Jogo do Pau: Origins and Evolution

Journal of Manly Arts
February 2003
EJMAS Tips Jar

Excerpted from O JOGO DO PAU, Origens e evolução by Nuno Curvello Russo

Originally published in Os Portugueses e o Mundo, Conferência Internacional, VI Volume, "Artes, Arqueologia e Etnografia," date unknown.

Translated by Tony Wolf and Gonçalo Costa

An assembly of Jogo do Pau players, circa 1910
An assembly of Jogo do Pau players, circa 1910


Jogo do Pau ("the stick game," or "stick-fencing") is a fighting style employing a simple staff, approximately the height of the player, in techniques of attack and defence. In the generic sense, stick fighting has been practised throughout the world and was refined as a practical technique in some European countries such as Portugal, France. England (quarter-staff) and also in the majority of Eastern countries, including India, China, Japan (bo-jutsu), Thailand, Vietnam and Afghanistan. In the latter nations that still preserve their medieval customs of combat, any tourist who ventures a little into the interior of the country can witness bloody individual combats, including inter-clan rivalries fought with staves.

Human beings have always had to fight to survive and humans have always employed tools. The simple stick was almost certainly among the first tools to be turned to martial purposes, as an instrument of attack and defence against animals. As societies evolved from the nomadic hunting and food gathering stage, conflicts arose; competition over resources, etc. boiled over into personal combat, and people created series of specific movements, attacks and defences, with their utilitarian sticks. The specific nature of these actions depended on geographic conditions, as well as cultural and other factors. This new fighting technique varied not only by country, but also by the length of the stick or staff most commonly employed. Few stick fighting methods were developed for staves over two metres in length.

Afghan and Indian forms of stick-fighting included training and combat with a wide variety of wooden weapons, of different lengths and timbers. Other forms, such as the English quarter-staff, probably so-called because the fighter gripped his weapon with his right hand one-quarter of the way along its length, employed robust hardwood staves. The quarter-staff was two meters long, requiring management with both hands; as with the Portuguese Jogo do Pau, it doubled as a sport and as a combat system.

However, the different techniques used for the diverse lengths of staff are very similar both throughout Asian countries, largely inspired by the Indian style, and in the majority of the Occidental countries, such as England and France. The various stick fighting styles and the combative matrix that they are part of (generally in the rural areas) each have a characteristic tone. This seems to be the result of deep cultural trends that define the degree to which agonistic aggression is related to a fundamentally ludic or "sporting" approach. The great difference between the Occidental and the Asian styles lies in the mentality with that they practise their techniques.

In Portugal one very rich technique was developed, adapted to a type of wood known as o varapau or cajado. As with the development of staff weapons in other countries, the pau was also part of the normal equipment of the field-worker, used as a walking stick or hiking staff and as an elementary weapon of self-defence itself against the aggression of people and animals.

As a defensive or offensive weapon, the stick is a so simple in form that few ethnologies include it in the category of "hand-held weapons". However, a good stick player is not afraid to face any adversary who uses these other weapons. The question is whether formalised stick fighting represents a specialised aspect of the use of the staff as a utilitarian tool, or if, contrarily, the utilitarian usage is simply an expansion of the "staff as weapon."

In the North of Portugal (all over Minho), the staff was used by young men patrolling their lands, by travellers, and by shepherds in the high mountain ranges. A variety of lengths and grips were employed. The staff grip would be shortened while ascending steep terrain, however when descending, the grip would often be lengthened. Thus the staff was often used as a walking stick, and even to vault over shallow streams. The shepherd perched on a steep slope and the merchant in the fair would lean on their staves, thus alleviating strain on their legs. Also the cow-herd used the staff to direct cattle, and, when necessary, to drive away wolves, as much in his own defence as in that of the cattle entrusted to his care. "The stick was only released from the hand when one went to talk with his sweetheart; then the stick was left at the door, to indicate that others had no business there." Moreover, in these lands the staff was the weapon par excellence, deciding the daily conflicts that sprang from rivalries between villages, love affairs, disputes over irrigation systems, and so-on.

Every boy felt himself to be a young man when he could fight with a stick and went with his friends on patrol: it was considered as fine a thing as being a knight armed for battle.

Who in Portugal did not hear tell of the stick-fights at fairs (not only in the North, but all across the country), where entire villages were consumed in bloody, mortal combats?

Also, pilgrimages and parties were always concluded with paulada (stick-fencing matches) between young men of different villages.

The stick was efficient beyond any doubt. When played well, it conferred great advantages to its wielder in a fight. Some stick-fights have become part of Northern Portuguese folklore. Here is the story of a battle towards the end of the 1800s, that took place in a fair in Galiza, as told by Xanquin Lorenzo Fernandez of Orense, in an article sent by him to the journal Comércio do Porto in 1950, entitled O Varapau ("the Stick".)

Fernandez writes:

It took place in the fair of Porqueiróz. This was an annual fair, a gathering of merchants from all across the judicial district and from elsewhere as well. The people of different villages took their cattle and their fruits, and it became one of the best fairs of the Galiza at that time. Once, for an unknown reason, a dispute started between some merchants and two Portuguese who, living as neighbours in those lands, went to Porqueiroz together. The dispute started, as always, at the "hour of sticks." One of the Portuguese, upon seeing danger, cried out to his friend:

-"Oh brother! Together back to back " And like this, each one with his stick, they had defended themselves alone against their attackers. Over much time they had remained firm, in spite of the many aggressors; little by little, they got rid of their adversaries; some were wounded and others, faint-hearted. It is fitting that they triumphed, who alone had "undone the fair." Such was the superiority of their skill in Jogo do Pau.

