Some women love a man in uniform. I like mine in armor.
I come by this honestly. After all, I do write a medieval mystery series with a hardboiled detective who used to be a knight. But it was only a few years ago that I got a chance to see my very first real joust.
I live in an area of southern California with a lot of ranches and horse people. So when the rodeo came to town I didn’t think much of it. But when I saw “medieval rodeo” on the flyer, my Spidey sense began tingling. This was part of the jousting circuit. Say what? There’s a jousting circuit in the twenty-first century? Indeed there is.
Imagine, if you will, sitting in an arena with banners hanging on the corrals of cows and bulls, advertising motor sports, veterinary services, taxidermy. All sorts of people surround you, most of whom are sporting cowboy hats and western boots. The lists are set up, everyone sings the Star-Spangled Banner, and then it’s “play ball!” …er, I mean “knights at the ready!”
The jousters are the Imperial Knights, a group of modern-day, armor-wearing, lance-carrying knights who do this stuff for a living. (These guys will become important in a minute.)
They use wooden lances and ride Clydesdales and Belgians—big horses—toward each other. It is the Joust a Plaissance, “for the fun of it,” but it still means business. The blunted lance aims toward the small shield fastened to the knight’s left shoulder and then…kapow!
There is nothing quite like seeing these amazing horses and fully armed knights charging toward one another, lances splintering, armor clanking, crowds cheering…rock music ringing out in the background. I‘d never seen anything more exciting in my life!
Fast forward four years. I got the crazy notion to suit up like a knight and see what it was like for myself. After all, I’m a hands-on kind of gal. I like to really get into my research. I’ve made my own medieval garb, worn it, worked in it to see how a medieval woman would live. I’ve researched the recipes used in the fourteenth century and cooked the meals and brewed the beer, tasting the flavors of another era. I even have a collection of medieval weaponry I use for demonstrations when I talk about my books. But I’ve never really been armed and put atop a horse to get the true feel of it. And it was time I did.
I feature the Imperial Knights (told you we’d get back to them) at my book launches each year, where they duel to the death with swords and provide a wonderful medieval atmosphere for the event. I asked the owner, Thomas Montgomery, if he wouldn’t mind my coming over to his ranch, trying on a bit of armor, and mounting one of his jousting horses, just to get the feel of it. He was happy to oblige and I made my way through the Inland Empire to Norco at the northern end of Corona. Montgomery lives in a modest neighborhood overlooking the Santa Ana River, and if it weren’t for the quintain/shield sign out front declaring this the home of the Imperial Knights you wouldn’t know it.
Montgomery, 40, has owned and operated the Imperial Knights for fifteen years. He started off at California’s Medieval Times Dinner Theatre and Tournament, the Excalibur Hotel show in Las Vegas, and eventually struck out on his own offering his own unique shows, and never looked back.
Montgomery introduced me to his six horses, but the one I was most interested in was Thor, the 2,000 pound Percheron, the one he called a “big coach potato of a horse.” That’s what I’m talkin’ about! But first, I needed to be armed.
We started with a mail coif, a sort of open-faced balaclava made out of tiny rings of steel. Over that is the mail shirt and this one had shoulder armor, called spaulders, and then leather vambraces for my forearms. They didn’t have chest armor that would fit me, me being a roundish, middle-aged woman, so we had to make do simply with a surcote over the rest. But even without the chest plates, it was still mighty restrictive! Knights in armor were certainly able to move and fight, but they didn’t sneak up on people. They make too much noise for that. Plate clanks against plate, and though the only plate armor I wore was on my shoulders, the shushing of metal mesh on my head and on my body was noisy enough.
I was feeling good. I was feeling strong. I was ready to get medieval on somebody.
He led me to the horse—a very large horse, some sixteen hands high. With the help of a step stool, I mounted mighty Thor. I was handed a helm and put that on. Now I was really restricted, not only in movement but in what I could see and hear. I only had some horizontal slits for eye holes and I could see across the lists but not directly below me. Bad news in battle if a footsoldier crept up and knifed my horse.
Next I was given a shield and a lance. I’d done my research and knew how to properly couch my lance, tucking it up under my arm. Though I didn’t get to ride against an opponent, I could simply absorb the entire experience and store the sense memory—the feel of the armor, the weight and sound of it, the smell of the horse below me—so that I could pass it on to my characters, giving them that much more to work with and the reader a true sense of the medieval.
I was ready to party like it was 1399.
Jeri Westerson writes the critically acclaimed Medieval Noir series featuring disgraced knight turned detective, Crispin Guest. The latest, Troubled Bones will be released from St. Martin’s Minotaur October 11. Read excerpts at www.JeriWesterson.com or see Crispin’s blog at www.CrispinGuest.com.