By Ken Mondschein
Once the staid but reliable home for World War II documentaries, of late the History Channel has had decidedly more success with swamp persons, pawnshop celebrities, and melodramas about Vikings than with public education. Their previous attempt at the “medieval fight” reality show, Full Metal Jousting, only lasted one season and was roundly excoriated for its applying modern aesthetics to a medieval sport, complete with “Iron Man” armor, and for its made-up off-the-field drama. However, the six seasons of Forged in Fire, with its Iron Chef format of making actual iron into “authentic” weapons, showed that a more “historical” take coupled with pornographic shots of knives, axes, and swords clearly works with the viewing audience. So where does History’s latest full-contact fighting reality show Knight Fight stand in this proud tradition? In other words—how historically accurate is it?
First, contrary to what they say in the series’ blurb on the History website about being “rooted in historical traditions,” Knight Fight isn’t about a medieval form of fighting, but rather a new one. This particular sport comes from post-Soviet Eastern Europe—specifically an event known as the “Battle of Nations” (BotN), which is sort of the Olympics by way of a Manowar concept album that pits national teams from modern countries against one another in one-on-one and team fights. (The Russia vs. Ukraine clashes are particularly brutal.) BotN began in the Ukraine in 2009 and continues strong a decade later; the US affiliate is the Armored Combat League, or ACL. Most of the contestants in Knight Fight are ACL members who have competed overseas and/or experienced fighters in the Society for Creative Anachronism.
The format of Knight Fight likewise owes more to modern sports than to medieval tournaments. For those not familiar with the show, each episode’s six contestants first fight it out in a grand melee, and the ones the judges deem to be the top three get a pass to the next round. The remaining three must then vie for the remaining slot. These four combatants are divided into two pairs and equipped with analogues of historical equipment, albeit specially constructed for safety. Finally, to determine an overall victor, the two on the surviving team duke it out. While sportive group melees on foot were definitely a thing that was done in the Middle Ages, they weren’t always interested in finding a single victor in the way a modern sporting event is. Rather, as in Jacques de Lalaing and his companions’ early fifteenth-century combat against Scottish knights, the “teams” had regional, political, and even family ties. However, when a single victor was determined, it was often by overall impression than on points—which is carried through with the judges’ decisions in Knight Fight.
Each episode has a historical theme such as “Vikings vs. Byzantines,” “Knights of Braveheart,” or “Romans vs. Barbarians.” (Of course, two of those three cultures didn’t have medieval-style foot tournaments, though the Romans had the arena.) The themed armor and weapons recall schoolyard arguments about “who would win in a fight: Wolverine or Batman?” Batman, obviously—but really, neither, because both are fictional characters. Similarly, none of the combatants are actually Vikings or Scottish knights or Roman legionaries: the idea that fighting styles and volksgeist are reflected in how big your shield is and what sort of sword you use is fallacious. We can’t really know how the Vikings fought; while there are some Byzantine military manuals, individual combat is scarcely well documented. Rather, the earliest written source from which we can reconstruct a system of armed combat dates from around the year 1325—well after the Viking Age.
Similarly, there is no attempt to recreate historical fighting styles in the show other than handing the contestants new shields, weapons, and armor that superficially resembles those of the period while still meeting ACL safety standards. Knight Fight runs on sympathetic magic—the idea that you can “become” your ancestors by dressing up like them. On the plus side, this gives the opportunity for off-the-field “gearing up” montages and some fetishistic shots of armor and weapons, not to mention a bit of canned history. The history content, while brief, isn’t bad, and I’m gratified that at the very least, millions of Americans with basic cable were introduced to the idea that, rather than ending in a day, Rome continued on for nearly a millennium more in the East.
The emphasis on authentic-seeming armor, even if it’s heavier and more protective than the originals—there’s an amusing scene in the second episode where the contestants check out the helmet padding by having the armorer slam them in the head with swords—is a vast improvement from Full Metal Jousting. However, the modern sport still requires compromise: The helmets are lined in foam, which retains heat much worse than authentic linen suspension liners; the heavy leg armor is held up by modern web belts, rather than being tied to the padded undergarments which would rip out because of the weight; and the gauntlets are designed more to avoid the need for reconstructive hand surgery than for dexterity.
What about the weapons? They measure up pretty well in two of the three episodes—some brutal two-handed maces resembling morningstars in the first episode (albeit with the spikes removed for safety) and “Mac choppers” based on pieces from the Maciejowski (Morgan) Bible in the second. However, in the third, the fetish-weapon is the falcata, which were actually neither a Roman nor a Germanic “barbarian” weapon, but rather a short sword used in southern Iberia and which were given its name by a nineteenth-century historian.
As for how the weapons are deployed, though there are some brutal hits, which the editors give all the drama of NASCAR crashes with choice of camera angle and slow-motion photography, because the armor is so effective, the matches often quickly turn into grappling. Live, this sort of fighting can be confusing to watch, resembling a mass judo match between snow-suited six-year-olds holding axes, but the camera work, editing, and captions are top-notch and give the proceedings an air of drama that, again, corrects the mistakes of Full Metal Jousting. The latter show was long on point-of-view jousting footage, but made it difficult for viewers to understand who was doing what to whom in the match—especially since jousting, not matter what the format, is a very technical game.
So if they wore light(-ish) armor and didn’t bash one another with crowbars like Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, how did medieval knights fight? The ACL bases its armor on fourteenth- and fifteenth-century examples, since the large plates are required to prevent the fighters from pulping one another. In order to defeat this level of protection, historical combatants sought to stick their points into the joints of one another’s armor and follow up with wrestling. However, the ACL (and by extension, Knight Fight) bans thrusting (which incidentally makes issuing Roman gladii in the third episode a bit ridiculous, since the gladius was a preeminently thrusting weapon). To be sure, there were some contexts such as unarmored urban sportive fencing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Germany and René of Anjou’s mounted melees when thrusts were forbidden. However, by and large, medieval armored combat, as I’ve written in my several analyses and translations of the late fourteenth/early fifteenth century master-at-arms Fiore dei Liberi, was all about the thrust into the uncovered targets—and sophisticated grappling arts, which the ACL does indeed practice. However, the contestants are not fighting with any documented system of armored combat: Power, endurance, and brutality win the day.
How Knight Fight’s approach will play to viewers who are unfamiliar with the subtleties of armored combat remains to be seen. I could go on about the “problematic” nature of the sport’s origin in the nationalistic Battle of the Nations, or about the social-justice implications of mostly-white contestants dressing up in medieval armor—but that sort of review is best saved for an academic audience. The fact is that I do enjoy the show, and especially watching people I know appear as contestants. I also appreciate the lack of the made-up off-the-field drama—showcasing the love and respect the ACL guys have for one another is a refreshing change from Full Metal Jousting. However, I can see how the similar-seeming fights can get repetitive for most viewers, and, while I hope that Knight Fight is renewed for a second season, I also hope they change the rules to give some variety in the visuals.
Ken Mondschein is a history professor at UMass-Mt. Ida College, Anna Maria College, and Goodwin College, as well as a fencing master and jouster. Click here to visit his website.
See also his article What “Knight Fight” Gets Dead Wrong about Medieval Men on The Public Medievalist
Top Image: ©History Channel