Knights Of The Round Table And Main Street: Jousting Then And Now

Jul 13, 2011 - 11:36 AM

In 1226, Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein set out on an epic quest: To win the affections of the woman he loved, he rode from Venice to Vienna, lancing 307 adversaries in tournaments along the way. Fast forward 785 years, and notions of chivalry have changed; affections are conveyed via quick text messages and adversaries unfriended with the subtle click of a mouse. Just what remains for a modern knight to do?

Fear not, worthy people! If the dinner tournament at Medieval Times and ubiquitous state renaissance festivals haven’t sated your chivalric ambitions, the History Channel has just announced that they’re recruiting riders for an upcoming jousting reality show. And in an even more storied U.S. tradition, jousting boasts a full competitive calendar on the East Coast, having been Maryland’s official state sport since 1962.

But how did the medieval sport bridge the Atlantic and gain popularity in a country tracing its history a mere 235 years?

To tell the tale, we’ve got to go back to the beginning, to a field in the northern town of Tours, France, in the early 11th century.

Origins Of Tournament

Though the precise origin of the joust as a tournament is unknown, tournaments most likely arose alongside an early modernization of war. In 11th century France, modernization wasn’t firepower but lance-power, the “couched” lance having been introduced as the weapon of the future. Formerly, lances had been thrown javelin-like at enemies, irretrievable once launched, leaving soldiers weaponless and vulnerable to attack. Alternatively, the couched lance was carried under the arm and broken on the chests of opponents; if a soldier missed his mark, he retained his weapon, giving him the chance to retreat and charge again. The advent of a new weapon brought the need for practice, and tournaments were likely developed as a method for soldiers to perfect lance-wielding capabilities.

The 1066 Chronicle of St Martin of Tours reports:

“In the seventh year of the emperor Harry and the third year of king Philip, there was a treacherous plot at Angers, where Geoffrey de Preuilly and other barons were killed. This Geoffrey de Preuilly invented tournaments.”

Though it’s unlikely that the invention of the tournament rests on the laurels of a single man, Geoffrey de Preuilly is widely credited as the forefather of jousting. As his death at the first tournament of record attests, jousting began as a particularly violent game.

Three Ways To Play

Prior to the 17th century, three types of tournaments were prevalent. The melee or “tourney proper” was the most brutal and reminiscent of war: Upon the call to charge, all participants galloped onto the field, unhorsing every opponent until a single winner remained. A “joust” more typically referred to one-on-one combat, where unhorsing or shattering a lance on the shield of an opponent scored points, with the introduction of a low partition in 1420 to help reduce injury to horses. Finally, a “practice tourney” was the tamest of the three, where a knight galloped at either a “quintain”—a wooden target designed to swing toward or away from a knight depending on his accuracy of skill—or a set of rings suspended on cords to boost hand-eye coordination.

By 1230, the popularity of tournaments had spread throughout Europe as a way for knights to showcase their bravery and proficiency in battle, and as popularity grew, jousts attracted the attention of the courts. Noble attention meant noble spectacles, with the addition of pageantry, occasion and jousts in honor of noble court women. But as popularity grew, so did limitations: Richard I of England, a tourneyer himself, was forced to restrict tournaments to Wiltshire, Warwickshire, Suffolk, Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire to help curtail the rising number of deaths to his tournament-enraptured armies.

Condemnation by the church was also a factor, as the ninth cannon of the Council at Clermont, 1130, affirms:

“We firmly prohibit those detestable markets or fairs at which knights are accustomed to meet to show off their strength and their boldness and at which the deaths of men and dangers to the soul often occur. But if anyone is killed there, even if he demands and is not denied penance and the viaticum, ecclesiastical burial shall be withheld from him.”

Tournaments regulated by church and King became increasingly exclusive events; melees were eventually considered too dangerous for noblemen to contest, while jousts, quintains and rings lent themselves to leisurely spectating. As the sport evolved throughout the 1400s, jousts became increasingly more civilized, with skill eventually outweighing aspects of bravery and brutality.

