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By Patrick J. Kiger

The basic concept of modern jousting is pretty much the same as when the sport started a millennium ago as training for battle: two armor-clad opponents charge at each other on horseback while wielding wooden lances, with the goal of slamming one’s lance into the opponent’s shield or chest plate.

The high speed collision of wood, man and metal that results was so appealing in the old days that jousting contests continued as popular entertainment for several centuries after the combat methods they simulated had become obsolete. And today, as jousting is undergoing a major revival, those same qualities give it panache as an “extreme” sport, as well as a colorful form of historical reenacting. But while jousting competitions strive for historical authenticity, there also are some significant differences between the medieval sport and the modern one.

Mass and muscular power, for example, are major factors that influence the outcome of a jousting competition, and modern athletes and their steeds probably have a significant edge over their ancient counterparts.  Research shows that people in the Middle Ages generally were slightly smaller than today’s people, that may not necessarily have been true of knights, who had better nutrition than the serfs.  (Measurements of Renaissance-era armor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York suggests that its wearers varied tremendously in size; Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria, who stood an estimated six feet four inches and sported a 54-inch chest measurement, was more robust than the average NFL linebacker.) But modern competitors can take advantage of nutritional knowledge and training methods; medieval knights didn’t have the opportunity to bulk up with creatinine supplements or Cybex weight-training machines. According to equine historian John Clark, medieval war horses were significantly smaller than today’s horses, and presumably less powerful.

On the other hand, medieval jousting competitions, particularly prior to 1300, were closer to actual warfare than today’s sporting contests, according to John McClelland’s book,Body and Mind: Sport in Europe from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. What we think of today as jousting—two knights in armor on horseback, charging at each other with lances—sometimes was only the preliminary. The two contestants often continued fighting with swords, axes, pikestaffs, or other weapons, either on horseback or on foot.  The specter of grisly injuries and deaths eventually led European nobles to institute more rules and structure. But even so, the contests were far more violent than anything insurance companies would allow today, with competitors receiving additional points for hitting an opponent in the head or for injuring him so that he was unable to continue, according to McClelland.

And if a modern jouster is injured in a competition, he’s got a much better chance at surviving, due to advances in trauma care.  In contrast, consider the fate of French King Henri II. When the monarch entered a Renaissance-era jousting tournament in 1559, he had the misfortune to have his opponent’s lance splinter and penetrate his eye, causing a subdural hematoma, in which bleeding builds up between the inner and outer brain membranes. Depending on the severity of the injury, modern doctors might have drilled into the king’s skull to relieve the pressure or created a larger surgical opening to remove a sizeable clot. Instead, as this article from the UK’s Science Museum describes, Henri’s physicians cleaned the splinters out of his eye, gave him rhubarb as a laxative, and bled 34 centilitres of blood from his body, a standard practice at the time. None of that worked, of course, and nine days later, Henri was dead, from an injury that a modern athlete might well survive.