Jousting is a staple entertainment at Renaissance Fairs.
Jousting is a staple entertainment at Renaissance Fairs.

Jousting is a martial competition between two mounted knights. Jousting was at the peak of its popularity in the 14th to 16th centuries. The knights were often each equipped with three weapons; a lance, a one-handed sword, and a rondel. When one knight knocked the other off his mount, he was declared the winner of the round. If both knights were knocked off their mounts at the same time, it was considered a tie; they would then engage in sword combat, and the last standing was victorious. The knights usually jousted in a best out of three situation.

Considerable honour and fortune could be gained by jousting. In its earliest form, jousting, or the tournai, was a simulated battle for training purposes. Victors in these battles usually gained the armor of their opponents, with a value equivalent to the price of a house these days. Many knights made their fortune in these events and many lost theirs as well.

For an event that was extremely popular once, surprisingly little is known of the exact details of a joust.

Depiction of a late 13th century joust in the Codex Manesse
Depiction of a late 13th century joust in the Codex Manesse

Two Primary types of Jousts

Jousting "au Plaisance" indicates that the combat is for the pleasure of the combatants and audience of the tournament, and uses a blunted lance tip. Jousting "au Outrance" is typically performed during wartime on battlefields and is performed "to the death" using sharpened lance tips. Death and serious injury could and did result from jousting "au plaisance". The greatest danger was that the visor of the protective helmet of the knight accidentally opened during a run, making it possible for the opponents lance or debris from a breaking lance to hit the unprotected face of the knight.

English jousting

In England another form of jousting was popular, in which points were awarded for breaking lances, with a minimum length to break off the lance. In this form, the riders were separated by a low wooden fence and combat was not continued on the ground if a rider fell off his horse. The lance had to break on a strike on the opposing knight: a break for instance due to hitting the other's saddle scored no points. One point was awarded for a strike to the torso. Two points were awarded for breaking a lance at the opponent's helmet. The highest score, three points, was awarded for knocking the opponent off his horse. In some tournaments, this accomplishment would also entitle the victor to the loser's horse.

Training for jousting

Medieval manuscripts have revealed that training for the joust was first done on a wooden horse on wheels, pulled by several men. The trainee had to hit a rectangular board, lined with a thick rope meant to prevent the lance from sliding away. The board had a slit through which the trainer could observe the trainee. When training with a real horse, a target that would rotate when hit was used. This was called a quintain and had a square board mounted on a long, revolving pole. At the other end of the pole was a heavy weight. If the trainee hit the board head-on and in the center, then the device would spin around and the weight would miss him. If, however the lance struck off center and/or the rider was not fast enough, then the bag would swing and knock him off his horse.

Armour used in jousting

Mounted knight in full plate. (Note lance rest.)
Mounted knight in full plate. (Note lance rest.)
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Jousting was popular from the Middle Ages until the early 1600s. During that time armour evolved from being chain mail, and using only a heavy, one-piece helmet, called a "great helm", and shield. In later times, after 1400, knights wore full suits of plate armour. The armour frequently had extra interchangeable elements , so that a light military combat suit could be re-enforced with heavier, "bolt-on" protective steel, on the cuirass (breastplate). It was a small attached shield, in some cases. These bolt-ons were usually much stronger on the side likely to take the impact of the lance. When the "Great Helm" was replaced, with the introduction of plate armour, bolt-on safety appliances were used to make the face of the closed helmet safer in the joust.

Jousting in Medieval Combat

Jousting was not used just for tournement within the noblity but it was also used in combat as well. In combat mounted knights would charge at their enemies with a lance in an attempt to kill or knock the knight off his horse. With out the extra "bolt-on" armor used in the tournements the knights were killed because of the force of the two horses charging at each other. With the advent of plate armor knights could carry bigger and heavier lances made out of whole tree trunks.


In modern times, jousting is often done for show or demonstration purposes, and the lances used are usually made of light wood and preparated so that they break easily. In a real joust, the lances are solid oak and a significant strike is needed to shatter them. Although the (blunt) lances will usually not penetrate the steel, the harnesses worn by the knights are lined on the inside with plenty of cloth to soften the blow from the lance.

The primary use of the jousting lance was to unhorse an opposing rider. Typically used in Europe during the Middle Ages, these were usually accompanied by other melee weapons carried by the jouster, depending upon which jousting style is in use, which was determined by the time period in question, by any pre-established tourney format, and/or by the choice of the combatants.

Broken lances are common in full contact jousts. In this picture, airborne fragments of both lances are visible.
Broken lances are common in full contact jousts. In this picture, airborne fragments of both lances are visible.

Truce for a joust

The The Chronicles of Froissart record that, during a campaign in the Gatinois and the Beauce in France during the Hundred Years' War between the English and French, a truce was declared so that a joust could take place:

"During the skirmish at Toury, a squire from Beauce, a gentleman of tried courage, who had advanced himself by his own merit, without any assistance from others, came to the barriers, and cried out to the English,

Is there among you any gentleman who for the love of his lady is willing to try with me some feat of arms? If there should be any such, here I am, quite ready to sally forth completely armed and mounted, to tilt three courses with the lance, to give three blows with the battle axe, and three strokes with the dagger. Now look, you English, if there be none among you in love.

