Wednesday, 17 October 2007

A medieval sport - in the modern world

The contenders lower their visors, square their shoulders inside their armour and charge down the field. With a shattering impact they clash, as spectators roar. One man is down, lying motionless in the mud. He might be unconscious – even dead – but his opponent doesn’t care, racing to the other end of the field. Victory is sweet, never mind a broken rib or wrist. Tonight he’ll get roaring drunk, relive each moment of blood, sweat and tears with his friends, and claim his reward between the legs of a girl who cheered him on that day… American Football? No – think again!

Jousting is a medieval sport that’s alive in the modern world. Freestyle Fighting (combining kickboxing and other martial arts) may be a more dangerous contact sport, but it doesn’t pit men and horses against each other, nor have such rich historical associations. In medieval Europe, jousting was as popular and prestigious as football is today. It began in the ninth entury
as a way of training armoured cavalry – the equivalent of tanks in medieval warfare. The first recorded tournament was in 1066, supposedly devised by a French knight, Geoffory de Pruelli.
From France it spread to the German principalities, England, and finally southern and eastern Europe by the mid-thirteenth century. For over three hundred years, European nobles and
knights competed using a variety of weapons, charging each other on horseback.

The archetypal weapon was the lance, used to knock an opponent off his horse, a form of combat known as “tilting”. Two or three metres long, it could be lethal if a knight’s shield or armour didn’t deflect the blow: Henry II of France was killed when a lance penetrated his visor in
1559. Battleaxes, swords, daggers or spiked balls on chains were also used, particularly when both riders were “unhorsed” and continued fighting on foot. Huge sums were wagered on tournaments; poor or unknown knights dreamt of winning fame and fortune, while even the ighest-born might lose their money or their lives. The arena for tournaments was called a list or list field, and consisted of a long rectagular enclosure, sometimes purpose-built within a castle or palace. Knights had their own tents and squires, to care for their horses and help them don their armour. To distinguish one knight from another, their shields bore heraldic signs, as did the flowing cloths or ‘caparisons’ worn by the horses, whose heads were protected by an armoured ‘chanfron’. Jousting gradually became less of a life-and-death struggle and more regulated by rules and codes of honour. Romantics credit this to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, promoting the ideal of chivalry, but it was a much later English king, James I, who prohibited certain weapons, prompted by the death of Henry II and the spread of firearms in European warfare. James I also introduced ‘running at the Rings’, whereby knights charged at a metal-and-leather ring hanging from a miniature gallows and tried to carry it off on their lance – which was far less risky than ‘tilting’ and lent itself to practice sessions. During the seventeenth century jousting gradually declined in Europe – becoming irrelevant to warfare in the following century – even as it established itself in North America.

There, Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, introduced jousting to the colony of Maryland that he founded in 1634, where it flourished until and long after the Declaration of Independence. In 1950 supporters founded the Maryland Jousting Tournament Association, which codified rules for the sport. In 1962 a bill was passed, making jousting the official sport of Maryland and establishing an annual Jousting Day, preceded by a parade of costumed Knights and Ladies. However, the only form of jousting recognized by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports is ‘tent pegging’, where contestants use a lance to strike and carry away a small wooden target set in the ground.

'In medieval Europe, jousting was as popular and prestigious as football is today. It began in the ninth century as a way of training armoured cavalry – the equivalent of tanks in medieval warfare.'

While jousting is popular at ‘Renaissance fairs’ where people wear medieval dress and ride horses, there’s also a version involving bicycles, whose riders try to unseat each other with padded PVC lances resembling giant Q-Tips – which is hardly macho. Lessons are available from the American Jousting Alliance at Frazier Park, California; contact James Zoppe at

Published in Avantoure Magazine,, October-November issue 2007