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The German folk wrestling style called Ringen was researched by the famous XIX century sports historian and gymnastics teacher Karl Wassmannsdorff (1821-1906), PhD. He was also a Knight of the Order of the Zähringer Lion. In his book called “Medieval German Wrestling with 119 illustrations of Albrecht Dürer” he provides a detailed analysis of German wrestling traditions. According to Wassmannsdorff, the folk wrestling of German people (Ringen) was after the freestyle fashion (Kür-Ringen).
Historically, this style was practiced in two modes, standing wrestling and up and down wrestling. In the former the objective of the match was to give opponent a fall on his back (two shoulders touching the ground simultaneously constituted the fall) with or without attacker falling himself (all falls were flying falls), and in the latter it was necessary at first to take your opponent down, then achieve the uppermost position and make your adversary quit any resistance by keeping him immovable underneath you that he’ll admit his defeat verbally (all falls were pinfalls). Over the time those two modes of German freestyle Ringen have evolved into one universal wrestling style the Ranggeln which allowed all kinds of back falls (flying, rolling, and pinning).
Pietro Monti (1457-1509) a master of arms from Milan (Italy) in his famous work called “De Dignoscendis Hominibus” (1492) describes the wrestling customs of the German people as follows: “They commonly grab the legs with their hands,” “They consider all things permissible in order to overcome the opponent,” ”They also wrestle with their feet and hands on the ground like quadrupeds.”
Notably, when in 1840 the famous pioneer of French/Graeco-Roman style Jean Dupuis (1799-1888) promoted his “Olympic Games Wrestling” in Bayreuth (Upper Franconia, Bavaria, Germany) he was challenged to a wrestling match according to the local customs by a farmer called Conrad Münch. His style called “Ringen Bauern Art” (wrestling after the peasants’ fashion) was described as “wrestling without any conditions”, or free for all wrestling.
Besides Kür-Ringen there also was an Old Ringen style which only allowed holds of the torso above the waist. In that particular style headlocks, use of hip/back for throwing as well as tripping/hooking were all strictly prohibited. Wrestlers started the match in either equal hold (above and under hug) which they didn’t have to maintain or at a distance facing each other. Old Ringen also existed in two different modes: standing wrestling for a throw and up and down wrestling. The great account of Old Ringen was given in “Castle Czvargas,” an 1899 book by Australian author Archibald Birt (1862-1943): “The undercatch was fought for desperately. But these men were not content with the fair throw, but must needs be to grovel and scramble on the ground, struggling furiously, until one made the shoulders of the other touch the earth together.” Notably, Birt pointed out that tripping which was the key skill in English Folk wrestling wasn’t allowed in that particular style.
The Old Ringen wrestling has evolved from a primitive trial of strength called Gürtelringen (belt wrestling). This vintage all-Germanic style was an equal fixed hold standing wrestling. The “right hand over and left hand under” holds were taken of two handles attached to the thick leathern belts buckled about the waist, and which were prevented by straps from shifting. No use of legs or feet for throwing was allowed during the matches. The objective of the match was to throw opponent flat on his back (two shoulders touching ground simultaneously) with or without attacker falling himself. The matches were played 2 out of 3 falls. The main techniques of that style were: lifting adversary off his feet and taking him down or throwing him over the head, or pulling him towards yourself and overturn him backwards, or simply swaying opponent from side to side and trying to unbalance him thus causing a fall. The weight of wrestler and his physical strength were decisive factors for winning those contests. In the second half of XIX century this style was popularized all around Eastern Europe and was known as the Swiss belt wrestling. Among the prominent practitioners of Gürtelringen was Emil Voss of Stettin, Pomerania (now Szczecin, Poland). In the 1880s this style was brought to Russia and taught as the “Russo-Swiss Wrestling” at the St. Petersburg’s Athletic and Cycling Club of Dr. Wladislaw Krajewski. The professional Gürtelringen matches were regularly performed in circuses as a part of the wrestling entertainment. All the best Russian Graeco-Roman wrestlers had Gürtelringen background.
