Supposed you're writing along on your historical or fantasy novel, and suddenly realize your hero/heroine is about to be involved in a joust. If you're not a horse person or have never done it yourself, how can you give your readers an authentic-tasting experience? How true-to-life is jousting in movies, TV, other novels? What glaring gaffs do you need to avoid?
Hopefully, I can help with that. I can't say I'm any kind of expert on the ancient and noble sport of jousting. Okay, yes, I spent about ten years jousting in a professional capacity, but strictly as a performer, not competitively. There's a good reason for that. I decided at an early age that I wanted to live, and I also decided that I'd prefer to live independent of wheelchairs and machines designed to force-feed me or keep me breathing. And I like my teeth.
So I'll skip the long, erudite overview of the various types of jousting popular in particular time periods or geographical areas. If you're curious, look it up. A short list of really excellent books on the subject is at the bottom of this post.
Despite Hollywood's legendary ineptitude concerning horses in general, a writer can actually pick up quite a bit about jousting from many films, though I advise against using them as an exclusive source of information. Such a wide variety of forms and equipment were in fashion at various times in various parts of the world that fantasy films that depict jousting have a better-than-even chance of getting at least something right. No one would refer to the Heath Ledger movie "A Knight's Tale" as historical by any means, but it did pretty well at depicting what jousting was all about and the frenzy it generated in the popular imagination. The mini-series version of "Game of Thrones" has a quite spectacular jousting scene, which includes the use of strategy and the death of one of the competitors, as well as a taste of some of the pageantry and spectacle that was very much a part of the actual sport. And the classic film "Ivanhoe" has a great formal duel starting with a joust between Bois-Guilbert and Ivanhoe, even with the obviously rubber weapons. As for fantasy novels, few go into sufficient nit-picking detail to display flaming gaffs. We won’t even mention those recent reality shows featuring jousting. They weren’t seriously trying to be authentic anyway.
Actually, it's misleading to say "jousting" and "authentic" in the same breath when discussing the sport on film and television. After all, it's all authentic, strictly speaking, so long as riders and horses are actually charging one another with lance and shield with occasionally unpredictable results, and not being replaced by a computer-generated special effect. It may not be "the way it was done", but it's certainly authentic. That kind of crazy is hard to fake.
But on to the subject of this post: how can you, a writer who is not him-or-herself a horse person (or at least has never jousted), write a convincing jousting scene?
First off, keep in mind that up until good ol’ Henry VIII’s time (Note: by then, the renaissance was passé everywhere else; England was pretty much the last bastion of jousting, and that's when it turned into the equivalent of Monster Truck rallies, with tank-like armor and so forth), winning at the joust did not really require size or physical strength. Skill, aim, speed, and superior horsemanship were far more important. There is plenty of documentation to prove that women did, in fact, sometimes participate, most often (though not always) disguised as men. Male jousters hated this, and protested it vociferously, but it did happen.
That being said, all things being equal, the heavier opponent has a better chance of staying in the saddle. That’s just physics. Let me say that again: ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL. That means, you have two superb riders on two equally fast horses of the same size and weight with lances of equal length and weight and equally well-aimed and controlled, and armor and shields (if you’re using shields) of equal protection and quality. Young Thomas the Miller is not going to be able to avenge his father by climbing onto his cart pony and charging against Sir Invincible in the lists. (And yes, I know, the barrier between jousters was originally rope, and called a "toil". The term “list” referred to the list of contestants, later to the overall competition, and only much, much later to the wooden barrier between opposing jousters. But these days, people get confused if you mention the word "toil," so I use the more well-known term.)
So, replace Young Thomas the Miller with Young Thomas the Squire, who actually knows how to ride and has received at least a few of the basics of "how it's done" by his liege or knight. A lot of the technique of jousting is dependent upon the equipment. If Young Thomas is wearing maille and a Great or Barrel helm, he is probably going to be jousting in one of the Frankish styles, which means using a lance and shield. Most of the other styles require some form of plate armor. Very possibly, he will be "free-jousting", which means without the use of a barrier between his horse and the opponent's.
If, on the other hand, he's in the equivalent of full gothic plate in the late medieval or early-to-mid-renaissance style, you're going to have a lot more variables to deal with. For one thing, instead of a spear or lance and shield, you'll have a "heavy" lance with a blunted tip or a coronal, possibly rigged to blow apart (if this is in a tournament, not a duel). Yes, surprise: knights sometimes cheated in order to win. And by the way, Young Thomas the Squire had better have a damned good reason for being there and using someone else's armor and horse, since it's doubtful a knight's squire would have the appropriate types of either.
