Even with armor, it hurts. Even through the armor, it leaves bruises. But where else can you have such fun? Where you can deliberately try to knock your friend off a horse?
— Sir John Bashir, Earl of Bath
What valorous sentiment lurks in the heart of the American jouster? What drives our modern-day knights to bash each other with heavy wooden lances? In 100 pounds of armor? On a 2,000-pound horse, moving something like 20 mph?
Jacki Lyden took a trip to the Maryland Renaissance Festival to find out. (You can see the honorable gentlemen in action in the audio slideshow below.)
Retired jouster Richard Alvarez spent 11 years in the saddle. Now he has directed a documentary, American Jouster, on the life of these modern-day practitioners of an antique martial art.
It's not a life that is circumscribed by Rennaisance fairs, he explains. Other jousting opportunities include independent tournaments, stunt shows and medieval restaurants.
In fact, if you'd like to joust full time, there's a way. There are four major companies that work a year-round circuit; you could travel around the country with them, really living life as in medieval times: You sleep in a tent, traveling from "kingdom" to "kingdom," and as Alvarez explains, "you joust for the king who pays you the most money." For young people without much of a mortgage or other overhead, Alvarez says, it can be pretty good money.
Of course jousting isn't just about the loot.
"A lot of [people] want to escape the everyday mundane grind," says Roy William Cox, a former Marine who jousts as Sir William Westmoreland. "You know, sitting in a cubicle, listening to the boss, wanting to take that boss out and hit him with a 10-foot pole — my guys get to do that."
Alvarez says the life of a jouster has a pull for some military people. There's a "quasi-military camaraderie to risking your life with these guys," he says, "that appeals to the military mind." And make no mistake, it is a risk.
"Try as you might, there's no way to fake gravity," Alvarez says. "When you fall, you hit the ground." The last person killed in a jousting tournament in modern times — during a 2007 re-enactment staged for a British TV show — died from the same injury that killed Henry II of France: a lance splinter through the eye slot and into the brain.
If you're willing to risk it, you'll need to start small. To become a knight, you must first be a squire — a knight-in-training — learning to ride a horse and control a lance. Some of the squires' duties include putting armor on the horses and knights backstage.
Women can be jousters, too, though they're not seen as often as men. Cox's wife, Kate, is one of the world's best, says Alvarez, who features her in his documentary.
And Kate Cox's niece Nicole Zentgraf was on duty as a squire at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. She's 9 years old and already learning to ride.