When thinking about sports, what comes to mind; baseball, basketball, soccer, football, hockey, maybe track and field?  Certainly jousting is the last thing one would think of in this day and age. And yet, jousting, that game of medieval times, is making a comeback.  It’s hard to believe, but it’s true.  It does have a bit of an adjustment to the clashing of lances into armor though.

History of Jousting

The original event of jousting was not considered a sport.  The event was used as a means to hone the skills of the knights and nobles for military purposes during the mid-middle ages (around the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries; also called the High Middle Ages).  Starting in France, (around the 10th century) the events spread to Germany and England and down into Southern Europe.

Initially tournaments were held between various nobles and while they started out peacefully, they often turned into bloody battles as jealousy reared its ugly head among the champions.  Winning a tournament was a way for a knight to make a name for himself, especially those of lower status.  The original jousting tournaments were taken from military tactics of the heavy cavalry. (A part of the cavalry whose main role was direct combat with the enemy; they were usually mounted on large, powerful horses and heavily armored in addition to carrying lances, swords, battle axes or maces.)  Beginning sometimes in the 14th century and into the 15th, the events became more of a sport.  As the tournaments became more sport oriented, the knights began to follow more of a code of “fair-play” and chivalry.  Let’s take a look at how that came about.

Early Years of Jousting

The terms “joust” and “tournament” are often used interchangeably, but technically, joust is a single combat between two horsemen, while tournament is used in reference to combat Early Jousting; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commonsbetween more than one knight and to the event as a whole.[3]  The first tournaments were bloody affairs, with knights agreeing on a place and time for the battle and no rules in place.  The knights would charge towards each other with the intent to unmount the opponent.  In the shorter distance and especially if the knight was unhorsed, other weapons were used to continue the fight.  Winners usually gained horses and other assets of the defeated knights.

Before the 17th century, tournaments were categorized into one of three types:

  • Melee (Tourney Proper) was popular in the 12th and 13th century.  This was pretty much how it sounds.  The participants waited for the cry of the charge and upon hearing it, charged onto the field and unhorsed as many of the other participants as they could by any method they had.  This type of tournament was bloody and cost many lives.
  • Individual joust entailed a combat between two knights.  Combatants were not allowed to strike the horse and could only hit the rider in the center of the shield to shatter the lance or unhorse the opponent.  Points were scored for clean hits and disqualification for “unclean” hits.  A low partition, such as a rail, which separated the two riders was used starting around 1420 to help prevent injury to the horses.
  • Practice tournaments were held to increase the skills of the riders. Instead of charging another rider, the participants’ targets were rings (a ring hanging on a cord in which the rider would secure on the tip of his lance, pulling the ring from the cord) or a quintain (a large wooden target mounted on a beam across a pole and balanced on the other end by a weight; if the rider struck the target accurately, it would swing aside, if struck off-center, it would swing around and unhorse the rider.  Striking the quintain was often referred to as tilting.).[3]

Melee types of battles were waged without any rules until around 1066 when Frenchman Geoffroi de Purelli was credited with coming up with the first set of written guidelines for the tournaments.[3] (Purelli died in the same tournament in which he made the rules.[3])  By the end of the 13th century, the individual jousting became much more popular and the tournaments became big spectator events.  It was around this time, the rules influenced a more gentlemanly tournament and chivalry was brought more prominently into the equation.

The Days of Chivalry

The word chivalry comes from the French chevalerie which is derived from cheval meaning “horse.”  (The horse was considered a knight’s greatest asset.)  Chivalry became a part of the knight’s culture in large part due to the romanticized ideals of the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.[3]

The tournaments incorporated these ideals of chivalrous and romantic conduct.  A knight selected a beautiful lady, those married to higher ranked men were preferred, and he would fight in her honor.  Successful knights expected to receive a reward from the lady and it was considered disgraceful for a lady to refuse her favors to the knight who so valiantly fought in her honor.[3]

In the beginning, this accepted adultery put the participating knights in conflict with the Christian factions.  Knights killed in tournaments were often not allowed a Christian burial by the Church of England.  In addition, the Church viewed the tournaments as distractions to the crusades.  Kings were uneasy about the number of forces gathered for the events, seeing it as a potential threat politically.[3]  However, neither power had the ability to curtail the events and therefore, begrudgingly tolerated the sport.

In 1292 the Statue of Arms for Tournaments was established and under these rules, the knights were considered gentleman and were required to abide by the code of chivalry and fair play.  The tournaments became more organized and the knights often used blunted weapons.  It was no longer accepted to kill an opponent during the tournament.  Instead, breaking lances on an opponent and unhorsing him was the goal in the jousting competition.  The breaking of the lance indicated the force of the knight’s charge and was considered a higher level of horsemanship.