German freestyle wrestling as a form of self-defense was covered in the 1443 wrestling manual by German Hans Talhoffer of Swabia. In his book he refers to the famous Ott Jud wrestling master to the princes of Austria. This book described and included illustrations of various wrestling holds and positions known as: the beginning with equal arm grip, warding off, hip wrestling, arm lock around the hip, the throw over the head and, and several others. Leading Dutch painter Marten van Heemskerck in 1552 produced a series of sketches on fencing and Germanic wrestling. But probably the best visualization of that style was a drawing produced by the famous Dutch engraver Daniël Veelwaard (1766-1851) for the previously mentioned famous book by GutsMuths called “Gymnastics for Youth.” His drawing shows a wrestling match in five episodes, starting with the opening hold (upper arms hold), includes two ways of throwing, and finishing with the fair back fall (pinning fall). The first throw is an artistic "flying horse" performed with the wrist and knee-hold. The second throw is more pragmatic "hype" with the tight hold around the waist (bear hug). It’s interesting that Veelwaard chose to show both sides of that universal wrestling style - artistic and pragmatic.
Other famous wrestling authors of that era included:
• Fabian von Auerswald (1462 – 1537). He served as a wrestling coach to John Frederick, the Duke of Saxony.
• Paulus Hector Meyer of Augsburg (1517 – 1579).
• Nicolaes Petter (1624 – 1672). He was a Dutch wrestling master of German descent. His wrestling/self-defense manuals were illustrated by the famous Dutch Baroque painter Romeyn de Hooghe (1645-1708).
To settle quarrels, besides actual wrestling, Medieval Germans used rough and tumble up and down fighting called Raufen (Scuffling). All kinds of wrestling holds (including illegal holds) as well as punching and kicking were allowed in Raufen. The Raufen combat was an exhibition of animalistic brutality and featured atrocities like biting, gouging and etc. The use of various small weapons in this kind of fight was permitted and negotiated prior to the contest. Notably, the proficiency in the art of wrestling was a key factor in winning any fight. In fact Raufen was a degenerated form of Ringen. Sometimes Raufen matches attracted local gamblers and were of “professional challenge” nature since the considerable sums were at stake. Thus Raufen became illegal and since then was practiced by the low order (local ruffians).
There were two kinds of starts in Ringen matches: Zulauf (wrestlers begin the match at a distance from each other looking for an opening and suddenly attack) and Close Wrestling (wrestlers begin the match in close quarters).
Often a Zulauf wrestling start was the ancient Germanic trial of strength called Drücken/Auf die knie zwingen (bringing someone down to his knees). In this case two wrestlers would rush into each other and catch-hold of one another by the hands intertwining their fingers and using all their strength, would try to force their opponent down to his knees. Often a Close Wrestling start was the Peasants’ Grip (Bauern-Griff), an equal above and under hold around the body/waist. This “hug” also originated in old Germanic trial of strength. The objective was to take opponent down using physical strength only (lifting him up or swaying him from side to side), without using any wrestling techniques. In Ringen contestants didn’t have to maintain their initial holds and would break and switch holds and use deceiving maneuvers to try to achieve an advantageous hold which lead to a throw.
Swiss Catch was after the German fashion, it was known as Ringen der Entlebucher (wrestling style of the residents of Entlebuch District, Switzerland), or Rutzen/Ruschen (to rush into someone with violent force causing a fall). That style was example of Zulauf wrestling. In that wrestling style the opening hold wasn’t practiced. Instead the wrestlers would start in a free stance a distance away from each other ready for an immediate acceleration and attack.
The most accepted technique of Zulauf wrestling was called “Bulls” (Stieren). Two men would rush in towards each other like bulls trying to catch the optimal hold and then throw opponent backwards “heels over the head” (Suplex). The most popular throw was the famous “head between the legs” or Back Body Drop of modern pro wrestling. Those dangerous throws caused many a broken neck. Among tactics used in the close wrestling were: throwing over the hip (hip lift technique) called Hufen or Huefen (Crossbuttock), and giving the back (Buttock and Flying Mare). Also a very popular strategy was Kreuzsprunges, or jump over cross, which basically was a Flying Horse.
There were two styles of Ringen in the Middle Ages:
1. Ganzer Ringkampf (Full Wrestling), up and down freestyle. In that style wrestlers would close and quickly go down together. On the ground, the battle for the dominant uppermost position would occur. Ground wrestling was commonly known as the Liegekampf (lying down fight) or Löwenkampf (lion fight). The winner had to make his opponent give in any resistance by placing him flat on his back and keeping him in an immovable position (Unterhalten, to hold underneath). The defeat had to be verbally admitted.