And of course, as soon as I said that, I immediately thought of half-a-dozen exceptions. So let me add, all of the above presumes we're talking about a tournament competition. Knightly duels are a different kettle of fish altogether. Wow. Confused yet?
Okay, back to Young Thomas. What kind of weapons would he be using? Will he be following his five passes with some kind of foot combat? You can make the circumstances come out any way you like -- it's a fantasy, after all -- but they do have to make sense. If Young Thomas has plate armor, he doesn't need to carry a shield, but you might want him to for other reasons having to do with your story. No problem. It happened somewhere at some time.
Take it as a given that most knights were better riders than any of us will ever be, even in our most rose-tinted, self-deluded imaginings. They generally started younger, did it a lot more often, and their lives depended on it. If you're writing about a culture that corresponds to our medieval or renaissance eras, the same rules apply. Your hero/heroine has superb balance even in full armor and helm, can steer a horse with just weight shifts and simple leg aids, handle a lance and shield on a galloping horse without accidental mis-cues, and can, while fully armored, leap onto his or her charger from the ground without assistance.
Which brings me to one of my biggest problems with the way some films and writers handle jousting…KNIGHTS DIDN’T RIDE DRAFT HORSES. Draft horses as we know them today didn’t even exist. The average warhorse was about 14.3 hands, and a lot of them were smaller. A horse 15.2 hands -- average-sized by today’s standards -- was considered large. It was a big deal when the Spanish bred Andalusians that reached 16 hands in the late 1500 or early 1600’s. I originally wrote a long paragraph proving my point, but this post is already too long; if you're curious, I'll send it to you.
But what was true then is true now: unless your horse is a trained warhorse with actual jousting experience, the chances of being able to successfully get down the list are about 1 in 10. Most horses will turn and run when they see another horse charging at them. Younger horses will almost always yield to older ones. How do they know? They just do. It's a horse thing. But even those with the right mind and disposition for jousting require training and a great deal of practice before they can charge down the list at another horse and hold their ground.
I’ve had other jousters tell me that mares will always yield to a stallion. This, in my experience, is what may be politely referred to as "a load of crap." Which horse yields to which depends entirely upon the individual horse. Just as with race horses, jousting horses can learn how to out-bluff one another, and the tricks to make the other horses flinch or veer so their riders miss. Smaller horses learn when to brace themselves for impact against bigger horses. Faster horses learn when to pour on the speed and when to reserve it. Of the horses that become successful jousting horses, some get competitive about it; others are just doing their jobs and could care less; still others honestly love it and enjoy "playing the game."
Yes, I've heard the story about that big battle during the Crusades where the European knights were defeated because they rode stallions who went berserk when they went up against the Arabs' mares. I don't know how true it is, but if your stallion is sufficiently well-trained, he should ignore a mare, even one in heat, while under saddle. He has a job to do, and he knows it. Work now; play later. Mares are the same way (and there are mares who are just as difficult to handle when in heat as any stallion), though how much her hormones affect her work ethic and concentration is entirely dependent upon the individual.
I’ve jousted with "light" lance (a 10-to-12' hickory or oak pole with a rounded tip) and shield, and with just a "heavy" lance (false-tipped balsa or foam),as well as the massive, carved wooden lances that weigh 15 lbs or so which are used by some jousting troupes for competition jousting. All of these hit with a lot of impact, even the false-tipped ones, and armor doesn't keep you from feeling it, just from getting hurt. At least, that's the theory. I've had bruises, bloody lips, dislocated ribs, and concussions that told a different story. The horse's weight and speed add a LOT of "oomph" to a blow. Historically, death in the joust was not that unusual; broken necks and splinters through the eye slits happened all the time.
But what if you're writing a modern story with jousting, such as in a renfaire or something? In that case, anything goes. I have yet to see a joust troupe in the U.S. that is actually 100% historical, although there are some that try, and some that do a pretty good job of at least getting the flavor.
Because I’m a bit obsessed with horses (gee, can you tell?), I write jousting scenes with a heavy emphasis on the horses and how their performance affects the outcome. But, truthfully, a better approach would be to treat a jousting scene as you would any other action scene: remember that too much detail slows things down. Brevity, lots of active verbs, short sentences, and sketchy but telling details speed it up and add tension and excitement.
For an excellent overview of the development of medieval war horses, I recommend The Royal Horse of Europe by Lady Sylvia Loch and The Conquerors by Deb Bennett, PhD. For reference works that deal with jousting, you can't go wrong with The Medieval Warhorse From Byzantium to the Crusades by Ann Hyland, and, first and foremost: The Royal Book of Horsemanship, Jousting, and Knightly Combat, by Dom Duarte (the King of Portugal in 1438).