Poland's medieval love affair for knights

Close-Up: Poland's knight obsession

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There is something about summer that makes some Poles clamour to slip into chain mail or flowing dresses and pretend to be medieval knights and damsels.

During the holiday season there is a knights' tournament or battle re-enactment every weekend.

"People love it. They want to be some somewhere far, far away from the normal, just a little bit boring, everyday life," says popular historian Boguslaw Woloszanski.

Start Quote

Krzysztof Ptasinski

When I used to do this I broke my hand 14 times and I'm a banjo player”

End Quote Krzysztof Ptasinski Combat judge

"We are a very romantic nation, and knights and the medieval time is so romantic."

Mr Woloszanski was taking a break from directing the preparations for the staging of the re-enactment of a siege of Malbork Castle, Europe's largest lowland castle.

The massive red brick fortress dates from 1274 and was the Prussian stronghold of the Teutonic Knights.

After a combined Polish and Lithuanian army defeated the knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, they laid siege to the castle for more than two months.

"It's the best time in Polish history. Our history was very cruel especially during World War II and afterwards under communism," Mr Woloszanski says.

"But 600 years ago it was the most beautiful time, when Poland was a really powerful state."

At its height in the 15th and 16th Centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ruled an area stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Displaced kidney

Malbork Castle is the site in modern Poland, about 240km (150 miles) north-west of the capital Warsaw, which symbolises that era of bravery and chivalry.

The siege, which actually ended in failure, is re-enacted for a paying audience of several thousand people over three nights.

There are also archery, crossbow, jousting and combat competitions during the four-day festival, and as many as 10,000 tourists come to watch.

But it is not just for tourists.

Hundreds of Poles, who all belong to regional Knights' Brotherhoods, are taking part - sleeping in cone-shaped tents in three separate knights' camps around the castle walls.

Compering and judging the hand-to-hand combat is Krzysztof Ptasinski, the son of a Polish diplomat who learnt English from an American teacher in Addis Ababa and insists I call him "Redneck Chris".

His hooded robe and summer gear make him look like a monk in flip-flops.

Start Quote

Ewa Jarzabek

I do it because it's fun... You have to be good at riding and handy with the equipment”

End Quote Ewa Jarzabek Horse skills competitor

"Whoa dude! Ouch! In your face!" he hollers as two knights wearing full body-plate armour weighing 35kg (77lb) lay into each other with double-handed swords.

To progress, a knight has to reach five points, each earned by laying a clean blow on an opponent above the knee.

The swords are blunt, of course, but that does not mean it is completely harmless.

"When I used to do this I broke my hand 14 times, and I'm a banjo player," he says.

"I've got two screws in this finger. I had a cracked skull.

"When we were fighting the Belarusian guys, I had my kidney displaced."

I ask him what the appeal is.

"Whenever you get hit in the helmet you almost lose consciousness because it's so loud. It's a thrill," he says.

In the ring

The only way to find out, he adds, is to try it for myself.

Somewhat recklessly, it transpires later, I agree and after three people have helped me into my leggings, leg and arm armour, chain mail vest, and dog-faced helmet, I am almost ready to fall over.

A re-enactment of the siege of Malbork Castle The siege of Malbork Castle is re-enacted over three nights

Mr Ptasinski's friend, Damian Debski, agrees to show me a few moves.

Instead of staying over to the side, away from the competition area, he gets me to walk out in front of the crowd and be introduced.

We are armed with wooden shields and swords and increasingly I am beginning to sense that Mr Debski is not going to show me several slow motion "air" lunges, ripostes and attacks as I had initially thought.

Instead someone shouts "Go" and he is bearing down on me and almost cleaves my shield in two with his first blow.

I manage to defend myself for quite some time, actually about 10 seconds, before he stops being soft on me and aims a blow to my head, clattering my helmet.

"Redneck Chris" was right - it is loud. And it is also tiring.

Realising how glad I was not to have been born in the Middle Ages, I ask Ewa Jarzabek, one of the people taking part in the horse skills, which includes spearing a small hoop with a lance on the gallop, why she does it.

"I do it because it's fun, it's interesting and it involves horses," she says.

"You have to prepare and you have to be good at it. You have to be good at riding and handy with the equipment. It's challenging."

These events are popular not just in Poland, but across Europe.

It is difficult to precisely define their attraction - but there can be no doubt that dressing up and getting together with friends at picturesque medieval castles appeals to an awful lot of people.

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