Duckpins or jousting? There's no contest

John Brain

November 15, 1991|By John Brain

A CONTEST is shaping up between Maryland's duckpin bowlers and proponents of this state's official sport -- jousting.

The two sports could hardly be more different: One has a lofty air of faded nobility; the other is broad-bottomed and plebeian. One represents the favored few; the other, the democratic many. What we have on our hands is a class war, pure and simple.

The upper classes have always been horse people. They rode when others walked. As soldiers, they carried swords, not pikes, and later, pistols, not rifles. No one questions the status of an equestrian, and American town squares are filled with them. So jousting is very definitely a U-sport, while duckpin bowling (not be confused with bowling green bowling, which Sir Francis Drake made famous) is very definitely non-U. If all heads are to be counted, bowling ousts jousting. But if only noble heads are eligible, the old horse sport wins at a canter.

Though only named Maryland's official sport in 1962, jousting goes back to the time of William the Conqueror, 1066 and all

that. Jousting was always an exclusively a noble sport, and only "gentles" were allowed to compete. In an age of courtly love, knights entered the lists to champion the honor of their ladies, who in turn favored their loves with tokens of secret esteem.

A medieval tournament was a scene of splendid pageantry, a veritable Ascot of heraldic elegance -- but also a very serious life-and-death ritual in which the jouster quite often ended up dead, run through by a steel-tipped lance which was literally armor-piercing and backed up by a charging warhorse and rider in full armor weighing over 400 pounds and packing the wallop of an anti-tank bazooka.

Jousting armor (still to be seen at the Walters Art Gallery) was specially designed to protect the jouster's vitals. His eyes were shielded by a sinister visor, his heart by a protective boss, his private parts by a skirt of chain mail. He carried a shield on which were emblazoned the arms and motto of his family. His charger had its own armor, a helmet with an intimidating spike and a caparisoned breastplate -- a noble warhorse.

Jousting armor was not only functional but also a work of art, superbly crafted and articulated, etched and embossed with decorative emblems. Henry VIII's jousting armor is still on display in the Tower of London and shows that ultimate sexist was no wimp. Popular up to the 16th century, jousting was a sport that leaders of the day actually engaged in, and if they said "watch my lips," it was to show they weren't trembling.

By comparison, Maryland's wimp jousting -- in which riders try to snare a little ring with the tips of billiard-cue lances -- is a mere party game, a degenerate sport that would have made Sir Galahad blush. It is, like all American sports, a victim of that democratization which is this country's dubious contribution to civilization.

Alas, these United States have no noble sports and few with even a tinge of distinction. The English still have their cricket (which distinguishes between gentlemen and players), and the Spanish their corridas del toro, elegant if bloodthirsty. But Americans have only baseball, a plebeian game of pitchers and spitters, and American football, which foreigners liken to guerrilla warfare.

That kings could lay their lives on the line in a joust is typical of an age when knighthood was in flower and leaders actually led. Wouldn't it be nice if our leaders could eliminate each other for good in a round of jousting? Admittedly, serious jousting would attract the ire of animal rights activists, so today it could all be done on motorcycles. Actually, a modern motorcyclist in full leather is not unlike a knight in armor, and the addition of a lance and a few spikes and bosses would dress him up nicely.

So there's a sport for Maryland in the 21st century, one that maintains nobility while not descending to the common level of duckpins: motorcycle jousting. When a victorious motorcycle jouster throws up his visor and lays down his bloody lance, that will make a sight that puts even George Bush's heroic Saddam-bashing and butt-kicking to shame.

Who says the age of chivalry is dead?

John Brain writes from Baltimore.

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