While many associate jousting with the idea of chivalric knights and their adoring maidens, the sport's true roots are much closer to the physical, dangerous exploits on display in the show Full Metal Jousting. In fact, jousting was history’s first extreme sport.
The First Jousters
Jousting and other forms of weapons training can be traced back to the Middle Ages and the rise of the use of the heavy cavalry (armored warriors on horseback)–the primary battlefield weapons of the day. The feudal system then in place required rich landowners and nobles to provide knights to fight for their king during war. Jousting provided these knights with practical, hands-on preparation in horsemanship, accuracy and combat simulations that kept them in fighting shape between battles. However, what was initially intended purely as military training quickly became a form of popular entertainment. The first recorded reference to a jousting tournament was in 1066 (coincidentally the same year as the Battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest of England), and within a century they had become so widespread that a series of regulations were established limiting the number of jousts that could be held, lest the king’s armies be otherwise occupied when an actual conflict arose.
These tournaments, like all courtly celebrations, were highly formal events. Months before a competition, nobles would need to obtain the necessary royal permit, issue challenges to fellow landowners and select their most skilled knights to fight. In some instances, they would hire a jouster who was not committed to any other master (or liege) and was available to fight for the highest bidder. These temporary employees became known as “freelancers,” a term still in use today. It was quite common for successful jousters to become immensely popular. Medieval heralds, quite like today’s sports journalists, promoted the events through poems and songs and helped spread the jousters’ fame. In many ways, these knights were the star athletes of their day. Just like with today’s modern-day athletes and sports franchises, rivalries soon formed as the knights fought each other again and again while travelling the jousting “circuit.” But the knights did not just joust for pride and glory, there was more on the line. The most successful jousters could receive gifts of money, land and titles from a grateful liege.
Jousting’s Evolution and Decline
Knights were not the only men drawn to the glory of the playing field. By the 14th century, many members of the nobility, including kings had taken up jousting to showcase their own courage, skill and talents, and the sport proved just as dangerous for a king as a knight. England’s King Henry VIII suffered a severe injury to his leg when a horse fell on him during a tournament, ending the 44-year-old monarch’s jousting career and leaving him with wounds that would affect his health for the rest of his life. The most famous royal jousting fatality was King Henry II of France. While participating in a 1559 joust to celebrate the marriage of his daughter to the king of Spain, he received a fatal wound when a sliver of his opponent’s lance broke off and pierced him in the eye, a fatal event some believe to have been prophesized by none other than Nostradamus.
One of the most important developments during medieval-era jousting was the creation of the list, the roped off enclosure that serves as the playing field. The list brought order to chaos. Prior to its introduction, early jousters and their horses would charge at each other head-on, with no divider, leading to dangerous and deadly collisions. What was initially just cloth stretching along the center of the field eventually became a wooden barrier known as the tilt.
The development of firearms and muskets in the 16th century greatly diminished both the role of the military knight and the importance of jousting as a form of combat training. Competitive jousting soon fell out of favor and the sport evolved into more of a court spectacle, with choreographed routines that provided more entertainment than visceral thrills. As the role of these Renaissance-era jousts changed, so to did the protection worn by its competitors. Initially, jousters wore little more than chainmail or even boiled leather to protect them. Early innovations resulted in the use of heavy helmets and sturdier materials and by the 1500's the full-body suit of armor we recognise today was in use. Known as harnesses, these suits could weigh as much as 100 pounds. As this armor was specifically created for entertainment-style jousting, and not traditional combat, they were designed to provide maximum protection, but limited mobility. However, these designs are still considered so advanced that the armor used in modern-day full contact jousting is based on the same basic design principles put in place 500 years ago.
By the middle of the 17th century, traditional jousting tournaments were a thing of the past, though some traces of the sport continued in Europe and were transplanted to European colonies in North America. The ring-tilt, in which men on horseback prove their accuracy with lances and suspended rings, remained popular in the United States, and this form of jousting was named the state sport of Maryland in 1962.
(1450, The dukes of Brittany (above) and Bourbon clash at a jousting tournament Original Artwork: Rivaud and Racinet,Getty Images)