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Jousting is closer to performance art than an Olympic sport

29 July 2016

I’m happy jousting is getting some attention. I’ve been trying to get it more attention for 20 years. I wanted to joust when I was four years old. I started riding when I was 11 because I wanted to joust. I ran my first course at the age of 19 in 1992 in front of 5,000 people. I’ve competed in jousts all over the world. I care about this pursuit and want to see more people involved in it at a high level, doing exactly what was done in the late Middle Ages. But I’m not sure jousting would work as an Olympic sport – as a current English Heritage petition would have it. In fact I’m not sure if it’s really a sport at all.

Of course jousters love the competition. According to rules set down in the 15th century, points can be scored by striking your opponent in the head or on the shield and by breaking lances in the process. Extra points can awarded for unhorsing the other guy, but that’s extremely difficult and doesn’t happen very often. There is a genuine game there, one that King Henry VIII famously loved (his score cards survive in the College of Arms) just as much if not more than he loved tennis.

But the sporting element is actually only a small part of why jousting is appealing. Far more than just a sport, the joust is a kind of performance art, a primal ritual. Originally the joust was intended to be a spectacle in which ordinary human beings were transformed into gods and superheroes, where the realm of myth and legend literally collided with the material world.

But how can something be sport and performance art at the same time? These days our increasingly binary minds want something to be on or off, good or bad, black or white, okay or cancel. So it isn’t surprising that we have a hard time understanding what jousting is really about, because it is actually a number of different things all at the same time.

Take the jouster’s armour for example. The real game, serious historical jousting, requires the riders to be equipped with full plate armour of hardened and tempered carbon steel. As well as gear for fighting, an armour was a hollow, wearable sculpture. It was a process through which the armourer, as an artist, transformed his patron into a kind of walking art-work, designed to broadcast all sorts of messages about the wearer and his associations. This is why most public collections of medieval and Renaissance armour are often to be found in the world’s great art museums, like the Wallace Collection.

The transformation of a vulnerable human being into an invulnerable living sculpture then implies that the actions of that metallic creature will become an artistic process, because the body-cladding itself represents such a powerful visual statement – it masks the humanity of the person inside at the same time as it radiates all sorts of ancient messages and associations. Calling jousting a ‘sport’ is not completely wrong, it just misses most of the point.

The Olympics is about the celebration of the human body and spirit, and about pure sport – physical actions boiled down to their absolute, refined essences. Human physical abilities may be modified at times through the use of pieces of equipment (like a bicycle or a vaulting pole), but they are intended still to be honest and natural capabilities, perfected through arduous training.

Jousting is not really like that. Knights were people who claimed special powers – God-given rights to possess, rule, and defend. The monarchical system of rule before the 17th century depended in part on the belief that the elite warrior class (of which kings were members) had been divinely chosen to wield special powers denied to others. Wearing armour, riding powerful horses, and facing fearsome opponents in the joust were just a few of the ways knights proved, through action, that their aristocratic supremacy was not a subjective concept, it was a real, physical thing and thus totally unquestionable and objective. Superheroes were real, and they were in charge.

So jousting isn’t really about honest sporting competition between human beings at all. It’s all about augmentation, not just by means of the armour, the horse and the lance, but also by means of the whole theatrical, constructed performance art (or artifice?) of the lavish spectacle environment. That’s why it’s fun to watch – it presents people doing things they shouldn’t physically be capable of doing. When people do that in the Olympics, they get drug-tested and banned.