The gates of the Gulf Coast International Jousting Championships opened at 6 p.m. one Friday in January at a 4,500-seat arena 13 miles outside Pensacola, Fla. Some of the spectators were dressed in leather doublets and velvet gowns; some wore jeans and cowboy hats or American-flag-patterned do-rags. Most seemed to have come out of idle curiosity rather than any previous knowledge of the sport. “From what I hear, the combat’s going to be smackin’,” a man named Paul Johnson told me, punching his knuckles together. He estimated he had seen the movie “A Knight’s Tale” a couple dozen times, and he hoped this event would measure up. He leaned over to a man in front of him. “When they ride in, are they going to be hitting really hard?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah, this is the real deal,” replied the other, a Renaissance-fair regular named Renzy Hill. “There’s a real possibility of getting hurt.”
Johnson nodded happily. “That’s what I want to see,” he said.
Things lagged a bit in the first half of the competition, which was taken up with mounted games like spearing targets painted on bales of hay. The crowd of about 750 was tipsy and eager for action, and it took in the proceedings restlessly. But then, in the third jousting match of the evening, Shane Adams, who was heavily favored to win the championships, faced Rhos Tolle, a 54-year-old retired Marine who was jousting competitively for the first time. Adams struck Tolle squarely in the chest with his lance and sent him flying from his horse.
It was as if someone had sent an electric current through the arena’s aluminum bleachers. Men leapt to their feet with their fists in the air. Teenage girls clutched one another’s arms. Tolle lay on his back on the ground flanked by two squires and didn’t move for a full minute. When the squires pulled him to his feet, he stumbled and nearly fell again before limping off.
“I want to see another guy get paralyzed,” a boy in front of me squealed, waving a toy sword.
Jousting was popular enough to last for more than 400 years in Europe, but these days there are only some 200 competitive jousters around the world, about 30 of whom are in North America. (A couple hundred more perform at Renaissance fairs and festivals but do not compete.) The basic concept is unchanged from medieval times: two armor-clad opponents charge at each other on horses while wielding 11-foot-long wooden lances. The goal is to break your lance on your opponent’s shield or on a metal plate bolted to his chest called a grand guard, but unhorsings are an added thrill and — in the North American style of competition — the surest way to rack up points.
At the Pensacola championships — as will be the case later this summer at the heavy-armor tournament at the Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Highlands Festival in Estes Park, Colo. — two competitors began at opposite ends of a 180-foot list, or jousting field, with a rope barrier called a tilt rail running down the middle of it. A match consists of four passes, and a panel of four judges awards points after each pass: 1 point for a strike to the gridded grand guard, 5 for a broken lance and 10 for an unhorsing. Over the course of the three-day championships, there were four separate tournaments — one on Friday, two on Saturday and one on Sunday — with a winner of each and an overall champion at the end.
The championship event was created by two men, both professional jousters, who are on a mission to transform jousting from Renaissance-fair entertainment to arena sport. One is Shane Adams, the knight who unhorsed Tolle. The other is Charlie Andrews, a Hummer-driving former bull rider who spent six years as a Navy Seal and is hard-pressed to utter a sentence that doesn’t include at least one profanity. “I personally believe that Shane Adams and myself are the two best jousters in the world, period,” he says. “Anybody wants to argue it, you can come out and joust us or shut your pie hole.”
A member of the Chukchansi tribe in California, Andrews is 6-foot-4 and about 250 pounds, with tattoos of his spirit animals ringing his thick biceps. He doesn’t joust because he’s attracted to romantic notions of honor and chivalry or because he has an affinity for the medieval period. (“I don’t know jack about history, nor do I care,” he says.) He does it because he considers jousting one of the most extreme sports ever invented, and he likes doing things that most other people can’t or won’t do.
“I like violent sports,” says Andrews, who also participates in mixed martial arts. “I like hitting you. I like getting hit. I like competing man to man to see who the better man is that day.”
The problem is that Andrews and Adams joust in a style they call “full contact,” which, while popular in North America, is considered by the rest of the world to be unnecessarily dangerous. It’s a reputation that isn’t helped by the video on YouTube showing the two men describing their many injuries, including the time a lance bruised Andrews’s heart and he nearly died from a pulmonary embolism. (He was back jousting five days after his release from the hospital.)
