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The Modern World of a Medieval Sport

The Modern World of a Medieval Sport

By Natalie Anderson

You might think that the sport of jousting had long ago gone the way of round tables, serfdom, and tall, pointy hats. Or that the only place to see a modern version is at ye olde Renaissance faire or Medieval Times. However, this is not the case. Jousting in a serious format, replicating the skill and intensity of its medieval original, still very much exists.

The Maximilian Ritterspiele in Horb am Neckar, Germany

Much as medieval knights did, modern jousters follow a European circuit, travelling around and competing in tournaments across several countries. Some of the most intense competitions take place in Germany (and, as someone whose PhD focused on medieval German tournament culture, I can say that this surprises me not one bit). Once, when I had the opportunity to share my research with students from the University of Mannheim, Germany, they enthused over the fact that they had all heard of Wallace Collection curator Dr Tobias Capwell – but due to his reputation as a skilled jouster rather than as an academic.

In fact, the world’s biggest annual tournament is held in Bavaria – the Kalbenberg Ritterturnier. Or, should you be passing through the small town of Horb am Neckar, you can attend the Maximilian Ritterspiele (‘knightly games’ – a common German term for tournaments), named after that ultimate of hardcore tournament fans: Maximilian I (1459-1519).

The jousting tradition continues strong in the UK as well. Each year, the Royal Armouries in Leeds hosts a grand Easter tournament. Also, this year, English Heritage hosted a series of jousts across the UK. In 2016, they even campaigned to have jousting recognised as an Olympic sport in time for the 2020 summer games. (No word yet on the results, but you can sign the petition.) To further illustrate the parallels between the fitness required for jousting and that required of an Olympic athlete, gold medalist Victoria Pendleton even tried her hand at the sport.

Pendleton is not the only woman to take part in the competitions, however. This summer also saw two women, Nicky Willis and Alix van Zijl, joust in English Heritage tournaments, making them the first female jousters to compete in the UK (the two were, it should be added, already successful jousters in Europe).

While it is impossible to fully recreate a tournament as it would have been conducted five hundred or more years ago, modern jousters take their efforts seriously. Jousting organisation Destrier follow a scoring system based on Sir John Tiptoft’s tournament rules, as laid out in 1466:

  • Lance broken due to a strike on the opponent’s arm: 1 point
  • Lance broken due to a strike on the opponent’s chest: 2 points
  • Lance broken due to a strike on the opponent’s shield: 3 points
  • Lance broken due to a strike on the opponent’s lance tip: 5 points
  • A strike on the opponent’s arm, chest or shield without breaking the lance (an “attaint”): 0 points
  • A strike with the length of the lance across the opponent’s body (a “barricade” or “sweep”): 0 points
  • A strike anywhere below the opponent’s waist line: disallowed – 0 points, disqualification in case of repeat
  • A strike on the opponent’s head: depending on prior agreement either disallowed, or 3 – 5 points

In this way, jousting lives on as a modern sport. Indeed, its demarkation of its transition from contemporary competition to nostalgic one is blurry. Tournaments were already being romanticised as a representation of a mythical ‘golden age of chivalry’ as early as the fifteenth century, and, in subsequent centuries, its form continued to evolve, becoming more and more separated from its original incarnation. Yet it never truly died out as a sport, giving it a long and complex history as a form of athletic competition.

Click here for more from Natalie

Follow Natalie on Twitter: @DrMcAnderson

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