ASTANA – Many people claim that nowadays, chivalry is dead; such a statement may seem true anywhere besides at Historical Medieval Battles (HMB).
At HMB, different fighting and training techniques are used to make people into knight-like figures that can perform activities ranging from sprinting to wrestling while wearing a full suit of steel armor weighing up to 30 kilogrammes. This skill is required to effectively participate in regional and global tournaments and everything in between.
Teams of 8-50 contestants representing their clubs or regions (depending on the competition at hand) pit themselves against one another. These events can be very spectacular, as contestants hack and slash their way to victory with weapons like swords and axes. The weapons used are almost identical to their sharpened historical counterparts; the weapons at HMB have been blunted for safety reasons.
The single biggest tournament is the Battle of Nations (BN), an annual event where teams from across the globe represent their countries and compete against other teams. Kazakhstan is one of these countries; national competitions are held to determine who will hold the right to represent Kazakhstan in the BN.
Historical Medieval Battles is a relatively young full-contact sport that traces its roots back to the 1990s in Russia, where steel weaponry was used for the first time while reenactors in other CIS countries used wooden or textolite pieces. From there, fans from elsewhere established the sport in their regions and regional contests started to spring up across the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eastern Europe. The sport is especially popular in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and here in Kazakhstan. Although new to the sport, Kazakh reenactors have risen to international prominence in a single year, after a decade of small-scale local activities.
The BN was first held in Khotyn, Ukraine in 2010. It is common that there is more than one team that wants to represent its country in the BN, so in each participating country, preliminary tournaments are held among each nation’s willing teams. The winner gets to go on to the next level and take part in the BN. For Kazakhstan, the first of such tournaments is the Blade of the Plains, which ran from Feb. 22-23 and was held in Astana where teams from Pavlodar, Almaty, Astana and other cities across the country gathered.
Training participants for these competitions is a tough job, not only for the participants, but for their coaches as well.
“This sport [HMB] is the kind where we get quite a lot of new participants, but almost all of them leave after a month of training, the few that stay are likely to participate for years to come,” said Artemy Gershvald, head of the Almaty branch of the Bayard HMB club. Training methods vary from country to country and sometimes even from region to region. In Kazakhstan, like in many other places, those who have trained for HMB also learn (or are expected to have learned) various forms of martial arts, such as boxing, judo and so on.
Trainees also have to build stamina and sheer muscle power to be able to properly perform while wearing heavy steel plated armour.
This kind of exercise often comes in the form of crossfit or athletics or a mixture of both. This requires quite a substantial amount of gear, all the weights, ropes, armour and weapons not only have to be procured, but trainees must be taught how to use them in order to avoid injury. Participants must also be taught and take care not to damage the the equpment itself.
All HMB armour and weapons must have real-life historical counterparts, preferably, ones that were used in Europe and Russia between the 12th and 15th centuries. Every piece is examined and tests are run in order to make sure they can handle the stress seen in combat, This is true for the weapons as much as armour, since a blade that flies 5 metres into the air after a single hit because it wasn’t welded to its hilt properly can present a real safety hazard. All blades must be blunted, this is another safety measure taken to prevent injury; for the same reason, any weapon that is designed to crush and smite, such as a mace or a warhammer, is prohibited in any HMB activity as well as any weapon that requires thrusting stabs. If something fits all the requirements and meets the right standarts, it may be used. It is important to note that the gear does not have to duplicate something from Europe or Russia, it can be from any nation that existed during the perscribed time period. Various replicas of Turk heavy cavalry armour have been seen at Blade of the Plains, its just that such armour was more widely used in Russia and Europe.
The one big problem with this is that there are no big companies that produce such things en masse or efficently because this sport is stil relatively unheard of. Its small number of players would make it very hard to bring in a profit unlike a sport like paintball for example. The sport itself flourishes because of the diversity in types of armour and weapons, a diversity that would be ruined by standartisation and mass production. This gives participants an incentive to maintain the status quo. This means that participants have to rely on private blacksmiths or themselves when forging their gear and kniting their under-armour, which is a must-have because it disperces energy from blows, which prevents injuries. Because of this, the equipment is often expensive and time consuming to make. This is another reason people lose interest in the sport. This problem is especially big in countries where materials and equipment are not readily available such as Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, reenactors find ways to make the equipment they need.
Overall, the sport may still be in its infancy in Kazakhstan, but it is not far behind clubs in other countries and is growing despite the several problems it faced in 2014, such as the devaluation of the Kazakhstan tenge; in fact, the Blade of the Plains was short of a dozen or so people because they could’t afford the travel and accomodation expenses. Finding an area to conduct the tournament was challenging for organisers as well, but the event was still able to go on. It delivered a very positive experience to spectators.