America has the most modern army in the world, yet millions flock to see youthful dreams of medieval jousting become reality.
Medieval Times are unique restaurants that attract almost 2,200 people a day. Since opening their first "castle" in 1983, they have entertained more than twenty-five million people at seven locations nationwide.
The moment you enter the European-style castle, it is as if you returned in time to the eleventh century. King Alfonso and Queen Inez graciously invite you to enter the breathtaking Hall of Arms, where colorful medieval banners hang from the ceiling with the coats of arms of prestigious families. Two elaborately dressed trumpeters then herald you into the Ceremonial Arena to enjoy a feast fit for a king and the main attraction, a medieval joust.
How can members of a nation with the most modern and sophisticated army in the world be interested in a style of warfare that hearkens to a time some disdainfully label the "Dark Ages?" The underlying factor involved here is a fascination Americans have for notions of honor, so well displayed in the medieval knight. This could explain the enthusiasm shown for the New York City firemen and the heroism they displayed on September 11. Those firemen, like knights of old, placed honor above everything, even life itself, and in so doing, won the adulation of a nation.
An outside observer might find the appreciation for knightly honor odd in a country that some months ago debated giving POW status to a group of dishonorable terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Such actions are par for the course in a pluralistic nation.
One knight facing another in mortal combat, with all the magnificent trappings of that epoch, is not very pluralistic, however, and this is what makes jousting in America a classic "Only in America" paradox. The warfare of terrorists lurking in the dark, waiting to attack innocent people, stands in stark contrast to the knight who throws down the gauntlet and faces his adversary in a manly way.
"Chivalry Is Not Dead"
Randy Bernhurdt is one of the knights as well as the show manager at Medieval Times' Lyndhurst, New Jersey, castle. Also a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, he showed nothing but enthusiasm for his job. "I was born way too late," he said. "I should have been born a few hundred years ago."
People of all ages come to watch Randy perform. While adults often appear in period costume, children are usually happy wielding a plastic swords. These miniature knights also write fan-mail letters to their favorite knights with such innocent questions as, "What is your horse's name?" Randy has even had children come up to him before the show with hand-drawn pictures of knights slaying dragons. "Here, I drew this for you," they say.
This type of reaction is not surprising since, as Mr. Bernhardt explains, "all of us [Americans] wanted to be knights when we were kids, the stereotype knight in shining armor, battling dragons, and saving damsels in distress. We just lucked out, we got to do it."
"Chivalry is not dead," Michael Shepard chimed in. He is the head knight in Lyndhurst and admitted that it is the reaction of children to the show which makes the job worthwhile. "Their eyes just light up," he said.
Guess What the State Sport of Maryland Is?
Such enthusiasm for chivalry, honor, and courage, expressed so well in the medieval joust, goes far beyond a mere dinner show. We do not simply recreate another era for a group of nostalgic people. Americans take jousting very seriously.
Jousting is a popular sport in many parts of the country, and what was once simply a boyhood dream has become reality for many Americans. Matt Machtan of San Jose, California, for example, placed 3rd in the 1999 National and 2000 World Jousting Championships.
"I was the kid that fought with cardboard weapons and plastic armor on the front lawn," he said. "The Middle Ages...have always had a special draw for me. We'd invite other kids in the neighborhood and get all dressed up in whatever armor we could find or make out of grocery bags. By the end of the battle, the lawn would be littered with bits of paper. It was glorious."1 Being a fierce competitor, he even thinks jousting will one day be featured in the Olympics.
Maryland could win the Gold if that ever happens. The Terrapin State was the first to adopt jousting as the official state sport, back in 1962. It is a family affair for Marylanders whose jousting skills are frequently passed from one generation to the next. Tournaments have been held in Maryland since early colonial times but became increasingly popular after the Civil War. Retaining the pageantry and customs of medieval tournaments, modern competitors are still called "knights" or "maids."
One such knight is on the great seal of Maryland. He is adorned in medieval armor and seated upon a charging horse.
The Freelancers Professional Jousting Troupe
Jousting is one of the main attractions at the yearly Renaissance Fair near Baltimore.
Roy and Kate Cox are owners of the Freelancers, a professional jousting troupe that entertains crowds of over 5,000 at the fair. Like Matt Machtan, jousting for Roy Cox is serious business, and he expects nothing less from his troupe. "Don't tell me you're a jouster and then get out there and play shield tag. I joust for one reason," Cox growls; "I like to hit things."2 Roy has been doing this for years and demands a lot from his men, who have a complete training manual for knights and squires with a code of conduct and even dress codes.
Terry Whittaker, of Sarasota, with the Freelancers since last April, has been studying the Middle Ages his whole life. "The time period has always been interesting for me," he said, "because there was a certain amount of honor." The kings did not "lead men from an ivory tower," he continued. "They were out there on the battlefield."
"It Is my Reason for Living"
One of the squires for the Freelancers is Ian Humphrey. At 14 years of age, Ian expressed desires similar to the boy Matt Machtan. Squiring is very important for him since it is the beginning of a process which will one day lead to knighthood, as it did for Matt.
"It is what I look forward to every year," Ian said, "It is my reason for living right now. I have wanted to be a knight since I could read. I studied about knights and their history, like Sir Lancelot, Arthur, and Galwain."
"The world we live in right now has forgotten history," he continued. "We need to bring that back again. That is what this [jousting] is all about. And I really want to be a part of it."
Ian does not mention his dreams to schoolmates because "they wouldn't understand. You have to be in it to understand."
What Ian does not realize is that many boys like him also dream of one day being knights.
Medieval dreams of knightly jousts are daily becoming a reality in the most modern nation on earth. Millions of Americans wait to see grown men fulfill boyhood dreams of being knights in shining armor.
1David Templeton, "Joust Do It: a modern-day jousting pro takes on A Knights Tale,'" Northern California Bohemian, May 24-30, 2001.
2Lisa Richardson, "The Knight Life," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 28, 2001.
- Written by Norman Fulkerson