Guidelines for Franco-Belgian Tournaments

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Guidelines for Franco-Belgian Tournaments

Postby Matt Galas » 21 May 2012 18:54


Guidelines for Running a Traditional Franco-Belgian Tournament


Matt Galas - Copyright 2012

Most of us would agree that the primary goal of the HEMA / WMA community is to reconstruct and resurrect the historical martial arts of Europe. Given that overarching goal, it's hard to avoid the logical conclusion that we must also pay due attention to documented historical fencing practices. With that premise in mind, the following article presents a practical guide to running a traditional fencing tournament, as practiced in the fencing guilds of France and Belgium. It appears likely that variations of this rule-set were also used elsewhere in Europe, particularly in England, the Netherlands, and Italy.

These rules were in use from at least the beginning of the 16th century until the end of the 18th century, but are likely much older. The rules outlined here are primarily oriented towards the longsword, but can be applied to the other commonly-practiced weapons of the traditional guilds: single rapier and rapier & dagger.

This article is based on rule-sets found in fencing guild documents located in Belgian and French archives. It is also informed by a series of practical experiments conducted over the past three years in Belgium, France, and the United States. In particular, I wish to thank Scott Brown for his active role in organizing and encouraging Franco-Belgian tournaments over the past few years, as well as his practical advice on how best to run such tournaments.

Background: The Fencing Guilds of France and Belgium

France and Belgium were home to a series of fencing guilds, which begin to appear in the early 15th century. The fencers' guilds followed in the footsteps of other "armed guilds", such as the crossbowmen's guilds (appearing in the 13th century), the archers' guilds (appearing in the 14th century), and the hand-gunners' guilds (appearing in the 15th century). Many towns in France and Belgium had guilds of this nature, typically formed pursuant to a privilege granted by a local nobleman or by the city council. The main function of these guilds was to provide a hard core of skilled soldiers which could serve as a civic militia in times of war or civil unrest. They also served as mutual-aid societies, "unions" of local fencing masters, and social clubs.

All of the armed guilds engaged in regular practice with their chosen weapons. The fencing guilds typically met each Sunday to fence, and held regular competitions with various weapons. This typically consisted of "prize-playing", in which one fencer put up a prize (typically a tin or pewter vessel of a certain value) and defended it against the other members of the guild. Once per year, the guild held a special fencing tournament in which all the guild brothers were required to "play for the kingship." The winner of this tournament was awarded the title of "King of the Guild", and enjoyed great prestige and special privileges for the remainder of the year. The King was obligated to defend his title the next year. If he won the tournament three years in a row, he was awarded the title of "Emperor", which he held for life, along with the corresponding privileges.

The rules for these tournaments are fairly consistent across the various guilds. The guidelines below present a synthesis of the normal rules found in these guilds. Certain rules varied between guilds; these subjects are highlighted, along with the various ways used by the guilds to handle the issue. Certain practical issues are not addressed in the existent rule-sets. I have presented some solutions to these practical matters, based on experience staging such tournaments over the past few years. Where I have done so, I have clearly indicated this in the text.

Overall Concept

Unlike modern tournaments, the Franco-Belgian guild competitions did not seek to provide a "fair fight" or a "level playing field." Instead, they used what we might think of as a "King of the Hill" format, where one fencer (the "King") enjoys a significant advantage under the rules (e.g., the "After-Blow" rule, described below). However, the King must hold the field against all comers, fighting a series of competitors (the "Challengers") one after the other. If the King remains "the last man standing" when all the fencing bouts are finished, he wins the tournament. If the King is defeated, the fencer who dethroned him takes his place as King. In turn, the new King must defend his crown against the remaining fencers.

The Clean Hit

Thus, the goal of the game is to defeat the King. The King is defeated when a Challenger strikes him a "Clean Hit." A Clean Hit is defined as a blow which lands on valid target area. To be considered a Clean Hit, the blow must leave a mark on the opponent. The blades are covered with chalk for this reason; the fencers wear black so that the marks are easier to see. Most importantly, to be considered a Clean Hit, the fencer who strikes it must escape from the King unscathed, without being hit by the King. Thus, it requires both offensive and defensive skills to dethrone the King.

As a practical matter, judges should look for clean, thick lines left by the chalked blade. If any part of a chalk mark is on-target, the blow should be considered as valid.

The King's Advantage: The Double-Hit and the After-Blow

The King has two key advantages. First, any Double Hit (defined as a simultaneous or near-simultaneous blow) is counted in favor of the King. Second, the King is allowed an After-Blow. If the After-Blow hits, it counts in favor of the King.

An After-Blow is defined as an attack which is delivered by the King after the Challenger lands a hit on valid target area. The King is allowed to strike back, but his attack must be initiated immediately after he is struck. If he delays, he loses his right to an After-Blow. To be counted, the After-Blow must land on valid target area. If the After-Blow hits, it not only negates the Challenger's blow, but is counted in favor of the King. If the Challenger parries or evades the After-Blow, then the King is defeated, and the Challenger takes his place.

