Jousting is given a 21st Century roar of approval at the Carolina Renaissance Festival. Jousting is now, as it was 500 years ago, a merrie sport; a make-believe pageant of Sir Galahads and Sir Lancelots, of villainous Black Knights versus the virtuous Red Knights, mounted on thundering steeds, plumes waving, chain mail clanking and the festival crowd sarcastically screaming “Cheat to win!”
On Fall weekends in the Carolina piedmont, Knights will again strap on the heavy suits of armor, settle astride snorting chargers, take up their lances and tilt with each other. These Knights (actually stunt riders and actors) are regular performers at more than a dozen “Renaissance Villages” around the country and will be battling at the Carolina Renaissance Festival on a large tournament field within the Festival just north of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Words like “pomp, pageantry and chivalry” serve to evoke the romantic aspects of jousting. When you get close to see the dull glow of chain mail next to bright armor, you begin to grasp how tightly woven the joust is with its history. An understanding of today’s combats is impossible without the tracing of their ancient roots.
The origins of jousting are believed to be in classical Rome, but the “sport” rose to its greatest popularity in Europe by the 1400’s. It all evolved from mock battles in which knights on horseback, assisted by foot soldiers, formed into teams and charged at each other in some wide meadow. The result was a melee of shattered lances, clanging swords, flailing arms and legs – astride and afoot – that went on all day and into the night. The earliest recorded melee was in 1066 A.D.; though mock combat had probably been around for at least a century by then.
At first, the battles served more to hone fighting skills than to provide popular diversion. But in peaceful times, a knight needed a way to retain his skills. The Jousts were great money-markers for the victors; instead of claiming mere points, the winning team held the losers for ransom, often accepting their horses and armor as payment.
The many deaths which resulted from such “sport” led Popes and English kings to ban jousting tournaments, though English subjects often persisted and were repeatedly excommunicated. The tournaments had become a featured attraction at any kind of market faire of other significant gathering. At the height of their popularity, jousts rivaled a state fair, Super Bowl, Rock concert, and Oktoberfest all rolled into one.
By the middle 1200’s, the joust emerged as the favored way to prove which of two (or more) knights was better. Most contests were a “Joust a Plaisir” (for pleasure) in which a winner was declared on the basis of points scored, though some were still conducted “a l’Outrance” (to the death). In the sporting version, the knights’ swords were dulled and their lances tipped with “coronals” (little crowns) to prevent their penetrating a joint in the armor. Some authorities believe that the lances were deliberately weakened, a precaution still in effect today.
England’s King Edward III put a temporary public ban on jousting in 1370 but an intrepid troupe of stunt riders and actors brought it back in the 1980’s. Clad in authentic looking breastplates and helmets, wielding heave lances, maces and blunted swords, they will thrill the throngs at the Carolina Renaissance Festival. Some faker, as in professional wrestling, is to be expected. Victor and vanquished are usually agreed to beforehand. As in many medieval tournaments, even the exact number of blows is often settled.
When: Eight consecutive weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, from September 29th through November 18th. The Festival runs from 10:00 AM until 5:30 PM, rain or shine.
Advance Discount Tickets: $24 for adults, $14 for kids ages 5-12; available at Harris Teeter Stores region wide. Children under 5 are always free. Child dependents of military personnel are $12. Parking is free courtesy of Harris Teeter.