Folk Wrestling in Poland
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Categories: Medieval, Modern

Folk Wrestling in Poland

The field behind the Zentrum für alte Kulturen, Langer Weg, Innsbruck, on 31 January 2019

Over on Patreon, Maciej Talaga talks about the folk sports which Polish peasants used to play in the slack times of the agricultural year. As he says, outside of the harvest season peasant societies tend to have more workers than useful things for them to do, so people on the land have to find ways to amuse themselves.

Biady, that is wrestling, was one of the most popular. It was played mostly by older boys and unmarried men, but there were exceptions. Participants would establish a specific hold – you can see it demonstrated on the video – and try to throw each other down without breaking it. Such matches could last anything from a few seconds to up to half an hour (with a single successful throw!). They involved no judges or coaches, as none of the participants would receive any formal training.

The latter was also the very reason why documenting “biady” required a specific research strategy. Since this martial game had no technolect or jargon, practitioners had no consistent way to talk about it. They couldn’t discuss given techniques, as we are used to do in HEMA, since there were no names for wrestling actions involved. Even less so in regard to tactics and theoretical concepts. In effect, my Grandpa also had hard times answering my inquisitive questions which I started bombarding him with after I discovered he has a vivid memory of this fascinating tradition. Being a simple man, he not only was surprised that anyone found it interesting, but also lacked words to explain martial matters in a structured way.

Having realised these difficulties, I called for help: I have a pleasure to run a little youth club teaching HEMA to some fantastic boys and girls. Three of them, Krzysztof Markowski, Marcel Kwapisz and Bruno Biernacki, enthusiastically agreed to assist me in a research trip. We went by bus to Wizna, a town located some 30 km away from my grandparents’ house in Łomża, and took a walk to visit the only Polish folk wrestler we knew about. And this time we were prepared much better – instead of asking questions, we started “biadying” in front of my Grandpa in the hopes that it would be easier for him to comment on our performance than talk about “biady” from a scratch on his own. And it worked!

A number of people working on 14th-17th century European martial arts argue that what made the teachers who wrote manuals special was not so much technique as a way of talking about and passing on their way of fighting. Many people can learn to be reasonably effective fighters by just having a bash with safe weapons and copying more experienced partners, but they usually run into trouble if they try their three favourite techniques and nothing works. If they also learn a theory of fencing, they are more able to ‘troubleshoot’ problems and adapt their skills to new situations. Theory lets them communicate about martial matters to others, but it also lets them analyze problems and find solutions which their training has prepared them to carry out. Most of the surviving manuals from renaissance Italy contain a short section on defending yourself with a sword where you wait in a low guard on the left, parry upwards and across your body, then riposte and withdraw out of measure. Some of them don’t explain the purpose of this, but others (like dall’Agocchie) promise that in a month of daily lessons, a student can learn this limited set of techniques well enough to have a reasonable chance of surviving a duel. It looks like fencing masters were expected to offer such a lesson plan, but that the details varied from teacher to teacher.

It is also a good counterweight to some of the ideas on the Chinese Martial Studies blog. Ben Judkins is focused on the period from the late 19th century to the postwar era where most of what we know as “Asian martial arts” took shape (East Asian martial arts often have founding legends which reach into the misty past, but the martial arts which have attracted millions of students around the world tend to be products of the early 20th century, just like modern Olympic fencing was pulled together in the 20th century from different local fencing traditions and then hammered into shape by modern sports culture and the discovery that what wins tournaments is not what would help you survive a duel or a melee on horseback). He also comes from a particular American intellectual tradition where writing the word “frauds” in quotation marks seems as natural as making big claims like:

As I (and many others) have already noted, the development of any “local” and “traditional” practice must arise in discourse with notions such as “international” and “modern.” Katchorovsky’s writings provide us with a very specific example of how these concepts entered discussions of martial and combative pursuits in China. (Meditations on the Blade: Ultra-Modernity and the Fine Art of Self Promotion, 18 January 2019)

or “all of these activities are essentially social pursuits. The martial arts are really more about the pedagogy and the discussion of violence than its actual performance.”* (Give me Those Old-Time Kung Fu Villains, 1 February 2019)

If you spend time in and around martial arts communities, a lot of what Judkins says will be familiar. But at least to me, his favourite models do not seem so helpful for understanding something like biady. As Maciej describes it, biady was basically something people did because it was fun and satisfying and might impress their friends. It was not a ‘style’ with a lineage and foundation legend, or associated with lofty theories about how wrestling could make the world a better place. It was not something people spent a lot of time talking about or rationalizing. Polish wrestlers mostly compared themselves to each other, and when they came into contact with international, university-educated ways of talking about fighting, they tended to give their hobby up rather than try to justify what they were doing in the latest fashionable language. As long as biady was at least as much fun as the other games in their village, people could usually find someone to play with.

I suspect that the fading of biady after the Second World War looked a lot like the fading of the habit of spinning, weaving, cutting, and sewing your family’s clothing in places like Greece and Hungary in the same period. At some point, even the most isolated farmers had access to cash, to mail-order, and to pictures of what people in the cities were wearing, and they decided to be part of this new urban, international, commercial clothing culture rather than the local, barter-based one they had grown up in. When their grandchildren wear ethnic Tracht, it is usually made in distant factories by specialists not by the wearer or their neighbours, their everyday clothing comes from H&M and Primark just like the clothing in the next valley or the next country.

Wrestling, fencing, boxing, shooting, and weapon dances fit into societies in many different ways. Comparative research is valuable when it lets us see how familiar things are part of broader patterns, but also valuable when it reminds us that the way our culture does things is not inevitable. If your ideas about martial arts are centred around schools, uniforms, and lineages, looking at amorphous folk traditions like biady could give you a new perspective. You can find more essays and videos by Maciej on Sprechfenster Blog (warning: Patreon Javescripts).

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* I suppose it depends on what you mean by “social” and “violence.” Anything which you do with other people, like dancing or board games or Ultimate Frisby, is social (and a lot of martial arts which were designed to deal with social violence– two teenaged boys trading punches at a dance party while their mutual crush screams, two farmers in Hati brandishing machetes about whose goat keeps eating the first farmer’s vegetable garden- are marketed to Anglos as solutions to asocial violence– muggings, assassination attempts). But I have a hard time calling what two MMA fighter or jousters do to one another anything but violence, even though everyone enthusiastically consents and the rules are carefully arranged so that their play is not as dangerous as it looks, and for every martial community centred around training or the granting of titled by revered teachers, there is another where the community consists of the people who beat or throw each other on a regular basis and formal training is incidental.

So I think describing these activities as “social” is a tautology, and I think that rather than treating the pedagogy and performance of violence as opposed to one another, we might want to think about why many people say they practice a martial art for “self defence” even though they are much more likely to be injured by a training partner than a criminal. ↥ back to top ↥

Edit 2022-08-29: fixed formatting broken when WordPress introduced the block editor

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