It lasted roughly one thousand years (give or take a few centuries). It generated mind-boggling advances in science, technology and medicine. It saw magnificent cathedrals rise at Chartres, Salisbury, Florence and scores of other cities and towns. It witnessed the first rumblings of a kind of proto-democracy in England and elsewhere. It wholly transformed the political and economic underpinnings of an entire continent. In light of all that, it’s odd that the long, long period of European history commonly known as the Middle Ages should be associated in so many people’s minds with one rather simple phenomenon.
Then again, maybe jousting’s preeminence in modern visions of the medieval world isn’t that odd. After all, there’s a very good reason why movies, TV shows and even video games set in the Middle Ages routinely feature jousting — in its myriad guises — as a standard plot device. At some utterly elemental level, it’s just plain entertaining to watch people knock each other off of logs into rivers and streams, or to see someone splinter an enormous wooden pole against an opponent’s shield, helmet and breastplate while riding a huge horse decked out in full heraldic regalia.
(Leave it to Game of Thrones, meanwhile, to forgo the customary pageantry and chivalry and, instead, to feature — early in the show’s first season — an elaborate jousting scene that ends abruptly with a knight flat on his back, knocked from his mount, a foot-long splinter of wood sticking out of his neck as he bleeds to death in the dirt.)
The medieval world, then, evidently has an enduring appeal. But as a LIFE feature from 60 years ago reminds us, the urge to celebrate and recreate those days of yore — complete with troubadours, falconry, greasy cooked meats, lively jousts and fair maidens in tall hats — is hardly a recent contrivance. In fact, in its May 19, 1952, issue the magazine treated its readers to an article on a “college joust” in West Virginia that makes clear people have been dressing up and quite happily getting Medieval on each other for a long, long time:
Looking for a spring ceremony more exciting than their junior prom [LIFE wrote], the students of Bethany College in West Virginia this year turned to jousting and, on a sunny day in May, held a King Arthur tournament. Opposing Arthur’s knight were Robin Hood’s followers — this despite the historical fact that the famous outlaw lived probably seven centuries after the famous king. The local utility company contributed two telephone poles for a jousting log and the funeral parlor lent a tent with scalloped edges as an ornament for the field. For jousting, the combatants used staffs, with which they belabored each other, and pies, which they threw at each other. There was also an egg-throwing contest and a search for the Holy Quail. The tournament ended when everybody had exhausted themselves. That night, after a banquet and dance, Merlin went out to the tennis courts and amazed revelers by magically filling the sky with rockets.
And not a jagged, jugular-puncturing splinter of wood to be seen anywhere in the entire proceedings. Well done, lords and ladies of Bethany. Well done, indeed.