Jousting Today: The Biggest Secret

by | Jul 14, 2023 | Renaissance Faire

Jousting is one of the biggest draws to Renaissance Festivals today. It’s truly a sight to behold. The knights wear authentic armor representing different noble houses. Spectators get to witness the pageantry, as well as the skills of the knights as they showcase their horsemanship and demonstrate the ideals of chivalry from the medieval era.

In the medieval sport two knights ride towards each other and try to strike their opponent’s shield or armor with their lances. Each match consists of several passes, in which the goal is to break the lance or unhorse the opponent, which in today’s version earns points and determines the winner. The arena, also known as a tilt yard or jousting field, is set up with barriers and seating for spectators to watch the event.

Secret #1:  Jousting at Renaissance Faires is Performed by Actors

The jousting performed at Renaissance festivals is choreographed and prioritizes safety for both the knights, horses and spectators!! It’s meant to entertain the audience, and doesn’t represent the actual dangers of the medieval sport.

“Mock jousting” or “theatrical jousting” is both entertaining and safe. The knights use hollowed out lances, lances that are scored to break, or lances that are made of very weak wood so that the lances are guaranteed to snap without hitting too hard.

Of course, this makes sense. Renaissance Faires draw children and a general audience. The knights and horses appear multiple times through the day. You can’t injure or kill them in the first show of the day. Ha! Ha!

Secret #2:  Full Contact or Extreme Jousting Does Exist Today

As in medieval times, extreme or full contact jousting involves two armored knights on horseback charging at each other with lances, attempting to strike their opponent and knock them off their horse. The full contact jousters use specially designed solid hardwood lances that take a lot of pressure to break, though some do have a breakable tip. They treat it more like a competition where the goal is to score points rather than to put on a show. Points are awarded for hitting the target with the lance, breaking the opponent’s lance or dis-horsing the opponent. 

Full contact jousting is grueling for the body. Both the knights and the horses specially train for this extreme sport. The knights wear authentic armor as well as two additional pieces. As you can see in the video, the knight wears a sizable target on their shoulder and breast area. There are safety rules and hitting the knight’s head or horse are not allowed.

Full contact jousting has gained popularity as a spectator sport, with organized tournaments and competitions held around the world. According to this website, one can see extreme jousting at the Jubilee Renaissance Faire in Alabama.

Let’s look at a selection of the interesting facts about jousting.

Fact #1: Jousting Didn’t Always Use a Horse

Jousting is generally two horsemen and their steeds. However, in the Tudor era there were many variations of the game – some of which had no horse. In one of the weirder tournaments ever, wayback in 1585, knights stood at the stern of two boats that rowed quickly towards each other.

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Fact #2: Armor and Weapons

In the 11th to 14th centuries medieval jousting was inspired by use of the lance in warfare. The knight’s armor started off as chain mail with a helmet, called a “great helm”, and shield. By 1400, knights wore suits of plate armor, known as a “harness”.

In addition to lances, there are two more weapons that typify a jousting ground, — an axe and a sword. In fact, for many knights’ the sword was their weapon of choice due to the symbolic imagery of a cross-guard, which looks like a crucifix.

Fact #3: Jousting as Sinful

In 1130, Pope Innocent II proclaimed jousting sinful. He banned tournaments as well as denied a Christian burial to those killed in a joust. The ban was lifted by King Richard I, in 1192.

Fact #4: For the Word Lovers

The word jousting is derived from Old French joster, ultimately from Latin iuxtare “to meet”. The word appears in Middle English around 1300, when jousting was a very popular sport among the Anglo-Norman knighthood. The synonym tilt (as in tilting at windmills) dates c. 1510.

Fact #5: When did Jousting Became a Sport

As previously mentioned, jousting evolved from lances employed by knights in warfare. It gradually became a specialized sport during the Late Middle Ages, and remained popular with the nobility in England and Wales, Germany and other parts of Europe throughout the whole of the 16th century.

Fact #6: Kings and Chivalry

On occasion, tournaments were held to win a lady’s honor. Or a lady might sponsor a tournament and the attending knight’s would fight to impress one of the aristocratic ladies. The lady might give a knight a token such as a a piece of jewelry or a scarf. He would give it back if and when he returned alive.

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Overtime knighthood and jousting became more and more popular. By the 14th century, kings and nobles wanted to joust to display their own courage, skill and talents! Why should the knights have all the fun! However due to the real dangers of jousting, from the 15th century on jousting ceased to resemble warfare and transformed into a sport.

The ideals of chivalry came into vogue in the late medieval period and correspond to the joust became more regulated. Knights sought to gain honor by fighting against the odds. It was dishonorable to exploit your opponent’s weaknesses, and knights would endeavor to avoid being in a position of advantage. This romantic “chivalric revival” defined the high medieval period.

I admit I have a heard time wrapping my head around this idea of chivalry. I’ve only been exposed to a vague notion of a man was giving deference or acting politely towards a woman. Chivalry seems pretty antithetic current ideals.

Fact #7: Knights and Knighthood

The term knight (chevalier) also dates to the 15th Century and the ideals of chivalry. Centuries earlier in the 12th century, cniht meant servant. In the 12th century, its meaning shifted to mean a military follower. Also in the 12th century, a calvary class consisting of noblemen formed known as milites nobiles. By the end of the 13th century, chivalry (chyualerye) no longer meant “cavalry” but indicated martial virtue in general. It was only after 1300 that knighthood (kniȝthod, originally a term for “boyhood, youth”) now meant a junior rank of nobility.

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By the later 14th century, knighthood arrived at the romantic and iconic meaning we know today.  Knighthood at the end of the Middle Ages now meant a young nobleman seeking to prove himself in honorable exploits, the knight-errant. By the 15th century, many senior, noble classes (not just young noblemen) attempted to emulate or perform “knightly” virtues.

Fact #8: Knights did Cheat

Though chivalry and courage were two words synonymous knights, cheating did occur. Many jousters cheated by wearing specially made armor that was bolted to the horse’s saddle making it unlikely they’d be thrown from their horse.

Fact #9: Jousting Fades or Ends

In France, it was discontinued after the death of King Henry II in an accident in 1559. Jousting reached its peak popularity in the Late Middle Ages, and remained popular in England, Wales, Germany, and other parts of Europe throughout the 16th century. In England, jousting was the highlight of the Accession Day tilts of Elizabeth I and of James VI and I, and also was part of the festivities at the marriage of Charles I.

Fact #10: What Comes After

Jousting transitioned to other equestrian sports in the 17th Century. However, non-contact forms of “equestrian skill-at-arms” disciplines survived. There has been a revival of theatrical jousting re-enactment since the 1970s at Renaissance Faires throughout the United States and Europe. Additionally, there are people undertaking knight’s training and participating in the sport of full combat or extreme jousting with real lances.



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