This practice was revived after a fashion in the late 17th century in the form of Prize Fights, the origins of modern boxing. Several modern organisations teaching Historical European martial arts use Prize Playings to test students for rank advancements.
At the start, a senior Master would declare the name of the Player, the rank being sought, and then announce “The first bout to be at [whichever weapon]”. Bouts were fought using 'blunts' (dulled and rounded weapons) and played to a number of 'hits' rather than to a 'victory'. The term “play” at the time referred to competing or practice sparring, as opposed to a life and death fight. Although not real, the fights were not displays or exhibitions. They were free-sparring practices just earnest enough to properly evaluate the Player and not arranged as public spectacle. The contact was limited, but it was at full speed. The bouts could sometimes be bloody, but never lethal. No armor was used and blows were limited to above the waist, but even the bare head and hands were targets. Only a few instances are recorded of students failing their Prize, with none ever being killed. Interestingly, the student had to pay for the travel expenses of 'answerers' (opponents) coming from outside of London (all Masters within 36 miles were required to attend).
Two bouts had to be played with a number of different weapons against as few as four and as many as ten opponents each. To Play their Prize, a student might face in a single afternoon an average total of sixty bouts or more. These were all against more senior opponents, with little rest in between. The job of the answerers was not to break or beat the Player but to seriously test them. The 'Prize' meant promotion and the respect and acceptance of one's peers.
The fight itself consisted of those traditional English weapons as taught in the “Schole” and dating back to the early Middle Ages. For the challenged Scholar, the weapons to be judged on were fixed at Longsword and Backsword. For the Free Scholar, there was a choice of any three weapons (usually longsword, backsword, and sword & buckler). For the Provost, there was a choice of any four weapons (usually the same as the Free Scholar but also including at least one polearm). Provosts playing for their “Master's Prize” would face an agonizing ten bouts with eight weapons each, including single dagger, quarterstaff, and two-handed sword. Among the other weapons sometimes played were Morris-pike, flail, sword & dagger, and sword & gauntlet. Starting around 1580, the rapier and rapier & dagger were included.
Once all the bouts were over, judgment of passage was made by the four senior Masters. A victorious prizer might be declared “a well-tryd and sufficient man with divers weapons”. After collecting thrown change, the Player was escorted back to the school, again with great fanfare, took his oath, paid his fees, and did much drinking (of which he was also expected to pay for). The whole event might even last two days.
Many Historical European martial arts groups engage in Prize Plays. Organizations that test senior students in Prize Plays include The Company of Maisters , The Chicago Swordplay Guild , and The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA) Modern organisations may use variant rules and structures in their Prize Playings. For instance senior level ARMA members can achieve the Senior Free Scholar ranking for each weapon type through separate prize plays , and bouts within an ARMA prize play are played to 'victor' instead of counted blows and bouts are against opponents of all skill levels.
This article contains paraphrases of material copyright John Clements. Used with permission.