At this point, there were two types of jousting tournaments:[2]

  • The Joust a plaisance – this was an event held over several days in which participants would engage in a series of elimination jousting contests.  At the end, an overall winner would be announced.
  • The Pas d’armes (passage of arms) – in this event, a knight would send out a proclamation stating he would take on all challengers at a specific place and time.

The tournaments began to include more than jousting; presenting games of varying sorts which showcased the skills of the knights.  The tournaments were usually held in the fields around the castles with a grandstand erected around the “arena.”  Royalty, nobles, ladies, other knights and commoners were seated in the grandstands to enjoy the events of the tournaments.  Colorful tents were put up for the combatants and surgeons and which were collectively called pavilions.[2]  The rules of the event were announced ahead of time and included the time and place, the sponsor of the tournament, the specific events included and the weapons allowed. 

The tournaments quickly evolved to huge spectacles and protocol for the ceremony:[2]

  • First the challenge was sent from one noble or a tournament was announced.
  • A Vespers Tourney was held the day before the big event.  This allowed the younger, less experienced knights to show their skills before the experienced knights, royalty and noblemen (and any other spectators assembled).
  • The opening day of the tournament required judges and participants to ride in a formal Jousting Tournament Armor; Photo by Marcin Szala (user Pudelek)/CC-by-SA 3.0Credit: Photo by Marcin Szala (user Pudelek)/CC-by-SA 3.0procession which would start the tournament (called the invocation).
  • The Tree of Shields was hung.  This was a designated location for colored shields to hang and where challenging participants could hit the shield to choose their required combat.
  • On the second day of the ceremony, the helms (helmets) of the knights who had fought in tournaments were displayed and the ladies inspected them and condemned behavior that wasn’t chivalrous.
  • The third day the ‘Chevalier d'honneur’ was chosen.  This was the person who acted as the referee of the tournament.
  • The tournament could last several days, but on the last day, there was a ceremony to award the prizes to the winners.   The combatants would gather in the center of the arena (called the list) and embrace (much like a handshake at the end of modern-day games).
  • After each day of the jousting tournament, there would be a huge feast with music and dancing.

The Proper Horse

The knight’s horse was one of the most important assets he had for battle.  Horses were big and powerful; needing strength to carry a fully armored knight as well as the armor protecting the horse. During the medieval times, horses were known more for their purpose than for their breed.  War horses or “chargers” were ridden by knights in battle.  It was a shock attack technique against the enemy that was used frequently. 

Jousting Knights; photo courtesy of Doug Herring, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: photo courtesy of Doug Herring, Source: Wikimedia CommonsThe best horse of this type was the destrier.  These warhorses were usually stallions and were strong, fast, agile and well-trained. These horses were not common and were highly prized by knights.  They were the most expensive horse a knight could own, thus the wealthier and higher status knights most often owned these horses.  The destrier was well suited for jousting.[1]

For hard battles, the coursers were preferred as they were fast and strong, but also light.  They were less expensive than the destrier and were also used for hunting.  The most commonly used horse was the rouncey.  This was a general purpose horse, used for riding or trained for war and was the common mount for squires (the knights’ servants or knights in training) and poorer knights.[1]

Armor of the Jouster

The early armor of the medieval warriors was a leather or cloth coat with metal plates sewn inside and was aptly called "coat of plates," worn over a shirt of chainmail (a hauberk).  Interestingly, there could be as few as eight plates or as many as hundreds, depending on the size of the coat and plates themselves.  Usually the plates overlapped to aid in the protection of the torso.  In addition the soldier wore helmets (called helms) of varying sizes and area of Full Plate Armor; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commonscoverage; some extending down to cover the neck; some having a type of visor which could be lifted, or lowered, but when done so, limited the vision of the wearer.

The coat of plates evolved to partial plate armor. This extended the protection to the lower limbs in addition to the chest.  As the horses were so prized, they also were protected by armor during battles.  Just before the turn of the 15th century, armor evolved into full plate armor which covered the soldier from head to toe.[1]

For jousting tournaments, both rider and horse were protected by armor and special armor was used.  It did not need the flexibility of movement needed for battle; thus, the armor was heavier. The armor used for jousting could weigh as much as 100 pounds in comparison to the 15-20 pound weight of the battle armor. (The heaviness was only limited by how much the horse could carry.)  Some types of armor severely limited the movement of the rider, integrating his armor with the horse’s armor in a “tent-like” fashion.[1]   The helms were also heavy as it became the goal to knock the crest from the opponent’s helm in addition to breaking lances against him and ultimately to unhorsing him.

Jousting after Medieval Times

In the late 16th century nobles sought an alternative to the injury inducing games of the jousting tournaments.  Royals were outlawing the sport; in France the death of King Henry II in a joust ended the man-against-man event there in 1559.  However, the nobles had the desire to continue showing their equestrian skills.  Enter the origin of the carousel.

