.
“Well it is unusual. It’s kind of a task. It is not for every girl, but if you are a fan of knights and medieval ages and are tough enough to try, why not?“
Is that why you chose to do it?
“Yeah sure. Because I love the medieval ages and do something special that not everyone does.“
Are there any other medieval themed activities you partake in?
“I also do historical fencing with the longsword in the Digladior fencing school.“
“Yeah, now I have. Finally.“
Is there something you’d tell people who are thinking of trying this sport out?
“The best experience I could tell them is that you find a really great family in this sport. The people are great and it is something that will change your life if you really take the hang of it and want to commit."
Pamela’s story of getting into HMB through re-enactment and swordfighting school seemed like the norm rather than the exception, as the two other members I interviewed had similar stories.
“I was doing historical re-enactment and we were at a tournament in Poland, the Battle of Grunwald – one of the biggest tournament re-enactments, with about 1000 fighters. There was a Historical Medieval Battle tournament there. I think it was in 2010. I saw it with some friends and we thought: This sounds interesting. There were a few people in the Czech Republic, who were looking for information about it and how to train. So we started training and about two years ago we founded our club and entered the ‘Battle of the Nations’ tournament."
“I did standard historical sword fighting before, where I focused on the correct scenery and performances. Then I bought my armour and started wondering: Why do I have all of this expensive armour if I am just going to parades and battle re-enactments? By chance I saw some videos of HMB from Russia and I liked it, I thought that this was great and I have to start doing it. I started looking for clubs in this country and by chance, the local guys here started a club, so I joined.”
From the information I gathered, it was clear that many members got into the sport after being involved in some other medieval related activity. Re-enacting and learning the skills of the period is quite a popular hobby for many Czechs, with many sword fighting schools across the country and various medieval musical bands as well.
With the training session over, Mr. Gajdošík joined us in the studio, where I asked him about why he thinks this era is so popular in Czech Republic today.
“I’ve actually thought about this many times, because I was also doing re-enactment and I still am doing it for different periods. I think it is because in the medieval era the Czech Kingdom was something. Our King Charles IV was Holy Roman Emperor. I think that it reminds us that before the communist era, the Habsburg monarchy, and so on, there was something that was really Czech and that we were good in it and that people were scared of our fighters. So I think we may have it in our blood.”
“I can count it just by how many countries partake in the Battle of the Nations annually. It is around 35 nations. But this number is bigger. I know about a movement in Africa, I know about movements in Turkey, China and Japan. However, the problem is that these teams can’t travel so much as it is very expensive and most of the events take place in Europe, Russia or the USA. All in all though, I would say it is a worldwide movement.”
You’ve mentioned teams from Africa, Japan, etc. Do these guys wear medieval style armour or do you end up with samurais fighting knights?
“Yeah. You’ve hit the button now. Mostly it is European style armours. There are also many Mongolian armours, which are more often worn in Russia, but you also have guys here who wear it, or Kievan armour. When I said that you’ve hit the button, I was referring to the fact that just now they have reconstructed samurai armour fitted for HMB fighting. Which means it is completely made out of steel, no wooden bits. It is really pretty, but I think that to repair or use such a thing, you either must be really wealthy or insane.”
How dangerous do you think HMB fighting is? Is it something that people should think about twice before joining, or are you simply very well protected?
“It is like with every sport. You need to think about whether you have the necessary will to do it and then there is physique. I would say that it is not for everyone. Almost everyone can do it, but he would never be good in comparison to other fighters. As for protection and the dangers of the sport, of course it is not like playing chess in the park. We are hitting each other with hard weapons. If you go to the arena you really do want to smash this guy who is going against you. We are friends outside of the arena, but in the ring you do want to ‘kick this guy’s ass’. As for safety. It is just as dangerous as every contact sport. I would say in fact that because of the steel protection, we are much better protected than ice hockey players for example, so most of the time you will not get hurt.”
You’ve said many times that people should join. How long does it take for a person to go from junior member to man-at-arms ready for battle? Is there some required training period?
“It depends on the person. If this guy was doing sport before and his physique, balance and coordination were good; he could go to a tournament in a month. He would not win, but he would survive. As for an untrained person, someone perhaps who plays computer games and suddenly wants to start medieval fighting in real life that would take more like half a year of training at least. Especially in order to wear the armour, to have the physique, to be able to run in the armour, swing you weapon in it and, most importantly, to keep your breath.”
From talking to Mr. Gajdošík and his fellow men-at-arms, it was clear that the most fantastic experience are the HMB tournaments themselves, which attempt to mirror the tournaments of the era. The annual Battle of the Nations seems to tower above all of them. Members' faces would automatically lighten up when describing it. I asked what it is about the tournament that makes it just so much fun.
“Well I would start with our normal year. We have many tournaments all around Europe as well as in the Czech Republic during the year and then there are a few tournaments that we call “eliminations”. It means that the country’s teams are eliminating each other, because just three teams of five can go to the ‘Battle of the Nations’. Only one pro-fighter or one duellist can go and only one women's team can go to the ‘Battle of the Nations’. So you have to get the best and then those fighters go to the championship. Naturally they try to win everything of course.
“I have to say though that just to be there, to be a part of this movement at the championship is something beautiful, something you will remember forever. I have been going there since 2013, representing Czech Republic in ‘board fights’ which means 5v5 and 21v21 fights. To be in the arena, see the people around you and everyone is cheering for you, or not cheering for you, which incidentally provokes you to perform even better – that is something beautiful. And every time I close my visor, I hear this ‘click’ that my helmet has closed, and I am someone else somewhere else. I don’t remember anything else about my life I just know that I need to fight, I need to breathe and I need to be good.”