The Joust

Several of you have written to ask if I've seen the new "Full Metal Jousting" show on the History channel.  I hadn't, although I was aware of it; but now there is a full episode online if you want to watch it.  I hope the sport takes off, and I will be glad to watch it once it is a sport instead of a reality-TV show about people trying to start a sport.  Once it's more like PBR, I'll be glad to spend an evening with it.

By coincidence, I was doing some research yesterday and came across an article that says that re-enactment Medieval tournaments were very popular in the American South both before and after the Civil War.  The author began his career as a Marxist historian, but apparently his studies of Southern conservatism converted him.  In any case, it's an excellent article that shows how significant chivalric literature was to the education of Southerners in the 19th century; it's on EBSCOhost if you don't have JSTOR, and if you have neither, you can probably get it via your library.  Ask at the reference desk.

In any case, at the time the tournaments were roundly mocked by those outside the South.  Then as now, New York journalists were only too eager to explain how ridiculous it was not to be up with the latest progress.  Our historian relates:
John Houston Bills, a planter in western Tennessee, whiled away his spare hours early in 1866 by reading tales of the crusades, and in October he reported: "To day the great and long expected 'Tournament' comes off--1200 to 1500 persons attend it--the Tilting is Very spirited, a dozen or more Knights enter the Contest-Brewer of Holly Springs wins the prize, a fine horse--Betty Neely was crowned queen of Love & Beauty."
The editors of the Nation, then as now exemplars of New York provincialism and effrontery, exploded:
Any country in which it is the custom, in our day, to assemble in great crowds to watch men doing these things in broad daylight, dressed up in fantastic costumes, and calling themselves "disinherited knights," " knights of the sword," "knights of the lone star," and pretending to worship a young woman from a modest wooden house in the neighborhood as the "queen of love and beauty," and to regard the bestowal of a shabby theatrical coronet by her as the summit of earthly felicity, we need not have the least hesitation in pronouncing semi-civilized.
The editors of the Nation could not be contradicted. What, after all, could be more absurd[?]
Think of their bad taste in treating young ladies from modest wooden houses as if they were queens of love and beauty.
 Yes, think of that.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, how much more sensible to go to baseball games, play golf, or attend execrable French plays.

We used to go to SCA and independent re-enactment events, and it's true, there is a lot of pose and silliness about them that can grow tiring. All diversions look that way from the outside. Then, as now, The Nation thinks it is saying something about cultural advancement, but is only instructing its readers about what activities are suitable for the American tribe it considers most prestigious - its own.

William said...

Can't comment on the magazine, I don't recall having heard of it. The interest in Nobel sport however seems to be very much in keeping with the Old South. Indeed, I'll go out on a limb and say that we could probably even find it up north here and there. If we know where to look.

William sends.

douglas said...

I was wondering what you thought of that show, and the one on National Geographic Channel- Knights of Mayhem. They use more traditional armor (relatively speaking), but otherwise both groups are operating similarly. The 'Mayhem' fellow are smaller in number, so it would seem they have less financial backing to start. I suppose in this era of 'extreme' sports, this might be rather popular. The question, I suppose, is will they discuss what it means to be a knight, or is it only about jousting, the activity itself?

DL Sly said...

So far, Douglas, the History channel show has only focused on the physical aspect of the sport. However, many of the contestants seem to already possess (and have possibly internalized) the knowledge and concepts behind knighthood as there are theatrical jousters by trade as well as Marine vets and other professional horsemen in the mix.
I haven't seen any ads for the NatGeo show. What day and time is it on?

MikeD said...

I must say, this show has won me over. It's a far cry more interesting than the show jousting I've seen.

Grim said...

The question, I suppose, is will they discuss what it means to be a knight, or is it only about jousting, the activity itself?

A theory of mine -- which I haven't written down yet -- is that chivalry as an ethic really grows out of the relationship between men and horses. Working with horses requires that you develop the virtues of courage, self-control (you have to 'keep your mind in the middle,' and once you have won the horse's trust, you have to be the one to be thinking even when the horse is not), a kind of bluff frankness (you deal with very practical biological functions all the time), and kindness, which the horse requires in order to trust you. It doesn't just encourage you to develop these virtues -- it absolutely requires you to develop them in practical ways.

