Each August, the Mediterranean village of Sète, located on a pencil-thin peninsula in southern France, plays host to the Festival of Saint Louis. The fête’s main attraction is a spirited sporting event officially known as la joute nautique – or water jousting– during which competitors use feats of arms to attempt to knock each other off man-powered, wooden boats. It’s a modern-day tournament with the spectacle of a medieval pageant, yet its origins are millennia old. Water jousting can be traced as far back as 2,700 B.C.E. to tomb paintings discovered in ancient Egypt. The sport is believed to have entered Gaul via the Roman cities of Provence, where arenas were purposefully flooded for water battles. Some historians believe it was introduced even earlier by the Greeks who arrived in Marseilles around 570 B.C.E. Whichever culture is responsible, water jousting remains a passionate fixture in France, particularly in the southwestern regions. The earliest written account loosely describes a water-logged tournament held in Lyon, France in 1170, while another document written a century later specifically mentions water jousting taking place in the French Mediterranean town of Aigues Mortes. As the staging point for St. Louis’s crusade, soldiers and sailors awaited departure for the Holy Land by facing off on the marshy waters surrounding the city’s fortified walls. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the tradition grew throughout the river valleys of central France and along the Mediterranean coast. Kings and queens were entertained along the Saone River in Lyon where a round of jousts were held in 1507 for Queen Anne of Brittany and again in 1548 for Henri II and Catherine de Medici. King Francis I was honored with competitions along on the Loire River, while Queen Elizabeth I was received at Sandwich, on the east coast of England, with a sporting competition that included sea jousting. Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts offer vivid depictions of nautical hand-to-hand combat taking place from the canals of Switzerland and Germany, to the lagoons of Portugal and Spain.
As depicted in the illuminations, the boat-bound lance-bearers aimed for a quintain fixed to a post in the middle of the water. The jouster, propelled forward by oarsmen, must keep his place on the boat while breaking his lance on the target, thus earning glory and riches from the ruling lords. Modern-day games are governed by the French Federation of Nautical Jousting and Rescue. This nineteenth century organization was originally established for skilled lifeboat operators to aid in rescue during times of flood. The group now oversees water jousting on a national level by maintaining the time-honored rules which vary across the regions around Provence, Paris, Lyon, and Alsace. It is however, the Languedoc village of Sète that’s considered the unequivocal home to water jousting with its deep-rooted, colorful traditions in place since 1666. During the Festival of Saint Louis, the region’s premiere water jousters converge on Sète from ports up and down the coast to compete for the prestigious Gold Cup Championship. The jousting tournament is split into various weight and age classes. Under-21 competes in the junior competition, while the heavy weight class draws men and women weighing more than 195 pounds.
As in the days of old, the heavyweight wins glory and immortality as the victor’s name is engraved on a shield displayed in the town’s Paul Valléry Art Museum. Teams clad in head-to-toe white kick off the event by making their way ceremoniously through town to the waterfront in a flurry of pomp and circumstance; traditional musicians and adoring fans leading the way. After boarding their long on the Royal Canal, wooden boats the crewmen make sportsmanlike gestures and prepare to battle. The team’s six jousters perch together on a plank-like extension overhanging the back of the boat, while the first jouster takes position on the rear platform called a tintaine. The boats, powered by ten oarsmen each, turn and charge toward one another making a close, steady pass. As they draw level, each competitor raises a nine-foot long lance, wields a two-foot tall shield, lunges into a stance, and takes aim at the opponent. The goal is simple: knock the other into water while staying atop the tintaine– but, easier said than done. The jouster has one opportunity to dislodge the other, but quite often both end up taking what is dubbed “a forced bath.” The winner is declared, and the music plays on while cheers and jeers greet whoever hits the water.
Different parts of Sète have individual Sociétés des Jouste offering up a fierce rivalry seen even among the onlookers supporting their teams from the stands along the quay. La joute nautique is the soul of Sète and you can experience the intoxicating passion and pageantry from June through September. Water jousting festivals are held throughout the summer months in other parts of France as well; from Marseilles and Cognac in the south and west; to Lyon in the east; and as far north as Paris, and Vannes, on the beautiful coast of Brittany. Check out the French Federation of Nautical Joustin’s Website at www.ffjsn.com for a list of rules by region, water jousting techniques, images of equipment, and more.
All content is copyrighted to Shawnie Kelley. The original article was published in Renaissance Magazine Issue #89.
Photos: Sète Office of Tourism