Andrews, who is 42, started out doing theatrical jousting, with staged falls and breakaway lances. Four years ago, he decided to try the real thing. He was knocked out cold in the first competition he entered. But over time, and with some pointers from Adams, he learned both how to dominate on the list and how to amuse a Renaissance-fair crowd. He now spends most of his time away from his home in Utah, traveling from one Renaissance fair to another with his troupe, the Knights of Mayhem. At fairs, he jousts as Prince Kyllum Awl, sporting a fake Scottish accent, a gold crown and a large gold-and-black cape. But Renaissance fairs, in Andrews’s view, are just a means to an end. He wants to see jousting performed in modern arenas, with instant replays and beer sponsorships and fans who know him by his real name, not some made-up persona. He and Adams insist that jousting could be as big as Nascar or Ultimate Fighting, an ultra-macho sport with the extra appeal of horses and shining armor.
“The only thing this sport’s missing is money,” he says. “If we had money, it would explode off the face of the planet.”
Renaissance fairs pay around $5,500 per weekend for a jousting troupe. Fuel for the rig that hauls the horses and equipment is a thousand dollars by itself. Lances — which are simply 1 5/8-inch-diameter dowels taken straight from the lumberyard and fitted with metal vamplates to protect the hand — run about $10 each, or $500 for the 50 a troupe breaks in a weekend. After paying for squires — the jousting world’s pit crew — and knights, plus feed and shavings for the horses and a cheap hotel room for the humans, Andrews figures he finishes with between $500 and $1,500 profit. That’s not counting the $500,000 it cost to create the Knights of Mayhem in the first place, once you add up the price of saddles, tack, tilt rails, a truck and horse trailer and a suit of armor, which can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000. (Each knight in a troupe provides his own.)
In 2009, Andrews jousted 65 matches. While he claims to be “superhuman,” he isn’t sure he’s willing to be broke and beat up for much longer. Last November, he declared that 2010 would have to be the year jousting made the leap from Renaissance fair to arena. “I’ve got from this January till next January for this to make money, or I’m done,” he told me. “Because you can only do something like this for so long.”
The most famous jousting casualty was King Henry II of France, who died in 1559 after a lance penetrated his visor and went into his temple, but every knight who entered the list did so knowing he risked injury or even death. For the medieval knight, the risks were worthwhile. Jousting offered an unparalleled opportunity for a knight to display his prowess before audiences of as many as 10,000 spectators and win acclaim, horses and mercenary employment.
“Famous knights could make enormous amounts of money,” says Tobias Capwell, the curator of arms and armor at the Wallace Collection in London, who also jousts competitively. “Just as a great actor needs to win Academy Awards, a great knight needed to be seen fighting in big tournaments and winning.”
Jousters like Andrews use bigger horses than their medieval counterparts because they themselves are so much bigger than the knights of old. Their mounts are 2,000-pound draft horses — Percherons, Clydesdales and Belgians. If you add the weight of horse, rider, saddle and armor, you end up with something like 2,500 pounds at either end of the list moving toward each other at about 25 miles per hour. Roy Cox, a pioneer of American jousting, calculates the force of the resulting impact as 50,000 pounds per square inch. “If you want to experience that for yourself,” he says, “put your thumb down on the cement, take a sledgehammer and slam it really hard.”
But while the intensity of collisions confers bragging rights, horsemanship and targeting are what make jousting so difficult. Staying on a horse while wearing 50 to 100 pounds of armor is challenging enough, particularly when your vision is restricted by the helmet’s narrow eye slit. Persuading a horse to run toward another horse at full speed is more challenging still. Jousting requires you to do both while simultaneously lowering a heavy and unwieldy weapon from vertical to horizontal, aiming it at a small target and receiving a massive wallop in the chest.
“In all other martial arts, there are defensive moves where you block your opponent’s attack,” Capwell points out. “In jousting, there is no defensive move, and if you ever tried to make one, you’d be pilloried.”
American jousting is a peculiar animal, having been born out of the uniquely American institution known as the Renaissance fair, a merry jumble of historic re-enactment, vaudeville entertainment, carnival and craft show that originated in Southern California in the 1960s and has since spread to every corner of the country. When fairs began adding jousts in the late 1970s, the knights were actors performing a choreographed show on horseback using breakaway lances.
Sometime in the late ’70s or early ’80s, a few of the theatrical jousting troupes started experimenting with unchoreographed combat. Real hits required real armor, and so people began teaching themselves how to do metalwork, basing their designs on armor they saw in books or in museums. Today, nearly every American jouster has done the bulk of his (or her — there are some female jousters) jousting at Renaissance fairs. Most are happy to continue jousting there, battling members of their own troupes in matches that are not staged but are still theatrical, with rehearsed patter and the hazards of the sport mitigated by the addition of a balsa-wood tip at the end of the lance.