Colonial Jousting And Continuing Legacy

When the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh traveled to America to start new lives in the colonies, they couldn’t help but bring vestiges of their heritage with them. Colonial jousts and pageants were staged as early as 1778, as an excerpt from the Meschianza Tournament Philadelphia confirms:

“These Knights were dressed in white and pink satin, with hats of pink silk, the brims of which were covered with white feathers… Lances were shivered, pistols fired and finally an engagement with broadswords.”

In Annapolis, William Oliver Stevens wrote that ring tournaments were a favorite pastime of “every young man at home on a horse” from 1750-1770. Particularly in the south, ring tournaments gained popularity amongst the new aristocracy as genteel values of pageantry and romantic glorification abounded. Notable ring tournaments were held in Baltimore in 1840 and West Virginia in 1841, and during the Civil War, members of the Alabama and Virginia cavalries were said to have engaged in tournaments. 

Ring jousting continued to gain popularity after the war, with the first annual Calvert County, Md., tournament hosted in 1866 (the 145th annual tournament is slated for next month). By the 1950s, the Maryland Jousting Tournament Association had been founded to organize fans of the competitive sport, and in 1962, founding member Henry Fowler introduced a bill to the Maryland General Assembly to recognize jousting as the official state sport.

Knights Of Main Street

Since the 1950s, jousting organizations have sprung up in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, hosting local, state and regional competitions throughout the spring, summer and fall. 

“Carpenters, surgeons, dental hygienists, teachers, salesmen—it’s a real mixed bag of riders,” said Jim Drews, president of the Maryland Jousting Tournament Association. “We have competitions each weekend spanning from April to October.”

Today, four levels of competition have developed: novice, amateur, semi-professional and professional. Riders gallop down an 80-yard track under a set of “arches,” which hold rings of decreasing diameters as the levels advance.

“To break ties in the professional division, the rings get down to the size of a peppermint,” said Bruce Hoffman, board member of the Amateur Jousting Club of Maryland.

Though the sport is now modernized, historical references abound.

“At some of the bigger tournaments, we hold a parade of knights and ladies where people will dress up in period costumes,” said Drews. “At the end of each tournament, we crown our champions to four places in each class, and they get their trophies with a bouquet of flowers or a crown made of flowers. They present those to a significant other, so that’s a tradition of chivalry we remember.”

In addition to traditions of pageantry and chivalry, riders compete under self-created titles as knights and maids.

“Your title could be anything from your hometown, your horse’s name, the street you live on or your favorite color. We’ve got anything from ‘Knight of Main Street’ to ‘Knight of Bakers Acres’ or ‘Knight of Sir Lancelot.’ We keep that tradition alive in the sport,” Drews said.

When it comes to horses, Hoffman says there are no limitations.

“We’ve got Belgians, Arabs, Quarter Horses, Walkers, Andalusians—any horse will adapt to jousting. Anything that’s got a smooth, long stride will do better than a choppy-strided horse, but we’ve got all kinds,” he said.

At the entry price of $5-10 per class, jousting has to be one of the most affordable horse sports, attracting upwards of 40 competitors at regional and national competitions.

“We have families where two, three, four generations are competing against each other. You just get hooked after you gallop down under those arches, and you have to do it again,” said Drews.

When it comes to jousting, generations have been hooked for thousands of years.

Interested In Giving This Ancient Sport A Try?

The National Jousting Association

The Maryland Jousting Tournament Association

The Amateur Jousting Club of Maryland

The 145th Annual Calvert County Joust Tournament

As a youngster, Chronicle of the Horse staffer Abby Gibbon was mystified by a black-and-white photo of her grandfather competing in a jumper class in the 1960s. He wasn’t wearing a helmet! His saddle pad was non-existent! The wall he was jumping looked like it would knock you down, too, if you happened to knock it! In the past 50 years, the world of equestrianism has evolved, but one thing is still for certain: History is something we all share as horse enthusiasts, and we’ve got to explore it to learn from it. Armed with nearly 75 years of Chronicle archives, Abby plans to unearth articles we haven’t examined for too many years, shedding light on how far we’ve come – and how far we still have to go – as modern horsemen.

Have ideas for historical topics? Questions or curiosities? Please e-mail Abby – she’d love to hear from you!

Category: Blog Entry

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