Polish Winged Hussars were incredibly trained troops who wielded their considerable skills in battle. How did they keep those skills sharp during idle times? Through hours of practice, but also by competing in tournaments. These affairs could be likened to modern day pre-season exhibition games.
Not only did tournaments offer opportunities for the sort of pageantry hussars relished (flamboyant characters that they were), but the events were a chance to show off and to win money and bragging rights.
Through various written accounts, paintings, and the sorts of competitions that survive at re-enactments today, I was able to cobble together a tableau of games a hussar tournament might have offered spectators.
- Racing. Hussars loved to flat-out race one another on horseback. Not only did the victor earn the right to trumpet that he was the most skilled horseman, but also that he owned the best horse.
- Cutting the cabbages. I’m not sure what the exact title of this competition was, but I refer to it as cutting the cabbages. Whole cabbages were mounted on stakes arranged along a race course in a field, and the object was to cut as many as possible in one pass using a sabre. The competitor with the most “cut cabbages” was declared the winner. And who knows? The cabbages might have wound up in the feast that followed!
- Spearing paper. In this race, hussars would heft their lances and race on horseback toward pieces of paper arranged on the ground. The object was to spear the paper so that it stuck to the point of the lance in as short a time as possible. It’s not clear if they used a kopia for this feat, or perhaps an estoc (tuck) or other piece of weaponry. Since the kopia was provided by the king and was a one-use lance, there’s a likelihood they used some variant that would hold up better during the games.
Tilting at the ring and other games from medieval days would also have been part of the tournament, but one would not have seen jousting. While jousting did exist at one time, the king outlawed it after one too many hussars ended up killed or crippled. Imagine the decades of training and the amount of money that went into building a hussar being lost for a bit of fun at a tournament! These elite soldiers were far too valuable to the Commonwealth to allow the loss to continue.
If you’ve read The Heart of a Hussar, you’ll recognize some of these games in the chapter where a tournament comes to Bobolice Castle. I had a ton of fun researching the subject while picturing the bravado of hussars trying to outdo one another!