Over time, modern jousters have learned the lessons of their medieval predecessors — plate armor protects better than chain mail, and more armor protects better than less. Even so, there are still plenty of injuries: concussions and dislocated shoulders, broken hands, assorted fractures and gashes. In one much-talked-about incident a few years ago, the Australian jouster Rod Walker suffered a partly severed penis when a lance veered south during a match at a Renaissance fair in Michigan — a targeting failure that might not have happened if both he and his opponent hadn’t been competing with broken hands.
It is these incidents that keep European jousters from coming to the U.S. to compete, and has those who have swearing they won’t return. European jousters typically use lances with balsa-wood tips, which produce fewer dangerous splinters and deliver a less powerful hit. “Come do our sport and break your bones — that’s not the ideal recruitment poster,” says Petter Ellingsen, a Norwegian jouster who has competed in nine countries and been injured badly only twice — both times when competing in what he calls “the American style.” “I don’t think it’s cool completing a tournament with four broken bones in my hand,” he says. “I think it’s bad for the sport.”
But to Andrews, the broken bones are what tell the crowd that the sport is real. Jousting may be wrapped in the trappings of fantasy, but those who do it want to make certain no one thinks they’re pretending. “I’m not an actor,” Andrews says. “I don’t do this to play a knight.”
On the day before the Gulf Coast International Championships began, Shane Adams convened a meeting with the competitors to go over the rules. A 6-foot-4 Canadian whose red hair and perpetual grin give him the air of big-pawed Irish setter, Adams is both North American jousting’s biggest star and its most dedicated promoter, having produced six tournaments in Canada between 1999 and 2006. (He lost money on each.) This tournament would be his first in the U.S., and was being produced by Adams, Andrews and a local Renaissance-fair promoter.
Adams started working as a knight at the Toronto Medieval Times dinner show when he was 23. Aside from construction work, he has never done anything but joust. He is now 40 and works about 12 Renaissance fairs a year with his troupe, the Knights of Valour, traveling from show to show in a 40-foot R.V. with his wife, Ashli, and their 18-month-old daughter, Paige. His skill with horse and lance has resulted in a devoted following, but like Andrews, he is beginning to worry about the future. “My body can only be torn up for so many years, and then what am I going to do — drive a truck?” he mused that afternoon.
Ten jousters had come to Pensacola to compete, and they were gathered in a loose circle by the horse stalls, most of them middle-aged men with long hair and Renaissance-style boots who had driven hundreds of miles for a $500 appearance fee and the chance to win a portion of the $5,000 purse.
“Everybody here’s come for money and blood,” said James Acuff, a retired land surveyor from Tennessee who, at 59, is one of the sport’s oldest competitors.
Acuff came with a teammate, Paul Schneider, a heavy-equipment operator and Sunday-school teacher from Maryland. Seated nearby was Patrick Lambke, a stuntman and actor and a former trainer at the Medieval Times dinner-show chain who jousts as the Black Knight in armor he touches up with a can of black spray paint before each bout. He came with Dustin Stephens, the owner of the Texas-based Four Winds Renaissance Faire, who had never participated in this type of full-contact tournament before. Andrews brought one member of the Knights of Mayhem, as well as the field marshal and judges, and there were three members of the Knights of Valour in attendance in addition to Adams.
A few other American and Canadian competitors hadn’t shown, either because the purse was too small or the event conflicted with paying Renaissance-fair gigs. But what rankled Adams and Andrews was the lack of European jousters. It was hard to have an international championship when the only nations represented were the U.S. and Canada.
“I tried everything, including paying for airline tickets, to get them to come from Europe, but nobody wants to play with us,” Adams told the competitors. “Sorry guys — we’ll have to beat up on each other.”
Shortly before going to Pensacola, I went to Ramona, Calif., to meet Jeffrey Hedgecock, the one American jouster who regularly competes with Europeans. Hedgecock is an artisan armorer, polo player and sculptor who jousts in his own meticulously crafted creation, a replica of an Italian suit from 1470. He and his wife, Gwen Nowrick, produce the Tournament of the Phoenix outside San Diego every October. It is the only tournament in the U.S. sanctioned by the Royal Armouries museum in England and affiliated with the International Jousting League, the largest of the world’s many jousting associations. Last year, the event featured competitors from England, Australia, Norway and New Zealand. Participation is by invitation only, and thus far neither Andrews, Adams, nor any other full-contact-style jouster has been invited.
