Is Jousting the Next Extreme Sport?

British Library MS Harley 4379, fol. 19v

Several of you have written in asking me to comment on the recent Times Magazine piece “Is Jousting the Next Extreme Sport?” so I guess I’d better.

So, is jousting the next extreme sport? In a word, “No.”  Not the way it’s described in the Times piece, anyway.

Look, I love the movie A Knight’s Tale, too, and at times it’s pretty much just a straight pitch for Jousting As Extreme Sport. In fact, one of the things that I like most about A Knight’s Tale is how it taps into the visual vocabulary of modern sport in order to make medieval knights look cool. But that’s just the thing: in order to make jousting knights cool, they had to make them essentially not-medieval. It all became just a football highlight reel with the word “football” crossed out and “guys in armor riding horses” written in in crayon.

And this is to be expected.  We just don’t have the built-in communal language or familiar reference points to elevate jousting to a popular sport once more. We’re too far removed from horses and lances to be able to tell what makes a skilled rider different than an adequate one or a good hit different than a loud one. Sure, we can appreciate a dude getting knocked off a horse, but that does not a sport make. If NASCAR really were just people waiting for a car crash to happen, it wouldn’t be popular enough to make building all those nice tracks worthy anyone’s while, and the TV networks would never show up, not even ESPN 32¾.

I understand the fun of reenactment for reenacting’s sake, but I don’t understand why anyone would think that people outside the immediate circle of reenactors and associated enthusiasts would much care. If jousting really wants to make the break to modern popularity, it probably needs to just drop the medievalism in anything other than name only. Sure, call the athletes knights and let them go by Sir This or Lady That if you want, name their teams or squads or whatever after medievalish things, but drop any pretense of reenacting. Leave the shiny plate mail and the fake British accents to your mascot on the sidelines. Gear up in ballistic nylon and kevlar and figure out a style of helmet that’ll protect while still letting people see some of your face. Devise new rules that have little to do with whatever the 13th-Century Sir Whatsisface would have called proper. Add electronic sensors and an elaborate point-scoring system if you can’t come up with any other way to judge who’s the best than who gets knocked off the horse first.

Frankly, the idea of jousting with several-hundred-year-old weapons and armor would probably be pretty insulting to any of the knights who actually made their living jousting in the Middle Ages. They didn’t technologically handicap themselves in order to meet some artificial standard of authenticity. If there had been some new affordable type of stirrup that kept them from breaking their ankles when dragged around by their horses after unseated by their opponents, they would have been queuing up around the block to get themselves one.

Of course, I realize that my sitting here in my standard issue blogger pajamas pontificating about what would make for a spectator-friendly full-contact equestrian sport is a bit presumptuous, but not half as presumptuous as expecting America, or even a small slice of it, to fall in love with an orphaned bit of medievalia any time soon.


In a completely unrelated note, I understand from the Times article that there are female jousters out there.  If you know how to get in touch with one, or are one yourself, then please let me know.   I want to interview one or even a few of them to see if I can get Jezebel to throw a link my way. My groundbreaking work on gendered medieval monster body dysmorphism and Viking lingerie just doesn’t seem to have piqued their interest.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Steve Muhlberger

    I think you are wrong. I acted as a squire for some of these very same people 7 years ago, and the crowd went nuts, even before the real action began. Fully armored men on impressive, beautiful horses was enough.

    What will keep this from being popular is the high rate of injuries.

  • Got Medieval

    Yes, there's that, too. It's hella dangerous, and not just dangerous when things go wrong. That's part of why I think they'd need a whole new scoring system and modern armor before they could ever hit really big–or at least hit as big as pro skateboarding or stuntbike racing and the other things you see at the X-Games on ESPN3.

    But maybe with the right marketing they could keep it like it is and get on ESPN at least as often as the World's Strongest Man competitions or those lumberjack games. Y'know, land in that category of things that are weird enough that you see them on and ask, 'Who watches this?' even as you yourself sit and watch it.

  • Prof. Jenn

    I'm not a female jouster but a female stage combatant. I've ridden horses and slung steel, just not at the same time.

    What tended to irk me and my swordmates back in RenFaire land was actually how much more popular the jousters were than us, and the combat wasn't nearly as complex or cool as ours was. The falling-off-the-horse bit was cool, stunt-wise, but their choreography on the ground wasn't so much.

    But then we're talking staged combat as opposed to real, even sport-contact, combat. So…

    And I'm tossing a link your way. I ain't Jezebel, but I dig this blog, sir. 🙂


  • Anne Gilbert

    There seems to be a sector of people who are really enthusiastic about these kinds of sports. My brother liked car races because he wanted to see the accidents. Same is probably true for NASCAR types.

    I think the jousting tournaments set up by whatever organization sets them up, are interested in making this as "theatrical" as possible, and, like a lot of reenactment groups, a certain type of authenticity is important to them. That's why the emphasis is on old-style armor, weapons, etc.probably contributes to the "mystique" for some people, so they all get to gather and joust. AN extreme sport? I dunno. But that's just me.

