This past weekend (April 22) the Chicago Swordplay Guild held its first Prize at Forteza Fitness, Physical Culture and Martial Arts.
Although this was the first Prize to be fought at Forteza, Playing the Prize has been part of rank advancement in the Chicago Swordplay Guild since 2001, and we proudly embrace the traditions of our ancestors. Family and friends of the candidates, Guild members past and present, and guests from other martial arts schools, are all invited to attend this public exhibition of arms. Much like the original Prize, ours are a combination of formality and raucous celebration. Refreshments and music entertain the audience before the Prize begins and during breaks between challenges. Rather like watching a tournament, spectators are encouraged to cheer good blows, and to boo wild, uncontrolled blows.
A Brisk Longsword Match Between Erin Fitzgerald and Shannon Winslow
This cheerfully irreverent atmosphere offsets the formality of the Prize itself. The list (cordoned off combat ring) is decorated with heraldic banners representing the Guild and the virtues ascribed to the medieval warrior (if you’ve been paying attention to our website, you already know that these are strength – speed – knowledge and courage!). The Prize begins with a formal opening ceremony, taken from their Renaissance precursor, and then each candidate is called forward one at a time, their challengers are announced, and combat begins.
The fighting is serious, the fighters are not: Trey Ptak challenges Rob Rutherfoord’s right to not only call himself a Scholar, but to bear the title of Mr Fancy Pants. (Don’t worry, the pants have since been burned.)
Armizare students fight their Prize with the longsword, while Renaissance Swordsmanship students fight with the single rapier. Challenges at the Scholar level are fought under a set of rules somewhat more “permissive” than those of the 16th century, in large part because of access to additional safety gear:
- Each match is 3 minutes in length;
- The entire body is a target;
- Strikes may be made with the point, edge or pommel of the sword;
- Disarms, grapples, leg sweeps and throws are permitted, but combat will stop once both parties are unarmed, or one is thrown to the ground.
- Combatants acknowledge their own blows, and the Judge intervenes only to part combatants with his baton for safety reasons or because a throw or disarm has occurred.
As this is not a tournament, but an examination, each Challenger is given a specific task for their match with the Prizor, based on the observations of the instructors. For example, if the candidate has trouble initiating attacks, one Challenger might be told to hang back, forcing the Prizor to pursue and open with attacks. Conversely, a Prizor who starts strong but tends to “stop and look” might find their opponent continuously presses in with an unrelenting barrage of blows.The purpose is to push the Prizor physically and mentally, under the added stress of the watching eyes of friends and family.
One place where we have decidedly improved upon the past is that Guild Prizes are distinctly co-ed. Weapons are a great equalizer in terms of strength and size, and female students face men and women Challengers equally. Guild membership has traditionally been about 1/3 female, but this past Saturday saw three ladies take the field as Prizors, out of six competitors in total!
Shannon Winslow gives Prizor Nate Wisniewski the “What For”, Before Getting Taken for a Ride
Once all the bouts were over, if the Prizor was judged victorious by the four Masters, he would be declared “a well-tryd and sufficient man with divers weapons”. He would then (after collecting the change littering the stage) swear his oath of obligation, and be escorted by his new peers back to the school and from there off to do much drinking. Our modern Guild’s Scholar’s oath is adapted directly from the Elizabethan one, requiring the student to treat those above and below him or her with respect, to train diligently and with pride, but not vanity, to be sure that their actions and deeds in the list or the classroom bring renown, not shame, to their fellows and teachers, and to be a good citizen. Students kneel and swear this oath on the hilt of a sword, receive their license and are gifted with a green garter tied under the left knee – a symbol of their rank. Finally, they sign their names in the Guildbook – a custom-made, leather-bound volume containing the history, rules and doings of the Chicago Swordplay Guild. (One such guildbook is in Ghent, home of the oldest surviving fencing school in the world. While the modern guild is a sport-fencing club, the records and entries in its book go back to its founding in 1614!)
Or course, it would be quite foolish to preserve all of these Renaissance customs without including the celebratory drinking at an inn! And so, with all due diligence, the tired, and bruised newly-minted Scholars were escorted by their colleagues to O’Shuaghnessy’s Public House for a pint or four. Slainte!
Our hearty congratulations go out to Christina, Erin, Heather, Jake, Robert and Nathan and our thanks to Shannon, Dan, Davis, Jacques, John, Phil and Trey for serving as Challengers!
You can find more videos of the Prize on YouTube.