Entertainment Magazine: Arizona: Renaissance Festival

The history of jousting

Jousting is given the 21st Century roar of approval at the Arizona Renaissance Festival (ARF).

On winter weekends in the Arizona desert, Knights will again strap on the heavy suits of armor, settle astride snorting chargers, take up their lances and tilt with each other.

These Knights (actually stunt riders and actors) are regular performers at more than a dozen "Renaissance Villages" around the country and will be battling at the Arizona Renaissance Festival.

They perform on a tournament field within the Festival park in the foothills of the Superstition Mountains just east of Apache Junction, Arizona.

Jousting now, as 400 years ago, is a merrie sport; a make-believe pageant of Sir Galahads and Sir Lancelots, of villainous Black Knights versus the virtuous Red Knights, mounted on thundering steeds, plumes waving, chain mail clanking and the festival crowd sarcastically screaming "Cheat to win!!"

Words like "pomp, pageantry and chivalry" serve to evoke the romantic aspects of jousting. When you get close to see the dull glow of chain mail next to bright armor, you begin to grasp how tightly woven the joust is with its history. An understanding of today's combats is impossible without the tracing of their ancient roots.

(Photo) Two tons of horse, knight and armor gallop onto the field prepared to do battle with ten-foot lances for a lady's honor at the Arizona Renaissance Festival.

The origins of jousting are believed to be in classical Rome, but the "sport" rose to its greatest popularity in Europe by the 1400's. It all evolved from mock battles in which knights on horseback, assisted by foot soldiers, formed into teams and charged at each other in some wide meadow.

The result was a "melee" (the word hasn't changed in a millennium) of shattered lances, clanging swords, flailing arms and legs - astride and afoot - that went on all day and into the night. The earliest recorded melee was in 1066 A.D., though mock combat had probably been around for at least a century by then.

At first, the battles served more to hone fighting skills than to provide popular diversion. But in peaceful times, a knight needed a way to retain his skills. The Jousts were great money-makers for the victors; instead of claiming mere points, the winning team held the losers for ransom, often accepting their horses and armor as payment.

The many deaths which resulted from such "sport" let Popes and English kings to ban jousting tournaments, though English subjects often persisted and were repeatedly excommunicated. The tournaments had become a featured attraction at any kind of market faire or other significant gathering. At the height of their popularity, jousts rivaled a state fair, Super Bowl, rock concert and Octoberfest all rolled into one.

By the middle 1200's, the joust emerged as the favored way to prove which of two (or more) knights was better. Most contests were a "Joust a Plaisir" (for pleasure) in which a winner was declared on the basis of points scored, though some were still conducted "a l'Outrance" (to the death). In the sporting version, the knights' swords were dulled and their lances tipped with "coronals" (little crowns) to prevent their penetrating a joint in the armor. Some authorities believe that the lances were deliberately weakened, a precaution still in effect today.

Ring jousting

The training of a knight included spearing a small ring, some on stanchions and some tossed in the air, and quintain jousting. (Ring jousting is today the state sport in Maryland.)

In quintain jousting, the knight tilted with a mock opponent which sat on a revolving pedestal. If he was inaccurate or too slow, the jouster might get whacked by the sand bag on the other end of the contraption.

These quintain devices are thought to be the precursors of Victorian carrousels. Many turn-of-the-century carrousels had a variety of things to grab, including a brass ring which entitled the bearer to a free ride.

The joust became very civilized and formalized, though severe injuries were common. According to the chronicler of an English tournament in 1256, many of the noble contestants "Never afterward recovered their health".

Jousting historical ban

England's King Edward lll put a temporary public ban on jousting in 1370 but an intrepid troupe of stunt riders and actors brought it back in the 1980's. Clad in authentic looking breastplates and helmets, wielding heavy lances, maces and blunted swords, they will thrill the throngs at the Arizona Renaissance Festival.

Some fakery, as in professional wrestling, is to be expected. Victor and vanquished are usually agreed to beforehand. As in many Medieval tournaments, even the exact number of blows is often settled.

Modern re-creations of Renaissance era jousting tournaments are depictions of historical events, coming from a time of high ideals, noble causes and grand chivalry.

Photos and text courtesy of the Arizona Renaissance Festival

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