When Shane Adams talks about medieval battles, he gets excited.
Growing up on a Canadian farm and riding horses from the age of four, it has become his goal in life to revive the sport of jousting – not just the duels fought on horseback, but the bond with horses.
That’s what he believes chivalry really was.
He notes the root word for chivalry is “cheval” which is French for horse.
Adams represented one of the earliest eras of the horse-human relationship at the Midwest Horse Fair, a three-day event held April 20-22 with the theme of “Horse Heritage” that drew on the history of the horse and its contributions to civilization.
The whole idea of knights on horseback got started with a famous battle between Saxons and Normans at Hastings. The Saxons had developed a defense in which foot soldiers held up their shields and linked together, forming a nearly impenetrable barrier.
It worked like a charm until the Battle of Hastings, when William the Conqueror, of the Normans, came up with a new strategy to break up the wall.
As Adams tells it, his eyes glinting with enthusiasm, William and his horsemen looked as if they were retreating up to high ground and the Saxons broke formation and gave chase. Once they were no longer in a tight group, they were easy for the mounted soldiers to pick off.
Jousting got its start with that decisive battle, he says. When kings and conquerors heard how William had bested the mighty Saxons, they all wanted to have a cadre of “knights.”
The so-called “airs above the ground,” made famous by Lipizzaner stallions, are movements horses would have needed for battle, Adams said. So are many of the dressage movements seen in today’s dressage riding tests.
The training of knights on horseback after the Battle of Hastings began with some games like spearing rings that allowed the riders to become one with their horses and gain skill with weapons.
FRENCH INVENT SPORT
“But those games to jousting are like catch is to murder ball,” Adams says.
The French king decided such games were “just for squires” and came up with the idea of pitting knight against knight in one-on-one “jousting” tournaments.
That was the beginning of the kind of jousting most people would recognize from the movies, and from Adams’s crew, the Knights of Valour, who appeared at the Midwest Horse Fair.
Horses rush at each other from either side of a barrier (called a list) and the riders, in heavy suits of armor, try to knock each other off.
As a sport it became popular in France, Adams said, until it became too deadly. In one tournament 60 knights died and the sport was eventually outlawed.
In an effort to keep their sport alive, he says, knights traveled to other countries to joust and soon it was outlawed there, although that presented a problem.
“What police force would even try to arrest 100 knights?” Adams noted with a wry smile.
Even the Church got involved in trying to stop jousting by refusing Christian burial to knights killed in tournaments.
Even that didn’t kill the sport.
When the Battle of Hastings began, most soldiers wore chain-mail, a woven metal armor that had been around since the Romans invented it 600 years earlier, he said. But that kind of armor had been outstripped by technology and skill over the centuries.
The chain-mail was designed to protect soldiers from arrows. But archers became able to shoot better and faster, making the chain protection less effective.
Soon knights on horseback were wearing full metal suits of armor.
When they jousted, they competed with lances and other tools of war.
According to Adams, there are 19 different styles of jousting and his troupe competes in only nine.
“The other 10 are to the death,” he says wryly.
For Adams, the most important part of the “Age of Chivalry” isn’t that knights rescued damsels in distress or fought pitched battles for king and country. It is the bond that developed between riders and horses.
“The connection between you and your horse – that’s the real bond,” he said. “That’s the real romance. Truly for me that has been the most romantic and special thing.”
In the 14th century, he says, if knights were called into battle they would show up with their horse, but most would dismount and run in to fight on foot.
“They didn’t want to injure their precious jousting horse. They didn’t want to get them hurt,” Adams explained. “Not only were they bonded to their horses, but they had the potential to earn them great sums of money in tournaments.”
Adams said he feels that kind of bond with his 21-year-old Percheron stallion, “Dragon,” who will come when he whistles to him and play tag with his owner in the pasture. (He said he generally tries to do that when the neighbors aren’t looking.)
Often medieval knights were able to parlay their skill on horseback into a life of wealth and power.
One he mentioned was William Marshall, the sixth son of a Lord, who was told he would never get an inheritance because of his older brothers.
He was sent to become a page and worked himself up to squire, caring for a knight’s armor and horse. He earned his spurs by winning a tournament and eventually won the favor of a pretty lady with a lot of money.
“Some knights had more power than the king,” Adams said.
He noted that life expectancy for knights was three years. “Many died before they reached the age of 16. That’s why many of the suits of armor we still see are so small.”
Contrary to popular belief, there were women knights as well, he said, and they were called “dames.”
“A lot of knights were mercenaries really. All they cared about was earning money to pay for their horses.”
SPORT DEALT BLOW
In 1559, the sport was dealt a serious blow when King Henry II of France was killed in a jousting tournament being held in celebration of his daughter’s wedding.
Because it was a hot day, the king decided not to wear his jousting helmet, which had very small eye holes. Wearing a helmet that gave him more vision also allowed a lance to enter his eye socket and end his life.
Those in jousts back then and today wear helmets with very small eye holes – slits really – and they ride their horses by feel.
“You’re riding by feel and training and trust,” Adams said. “You can’t even see the horse and you don’t hold onto the reins.”
Adams wears a 142-pound suit of armor when he rides his 1,600-pound Percheron in jousts, and comments that his horse is one of the smaller ones.
But after the death of King Henry in France, the sport of jousting was done.
“When you kill a king, the sport usually dies out,” he says. And it did.
There were efforts to revive it in the 17th century in Europe and even in New York, but those efforts were plagued by bad weather and the loss of fortunes for those who tried to organize them.
“People thought the sport was cursed.”
It has become Adams’s mission in life to revive the sport for the modern era.