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.