My attitude towards tournaments in HEMA have changed during the years. From the first moment I witnessed a tournament (of sorts) in HEMA it has been a subject of much controversy and argument on every direction.
I believe the controversy stems from the fact that not all of the (this is even more true the earlier the generation we are talking about) instructors and researchers are the best fighters. Not the best fighters in terms of actual fighting experience and not in terms of tournament fighting.
This is not surprising nor is there anything odd or wrong about it; it is only natural that going through the painstaking process of acquiring sources, reading and studying them, cross-referencing, learning new languages, transcribing, translating the texts to other languages and translating them to physical movements is not the most efficient way of learning how to use a weapon in a competitive context.
Currently I see people who are extremely read on the source literature, who are instructors who teach others on a daily basis and still do well in tournaments. Likewise, there are those who don’t care as much about the sources but focus their effort in tournament fighting and do there equally well if not better. Still, the field is still very much in its infancy and I believe in not-so-distant future it is going to be evident that a more sport-oriented approach to training will prevail over a more scholar approach.
Even if the scholar approach would be there just to feed in to the methods of tournament fighting, working in the background, it might not be that helpful. There is no certainty about what amount of the technique, advice and repertoire will really be applicaple to the — let’s admit it — modern concept of competitive HEMA movement. There’s a myriad of reasons for why this can go to either direction, but it is again something to be aware of.
The pursue of tournaments run with historically documented rulesets is a valuable alternative to the modern competitions. But even there, we might fail to properly grasp the context and end up with compromises that greatly change the way the fighting works out, resulting with a dominance of modern techniques and methods over the ones described in the source literature.
In any case, competition has always been a part of martial arts and training. It has been part of swordfighting just as it has been a part of wrestling, boxing and any other type of combat. We know that competitions were held during the time of writing the source material of the modern HEMA movement. People desire to do it, they desire to watch it. There’s a need for ways to rank people, test out one’s skills, to challenge oneself and others. I do not see a future of HEMA without tournaments.
But there is not going to be just one way. The field is simply too vast: the range of weapons span through centuries, geographically we have material from all corners of Europe and just as much is there different ideas and goals for competitions today. Some look for ways of recreating the mentality of war or duel, some wish to recreate the Fechtschule, some wish to recreate other competitions whose rules survive to us and some simply wish to fight and see who is better than the other. Not only in a specific context, under one ruleset, but as a diverse fighter able to adapt to any circumstance.
The only worry I’ve really had recently is, that the earlier generations, those people who have dug up the sources and done much of the pioneering would end up forgotten. That the sources themselves — if deemed by competitive fighters as inefficient — would go forgotten. That our legacy and the richness of the past European martial culture (whatever the context for their techniques had been) would go forgotten in favour of competition, which (while it is good publicity and can have positive effects) often seems in the end being only about personal glory. This worries me, because I see great value in the study of the sources and re-creating technique regardless of its usefulness in today’s competitive context. At the same, it is important to realise the needs of those whose main focus is in competition. Both sides can co-exist, and benefit each other, but I believe this requires a lot of thought and proper management in the long run.
With this background, I have been driving the idea of us hosting an open Bolognese fencing tournament here in Helsinki, and to my satisfaction I can say that the idea is coming to realisation.
On November 23rd of 2013, fighters will partake in what is perhaps the first time outside Italy that a competition is held in honour of the Bolognese masters who perhaps held similar events 450 years ago.
I will partake the competition myself as well. What I’m hoping to see is the diversity of the Bolognese style come alive in a competitive setting, as guided by what little we know of the original rules they fought under, and also good fighting in general. I have invited fighters not only from groups practising Bolognese fencing (as there are not so many yet) but other styles and martial arts as well.
I hope this competition will not only be well received and partaken by the fighters but also direct interest into the origins of these arts and their historical context. If I can do it right, the event will promote both the practical and the scholarly side of what our community is doing.
Who knows, if the event is successful and there will be another next year or the year after, we might not only host an open tournament but a competition in the Bolognese forms, or assalti, as well. This was done by Roberto Gotti in 2010, and I took part with this performance based on Achille Marozzo’s sword form documented in 1536. Beyond this combination, what would be a better way to capitalise on the community’s and the general public’s appetite on competition in order to promote all aspects of our art?