Typically, the King is allowed to take one step as he delivers his After-Blow. However, some historical rule-sets allowed the King to take as many as three steps when delivering an after-blow. When running this kind of tournament, a decision must be made as to how many steps will be allowed with an after-blow. As a practical matter, I would recommend considering one step as the standard.

The Lottery System

Typically, these tournaments involved either a King defending his title at the annual tournament, or a fencer defending a prize. In either case, that fencer (King or Defender) is the first to fight, and holds the field against all comers. His opponents are selected by drawing lots: Lot #1 one fights first, lot #2 fights second, and so on. If there is no defending King, and no-one is defending a prize, then the fencer who draws lot #1 becomes the King, and fights the fencer who draws lot #2. Fencers line up according to their lottery numbers, and fight in order. This makes for a good feeling of cameraderie, as the fencers watch the action unfold as a group.

The Veney

Each fencer is assigned a certain number of Veneys. (The term Veney, pronounced "venny", is derived from the French fencing term, venue.) This can be thought of as a point, or a "life". Normally, fencers fight a set number of Veneys (normally two or three), although some guilds granted a larger number of Veneys to more senior guild members.

A fencer loses a Veney any time he is struck by his opponent. For the Challenger, this means that he loses a Veney any time he is hit by the King (this includes Double Hits and After-Blows). For the King, it means that he loses a Veney each time he is struck with a Clean Hit, as defined above. Once a fencer has lost all of his allotted Veneys, he is eliminated from the tournament.

Thus, when running a tournament of this kind, the organizers need to decide how many Veneys each fencer will have. Three Veneys appears to be the most common number in surviving rule-sets, and is recommended as the default rule.

The Order of Bouts

There are two different ways of sequencing the bouts:

The first method conducts the tournament as a series of one-point bouts. In this method, each Challenger fights a one-point bout against the King. If the King scores a hit (including a Double Hit or After-Blow) on the Challenger, the Challenger loses one of his Veneys and goes to the back of the line. The next fencer in line then steps up to fight. If the Challenger strikes a Clean Hit on the King, the King loses a Veney, goes to the back of the line, and becomes one of the Challengers. The fencer who defeated him becomes the new King, and fights until he is defeated. All fencers (including the former King) continue to fight until they have used up their Veneys. The winner of the tournament is the fencer who remains the King when all of the Challengers have used up their allotted number of Veneys.

The second method conducts the tournament as a series of multi-point bouts. In this method, each bout is fought until either the Challenger uses up all his Veneys, or until he strikes a Clean Hit on the King. Each hit by the King upon a Challenger costs the Challenger a Veney (this includes Double Hits and After-Blows). If the Challenger loses all of his Veneys, he is eliminated from the tournament. On the other hand, if the Challenger succeeds in striking a Clean Hit, he becomes the new King. The former King loses a Veney, goes to the back of the line, and becomes one of the Challengers. The next time the former King fights, he fights until he uses up his remaining Veneys or until he strikes a Clean Hit and becomes the King once more. Again, the winner of the tournament is the fencer who remains King when all of the remaining Challengers have used up their allotted number of Veneys.

Valid Target Area

The valid target area is typically described as "above the elbows and above the belt." This target area applies to both longsword and rapier. This means that only blows which land above the waist and above the elbows (i.e., no legs, hips, forearms or hands) are considered to be valid. It is unclear how the rules treated hits that land "off-target". As a practical matter, I recommend against stopping the action if a blow lands on an invalid target area, and simply letting the action continue (although monetary fines may be assessed against a fencer who hits off-target). If a fencer covers his valid target area with his arms to shield it from attack, I recommend considering the blow to the arms as having landed on the valid target area which they cover. It may also be expedient to eliminate any guard directly over the head (such as Vom Tag) since it covers the target area.

Game Changer: The Rising Target

An important rule that makes for a very interesting game is the following: Once a Challenger strikes a Clean Hit and becomes the new King, the valid target area is changed. The valid target now rises to the level of the blow which dethroned the old King. For example, if a Challenger strikes a Clean Hit that lands on the old King's shoulder, that become the line which denotes the valid target area. From that point on, only hits which land above the level of the shoulder are considered to have landed on valid target area. Afterwards, if a new Challenger were to land a Clean Hit on the King's head, he would become the new King, and the valid target area would be the head only. It is possible for this to reach the point where only the top of the head is the valid target.

The effect of this rule is to change the conditions of the fight as the tournament goes on, making it progressively more difficult to land a blow on the King. On the other hand, it also means that the King's After-Blow is also more difficult to land; this has the effect of making it more difficult for the King to defend his crown. (Admittedly, this last point is somewhat unclear in the rules; it is possible that the valid target area remains unchanged for the King.)

