Sherwood Forest Faire is technically a medieval festival instead of a renaissance one, since it’s set (roughly of course) in the 1100’s. I consider the difference to be negligible though, for the purpose of my long-term goal to visit a ren fest in as many states as I can while I’m on the road.
And since it turns out said fair was running during Julie and my stint of volunteering here at Enchanted Rock, and only two an a half hours away, well, it would have been silly not to go. Throw in camping right at the festival grounds for only $10 a person for the whole weekend (no hookups) and there was no way I could turn the opportunity down. So early last month we talked with the volunteer coordinator and arranged to have this past weekend off.
I could regale you all with where we went, what we ate, and what we watched, but having already described what a ren fest is all about in another post, I thought I’d focus today on what was different about Sherwood. The joust tournament.
When you think of jousting, you might think of fantasy settings like Game of Thrones. If you’re into renaissance festivals like I am, that’s probably what comes to mind. If you’re a history buff, you may know that King Henry II of France was killed in a jousting tournament in the year 1559. But either way, jousting conjures images of an older age, far removed from our own.
But interestingly enough, the sport of full-contact jousting has seen a comeback in our modern era, due in large part to renaissance festivals.
The first renaissance festival started in the 1960’s in California (they’re actually not a thing in England at all, go figure), and since then has slowly spread to all corners of the US. Early on, some enterprising acting troupe realized that there was money to be made in “jousting”, which started as purely staged theatrics using light armor and break-away lances.
By the early 80’s, jousting troupes were becoming more common, and a shift was occurring. Audiences responded better when the action was more authentic and less scripted, and so the jousting became more real. These festival knights, like their ancient counterparts, quickly learned that if you’re going to be pounded in the chest with an eleven foot wooden dowel, plate mail protects better than chain mail, and more armor is better than less.
Not that modern jousting today is exactly like it was in medieval and renaissance times. Most jousting companies still exist for the primary function of entertaining renaissance fair goers. From what I’ve seen from the eight different ones I’ve been to so far, the standard recipe goes as such:
There are usually three joust shows in a festival day, with earlier ones hinging around sword fighting bouts and games of skill like catching a hoop on the tip of a lance, and more true jousting in later ones. There’s always a story, a “good” knight and a “bad”, and the last show of the day climaxes in a “joust to the death” kind of premiss. The lance blows cannot be precisely scripted because they are more or less real, the bad knight might aim his lance poorly, or fall off his horse on purpose, but the points are awarded so that the correct knight – the one playing the good guy – wins and it’s happily ever after.
But what occurred at Sherwood Forest Faire this past weekend was a whole different animal, it was a true full-contact jousting tournament, a-la medieval times.
There was no script, no good guys and bad guys. This was much more like a sporting event, put on by a sponsor with a purse for the winner. Nine jousters competed, bringing their heavy draft horses and 100-pound plate mail from around the country to not only entertain, but to win. And you could tell the difference in the energy and feel of the action. The announcer wasn’t delivering a narrative, he was acting as a sportscaster and referee, awarding points based on merit and explaining the moves to the small (bah, weather) but enthusiastic crowd.
Through later research, I learned that these tournaments have become more common in the past ten or so years, as a couple key figures in the renaissance jousting world have taken it upon themselves to try to turn what started as a fair sideshow into a true arena sport. There have even been two different TV shows on the subject, “Full Metal Jousting” on the History channel, and “Knights of Mayhem” on the Discovery channel.
As someone who doesn’t normally get into sports, I have to say, it was pretty amazing to watch. Some of the thrill comes from the horses, which are powerful and beautiful and extremely well trained and trusting to put up with running at one another full-speed while their riders wave a giant weapon about. And some of it comes from how dangerous it can be. Jousting clubs and tournaments exist still in other parts of the world, but in nowhere but America is the full-contact version practiced.
This weekend there were many shattered lances and a few unhorsings, including one spectacular bout where both riders were knocked from their horses simultaneously, but luckily no serious injuries occured.
Charlie Andrews came in second place, founder of the Knights of Mayhem and widely considered one of the best jousters in the country. In the many years he’s been jousting, he’s sustained a wealth of injuries, including near death from a pulmonary embolism. This weekend he got off relatively light with only two broken fingers.
David Schade (no relation) of New Riders of the Golden Age came in first, which made me smile. In the typical renaissance festival match, he riders under the guise of Sir William Dudley, and usually plays the part of the the cocky but ultimately “good” knight that wins the final show of the day at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival – where I was first introduced to jousting.
The only downside to the weekend was the weather.
Saturday was overcast with intermittent drizzle and never climbed out of the 30’s. Sunday’s high was 42, and even wetter. Luckily the lows stayed above freezing, barely. It was a bit harrowing without any heat source in the RV, but I think the saying “May your life be interesting” applies here and having caught a true glimpse of this unusual extreme sport, I have no regrets.
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