Full-contact medieval fighting is growing in Whitehorse
A Summer 2015 Yukon Prospector Web Extra
The clang of clashing metal echoes through the Yukon woods. Not in a ringing way, but with dull thudding bashes, like someone striking the side of a car with a pole.
Two men, covered head to toe in steel armor stand inside a wooden ring. One holds a long pole with an axe on the end. The other a sword and shield.
The man with the poleaxe tries to keep his distance. Twisting and pivoting away, raining down blows on the other man’s shoulders, using his weapon reach. Eventually sword and shield manages to parry a swing and get in close. But poleaxe chokes up on his grip and begins wielding his weapon like a bow staff, heaving blunt force from left and right. The axe of the pole lands two heavy strikes to the head, disorienting the opposition. He never sees the other end coming. A well-timed strike smashes into his faceplate. He crumples.
The fight is over within seconds. Poleaxe immediately lifts his visor and bends down to make sure the other man is alright. The other raises his sword to show it; his opponent helps him up. They clasp arms.
“I guess you know how to use a poleaxe,” says the defeated with a weary chuckle.
A new start for old ways.
This is the modern world of Medieval Combat. Full-grown men and women hacking at each other for sport. Dressed in historically accurate armour. Trading 'killing' blows and laughing together after.
You could consider the Society for Creative Anachronism as the spiritual origin of MC. Founded in 1966, the SCA is “an international organization dedication to researching and recreating the skills and sciences of pre-17th century Europe,” says SCA Yukon member Lianne Maitland.
One SCA event in Pennsylvania is so large it has to have its own zip code says Lianne. At SCA events, everyone is expected to “make an attempt” at a pre-17th century costume, and it’s expected you’ll embrace the culture de jour. But the focus there is more on roleplaying. They use weapons made of rattan (a wood-like material) for their events. An honour system is in effect, and you “play dead” when struck. In MC, you fight until the round is over or you get knocked down.
Modern MC split off from the SCA around 1990, when some wild and crazy guys in Russia began staging large-scale battles using steel weapons. Twenty-five years later things are taking off. There are MMA style cage-matches featuring fully armored men, Japan has pitted samurai’s against knights, and large organized tournaments are springing up with professional medieval fighters.
Two major companies are behind a lot of the events. The International Medieval Combat Federation, and the Historical Medieval Battle International Association.
Both hold tournaments throughout the year. The largest being the IMCF’s World Championships, and the HMBIA’s Battle of the Nations. Each event draws thousands of attendees, and teams from around the globe.
There is definitely a “renaissance fair” vibe to the occasions. Mutton is roasted, mead is drank. The armor contestants wear must be historically accurate, they must have “civilian clothing” of the same nature. But this is a sporting event. Everything is full contact.
There are different categories to fight in, some unique to the time, place and organization: 1 vs 1, 5 vs 5, and all vs all, for instance; with different weapon classes for each. There’s also a long list of combat rules. No strikes to the inside arm or back of the knee, and no thrusting - since that's the easiest way to kill someone in plate armor.
Canada’s next top poleaxe?
Quebec is represented as its own nation at the major tournaments. But Canada isn’t; at least not yet. “Medieval Martial Arts” schools have popped up in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver already. And just 10 months ago Whitehorse got its own band of warriors.
The Yukon fighters are still green. The local team, The Company of the White Wolf, are mostly new to the sport.
The group sprung out of 2014’s Yukomicon, when Lianne invited José Martinez-Amoedo to give a talk about medieval combat.
José is from Spain, but he lives in Mayo with his Canadian wife and son (both participate in the events). He’s the ideal candidate for MC. He’s served in the army, been a policeman and a bodyguard. He’s no stranger to violent situations. And on top of that he’s read The Silmarillion nine times in three different languages. He loves fantasy and history books. In Canada he’ll work as a primitive skills instructor after obtaining his permanent residence card.**
José’s love for MC started five years ago at an event in southern BC.
“I learned about the battle the day before. I bought a $200 kit, and managed to get my finger broken,” he says. But after the experience he knew this was what he wanted to do. Maybe even what he needed to do.
“To me it’s a ritual to reconnect to human nature. I believe that violence is part of us. We’re the descendants of hunter-gatherers for thousands of generation. The kind of guys that went and stabbed a woolly mammoth in the gut with a spear. And that takes an adrenaline surge that changes your DNA makeup. Where does all that aggression go when you have an office job? It has to come out somewhere, and this is a healthy way to do it,” he says.
José helped start the Company of the White Wolf so he’d have some people to train with, something he does 5 days a week.
“There was no one up in Mayo interested,” he said. That wasn’t the case in Whitehorse.
Don Hornby, for instance, was happy to answer the call. “I’m a huge fantasy nerd,” he says, “I love the atmosphere.”
He also likes the fighting. “It’s like a real life video game, or the medieval equivalent of paintball,” he says.
Perhaps, but with a bit more risk involved.
Although not as much as you might think. José says there are surprisingly few injuries considering the level of violence taking place. Thanks, of course, to the armour. Even a 500-year-old design was perfected over hundreds of years says José. And costs have gone down significantly since the Middle Ages. Now you can expect to get a decent suit for about $2000.
“People get hurt, but it’s comparable to rugby,” he says. “In 2014 in Spain, there was about an 18 per cent injury rate.”
In 2015, when he took the silver medal in poleaxe at Malbork Castle in Poland, José spent seven rounds bashing and being bashed by a 3 kilo poleaxe. All that he had to show was a nasty welt on the side of his head.
It’s all in good fun. At the end of the day everyone is expected to get along with each other. One of the main rules of MC is that you cannot, under any circumstances, smack-talk your opponent.
“You can hit him as hard as you can, but that’s it,” says José.
Give a little, get a little. In this sport, even the blows you take are an accomplishment.
“My helmet's beat to shit and I love it that way,” says Don, talking to another member of CCW. “It’s like ‘you’ve earned every one of those licks.’”
Want to swing a steel sword at someone’s head? The CWW trains Tuesdays at 7:30pm in Rotary Park.
They’ll also be hosting fights at 2015’s Yukomicon, August 21-23.
** José bears a striking resemblance to Geralt of Rivia, a fiction character created by polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, and the protagonist of popular video game series: The Witcher. Geralt’s nickname is The White Wolf. But José swears he was oblivious to this until he went to the 2015 IMCF World Championships at the Malbork Castle in Poland, where a bunch of people razzed him, after creating CCW.
For more photos from the festival click here.
For the full knockout video click here.
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