Jousting is a martial game or hastilude between two horsemen and using lances, often as part of a tournament. The primary aim is to strike the opponent with the lance while riding towards him at high speed, if possible breaking the lance on the opponent's shield or armor, or by unhorsing him. The medieval joust has its origins in the military tactics of heavy cavalry during the High Middle Ages. These became obsolete during the 14th century, and from the 15th century on, jousting became a sport (hastilude) without direct relevance to warfare. Jousts were arranged by heralds according to the strictest ritual, and differed little if at all in different countries.
Before the 14th Century, jousts were sometimes held separately from tournaments. However, towards the end of the 14th Century, the term "joust" was more often used in describing the chief events of the tournaments followed by foot fighting. By 1400, knights wore full suits of plate armor, called a "harness". In this early period, a joust was still a (martial) "meeting", i.e. a duel in general and not limited to the lance. By the herald’s signal, combatants would begin riding on one another with the lance, but might continue with shorter range weapons (swords or combat axes) after the distance was closed or after one or both parties had been unhorsed.
Tournaments in the High Medieval period were much rougher and less "gentlemanly" affairs than in the late medieval era of chivalry. The rival parties would fight in groups, with the aim of incapacitating their adversaries for the sake of gaining their horses, arms and ransoms. One example: when King of England Edward I was on his way from the Holy Land (1274), he spent some time in France, and was present at a grand tournament at Chalons. He was assailed by a knight, who tried to drag him from his horse. Edward was the stronger, but the other knight party tried to rescue the fellow, and the fight became so fierce, that forty-two knights and squires were killed on both sides. Really, a fine kettle of fish!
Jousting remained popular with the nobility both in England and Germany throughout the whole of the 16th century, while in France, it was discontinued after the death of king Henry II in an accident in 1559 – the king suffered a mortal head wound from a lance fragment and died from septicemia. Jousting was discontinued in favor of other equestrian sports in the 17th century, although non-contact forms of "equestrian skill-at-arms" disciplines survived down to our days.
Beside their armorial bearings, the combatants used many devices in honor of their ladies, or for disguise; they wore caparisons, a type of ornamental cloth featuring the owner's heraldic signs. To honor a lady, a combatant might wear for example "a red sleeve broidered with pearls", or he might choose to remain unknown and wear arms all of one color as the Black Knight in Ivanhoe.
There has been a limited revival of jousting re-enactment since the 1970s –as theatrical show, role games and even contact sport in which now participate not only men. This will be discussed later.
Obviously, the brutal medieval pastime of joisting was characterized by a stringent sexual “division of labor: men competed (assertedly, in honor of ladies), women watched.” In the light of these facts, the question arises – how medieval women were relevant to them except being spectators and a subject of honor? It turned out they were…
Medieval manuscript writers (usually, monks) typically used the margins of pages to gripe and sketch – not just vignettes and flowers but also contain-related illustrations as well as depictions of various unrelated scenes. Such illustrations often are invaluable sources for historians. Surprisingly, images of jousting women come across in medieval manuscripts; at that they usually compete not with familiar lances but with distaffs (a distaff is a spindle with a yarn spooled on it). In fact, the distaff also means a woman or women collectively or women's work. Actually, a spindle is a straight spike reminding a pike which usually made from wood used for spinning. According to old myths, the spindle is a symbol of fate and life, so women dueling with distaffs may be interpreted as a cultural symbol. At the same time, monks illustrating manuscripts could refuse to represent women jousting with actual lances considering that too provocative while distaffs seemed to be a perfect fit for women: feminine and easy weapon. On the other hand, although the distaff is not as effective as a lance, since spinning was a traditional pastime for females, they felt more comfortable with it.
It should be noted that medieval manuscripts often contained satirical and grotesque images, particularly ridiculous jousting riding bugs, fishes, goats, roars and also fighting snails.
The owner of the resource “Wendelkate procrastinates” (nicknamed ‘wendelkate’) and her husband have discovered several illustrations in medieval manuscripts and in museums depicting jousting women (with distaffs or lances). She is confident that there are plenty more images of women jousting with a distaff in medieval manuscripts, while the discovered ones were all she could easily find so far..
The oldest image of a woman jousting with a distaff available to ‘wendelkate’ comes from a French Arthurian romance from 1275-1300
(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
A similar image can be found in the ‘Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des manuscrits’; it is also a French Arthurian romance, from 1201-1300.
Another example from about 200 years later is an engraving by Master ES of a wild man and wild woman. This German print from 1450-1467 is in the British Museum.
There is also a monk and a nun jousting (not using a distaff) can be found in the French Arthurian romance. This manuscript from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has loads of other great images, such as this one, on 253r of a woman spinning.
An ironic image of women jousting with distaffs riding on goats can be found in the 1381 French manuscript ’Queste del Saint Graal’, a section of the ‘Lancelot-Grail’ cycle. (‘Bibliotheque Arsenal’ in Paris).
A contemporary satirical image placed at its left depicting a knight contesting with a lady; the knight pierces the yarn heading her combat spindle.
The 15th century ‘Chroniques by Jean Froissart’ from the French ‘Bibliothèque Nationale’, contains a caricature of two naked monkeys jousting riding a boar and a bear: the female monkey fights with a distaff
In the First English-Latin dictionary (circa 1440), the word joust (old English iustyng) was illustrated by the image of female and male centaurs jousting. Brunetto Latino, Li Livres dou Tresor, St Petersburg Manuscript, fol. 77
The French manuscript ‘The Breviary of Marguerite de Bar’ from the British Museum (between 1302 and 1303) contains the image of a woman jousting against a man without a distaff. (There is a black and white reproduction in ‘The Role of Woman in Middle Ages’, edited by Rosmarie Thee Morewedge on page 176.)
The manuscript ‘Queen Mary Psalter’ from the British Museum contains an image of two women jousting with lances. This manuscript was written between 1310 and 1320 from England and was given to Mary I of England in 1553. (The title illustration of this article).
Princeton University Art Museum’s has a picture of a knight and a woman tilting. It seems to come from a manuscript from Maastricht, 13th-14th centuries.
What conclusions can be made out of all above mentioned? First of all, it is obvious that women’s jousting or similar tourney style contests were not unknown in Middle Ages, at least in imagination of some people. It is also not impossible that female commoners didn’t hesitate to bring distaffs into play when fighting and brawling, while medieval illustrators (mostly monks) humanized those fights depicting them as chivalrous duels. A less plausible suggestion is that ladies sometimes engaged in real tourney jousting, perhaps, those who were familiar with warfare. As it was said, many manuscript makers might consider women fighting with combat weapons as improper, so they armed the contestant with distaffs instead of lances or spears.
Nowadays, jousting contests between fully equipped equestrians are quite popular at medieval and renaissance festivals. The contests might be both non-contact and full-contact. Contact jousting became a combative sport and; women can be found among jousters competing in full contact.
But that is a subject of another story...
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