While the peasants were off playing shinty, stoolball, and gameball, medieval nobles were donning expensive suits of armor, outfitting their horses, making rich promises to beautiful noblewomen in the stands, and attempting to bash each other’s brains out. Yes, this is jousting.
The joust was the most popular form of sports entertainment for nobles of the high and late middle ages. When we think of jousting we think of shining armor, colorful lances, horses decked out in their finest, and tokens of affection being offered to fair ladies watching in the stands.In fact, jousting began as a military exercise designed to keep knights in fighting shape. A medieval kingdom rose of fell based on the strength of its knights. They had to be in tip-top shape at all times, ready to display their skill in battle at the drop of a hat. The problem was that peace was far more likely to break out in the middle ages than war. Without a real, live battle to fight, medieval nobleman manufactured conflict.
The earliest jousts were little more than fabricated melees. Several knights would charge into an open field at once, lances drawn, attempting to unseat and kill, yes, kill their opponents. They were artless free-for-alls, fake battles to the death. But the problem with staged combat to the death was that people died. Obvious, right? If all of your best knights died in the joust, then who could you count on to crush the enemy when a real war broke out?
As a result of all of those inconvenient deaths, jousting rules developed over time. Combat shifted from a whole mess of knights going at each other to two men facing off in a controlled arena. They anything goes style of fighting with lances, swords, and daggers slowly shifted to charges with lance alone for the joust and other skill-at-arms contests within a larger tournament. Simple chain mail was replaced by full plate mail.
Of course, the greatest advancement in the joust was the idea that knights would compete for points and honor instead of mashing each other to the death. Jousting shifted to the tilt. Two knights on armored horses dressed in full armor would charge at each other with blunted lances. One point would be assessed if one knight hit the other with their lance, two points if they broke their lance on their opponent, and three if they unseated their opponent. It was a kinder, gentler joust.
That’s not to say that men weren’t hurt or even killed. It wasn’t unheard of for a knight to be knocked clean out when he was unhorsed by his opponent. Several cases of grievous injuries were recorded all through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, though many were credited as accidents. One way or another, it was a violent sport.But not everything about jousting was violent. Some jousting competitions were more about skill than force. Knights would attempt to spear rings on their lances as they rode through a course. The evolution of the joust crept slowly towards games of skill and precision and away from bloody free-for-alls.
And then there were the women. Women played an important role in the joust. It was standard practice for a knight to choose a lady in whose name to compete. Said lady, usually a nobleman’s wife, would grant that knight a favor to ride with, usually a scarf or ribbons. And if the knight won the tournament in her honor, well, more likely than not she would deliver the real prize to him in her bed that night. Yep, to the victors went the spoils, whether those spoils were married to someone else or not. No seriously! It was all part of the reenactment of the ideals of chivalry and courtly love. Insert jokes about lances here.
Jousting continued to be a rabidly popular sport all through the Renaissance and up through the sixteenth century. It’s popularity began to fade, however, little by little into the seventeenth century. In 1559, jousting was banned in France after the death of king Henry II from injuries sustained in a tournament. It was still practiced in the highest circles around the time of King Charles I of England, but by the end of the seventeenth century it was on its way to being replaced by other equestrian sports. Like, oh, I dunno, dressage?
One way or another, jousting remains an iconic medieval pursuit. I myself was lucky enough to have a front row seat to the morning joust as an actor in the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire in the early 1990s. Sure, they were actors, but the skill and power those fake knights displayed while on the field was palpable. And they took themselves very seriously. If that’s what the Ren Faire had to offer, I can imagine how awe-inspiring a real medieval joust would have been!