2. Halber Ringkampf (Half Wrestling, or Wrestle for a Throw), standing freestyle. In that style to win the match the wrestler had to give his opponent a flying fall on his back.
During the Middle Ages similar styles were practiced in Netherlands and Flanders where they were known as Ondergooi and Neergooi respectively.
The most common wrestling techniques of Medieval German freestyle were:
Arm-Ringen (use of arms and hands for throwing),
Leib-Ringen (use of body/torso strength for throwing),
Hüft-Ringen (use of hip for throwing),
Haken-Ringen (Hooking, use of legs and feet for throwing) or Häkeln (Crochet Technique).
Gabel (the fork, various crotch-holds and lifts),
Rigel (the foot, leg, various leg and foot holds and lifts).
The mastery in that wrestling technique was achieved by exercising the German folk equal fixed hold standing wrestling game called the Kragen-ringen (collar-wrestling). In that game wrestlers took holds of each other by the collars and proceeded after the sign of the referee trying to take their opponent down from that hold. Usually any part of the person’s body above the knee down constituted the fall, but the most prestigious victory was achieved when the opponent was thrown down flat on his back. Just like in any wrestling at Arms’ Length style the art of hooking legs and tripping was a key skill in the Kragen-ringen.
Most of the falls in the Ringen were given by using the Arm and Leib Ringen techniques (advantageous catch-hold, lift and throw).
During the 1800s, the Turnvereins Era, the Medieval German Ringen was revived by the German Gymnastic Society (GGS) which popularized it all around the world. The GGS style of Ringen was first introduced by the forefathers of modern gymnastics, German enthusiasts Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths (1759-1839) and Dr. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852). The former was author of the famous “Gymnastics for Youth” (1793) and the latter was founder of gymnasia in Berlin (1811) and organizer of large gymnastic gatherings.
According to the Rules of German freestyle wrestling as they appeared in the 1793 book by J. GutsMuths called “Gymnastics for Youth” there were two kinds of Ringen, the Complete Wrestle and the Repeated Wrestle. In the style called Complete Wrestle, the competitors stood a few steps apart from each other and after a signal the wrestling match would begin with a mere play with the hands in order to obtain the most advantageous hold. This was done to prevent wrestlers from rushing on each other with too much violence. The wrestlers were allowed to seize each other fairly round the body or by the limbs (above and under the waist), the head and neck were to be spared as much as possible, and blows of any kind were strictly prohibited. According to the old German tradition one was considered defeated when he is thrown down flat on his back and kept from rising in that immovable position for the previously agreed amount of time so he cannot gain the uppermost position (pinning fall), or until he himself verbally admits his defeat and gives in any resistance (cries, enough!) Those matches were one fall affairs. In the style called Repeated Wrestle the victory was gained by giving the adversary two back falls, and it wasn’t necessary to keep him on the ground, the thrower quits his opponent the moment he is down on his back (quick flying fall). The wrestler who has thrown his opponent without falling himself or touching the ground with his hand or knee was an immediate victor. In that style generally the wrestler was considered defeated if after being thrown he landed on his back, but sometimes it was enough if any part of the trunk of his body (back, belly, sides) touches the ground. Those matches were contested usually for 2 of 3 and sometimes for 3 of 5 back falls.
In England and in the United States the GGS Ringen (Turners Catch) was known as a loose wrestling style or catch-as-catch-can. The GGS loose wrestling style influenced the evolution of British and American amateur freestyle wrestling. In 1866, the National Olympian Association (NOA) had a Great Gymnastic Gathering at Crystal Palace, London. Wrestling was represented by two styles, the Cumberland and Westmorland Back-hold and the Catch-as-catch-can as it was practiced by the athletes of GGS. In 1867, the wrestling manuals were issued by GGS. The catch portion of the manual was presented by Mr. Schweizer, GGS Catch wrestling instructor. An evolved variation of GGS Catch was later adopted by the amateurs of America (1880s), the National Sporting Club of London (1890s), the National Amateur Wrestling Association of Great Britain (1904), and then was finally exposed worldwide at the Olympics in St. Louis (1904) and London (1908).
Sources of information
This article is based on “The Story of Catch” (2019), by Ruslan C Pashayev.