The Competitive Side of Bolognese Swordsmanship

I have often heard an argument about HEMA tournaments that their rulesets should be always altered and that basically no two tournaments should be run with same rules and same conditions.

Safeguarding the art (usually longsword) against sportification is the main argument, and I can see the reasoning. But then we also have a few clues about actual competitive HEMA that existed back then. In attempting to reconstruct that I believe the thinking should be different.

We might not know enough about the historical, competitive side to reconstruct exact rulesets, and even back then they were likely to change. We don’t know how bloody their competitions were, with what sort of weapons they were fought and under whatsort of rules they competed. But what we could do is take the little we know and adapt that to a more constant competitive format. With full understanding that this would be different from the lethal – let’s say traditional – side of the art.

In the Bolognese tradition the amount of information we have is extremely scant, but I believe it is enough to serve as a basis forconstructing a rule-set for competition that needn’t change from tournament to tournament. The main goal I’m looking for is that within a fixed ruleset it would be possible to see individuals develop within that set of rules. The development would be easier to quantify.

A suggested outline for a format

The pieces of information we have about the Bolognese competitive rules come from Antonio Manciolino’s Opera Nova and the Anonimo Bolognese. In brief they are:

  • Head counts for three points

  • Leg counts for two points

If you lift your opponent from the ground, you will be considered victorious

Hits to the hand do not count

After being hit, you have the time of one pass to strike back one blow at your opponent in order to redeem your honor

This is not much, but already gives us a framework we can use. These instructions could be interpreted in a few various ways, butwhat I have been thinkin is that the fight needs to be won by points, or by clearly wrestling the opponent (a lift from ground or a throw while you remain standing (illustrated in Manciolino’s drawings, though likely just incidentally). The grapple could be a direct victory, given that the grappler has not received a hit during the action.

A head-shot could end the fight instantly (giving three points). A leg strike would give two, after which any hit would end the fight. A strike anywhere else, the torso or the arm would score one point. Thrusts would be allowed with the same target areas, as they are prominent in the system.

Other option would be to increase the number of points needed to win, perhaps to five points or seven. I think this could even change depending on the tournament as long as it was stated in the records afterwards.

If we allow ourselves to interpret the sources quite wildly, we could say from the description of the so-called “afterblow”-rule in the Anonimo Bolognese that strikes were made with power and the capacity to maim were the swords sharp. Even without this hint I would wish to see that only strikes that had potential to wound were the swords sharp would count. This would have to be a call made by the judges at the spot. A head-strike could negate the afterblow, but in case of torso, arm or leg afterblows and simultaneous double hits a point would not be awarded, again according to judges’ call.

I would like to see these fights always done with similar swords and schiavona-type hilts. Reason for this is that it is difficult to protect the hand while maintaining ability to precisely maneuver the weapon. While the hand is an important target in the Bolognese tradition, I would be willing to sacrifice this much in order to keep fingers safe and increasing the artistic expression by not restricting hand-movement. This is also stated by Manciolino, when he says:
Si come il ferire della mano non del nemico è riceuuto nel conto del giocare per colpo.
The placement of the word “non” is interesting and perhaps erroneous, but I would still translate this as
Wounding the opponent’s hand is not accounted for in the play for hits.
The arm would still be a target, just not the hand. This would go well together with the choice of using schiavona’s.

Grapples with the off-hand would be permitted, as well as kicks but with the understanding that if one injures the hand during a grapple or kicks against an incoming blade causing fracture that is his own fault. There is no way the off-hand can be protected against a strike so, if one is afraid then he better keep the off-hand behind the back. Strikes to the backside would be forbidden for safety reasons and intentionally turning your back to stall as well – but now this gets way too specific!

Unless it was not obvious, the schiavona’s used would be blunt steel that is of a certain length and weight and flexible to allow safe thrusts, with blunts in the tips of the blades.

I would not want to have rounds in the fights, but instead have maybe a maximum time limit, but in the spirit of the duel (and early wrestling rules from the 19th century for example) I would like to see the fight as one unit with no possibility to use tactics regarding the rounds.

Next steps

I’m willing to get advice and comments on this format, and then at some point I will test it our school, and then on a larger scale. After this, my goal is to host a tournament with the format in one of the many international events and hopefully “sell” the format to other groups. My hope is that there’d be a somewhat standardized format of “Bolognese competitive fencing” where rankings could be had and skill-development would be evident. Sidearms such as the buckler could be utilized as well with slightly modified ruleset.

PS. I am planning to write a post about my view on the tournaments in HEMA on a grander scale, but it is a big subject and I might not be ready to decide my own standing on the subject yet. I would love to have my own pet-format for tournaments however, and will personally keep attending all sorts of single-handed weapon tournaments. If for nothing else then for the experience they give. I realize the reality that I enjoy spending too much time teaching this art, writing this blog, studying the original texts and fine-tuning my execution of the primo assalto. Too much time I should spend being coached for tournaments if I wanted to really excel in them. But I believe in a balanced, all-round diet in this subject as well.

Updates to this post

  • *September 8. 2012: *Added the discounting of hand hits to the list of rules. I had totally forgotten about this, thanks to Alex Zalud for reminding me.
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