  • Orly

    I found the "war" between European and American jousting fascinating. How sad for us (as Americans) that the main enjoyment we derive from the sport isn't about the skill, finesse, etc., but from the bone-crushing hits and horse falls. It's just the blood-thirsty crowds in hockey.
    Will it be an extreme sport? I don't know – but personally, I wouldn't mind watching the European version (I'd avoid the American version for the same reason I avoid hockey and football. It's too "gladiators in the coliseum vs. the lions" for me.

  • K

    I'm FASCINATED by the thought of modernizing jousting. I've worked w/jousters, ridden in armour, etc. etc. There's a paper topic in here, you talking about the modern spectacle, and the medieval intent. I adore the movie "A Knight's Tale" for a number of reasons, but it's more fantastical in it's way than any of the "Merlin" movies.

    Codes of conduct/chivalry were purely fictional conventions, nothing actual, and jousting was for the nobles, not the rabble, things that need to be taken into consideration.

    Now, a modified version, with things like kevlar, a universal set of rules… ESPN 36 or not, I'm loving the concept. Thanks for again stimulating the brain! I've sent out word to the current jousters I know, some of whom are female to get in touch with you. Cheers, and thanks for the continued entertainment of your wonderful blog!


  • ethelfleda

    You should talk to historical fencers – we're keen on accuracy in terms of fighting styles, but we really do hit each other and so are also up to date on modern protective equipment. There are some groups who use nylon swords to reduce impacts (I'm not a fan, they're much lighter and have different handling to steel). Sometimes you do find that the older protectives are best – almost everyone who uses a longsword wears an old-fashioned gambeson because they offer more protection (and more thorough protection) than any other martial arts protection.

    I don't know any female jousters, but I know a fair few female sword-weilders (and I am one myself).

  • henchminion

    I'm another female historical fencer.

    In my club, we wear modern protective gear like fencing masks and lacrosse gloves when we train, but we sometimes dress up in medieval garb when we give public demonstrations.

  • Fencing Bear

    I think what you're looking for Carl is the equestrian equivalent of modern, not historical fencing. Modern sport fencing has deep roots in the longer historical tradition, but it has developed over the centuries (particularly since the nineteenth) as its own interpretation of swordplay. We (yes, I fence) are interested in real competition, not staging or historical accuracy, which does cause some comment from the historical fencing side of things, but isn't what we're about. I love your comment about medieval knights lining up around the block for new equipment: that pretty well describes us at that national tournaments where all the vendors come with their new uniforms, masks, and weapons to tempt us to upgrade yet again. And we do!

  • Fencing Bear

    P.S. I know someone female who has done historical jousting. Email me if you want me to give you her contact info.

  • Got Medieval

    Thanks to everyone who's sent me contact info for the lady jousters. I'll be following up on that when I get back from Italy.

  • Anne Gilbert

    I find this discussion of modern jousting tournaments fascinating. For one thing, there seems to be a split between the historical reenactors and people who want to "modernize" jousting into an equestrian event with modernized equipment(and many shades in between. I support the idea of developing such a new sport. But to be absolutely fair, most jousters who want to stick to the "traditional" modify their equipment somewhat, in order to minimize serious injury.

    As for medieval codes of chivalric content, yes, they were not often practiced in reality, but I have come to the conclusion that they were an ideal to be striven for, if possible.

  • Eliza

    Just found this blog randomly while searching for a tv reality show about extreme jousting. They are filming an episode for some such show this Friday at a jousting tournament I will be attending (as part of the audience).
    I didn't really agree with the feel of your argument but primarily the whole modernized armour and kevlar and whatnot. That takes away the awesomeness of the "knight in shining armour" and I mean, that's half the draw right there. the horse is the other half 😛
    Anyways, I'm a female jouster, or was. I haven't jousted in three years but did joust for two years before that, so would be willing to answer questions of which I'm at least partly knowledgeable :]

  • Cmyst

    A Lady Jouster, who often speaks of having actually trained with some worthy of high repute in Jousting circles, lives not 3 miles from me. Indeed, her Good Husband plays at XBox with my Lord at this very moment in the family room.

    The Lady in question is a fan of your blog, but has been busy and probably didn't see your posting.
    My email addy is
    No, it has nothing to do with offal. It is short for "Scathach".

  • pouscat

    I have worked with Shane for 10 years a as a squire and Charlie for about 5. I was on the field at the Pensacola tournament. I know the jousting they do is absolutely the real thing and if people could see it up close like I do they would love it without question. Its hard to describe how primal this stuff is until you are right there next to it. It is finesse and technique combined with brute force and heart. The Europeans are just different. We have Nascar they have Formula One. The dream of these guys is to start a sport to carry jousting into a new level of audience again. They want athletes, both human and horse to compete. After all they and many others have done to bring this out of the the "act" idea, I hope, hope, hope, they can get a network to take them on. All it needs is a national venue and it will take off. Everyone watch out on ESPN for a special soon.

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