On a clear spring day in June of 1559, two massive horses of war thundered toward each other as their armored riders lowered their lances. The crowd cheered as the competitors clashed and pieces of broken lance flew into the air, signifying a score for one of the lancers. The jouster dressed in black and white tottered, then steadied himself in the saddle. As attendants rushed out to assist the wounded man, cheers turned to gasps as pieces of his opponent's shattered lance could be seen projecting from his visor. Blood spilled from the helmet; the tilt had taken a deadly turn.
Jousting was probably the most popular sport among the regency in medieval times. Taking its inspiration from battlefield tactics of the middle ages, the sport consisted of two jousters (or two teams of jousters) charging at each other on horseback, each attempting to unseat the other with the 12 foot lances they had couched under their right arms. In the earlier years of the sport, the contest took place on an essentially open field, with no barrier between the horses - a system called jousting 'at large'. Often, the contestants in these types of jousts would skewer either their opponent or his mount, the horses and riders would violently collide, or the jousters would overcorrect and reflexively keep away from the opposition, leading to a rather dull tournament. In later years, a cloth banner or wooden fence called a 'tilt' was constructed between the riders; this gave the riders a guide, prevented collisions, protected the valuable horses, and idealized the angle of the lance so that there were fewer impalements and more crowd-pleasing broken lances.
The safety of the jousters was improved over the years in other ways as well. Armor and weapons were strictly scrutinized; any competitor missing a piece of either would not be allowed to participate. Jousters were forbidden from striking the opponent's horse, saddle, thigh, bridle hand, or head, and were strictly penalized when they did so. Contestants who were injured could be 'counted out' at the judge's discretion, and risky maneuvers - such as having a jouster tie himself to the saddle - were actively discouraged. Also, the technology of helmets increased, allowing the lancer to retain his wide field of vision, which was crucial to good performance, while providing more and more protection to the lancer's most vulnerable spot - his face.
It was due to this weakness that medieval jousting had its most famous casualty. France's King Henry II proclaimed a tournament to take place on June 30, 1559 to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to the King of Spain and the signing of a peace treaty with forces of the Hapsburg dynasty. The King was fond of jousting, and, dressed in black and white, he competed against Gabriel, Comte de Montgomery. On their second pass, the Comte de Montgomery's lance shattered, and slivers of his lance were projected at high speed directly through King Henry's visor and into the royal right eye. Henry somehow kept from being unhorsed, and, despite briefly losing consciousness, was later able to walk up the stairs to his chamber on his own.
The King was immediately attended to by France's premier doctor, Master Surgeon Ambroise Paré, and later by the brilliant Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius. The Comte de Montgomery - himself the captain of the King's personal bodyguards - was distraught, and asked the King to have his head and hand cut off as punishment; Henry refused to blame the young Count for the accident, and ordered his opponent released. The Queen, Catherine de Medici, was eager to help; she ordered the immediate execution of four criminals and had sharpened sticks rammed through their skulls in order to provide the physicians with accurate physical references for their studies.
Despite these efforts, Vesalius performed one medical test and realized that, despite the fact that the splinters had not penetrated to the King's brain, the wound was ultimately mortal. Surely enough, Henry developed an infection and died on July 10. Queen Catherine, who later adopted a broken lance as her personal symbol, never forgave the Comte de Montgomery as her husband had; after the Count converted to Protestantism and was captured leading troops against the Catholic French, the Queen had him executed, and had all of his lands and his children's titles revoked. Henry was succeeded by his feeble 15-year-old son Francis II, who would marry Mary of Guise - later known as Mary, Queen of Scots - and then promptly die from an ear infection after about a year and a half on the throne.
Ironically, it was due in part to the death of one its most famous patrons that jousting gradually fell out of favor. It persisted for some time, though in a different form in which jousters would try to use their lances to ensnare small rings on their tips, rather than oppose another lancer directly; it is in this form that it is the official individual sport of the state of Maryland. The equestrian discipline of 'tent-pegging', derived from a medieval cavalry tactic of riding at high speed through an enemy camp uprooting tent pegs with well-placed lance strikes, is still a recognized equestrian discipline. Recently, traditional jousting is experiencing a revival, most notably at Renaissance Fairs and reenactment festivals, in organizations such as the International Jousting Association, and most recently on the History Channel reality show Full Metal Jousting.
Links and Sources:
Wikipedia articles on jousting and Henry II of France.
The New World Encyclopedia article on jousting.
"The Death of Henry II of France" from the Journal of Neurosurgery, December 1, 1992, reprinted here.
The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, by Sydney Angelo, Yale University Press, 2000.
The International Jousting Association USA, retrieved March 17, 2012.
Full Metal Jousting, on the History Channel, retrieved March 17, 2012.
16th century woodcut of tournament by an anonymous German artist, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, on March 17, 2012.
Photo of modern jousters by user Pretzelpaws at Britannica.com.
Painting of jousters by Graham Turner, and appeared in Warrior 104: Tudor Knight, by Christopher Gravett, Osprey Publishing, 2006.