Jogo do Pau

Jogo do Pau (“stick fencing”.  Stick or Staff Game would be a literal one. Jogo is a noun meaning “game” and also from the verb jogar, which can mean either “play” or “throw/toss” in Portuguese) is a Portuguese martial art which developed in the Northern regions of Portugal (Alto Minho and Trás-os-Montes), focusing on the use of a staff of fixed measures and characteristics. The origins of this martial art are uncertain.

Its purpose was primarily self-defence, helping practitioners survive bad encounters with robbers and other aggressors. It was also used to settle accounts, disputes and matters of honor between individuals, families and even villages.

It seems that, in the mountains of northern Portugal, this martial art was practised by many, many men especially those who had to travel frequently. Elsewhere, it was practically unknown, and those who did practise it were taught by masters from the north.

The popularity of this martial art was partly due to the demeanor of the northern folks, who valued personal and family honor greatly, and were prepared to kill for it.

It was also due, in no small part, to the ease of obtaining a staff (although there’s more to its manufacture than meets the eye), as well as the versatility of such a tool: a staff or stick was almost universally present, used as a support for the long daily walks, to help cross the rivers, by the shepherds to protect the cattle from wolves, wild dogs and other animals, and so on.

There are references to this martial art being used by the guerrilla against the troops of Napoleon that were occupying Portugal, during the Napoleonic Wars.

Some people believe that it was most likely influenced by an Indian dance or Indian martial art, which would have been imported and adapted in the period of the Discoveries – a plausible reasoning since it was never practised in most areas of Galicia (the neighbouring region of North-West Spain with close linguistic and cultural ties with the regions of Minho and Trás-os-Montes), even if there are documents that show that it was known in the border region there.

However, some say that its origins are medieval techniques of combat much similar to what’s taught in the medieval book A ensinança de bem cavalgar em toda a sela (The art of being a good horseman on any saddle) whose author was Edward of Portugal (1391–1438). This seems more likely, since the martial art developed, not in the urban areas more open to foreign influences, but in the most isolated mountain regions of continental Portugal. Whatever proves to be true, it is not related to the traditional dance of the pauliteiros of Miranda (which has ties to Asturian folklore).

During the 19th century, Jogo do Pau was brought to Lisboa by a northern master, resulting in an amalgamation with the technique of the Gameirosabre, growing into a sportive competition, removed from actual combat. It was practiced in clubs such as the Ginásio Clube Português and the Ateneu Comercial de Lisboa.

In the 20th century, the practice of the jogo do pau suffered a quick decline due to the migrations from rural areas to the cities, and the greater ease in access to firearms. The players born between 1910 and 1930 were the last generation to experience the flowering of the sport.

The memories of this generation provided a continuity in the 1970s, when the sport was revived. The driving force of this revival was Mestre Pedro Ferreira, followed by his student Nuno Corvello Russo who dedicated his life’s ambition to Jogo do Pau, frequently visiting the North of Portugal, getting acquainted with surviving variants there, especially with the school of Cabeceiras de Basto.

He studied at the Ateneu Comercial de Lisboa, whose master is now Mestre Manuel Monteiro. Today, the sport is still rather marginal in Portugal, but there is a stable number of practitioners organized in two federations: the Federação Portuguesa de Jogo do Pau and the Federação Nacional do Jogo do Pau Português. This art is also practised in the Açores.