Hedgecock and Nowrick have the same goal as Andrews and Adams — they want to see jousting divested from its Renaissance-fair trappings and staged as a competitive equestrian sport. But they, like most European jousters, came to the sport through historic re-enactment. Whereas the armor at the Gulf Coast Championships was an amalgam of different periods and styles and often worn over sweat pants or motorcycle jackets, Hedgecock and Nowrick require their competitors to wear historically accurate 15th-century armor, clothing and accessories, including arming doublets and hose. (This is for safety as much as appearance, they say.) Hedgecock’s lances are lathe-turned poplar, modeled on ones in 15th-century paintings. Each eight-foot lance is fitted with a three-foot balsa-wood tip that shatters in competition while the lance usually remains whole.
The son of an electrician and a real-estate agent, Hedgecock has always liked to make things. He learned machining in high school so he could replicate the props he saw in movies like “Star Wars,” and he taught himself how to make armor while studying film at U.C.-San Diego. He has made his living as an armorer ever since, catering to museums, filmmakers, jousters, re-enactors and anyone else who can afford one of his suits, which can run from $25,000 to $60,000. For Hedgecock, it makes no sense to joust while ignoring the past. “Without the history, you might as well do it on motorcycles,” he says. “If we didn’t have historical knights, we wouldn’t have jousting.”
Hedgecock began jousting competitively after seeing a tournament at the Royal Armouries in Leeds in 2003. He was captivated by the combination of historical accuracy and genuine combat. He had done mounted re-enactments back home, so he knew how to ride in armor, and his reputation as an armorer helped him persuade the museum’s artistic director to let him compete in the next tournament four months later. The compensation for his appearance was enough to cover the cost of a two-week vacation in England, and while Hedgecock didn’t stand out, he acquitted himself well enough to be invited back the next year.
His skills have improved since then. He was less than a point shy of winning the 2008 tournament at Leeds, and he has jousted in Belgium, France, New Zealand and the Netherlands. He competes in about six tournaments a year, each one an invitational. But the armor remains an asset. He wouldn’t get invitations if he were lousy at jousting, he admits, “but the kit opens some doors.”
If you’re someone like Andrews or Adams, dragging a trailer of horses from one festival to another for 10 months of the year, the notion that a beautiful suit of armor would get you an all-expenses-paid trip to an exclusive European tournament is a bit hard to swallow. Nearly all the American jousters I interviewed had tried to wrangle an invitation to Hedgecock’s Tournament of the Phoenix. The news that they were rejected because their armor wasn’t historically accurate left them sputtering. “If you’re a historian, go ahead and play your little game,” Adams says bitterly. “There’s a warrior class and an artistic-historic class.”
North American- and European-style jousters can spend all day criticizing one another’s style of competition, and they frequently do. The “full contact” jousters find the I.J.L. style froufrou and weak, dismissing their combat as “a sorority pillow fight.” I.J.L. jousters, for their part, portray the full-contact jousters as a bunch of ego-driven braggarts who have substituted brute force for safety, elegance and finesse. They dismiss the Americans’ lumberyard lances as “closet poles,” their armor as looking “like a trash can” and their draft horses as “tractors with four legs.” (Both Hedgecock and the Europeans use swifter draft crosses rather than the full-blooded drafts used by American jousters.)
Nowrick and Hedgecock’s tournament features several types of medieval combat — poleax battles, mounted melees — in an arena decked out with colorful banners and costumed field judges. Adams and Andrews, on the other hand, maintain that audiences want to see action more than pageantry. The lances may not look like the ones used by the knights of old, but their tendency to flex on impact makes them quite effective at vaulting competitors off their horses. In a bigger sport, there might be more tolerance for both styles of play, but in one that is still trying to attract investment, both sides are convinced that if their dream sponsor saw the other group’s tournaments, they’d lose all interest in the sport.
“The sport of jousting is only going to survive in the United States if there is that ferocity in it,” Adams says. “If it’s just a bunch of guys hitting each other with balsa-wood lances, the only people going will be the Renaissance crowd.”
Lurking under the surface of the debate over jousting styles are deeper questions about masculinity itself. “American culture is a certain way,” Nowrick says. “The hubris and the braggadocio about how tough I am, the whole Rocky Balboa thing. But when you go to Europe, there’s a different yardstick by which men are measured.”