Several games of the carousel were adapted to satisfy the noblemen who wanted to continue displaying their equestrian skills.  Catching the rings was taken from the practice tournament event of "riding at the rings." Though riding the carousel and catching the rings was a favorite pastime of many aristocrats, including Marie Antoinette,[3] the event evolved from riding the carousel horses to taking the practice event into the competitive realm.

Adding to the event of “riding at the rings,” (lancing the rings) participants in competition engaged in lancing dummy’s either on the ground (tent pegging) or using a sword or spear to pierce targets from horseback.  Eventually, the games of a jousting tournament were brought to the Americas. 

Baltimore aristocrat, William Gilmor, brought the game of tilting to Maryland after witnessing it in a tournament in Scotland in 1839.[3]  The following year, he sponsored an elaborate quintain tournament.  Before then, The Richmond Times Dispatch reported an annual tournament billed as the “oldest continually held sporting event in North America,” originated in 1821 in which  two suitors of a local beauty engaged in a tournament to win her hand. The event was so successful it became an annual event and is still held today.[3]

In 1841, Virginia held a ring tournament and promoted it in the Alexandria Gazette with an outline of the rules:

“A RING, properly adorned, will be suspended opposite the seats of the Judges, nine feet from the ground; which each champion will essay to transfix with his lance in knightly style, and bear away in chivalric triumph; each champion to commence his course at the sound of the bugle, at a distance not less than 75 yards from the Ring; and he shall have three trials of his skill and prowess, and shall ride at full speed.

The triumphant Champion shall, by direction of the presiding Judge be proclaimed by the Herald, followed with the sound of the Bugle, and an appropriate Air on the Band. Whereupon, the victor, remaining on horseback, shall present the Ring on the point of his lance to the presiding Judge, and shall receive from the latter, the Crown destined for the Lady, whom his choice will constitute the "Queen of Love and Beauty," in all knightly acceptation. He will then repair to the presence of the Lady of his choice, with a knightly retinue, and, dismounting before her, will place on her brow the crown won by his skill and daring; and will, thereupon, receive from her the Victor's Wreath, accompanied by a gracious Address, to which he will respond, as a true and gallant knight should do. Whereupon, the Herald will announce the denouement, followed by the Bugle, and a suitable Air on the Band.”[3]

The sport became popular due in large part to the ideals of chivalry surrounding the event.  Writers such as Byron and Yeats glamorized the ideals of romance and chivalry.  The early American’s accepted the ideals, especially in the South where the gentlemen lived by a “code of chivalry.” The concept of reviving the medieval contests were attractive to both men who could display their equestrian skills; and women whose very womanhood was exhalted in a romantic sense.  The jousting games gratified the basic desires of the people

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Jousting in Modern Days

In 1962 Maryland declared Jousting as the official sport of the state. There is a National Jousting Association that holds a couple of tournaments annually.  Several clubs in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania routinely hold small events.  In addition, one can even find a jousting school.  The International Federation for Equestrian Sports officially recognizes tent pegging as an equestrian sport.[1]

Modern Jousters; Source: MorguefileCredit: Source: MorguefileReenactments of jousting are a popular feature in many Renaissance Fairs across the country.  In the early 1970s reenactments were practiced with as few as four participants and as many as fifty.[1]  The development of theatrical jousting is credited to the Hanlon-Lees Action Theatre in 1979.  The Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament is a chain with nine locations across the North American continent with headquarters in Irving, Texas and theaters in Dallas, Texas; Buena Park, California; Atlanta, Georgia; Orlando, Florida; Hanover, Maryland; Lyndhurst, New Jersey; Chicago, Illinois; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Toronto, Ontario.  The theater in Toronto is housed in a Beaux-Arts 1912 building and the other eight are housed in replicas of 11th century castles.  The performance features sword-fighting, jousting and other types of medieval games.Jousting; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Knights of Valor is a theatrical jousting troupe established in 1993 by Shane Adams.  The members of the troupe practice competitively and held their first tournament in 1997.  Adams went on to found the World Championship Jousting Association (WCIS) which held its first tournament in 1999.[1]  The organization uses rules of 16th century German tournaments in which pieces of reinforcement are added to the left shoulder of the armor and is the target for the jousters.  As of 2013, the troupe includes eight members. 

Those who fancy themselves as excellent horsemen may want to give jousting a try; or if you liked the excitement in the movie A Knight’s Tale, get a real live and up close look at one of the theatrical performances.   This unique sport is one of the oldest around and tends to keep its basic roots in the modern versions.


The copyright of the article You Joust? Surely you Jest is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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