Special #5: BIADY - a lost Polish folk wrestling tradition
For those of you who do not know much about HEMA (= Historical European Martial Arts), it is a broad term that covers many combative traditions that used to exist in Europe, but have been forgotten. The exact time limits for it are still disputed, but for the purpose of this video I assumed that something that was widely popular until the 1960s and suddenly vanished afterwards still classifies as HEMA.

This thing is called "biady", which is an old Polish word for "winning" or "overcoming". In the region where my mother's family come from, that is north-eastern Poland (Łomża, Białystok, Suwałki etc.), this name used to denote a wrestling game enjoyed mostly by village boys and young men. There were a verb and a gerund derived from it: "biadować" meant to "to play 'biady' or wrestle according to the 'biady' rules" and "biadowanie" meant "playing biady". I would have never learned about it, hadn't it been for my and my brothers' curiosity - since our teenage times we have regularly asked our grandparents about different aspects of their childhood.

Both my granparents were peasants from the same village of Bronaki - or to be more precise, my grandma, Czesława, was a peasant girl, but my grandpa, Wacław, was a descendant of impoverished nobility that became undistinguishable from peasants already in the 1920s.  Thus, until their early twenties, when they married and moved to a nearby town of Łomża, they lived in the country. Grandma graduated from the primary school, but Grandpa finished only the first four years, because he had to earn a living for himself and his mother  when he was 12 years old after his older brother and father died. To this end he tried many jobs and learned an awful lot of different crafts (from woodworking to butchery), but ultimately found a decent source of income and quite some fame in the area as a wedding musician - as kids we were fascinated with an old acordion he still used to play until his late seventies.

The stories they tell about their youth intertwine hard work, harsh interpersonal relations, difficult times (ruined and forced into communism, Poland in the 1940s and 1950s was not a perfect place to be a youngster) with warm memories of a closely-bound village community, simple yet extraordinary people and games. Lots of the latter in fact. Apparently, there were periods in the year when most of the hard work had been done for a time and people just had to wait - for instance in the mid-spring, when the fields have already been plowed and sowed and there was little to be done save waiting for the crops to grow. In these relatively loose periods, as well as during virtually any social occasion, kids, youngsters and some grown-ups would eagerly engage in different kinds of fun.

Biady, that is wrestling, was one of the most popular. It was played mostly by older boys and unmarried men, but there were exceptions. Participants  would establish a specific hold - you can see it demonstrated on the video - and try to throw each other down without breaking it. Such matches could last anything from a few seconds to up to half an hour (with a single successful throw!). They involved no judges or coaches, as none of the participants would receive any formal training.

The latter was also the very reason why documenting "biady" required a specific research strategy. Since this martial game had no technolect or jargon, practitioners had no consistent way to talk about it. They couldn't discuss given techniques, as we are used to do in HEMA, since there were no names for wrestling actions involved. Even less so in regard to tactics and theoretical concepts. In effect, my Grandpa also had hard times answering my inquisitive questions which I started bombarding him with after I discovered he has a vivid memory of this fascinating tradition. Being a simple man, he not only was surprised that anyone found it interesting, but also lacked words to explain martial matters in a structured way.

Having realised these difficulties, I called for help: I have a pleasure to run a little youth club teaching HEMA to some fantastic boys and girls. Three of them, Krzysztof Markowski, Marcel Kwapisz and Bruno Biernacki, enthusiastically agreed to assist me in a research trip. We went by bus to Wizna, a town located some 30 km away from my grandparents' house in Łomża, and took a walk to visit the only Polish folk wrestler we knew about. And this time we were prepared much better - instead of asking questions, we started "biadying" in front of my Grandpa in the hopes that it would be easier for him to comment on our performance than talk about "biady" from a scratch on his own. And it worked!

In result, we have obtained some precious technical and even tactical information that we happily present you in the video above. We intend to dig deeper into it in the near future, so hold your thumbs for us if you like the idea. And maybe try to be on the look-out yourselves - who knows what treasures rest dormant in memories of the elderly around you?