When fighting with the rapier, the goal is to strike as close to the heart as possible. Thus, the heart should be marked with a small heart made of red cloth. Each time a Clean Hit is landed on the King, the valid target changes, contracting in a circle around the heart. For example, if a Challenger lands a clean thrust on the King's shoulder, then the valid target area would shrink to exclude the head, the arms, and the lower torso as targets.

Practical hints: When analyzing the chalk marks, judges should consider the highest level of the chalk mark left by a blow as determining the level of the new target area. The new target area should be clearly marked, such as by affixing red tape to the fencers' jackets. This will assist both the judges and the fencers. Another method that has proved useful in practice is for the Head Judge to mark his own jacket to indicate level of the rising target.

Valid Technique

When fighting with the longsword, only cuts are allowed. These must be delivered with the flat of the blade, which is chalked so that the marks can be seen. Thrusts, one-handed thrusts, one-handed cuts, half-sword techniques, pommel strikes, strikes with the cross, punching, kicking, and grappling are not allowed.

Coming corps-a-corps (literally, "body on body, or cross-on-cross") is not allowed. Hits which are delivered by coming to this range should be disregarded, and the offending fencer should be warned or penalized with a fine.

When fighting with the rapier, only thrusts are allowed. Blows with the edge, pommel strikes, and grappling are not allowed. Likewise, the point is chalked, so that hits may be clearly seen. In the past, a leather button stuffed with cloth was used for this purpose; today, a rubber tip will suffice. Coming corps-a-corps is not allowed.

Special Rules: Falling or Dropping the Weapon

Historical rule-sets vary in how they treat the situation where one of the fencers falls or drops his weapon. In some rules, these events are simply disregarded. The bout is paused, the fencers re-set, and the fight begins again. In other rules, a fine may be imposed. Some rules go still further, and treat this as a loss of Veney for the fencer who falls or loses his weapon. In the most extreme example, it is treated as the equivalent of a Clean Hit if the King falls or drops his weapon. The Challenger loses all his Veneys and is eliminated from the tournament if this happens to him. Thus, tournament organizers must address this question in advance. If they fail to do so, the least draconian alternative (do-over) should be applied.


Surviving rule-sets make clear that a jury of judges was used, but does not specify the details of how they reached their decisions. As a practical matter, I would recommend using a jury system, with a Head Judge assisted by two or three Assistant Judges. Whenever a hit is seen, any of the judges may call "Point!" The Head Judge will then call "Halt", after leaving a momentary pause for the King to deliver his After-Blow. Then, the judges should confer to determine the result. In case of disagreement, the Head Judge's vote should be decisive. In case of a Clean Hit, the valid target area should be adjusted and announced to the fencers before the fighting resumes.


If the tournament organizers decide to impose monetary fines, this should be clearly announced in advance. Fencers should pay their fines on the spot. Only the Head Judge may assess a fine. Fines traditionally dealt with matters such as a failure to show courtesy to the opponent; failure to shake hands with the opponent and the judges after the bout; treating the weapon with disrespect; use of profanity; and similar instances of conduct that either poses a risk or shows a lack of respect.

Markers for Veneys

As a practical matter, it is important to have some method of keeping track of Veneys. One method is to give each fencer a colored strip of cloth for each Veney, marked with that fencer's lottery number. As each Veney is lost, the fencer gives up a strip of cloth, either to the victorious fencer or to the judges. Alternately, dedicated personnel must keep a list of who has fought, and how many Veneys remain.

Chalking the Weapons

It is unclear how the fencing guilds chalked their weapons. As a practical matter, the most effective method is to apply double-stick tape to the flats of the blade, and then to rub sticks of chalk along the flat. The blades should be chalked after each Veney; it is best to have dedicated personnel to carry out this important task.


Running a traditional Franco-Belgian style tournament is an interesting and rewarding experience. Not only does it give insight into historical fencing practices, but helps to develop important skill-sets, such as learning how to strike with the flat, how to fence in the bind (such as Winden), and how to deal with an opponent who strikes Double Hits and After-Blows. The fighting is spectacular to watch, as each hit by the black-clad fencers sends up a cloud of white chalk dust. The lottery system, which requires each fencer to stay in line, has the added bonus of creating a sense of cameraderie among the fighters. Finally, the feedback we have received from participants has been uniformly positive.

In closing, I believe that recreating historical fencing practices should be an integral part of the HEMA community's research efforts. The Franco-Belgian guild rules are the most detailed set of rules that have been documented to date. I hope these guidelines help to revive this type of historical format and make it more common in the international HEMA community.
Matt Galas
Erbisoeul, Belgium

Wer do leit / Der ist tot / Wer sich ruret / Der lebt noch
Matt Galas
Posts: 127
Joined: 28 Jul 2008 20:55
Location: Erbisoeul, Belgium

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