What we call "chivalry" is built on that very firm foundation. If it has waned in recent generations, I think it is because fewer men ride. It's an understanding that becomes second nature to the man who trains horses, but it is not human nature, it's the kind of nature that a man develops with practice.

Texan99 said...

How particularly ridiculous that they would honor this woman even though she came from a wooden house! Everyone knows you have to honor a young woman from a brick house before heading off for some raquetball. Where were these heathens raised?

I used to have about 100 New Yorkers as law partners, who liked to fly us provincials in for the occasional gala. I got some earfuls you wouldn't believe about their impressions of the South, a place most of them had never been in their lives. My husband and I still laugh about the pretentious idiot who told us he wouldn't want to live next to any "shallow, pestilential bays." Eek, living things. Yeah, I'd rather live in a brick canyon, too.

New York had some interesting things to offer, but I plan to live a long, happy life without ever seeing it again.

Anonymous said...

Back in the early 1980s I recall an episode of a PBS kids' program that showed a Southern jousting group. The vignette emphasized running the rings (trying to catch five small rings with your lance while at full gallop), and archery, but showed some combat jousting as well. I suspect it was an SCA function, but the narrator emphasized that this was more common in the South than in the North.


Grim said...

Ring jousting in particular has survived. I went to a ring joust in Virginia back in 2005 or 2006, and it gave every impression of being simply the latest in a very long tradition.

However, most of the jousters were young ladies, with only a couple of young men performing the run. I suspect that may account for why the combat sport has not enjoyed the same tendency to survive: as everyone knows, girls love horses, but these days boys tend to love engines more.

Unfortunately, most of the positive virtues of horsemanship are lost in drag racing. There remains some courage to be had, especially with motorcycles; but the kindness, the bonding with another living creature so that it knows it can trust you, and the degree of self-command that is necessary to think for the animal as well as yourself: these things are lost.

Eric Blair said...

Technology rules.
As Bayard found out.
It is an interesting thing this man-horse connection (I've seen it myself, watching my wife ride) but in the end, the machines are basically easier to take care of.

Nobody much cares if you leave that machine out in the weather or let it rust or just put in a shed and forget about it.

Try that with a horse. There is just so much more of a commitment to the relationship required.

Grim said...

One can overstate the technology issue. An arquebus ball taught Bayard no more than a cook's crossbow bolt had shown to Richard Couer de Leon.

Give the same M4 rifle to a squad of Americans and a squad of Iraqis, and you'll obtain different results with the same technology. The difference lies in the men, how they were raised, and how they were trained.

You're right about the machine, though. It's not as good for learning practical virtue; but it's a lot easier to deal with, and it can go seventy miles an hour all day long.

douglas said...

Sly, it seems to have run it's initial series of 4 or 5 shows and it doesn't look like it's repeating currently. The website is here. I think you can watch at least one full episode there.

I did catch most of one show of FMJ, and it did seem to be more like a sporting contest along the lines of Top Shot, rather than KoM which also had a great deal of backstory (for better or worse). I suspect you're right about the Theatrical Jousters / Marines / Horsemen having some of the chivalric essence, but it's not a given. A theatrical jouster might be wrapped up in a more Victorian neo-chivalry than the real thing. Marines, well, they know of honor to be sure, but chivalry is more than that. A horseman, as Grim points out, must develop certain abilities and 'senses' to work with his horse, but that doesn't automatically lead to chivalry. I would agree with you, Grim, that horsemanship would be a useful tool to better understand chivalry. Chevalier is linguistically tied to horseman, even though the modern word for it in French is cavalier.

Anonymous said...


I've watched both shows, and got tired of the drama in Knights of Mayhem. The main character was obnoxious. Interestingly, the primary antagonist was a piano tuner in his day job.

Full Metal Jousting is currently showing on Sunday nights, and the comparison to Top Shot is valid. It has been instructive to observe the practical considerations the contestants deal with, such as the simple fact that some have never ridden a horse before.