English Country Backswording – An introduction
Country backswording was a sport played at events such as fayres, revels, wakes and church ales and like a lot of sporting activities it stems from a martial background.
Two players would fight each other using wooden backswording cudgels, the goal being to break the others head. This sounds rather violent but the term ‘breaking a head’ refers to raising an inch of blood from your opponents scalp anywhere above the eye line. From actual experience in backswording one of our students unintentionally discovered that in fact it does not take much to split the scalp and that even a small cut produces a lot of blood! That taught them not to play without protective head gear.
Traditionally there were also a few rules to make it both safer and more sporting such as no taking the grip of the opponent to name one which in true swordplay you would do if coming to the close. These rules were to prevent rough play especially if two players where getting aggressive towards each other and to keep the play more fluid and sporting rather than it turning in to a wrestling match. The raising of ‘blood’ from the scalp would have been a very simple way to determine the outcome of a bout without giving a serious injury to the opposing player. Although it has to be pointed out that a call of “God save our eyes” by the players was not uncommon before a bout in some shires. It’s a sport for hardy folk to say the least.
The cudgel used in backswording (a wooden stick usually made from Ash with a wicker or wax hardened leather pot at one end to protect the hand) takes its name from the backsword, a single edged broadsword. This wooden cudgel was used as a wooden waster, a training weapon that was used to practise swordsmanship. Training with a backswording cudgel meant that no wear and tear was put on actual steel weapons and that practise could be done at full force with little worry of serious injury to those training.
It’s easy to see that this form of training lent itself to a form of sporting activity that became very popular in the countryside. However as time went by this ‘country sport’ was picked up on by the upper crust gentry and was adapted in its play to become what is known as ‘Single stick’ which became static in play rather than in full motion. It is a form of cudgel play that is based more on the small sword which itself developed from the rapier rather than the backsword. This has meant that over time the word ‘backswording’ has become mixed up with ‘single stick’ even though they are two different disciplines.
The AOBC focus on the original form of backswording based on what would have been a sporting form of swordsmanship. Historically the good old English ploughmen, country folk and husbands of the land carried weapons for personal defence and they new how to use them. George Silver praises the English ploughmen very highly in his works and their natural English fight.
“…the dint and force whereof manie brave nations have both felt and feared. Our Ploughmen have mightily prevailed against them.
George Silver. Paradoxes of Defence
It therefore stands to reason that these good old country folk would have applied their skills learned in the practice of true swordsmanship when playing at country backswording. Two players knowing the art of the sword would have hardly entered in to a backswording bout and forgone their knowledge and skill with the sword to simply batter at each other with a cudgel. However as the centuries have past by the need for individuals to carry side arms dwindled and as a result country backswording inevitably degenerated in to bouts of trading blows with cudgels as we can read from written accounts of matches. In one such bout a Mr Prestage had his ribs and shoulders handsomely roasted and his opponent a Mr Spyres was so badly knocked about he was incapacitated for any sort of work and shortly afterwards gave up the ghost.
This kind of rough play with little emphasis on skill and technique has superseded the original form of country backswording with players allowing them selves to be battered in the hope that while receiving blows they will be able to try and gain a ‘blood’ from their opponent and is as far from the true nature of swordsmanship as you can get.
That’s why at the AOBC we bout with an emphasis on striving to find perfection in fight, thus forgoing bad form and encouraging students/players to apply the principles of the true fight.