The ground thunders as the beast races towards you, nostrils flaring. You can see nothing of the face of your opponent, which is encased in a metal helmet, but you can feel his determination as he points his lance towards you – and you can certainly feel the concussion as the long pole makes contact with your chest plate, unhorsing you and causing you to tumble to the ground. This is the stuff of jousting – an integral part of military culture a thousand years ago and a full contact sport in the Middle Ages. But surely that was then and this is now? Not quite. There is a movement afoot to bring back jousting as the next extreme sport – and we have the images to prove it.
Charlie Andrews leads the Knights of Mayhem, a group dedicated to making jousting a professional-level sport. And we’re not talking about the fantasy type of jousting seen in many re-enactments here, but serious heavy armor jousting, a style called Realgestech.
This form of jousting uses a metal plate or guard bolted to the chest armor of a 'knight'. It is painted a different color from the armor and the squares must be raised an eighth of an inch.
The first recorded joust took place in 1066 and by the 13th century jousting had become a key part of courtly life. It could be a pretty dangerous pastime for those involved – not least because contests also sometimes included battles on foot, with the protagonists using other weapons like swords and maces.
Severe injuries and death were not uncommon as a result of these violent contests. Indeed, the death of King Henry II in 1559 from injuries sustained in a jousting tournament (gruesomely, he was pierced in the eye with a lance) was the beginning of the end for jousting, as the nobility became less and less willing to take the risk.
Nowadays the sport – as practiced by “Knight of Mayhem” Charlie Andrews – is of course less violent, and uses less dangerous weapons. If you can call a solid hemlock lance careening into another person at 30 mph less dangerous, that is!
Another difference between then an now is the size of the knights and their horses. On average, in the Middle Ages, people were smaller and lighter – as were their horses.
A third major difference is the quality of medical care that the athletes receive. What was a fatal or life-threatening injury in medieval days of yore can now be more easily treated, with far more likelihood of success. Though that's not to say a 21st-century doctor wouldn't be rather bemused if he were called on to treat a jousting injury!
Jousting isn't just a matter of simply hitting your opponent hard with the lance. Those who take part need to be superb athletes, not to mention highly skilled horsemen who are able to keep a tight grip on their horses while wielding the lance. Any momentary lapse of attention when the jouster's lance meets his opponent's armor and he may find himself buffeted to the ground from the impact shock.
Who wins often depends on who strikes first, according to work done by Erik M. Berg and Roger L. Lampe, who wrote a lengthy and detailed academic paper on jousting in 2002. All things being equal, of course, when one jouster's lance hits his rival, the latter is likely to be pushed back and twisted, putting him in a weaker position when his own lance strikes his opponent and making a tumble to the ground more likely.
The Knights of Mayhem comprise a varied group of men, all yearning to turn professional jousting into the next extreme sport. For their leader, this merry band of brothers looks to Charlie Andrews, the world champion of full contact heavy armor jousting and co-founder of the Ultimate Jousting Championship (UJC), a professional venue for the sport in Las Vegas.
Some the Knights' backgrounds might surprise you. While waiting for his chance to win back the world championship crown from Andrews, Patrick Lambke, for example, also repairs pianos. Lambke has been described as “a cross between a villain and a hero, with more traits of a villain depending on the day. A guy you’d love to have by your side in wartime, but if he came home with your daughter, you’d freak”.
The youngest knight is 22-year-old Greg Boxma. Boxma was a football player and keen horse rider in his not-so-faraway youth and so regards full contact heavy armor jousting – with its adrenaline-filled competitiveness and decidedly horsey component – as a perfect marriage of his two passions.
The Knights of Mayhem are also lucky enough to have their own aromorer, William Brunson. Recruited in a Renaissance fair, it's Brunson who looks after, builds and repairs all the armor. The smallest knight in the clan is Jason Armstrong, at 5'10”. Sadly Armstrong may soon be retiring his lance due to numerous injuries sustained in 'battle”', including a broken sternum and collarbone that are still causing pain. Ouch.
To gain exposure for their sport, The Knights of Mayhem have teamed up with National Geographic Channel for their own special TV series. You can learn more about the it on the show's website and more about the Knights themselves on their own site.