Tournament Jousting: The Noble Sport

Arizona Renaissance Festival

Jousting always seems to receive a 21st-century roar of approval at the Arizona Renaissance Festival in Gold Canyon.

Jousting, as it was done 500 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!”

On Saturdays and Sundays in March, knights gear up with their heavy suits of armor, settle astride snorting chargers, take up their lances and tilt with each other. These knights (stunt riders and actors) will be battling three times a day at the festival’s 5,000-seat arena on festival grounds, 12601 E. U.S. 60 in Gold Canyon.

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.

The origins of jousting are believed to be in classical Rome, but the “sport” rose to its greatest popularity in Europe by the 1400s. It all evolved from mock battles, in which knights on horseback, assisted by foot soldiers, formed teams and charged at each other in a 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 a foot – that went on all day and into the night.

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 that resulted from such “sport” led popes and English kings to ban jousting tournaments, though English subjects often persisted and were repeatedly excommunicated.

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 1200s, 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 knight’s 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.

The training of a knight included spearing a small ring, some on stanchions and some tossed in the air, and quintain jousting, in which the knight tilted with a mock opponent, which sat on a revolving

pedestal. If he was inaccurate or too slow, the jouster might get struck by the sandbag on the other end of the contraption.

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

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.

Visitors of all ages are welcome to cheer on their favorite knight at the jousting arena three times a day at the Arizona Renaissance Festival. Huzzah!