The music of lutes fills the air and banners flutter in the breeze as knights and pages assemble in their pavilions. A time warp to Camelot? No, it’s the Nottingham Jousting Association of Northern England, preparing for another demonstration of medieval wargames.
From May to September, the twenty members of the Association tour castles and other historical sites throughout England demonstrating the kind of prowess at jousting and sword-fighting that would have warmed King Arthur’s heart.
The Association was formed by accident 13 years ago, when Nottingham hired a group of stuntmen to stage a joust for a civic festival. But before rehearsals ended, injuries sidelined the pros. Local amateurs stepped in and have been whacking each other with broadswords and lances ever since.
Practice for the summer shows begins in January, when would-be performers – whose 20th century careers range from butcher to pub owner – audition for knighthood. Only about one in ten shows the skills and physical constitution to join the troupe.
The same can be said for their steeds. “We look for well-trained horses with fire and breeding,” says director Sam Humphrey. “A safe, predictable animal doesn’t have the brains to catch onto what we are doing.”
Though each show is choreographed and rehearsed at weekly training sessions, few concessions are made to safety – the knights rarely use extra padding or fake weapons. “Basically, we rely on timing and practice,” observes Humphrey. Unlike their 12th-century predecessors, though, they wear leather breastplates instead of metal armor while riding. “When you are falling off a horse, you need that flexibility.”
Despite frequent broken fingers and concussions, authenticity is the troupe’s ultimate quest. True, the blades of various swords –some of which are up to six feet long – are dulled, but medieval knights did that, too. “Swords were bone-breakers, not cutting weapons. With all the chain mail and armor, knights couldn’t hope to cut anything, except maybe the heads of a few passing peasants.” However, for those attending the jousts, fear not. These knights display far better Round Table manners.