And he continues:

In all the rest of the Galiza, I am unaware of such weapon. Thus, it seems evident to me that it was an instrument of Portuguese origin; the fact of its usually being used in the border lands, not in the remaining portion of Galiza but otherwise being very common in Portugal.

The Jogo do Pau was, therefore, an integral part of life in Northern Portugal. Throughout the country there existed schools where groups of eager youngsters came to learn from old masters who were well paid for their lessons. It was considered proper for parents to send their children to these masters so that they learned this discipline, as part of their education; such was the esteem given to the Jogo do Pau at this time.

It was common in the long nights of summer to see groups of young people exercising with staves, in training sessions that often lasted almost until the break of dawn.

But this grand era of stick-fights in the fairs and pilgrimages was almost the final epoch. By the 1930s, Northern Jogo do Pau was in decline. There were several inter-related factors that caused this decay. After all the fights in fairs, the police authorities began to enforce laws that forbade the bearing of staves within festival enclosures. Also, emigration to foreign lands and migrations into the great cities, done generally at the bequest of the family heads who could not earn enough from the land that they cultivated, created a "generation gap" of puxadores (the name which was assigned to the Northern players).

On the other hand, the ease of acquiring firearms also contributed to the decline of Jogo do Pau, in that personal justice with the staff demanded intensive training, so that a weak person became powerful enough to trust the efficiency of his weapon.

Thus, for these and other reasons of little weight, this art of combat in the North of Portugal was reduced, leaving only small schools where groups of old players trained for exhibition games.

However, Jogo do Pau also underwent an important migration. After leaving the original nucleus of the Minho it swiftly passed through the capital, crossed the Tejo and became established in the Southern zone, mainly in Estremadura and Ribatejo.

During this journey there emerged a group of professional masters who traversed the country offering training in different locations. The most famous of these were the masters Calado Campos, father and son, known as pretos ("the one who is black"), who had taught from Minho to Setúbal. The most professional Jogo do Pau master was Joaquim Baú, who rode a mule across Portugal living only on donations exchanged for the lessons he gave.

Also, day-labourers of Minho and Trás-os-Montes who had travelled to the South of the Country had been greatly responsible for the transmission of Jogo do Pau to this zone. Since the end of the 1800s, Jogo do Pau had spread through Lisbon, where it found a new home.

In the city, under very different conditions to those of the rural Provinces, the "spirit" of Jogo do Pau was somewhat changed. Once free of the violent imperatives of its original time and place, the art adapted more towards sport and exhibition. The first gymnasium to teach this new form of the art were the Ginasio Real, today known as Ginásio Clube Português, the Atheneu Comercial de Lisboa and the Lisboa Ginasio Clube. Other than these centres, the traditional Quintais ("Yards") were still used for Jogo do Pau training. The Yards were enclosed by walls surrounding interior patios. These establishments could be found throughout Lisbon and in them were trained hundreds of players who received lessons from the master or the foreman of the school (style) of their choice.

These famous Yards were not, contrary to the popular supposition of the middle classes, mere hang-outs for rowdies and low-life. Working men, mostly villagers from Trás-os-Montes, Minho and other northern provinces, had a special taste for this exercise that was practised with admiration in the lands of their origin. The enthusiasm of these men in learning was always great because they appreciated education, and they were prepared to pay dearly in appreciation of the sacrifices made by the Masters. Therefore, the fee for a lesson lasting only 10 minutes corresponded to the daily wage of a labourer at that time.

It is easy to understand that a man who often did not earn more than four hundred réis per day by pulling rock out of a quarry, or five hundred or six hundred réis in any another circumstance, did not pay the master to satisfy vanity. But even in Lisbon the height of this art lasted only a short time due to various factors, such as the introduction of new and fashionable foreign sports. Because they were novel, these sports had come to captivate the younger generations, leading to a "lost generation" of Jogo do Pau players. If the art had not been preserved through the devotion of some individual players, Jogo do Pau (which is today being revived with great enthusiasm in homage to those heroic times of the old Puxadores) would have been in danger of becoming extinct. Therefore practically nothing had been written on the subject, all of the techniques having been transmitted orally, in the traditional way.


ANTÓNIO NUNES CAÇADOR, «Jogo do Pau (Esgrima Nacional)», Lisboa 1963.

ERNESTO VEIGA DE OLIVEIRA, «O Jogo do Pau em Portugal», no suplemento da Revista da Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa, Geographica n.º 32- ano VIII- outubro 1972.

FREDERICO HOPFFER, «Duas Palavras sobre o Jogo do Pau», Lisboa 1924.

GUIA DE PORTUGAL-IV- Entre Douro e Minho, II Minho.

JOAQUIM ANTÓNIO FERREIRA (da Cidade de Guimarães), «A Arte do Jogo do Pau», Porto 1886.

J. LEITE DE VASCONCELOS, «Tentame de Sistematização», volume VI, Lisboa, Imprensa Nacional- Casa da Moeda- 1975.

MARCELLO CAETANO, «Ordalios Prova Testemunhal e Documental», em História do Direito Português (1140-1495), Verbo.

«O Pauladas», nº 00, n.º 1 e N.º 2/3, Boletins Informativos da A.P.J.P.

RUI SIMÕES, «Jogo do Pau», do Boletim Informativo 00 A.E.P./A.P.J.P.

XANQUIN LOURENZO FERNANDES. «O Varapau», em Cultura e Arte, página cultural de «O Comércio do Porto», ano VIII. n.º 8, 10 III 1959, pp. 5-6.

February 2003