By the second day of the Gulf Coast International Jousting Championships, there were eight competitors left. Rhos Tolle, for one, injured his leg too badly in the previous day’s unhorsing to continue, and a member of the Knights of Valour dislocated his shoulder in a sword-fighting demonstration for a school group.
A certain pattern emerged. The first matches in a tournament tended to be sloppy and unsatisfying, and then, once the most inexperienced knights had been eliminated, the action turned crisper, culminating in a series of swift, beautifully executed collisions punctuated by helicoptering lance shards and the occasional flying knight. At the end of each session, there were first-, second-, third- and fourth-place winners — including Adams, Andrews and Lambke in some order — and afterward the knights took off their helmets, signed lance shards in black Sharpie and answered questions from the spectators about the hotness and heaviness of their armor.
Back in the stable area, other dramas were unfolding. Several jousters were complaining that Lambke was “ducking out” — failing to present an adequate target for his opponents — and, indeed, the field marshal had taken him aside to warn him that he would be disqualified if he continued. (Lambke insists that he simply shifts his weight into his legs to brace for the hit, and that if the other knights had better aim they could adjust.) His teammate, Dustin Stephens, who has been jousting for 25 years, was struggling with every kind of humiliation: his horse was shying out of the list, his armor was malfunctioning and in more than one match he had committed the cardinal sin of visibly flinching away from the oncoming blow. Andrews made it clear that he thought Stephens was out of his depth. You stink, he told him, or words to that effect. “Go home and get better.” (Stephens, for his part, accuses them of trying to rig the tournament.)
Meanwhile, Adams and Andrews were watching the gate. Friday night’s crowd of 750 spectators was the largest of the weekend, but many in attendance had free tickets. The event cost about $25,000 to put on, and the first two sessions brought in a little under $8,000 each. “If we can get this amount one more time, we might — we might — kind of break even,” Andrews said on Saturday afternoon. “I don’t know. You keep thinking, One of these times, it’s going to take off. Somebody’s going to see it that’s going to get behind it, and we’ll be fine.”
Two producers did in fact make their way back to the horse stalls during the weekend. One, a portly, white-bearded fellow named Dennis White, handed out brochures for his venture, Medieval Knights of Honor Tournament Promotions Inc. The fliers were spottily punctuated and full of slightly off-kilter references to “morals” and “pride in ones family name” [sic], but they promised $12,000 in purse money at each tournament, and that was enough to earn him a hearing. “If you’ve got money, I’m there to fight,” Adams told him. “I’m a prize jouster.”
The second was Gustavo Sanchez, a producer of Latin American music who came on Sunday to scout for a traveling show he planned to produce, a kind of medieval-themed Cirque du Soleil. It wasn’t the best atmosphere for an audition. Only a few hundred spectators were present. The announcer was telling the audience for the third time that the joust had been delayed, although he didn’t explain that this was because Andrews was throwing a tantrum in one of the stalls over a judge’s call the day before. Sanchez watched everything with analytical curiosity: the intensity of the competitors, the bleakness of the arena, the often lackadaisical pace of the proceedings and the way Lambke won over the spectators with his hammy Black Knight persona. He noted how tough the sport was, and how expensive, and how difficult it is to do anything with horses. He understood that the men cared more about proving themselves on the list than about décor or costumes. “This is not what I’m looking for,” he said at last. “I need a show. This is not a show — it’s a competition.”
Certainly a show would have built to a more satisfying climax than Sunday’s tournament. First, Stephens was disqualified in a match against Andrews for failing to drop the reins at the start of a pass, a requirement meant to keep competitors from yanking on the horse’s mouth if they’re knocked off. Later, Lambke was disqualified for failing to present a target. The crowd was mystified, and its confusion made the awarding of trophies to the weekend’s champions feel hollow and anticlimactic. After three days of competition, Adams came in first, Andrews second and Lambke — despite losing all his points for the final day — third.
That evening, some of the competitors and their squires gathered at McGuire’s, a Pensacola pub and steakhouse. Everyone was sweaty and sore and more or less broke, and nobody could seem to talk about anything but horses and armor and lances. If the championships were held again tomorrow, you knew they would all be there.
“To the sport of jousting,” Stephens said when the first round of beers arrived. “May it live forever.”
Lambke nodded and raised his glass.
“It already has,” he said.
Source: The New York Times. Published 8 July 2010.