The squire's name was Gauvain Micaille. His proposal and request was soon spread among the English, when a squire, an expert man at tournaments, called Joachim Cator, stepped forth and said,

I will deliver him from his vow: let him make haste and come out of the castle.

Upon this, the lord Fitzwalter, marshal of the army, went up to the barriers, and said to Sir Guy de Baveux,

Jousting helmet, late fifteenth century.  Illustration by Albrecht Dürer.
Jousting helmet, late fifteenth century. Illustration by Albrecht Dürer.
Let your squire come forth: he has found one who will cheerfully deliver him; and we will afford him every security.

Gauvian Micaille was much rejoiced on hearing these words. He immediately armed himself, in which the lords assisted, in putting on the different pieces, and mounted him on a horse, which they gave to him. Attended by two others, he came out of the castle; and his varlets carried three lances, three battle-axes, and three daggers. He was much looked at by the English, for they did not think any Frenchman would have engaged body to body. There were besides to be three strokes with a sword, and with all other sorts of arms. Gauvain had had three brought with him for fear any should break.

The earl of Buckingham, hearing of this combat, said he would see it, and mounted his horse, attended by the earls of Stafford and Devonshire. On this account, the assault on Toury ceased. The Englishman that was to tilt was brought forward, completely armed and mounted on a good horse. When they had taken their stations, they gave to each of them a spear, and the tilt began; but neither of them struck the other, from the mettlesomeness of their horses. They hit the second onset, but it was by darting their spears; on which the earl of Buckingham cried out,

Jousting scene, by Jörg Breu the Elder (1510s, pen and black ink over black chalk)
Jousting scene, by Jörg Breu the Elder (1510s, pen and black ink over black chalk)
Hola hola! It is now late. Put an end to it, for they have done enough this day: we will make them finish it when we have more leisure than we have at this moment, and take great care that as much attention is paid to the French squire as to our own; and order some one to tell those in the castle not to be uneasy about him, for we shall carry him with us to complete his enterprise, but not as a prisoner; and that when he shall have been delivered, if he escape with his life, we will send him back in all safety.


On the day of the feast of our Lady, Gauvain Micaille and Joachim Cator were armed, and mounted to finish their engagement. They met each other roughly with spears, and the French squire tilted much to the satisfaction of the earl: but the Englishman kept his spear too low, and at last struck it into the thigh of the Frenchman. The earl of Buckingham as well as the other lords were much enraged by this, and said it was tilting dishonorably; but he excused himself, by declaring it was solely owing to the restiveness of his horse. Then were given the three thrusts with the sword; and the earl declared they had done enough, and would not have it longer continued, for he perceived the French squire bled exceedingly: the other lords were of the same opinion. Gauvain Micaille was therefore disarmed and his wound dressed.

The earl sent him one hundred francs by a herald, with leave to return to his own garrison in safety, adding that he had acquitted himself much to his satisfaction. Gauvain Micaille went back to the lords of France: and the English departed from Marchenoir, taking the road to Vendôme; but before they arrived there, they quartered themselves in the forest of Coulombiers."

The decline of jousting

One high profile accident contributed to the decline of jousting as a sport. King Henry II of France was an avid sportsman who died after a jousting accident in 1559. A splinter from a broken lance entered the eye slot on his helmet and lodged in his brain. Afterward direct combat competitions declined and ring threading events gained popularity.

Modern-day jousting

Modern-day jousting competitions feature riders on horseback attempting various feats of skill with a lance, performed at Renaissance fairs and other festivals. Examples range from full-contact combat jousts, to attempting to thread a lance through a ring, or striking another type of stationary target like vegetables or wooden blocks.

Ring jousting is the official state individual sport of Maryland.

Tent pegging involves striking and carrying away a small wooden ground target. The name of the sport is derived from the cavalry tactic of causing confusion and havoc in enemy camps by galloping though the camps and collapsing the tents by pulling up the tent peg anchors with well-placed lance tip strikes. The actual sport of tent pegging, however, originates in medieval India, when horse cavalrymen would try to incapacitate elephant cavalry by striking the elephants with lances on their extremely sensitive toenails. Tent pegging is today the only form of jousting officially recognized by the International Equestrian Federation.

Lance rest  built into 1565 plate armour.
Lance rest built into 1565 plate armour.
3D red_cyan glasses recommended for your viewing pleasure

In the Italian town of Arezzo there is an annual jousting tournament that dates back to the crusades of the Middle Ages. Jousters wear colors representing different areas of the town and strike at a square target attached to a wooden effigy of a Saracen king. The other arm of the King holds a cat-o-three-tails -- three leather laces with a heavy wooden ball at the end of each. The riders strike the target with a chalk-tipped lance and score points for accuracy, but must also dodge the cat-o-three-tails after they have struck the target.

Some modern-day variants on jousting include bike jousting, jet ski jousting, and, most recently, downhill ski jousting. Many hardcore Renaissance performers find these sports appalling, but they are gaining popularity among a younger demographic.

See also

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