Monday, June 23, 2008
A Knight's Tale: Modern Jousting Sees Renaissance
It's Belgium vs. France
At League's Tourney;
Mr. Piraux and Squires
By MAX COLCHESTER
LIÈGE, Belgium -- Fred Piraux has been grooming his horse Thorgal three hours a day, polishing replica 15th-century armor and taking lessons in medieval dancing.
Next month, the 38-year-old Belgian police instructor will level his lance at a fearsome opponent, Frenchman Tino Lombardi, in a bid for the top spot with the International Jousting League.
WSJ's Max Colchester reports on how jousting, the blood sport of the Middle Ages, is staging a comeback. He speaks with jouster Fred Piraux, who is preparing for an upcoming tournament.
"It's not about the prize you win. It's about hearing your rivals' wives weep," says Mr. Piraux. A squire helps the chevalier squeeze into a metal breastplate. Mr. Piraux hoists himself onto his chocolate-brown steed and gallops through the fields on the outskirts of this industrial Belgian town.
The advent of firearms ended the medieval sport of jousting in the 17th century. But the Internet has resurrected it and, today, mounted men in full armor charge at each other for glory and global rank.
About 1,000 people world-wide take part in this sport, estimates the International Jousting Association, though only 200 have the equipment and expertise to joust competitively. The International Jousting League, a separate organization, has 47 jousters from San Diego to Paris who compete at castles and fields around the world.
A far cry from the mock re-enactments at Renaissance fairs, competitive jousting is not for the faint of heart or the impecunious.
On the field, jousters are judged on their ability to smash a lance against a crest the size of a dinner plate located on an opponent's left shoulder. The lances weigh 7.7 pounds, are 10 feet 5 inches in length and have screw-on balsa tips that shatter on impact with armor. To win points, the knights have to break their lances. They often also fracture hands in the process. Many jousters are tossed off their horses, but, to date, nobody in these recent contests has been killed. The most high-profile death was that of King Henry II of France, who died jousting in 1559.
As in medieval times, there are no universal jousting rules. At some competitions organized by the Jousting League, knights win points for their success in wooing damsels with a post-joust speech and medieval dance.
This year, Mr. Piraux bought a new $600 medieval dance outfit -- a red embroidered pleated coat with puffed shoulders, a matching doublet, hosiery and black riding boots. Despite his new duds, Mr. Piraux was outdanced by a U.S. competitor at a recent competition in Belgium.
Mr. Piraux has also spent about $39,000 this year in housing and upkeep for Thorgal and his second horse, Organdy, and on new steel-plate armor and a yellow-and-red wooden crest with a tower logo.
In addition, Mr. Piraux pays for the services of a team of loyal servants, including a herald who announces him at tournaments and two squires who are always on hand to help their master.
Olivier Aujer, a 22-year-old Belgian student, helps look after Thorgal and helps Mr. Piraux to dress. Mr. Piraux says he sometimes asks a friend to infiltrate opponents' camps to get them drunk before tournaments.
Since there's glory but no prize money in winning tournaments, Mr. Piraux moonlights to finance his jousting activities. A Belgian company recently hired him to joust before a group of visiting colleagues from Norway. Mr. Piraux has also appeared, clad in full armor, in an ad for a Dutch insurance company.
Sixteen jousters are expected to compete July 12 at the tournament near the Castle of Filain in eastern France. Many fans expect the 6-foot-tall Belgian police instructor to carry the day.
"He's one of the best in the world," says Callum Forbes, a 48-year-old personal financial planner from New Zealand, who has jousted with Mr. Piraux. "He puts full energy into it...[but] is really calm in the saddle."
Mr. Piraux is hungry for revenge against Mr. Lombardi. The 43-year-old French former judo instructor beat him last year at the same competition. "Fred Piraux doesn't scare me," says Mr. Lombardi, who is now employed as a state social worker in Vesoul, in eastern France. "I've won this tournament three times in a row. Why should this year be different?"
"I let Lombardi win," scoffed Mr. Piraux, as he set off for another practice round in the countryside near Liège. "I didn't want him to start crying."
Thorgal, Mr. Piraux's horse, is named after a Viking character in a comic-book series. On this recent morning, Mr. Piraux steered him energetically as he jabbed his lance through large white hoops held in a squire's hands. Speeding up to full gallop, the Belgian jouster then directed his lance at sparring partner Luc Petillot. From a standing start, the contestants ride between about 100 and 130 feet toward each other before they meet. Each pass takes about 10 seconds and there are usually three per match. A tournament is likely to go on for two days.
"It's about proving that you have still got what it takes," Mr. Piraux said as he unbuckled a pair of knee-high black leather boots after dismounting.
Later, enjoying a hot dog with his two squires, Mr. Piraux explained how the Jousting League, of which he's a board member, is trying to expand the sport's popularity. For example, there has been a growing effort to recruit women, said Mr. Piraux. The league now has six women knights in its ranks.
Tournament organizers would like to lure more Asian jousters as well, but competitions in such places as Hong Kong and South Korea have been problematic because the local horses are too small to carry men in armor.
Drawing More Fans
To attract more viewers, the league is also considering moving contests away from castles and into town centers. More than 3,500 people turned up to watch a joust Mr. Piraux organized near Liège recently, so he's now thinking about hosting a competition in an indoor ice rink.
As the sport draws more fans, there is talk of introducing a knightly game of chess to competitions organized by the league.
Speaking in medieval dialect, however, is out of the question, says Mr. Piraux.
"It would just descend into farce."