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In Hessen, the Middle Ages are alive and well

“It's only a scratch” cry the sword fighters of Büdingen

The Middle Ages - from the 6th to the 15th Century - were dark and terrible times. Yet they still fascinate us to this day.

When Marko the charburner and Silke the princess ride past the historic town of Büdingen on their proud steeds, it feels like stepping back in time. For both of them, it all began at the traditional medieval festival in the town, which boasts one of Germany's best-kept medieval wall complexes. The Middle Ages are alive and kicking here. Where else do you have the chance to be knighted nowadays?

"Fencing used to be my sport. Then I was watching the sword fighters train one day and just asked if I could join in," says Marko Appel, explaining how he entered the medieval world around 11 years ago. He, too, now trains against his home town's impressively knightly backdrop, the Jerusalem Gate, with the sword fighting group "Is nur'n Kratzer" ["it's just a scratch"]. Weather permitting, its members attract a lot of attention in the town's former moat. When it comes to scratches, Marko can only laugh: "I've had lots of scratches, countless bruises and a broken thumb."

But if you think sword fighting is only for male fans of the Middle Ages, you are very much mistaken. "I feel very at home with the guys. If any of them are cheeky, they get a thick ear," says Silke Karnelka, smiling proudly. Around two thirds of the sword fighters in Büdingen are women. 38-year-old Silke and Marko are a fighting pair: "As soon as we see each other, we go for each other." Only in a sporting sense, of course - but their show fights do certainly have something of the coarse tone of the Middle Ages.

With their white Arab mare Ewina and Arabo-Friesian El Diamond, the pair are the most eye-catching of the group. Silke's love of horses came before her love of the Middle Ages. But the more she became interested in the period, the more certain she was that she could only take a role on horseback. Her colourful robes and striking headgear mark her out as a warrior of the Avars, an Eastern nomadic tribe. An obvious female role such as that of a farm girl or seamstress was never an option for Silke: "I'm stubborn and tough." After around two years' training, she and mare Ewina were a well-oiled machine.

"The horse needs to play an active role; none of the fights are choreographed. And the fighter on the ground needs to be careful of the horse," knows sword fighter Marko. That fighter on the ground is often him, putting him in the weaker position. The 47-year-old sees training and fighting as the ideal workout, especially in the heavy armour. The "Lebendiges Mittelalter" ["Middles Ages Reborn"] club in Büdingen also includes archers and dancers, known as Danze-Luit. Just like other groups such as "Drachenvolk Lindenfels" in the Odenwald, the "Ritter von Königstein" in the Taunus and the "Knappenschule der Ritter" from Rheinberg in the Rheingau region of southern Hessen, the Büdingen group can be found at many different atmospheric festivals and markets in Hessen.

Every two years, Büdingen plays host to a medieval camp for curious time travellers in the former moat under its town walls. More than 60 craftsmen present their historic arts. Minstrels, jesters, fire eaters and dance groups provide plenty of entertainment. More than 150 stalls offer goods from all over the world. In the evening, the participants come together in the camp by fire and lantern light. Eating, drinking, talking and celebrating together, it is like a little adventure holiday. And guests are more than welcome to get involved in Büdingen. Consider it a Middle Ages taster course. This year, participants will come from as far afield as the twin towns in the USA and Romania. Silke the princess and Marko the charburner will definitely not miss out on the chance to prove their fighting prowess.

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