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Clash of swords and armour

Minsk’s State Palace for Children and Young People recently hosted the Challenge Cup International Tournament for Historical Medieval Fights. With swords clashing, 21st century knights struggled for victory in a contest organised by Living History (a public youth association)
By Sergey Pimenov

The tournament was taking place in Belarus for the third time, gathering around a hundred participants from Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Israel and elsewhere. Medieval combat featured a range of armour, shields and weaponry, while knights were also allowed to use hands and feet for punching and kicking. There were no ‘theatrical’ fights, with the strongest winning the day. Each bout lasted 2-3 minutes, with points scored for strikes to specific zones.

Maxim, from Minsk, chatted to us while helping a friend put on his armour. “It weighs up to 50kg on average,” he explained, fastening the special belts. Clearly, it would be difficult to don single-handedly. Vizards are worn to protect the face, which is also a prohibited zone for striking, although the head is a viable target, being protected by a strong helmet. “It’s not painful, believe me,” smiles Leon, from the Savage Hunt club, who works as an electrician at Minsk’s Sports Palace. “I’ve been taking part in historical reconstructions for three years.”

Team fights (of five knights facing another five) simply require members to remain on foot. “There are no scripts or theatrical staging: just true wins and losses,” cries the host, as the knights assemble. Some attempt to knock their rivals down while others begin with strong kicks. It looks ruthless, but the warriors have no real desire to hurt their opponent. “Technical skills are vital,” explains German (known as Artem in ordinary life), from Minsk’s Lyutsern club. “I’ve been fond of chivalry since childhood and now train several times a week at the club.”

The most spectacular show features 21 knights on each side, battling within the tilting yard. Anyone not involved cheers from the sidelines, encourage friends with cries of ‘Bugurt!’ (translated as ‘to beat’ from Old German). The clank of metal and crack of wood is quite deafening. Meanwhile, guards use shields behind the fence to contain anyone pushed through by their opponent. Sudden falls result in the audience stepping back in fear and a brief break is announced.

“Our fights aren’t really violent — unlike football!” jokes Igor, from Odessa. “I take part in 15-20 tournaments annually, having been to Lida, Molodechno and Grodno.”

Fans cry out the names of their favourites and adrenaline and emotions reign. Some knights fall in exhaustion, overcome by the heat. It’s not easy wielding your weapon while wearing armour.

“We’ve come to Minsk from Kaliningrad, by a special bus able to cope with our heavy items,” explains Beda (aka Yevgeny Bedenko), from the Western Tower military-historical club. “After the tournament, we’ll mend and clean our armour. I’m a lawyer but make weapons by hand.”

Despite being almost fit to drop, the knights line up once more and ambulance doctor Ruslan Novikov tells me, “We’ve not had any serious injuries during the tournament — just a few minor grazes. I also take part in military-historical reconstructions, focusing on secular costumes. My knight name is Gugo and I’ve sewn six costumes so far — for friends and for myself.”

The fighting ends and photos are taken during the awards ceremony. Diplomas and medals have been especially made for the event, cast in bronze and brass. These are presented to the accompaniment of music by British rock band Queen. “I’m taking home three awards,” says Morgul (aka Mikhail Morgulis) proudly. He has travelled from Israel’s Petah Tikva. “This is my first time in Belarus but my third tournament. It’s an expensive hobby, since you need to pay to travel to events, but it’s worth it. I’ve loved Minsk and would come again if possible.”

The Challenge Cup is over, so the knights remove their armour, evaluating losses and sharing impressions. They’ll next meet at the Legacy of Centuries International Festival in summer, giving them time to rest and train for new victories.
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