On a bright September day, Jessica Post sat atop her creamy white horse, her body encased in 100 pounds of gleaming armor. She held a long, wooden lance, painted with a swirl of red and white. As spectators began to clap in exhorting rhythm, Post galloped towards her opponent. She drove her lance into his armor, hard. The weapon splintered. A “squire,” or assistant, standing on the field threw up his hands in delight. The crowd went wild.
No, Post is not your average maiden fair. The 29-year-old is a modern-day knight, and the leader of an all-female jousting troupe called Knights of the Rose. Together, Post and her five Roses — accompanied by two male squires — compete at national tournaments, stage shows at Renaissance Faires, and conduct educational seminars at local schools. They belong to a small group of women who participate in competitive jousting, a niche, but nevertheless extreme sport modelled after the martial tournaments of yore. “Most of us [women] just aren’t that crazy,” Post said, and laughed.
A softly-spoken woman with wide eyes and flowing auburn hair, Post hardly comes across as the sort of person who spends her free time wreaking havoc with a lance. She lives near Columbus, Ohio and works in the underwriting department of an insurance firm. She describes herself as a “gentle person.” But once Post gets into the list, a roped off enclosure that demarcates the jousting field, she is fierce. Since she began competing in 2010, Post has taken blows to the stomach, and — most painful of all — hips. She has knocked burly men off their horses, and has been knocked off her horse. “You want to get back up and go again,” she said. “But it’s more courage than fearlessness.”
Post plays what is known as “full-contact” jousting, the demolition derby of equestrian games. The goal is to hit your opponent on a metal chest plate called a “gran guard”— and to hit so hard that your wooden lance breaks and your opponent gets unhorsed. According to Nikki Fourtzialas, U.S. Liaison to the International Jousting Association, there are only about 50 people in the world who partake in this type of heavy jousting; most modern practitioners play a slightly gentler version of the sport, which uses soft lances that break with relative ease. Full-contact jousting, by contrast, stays largely true to the tournaments that were played by European knights for some 400 years, with one notable exception: women can suit up in armor and gallop into the list.
Jousting emerged in the High Middle Ages as a method of training for knights heading into battle. The early years of the game were particularly brutal; jousters played with sharpened weapons and deaths were common. As the sport became a popular form of entertainment, it coalesced into highly formalized tournaments infused with the chivalric ideals that shaped the culture of knighthood in the medieval and Renaissance periods. The joust became a ceremony of status, an opportunity for knights to flaunt their wealth, strength, and masculinity.
Within this atmosphere of clashing lances and valorous warriors, women played an important, if passive, role. Noble ladies of the court doled out prizes at the end of the games and, as spectators, they were integral to the tournament. “[Women] were expected to be an inspirational force for the men who jousted,” said Professor Noel Fallows, author of Jousting in Medieval and Renaissance Iberia. “I think that without the spectators — male and female, but in particular female — there would be a fundamental part of the chivalric ethos that would be lacking.”
The ladies of the court, however, did not joust. Post has been going to Renaissance Faires since she was a child; her mother Laurie, who also jousts with the Knights of the Rose, dressed her up as a little peasant girl. But Post never entertained the thought of costuming as a knight until, in 2009, she saw a jousting troupe play at an equestrian event in Ohio. There were no women in the group, but Post was enthralled. She had to try it.
“I love martial arts, I love horses, I love history,” Post said. “This just kind of combines them all. So I got really excited and talked to their leader, and he was like, ‘Yeah, come and train with me.’”
As she immersed herself in the sport, Post met other women jousters, and they decided to form their own troupe. An all-female jousting team brought freedom from “ego and testosterone,” according to Gesa Wellenstein, who had been jousting with co-ed groups for five years before joining the Roses in 2013. “I really like the drama-free … camaraderie we Roses have,” Wellenstein added. “Males have very much to prove themselves.”
The Knights of the Rose are a bit of a ragtag band. Some are knights, some are squires; some play heavy armor, some full contact; some are in their 20s, some are middle aged. But all of the Roses are impelled by a desire to demonstrate that women can excel in a game long dominated by men. “Part of what drives me is I want to show women that just cause you’re over 50 doesn’t mean you’re too old to accomplish what you want to do,” said Laurie Post, Jessica’s mother, who is 56 years old. “[We joust] to show that we can, and women can,” said Kathryn Moran, who began jousting in September of last year. “We can do everything that guys can do, and a lot of the time we can do it better, with more flare and panache.”
That sentiment is more controversial than it may seem. Jousting is a small and largely unregulated sport; qualification standards are often determined on an ad-hoc basis by tournament organizers, there are no weight classes, and there are no divisions between men and women. Some male jousters bristle when they find themselves going up against female opponents. It’s not that they oppose women’s participation in the sport; they simply feel that integrated play leads to an unfair pairing of strengths.
“As far as the full contact heavy armor, there’s only been a couple of girls who could really do it,” said Charlie Andrews, reigning champion of the International Jousting Championships in Colorado and a man“made of hard steel and sex appeal,” according to his website “Even then, it’s not fair. I mean, they’re going to get massacred if they go against me or [expert jouster] Shane Adams, or somebody like that. There should be a women’s division, or at least a weight division … Women feel slighted if I say that. I’m not saying it because you’re a woman. I’m saying it cause you’re little.”
Of course, when women are inclined to try their hand at full-contact jousting, Andrews is perfectly happy to take them on. Or as he put it: “I really don’t care if my grandma gets in a suit of armor. I’m going to knock her ass off a horse and win that match.”
Post takes no issue with that mentality. She doesn’t expect to be treated delicately by her male opponents.“[Jousting] is one of the few extreme sports where we’re not divided, and that’s really appealing,” she said. “You don’t have to be really strong to do well in this … It’s mostly about partnership between you and your horse. If you don’t have that partnership you’re not going to do as well.”
Jousting does indeed mandate a number of skills: horsemanship, balance, precision, and strategy. In advance of performances and competitions, the Roses will gather on a weekly basis at Laurie Post’s property to train with a quintain, the rotating wooden structure that knights of the past used for target practice. But wielding a 12-foot lance also requires muscle, and the Roses work assiduously to strengthen their upper bodies. “We mostly do strength training on our own,” Moran explained. “[But we once] went to a group workout session at a university gym in Pennsylvania … I was out-lifting all the other girls so they called me ‘The Beast.’”
These efforts have brought the Roses considerable success. At the 2014 International Jousting Championships in Colorado, Post placed fourth in the heavy armor division. She and Wellenstein earned the title of “Dame” — the modern-day mark of a female knight — early on in their jousting careers, a nod to their efforts in the field of full-contact jousting. Moran, Laurie Post, and a third Rose named Sara Frank were knighted at a Renaissance Faire in Nebraska this past September.
“I might cry about this part, because it’s still really, really emotional for me,” said Moran. “We were called up onto the dais by Queen Elizabeth — a woman playing Elizabeth I — and we were knighted. Obviously it’s not an official real world knighting … It’s just a mark [that] you’ve put in the time, you’ve put in the practice, the blood, sweat, and tears, usually literally.”
The Roses treat their status as knights with gravity; it infuses their lives, even beyond the list. “I am a knight,” said Wellenstein. “I am officially knighted not just in jousting … but also in everything I do and the way I raised my children. It’s really in a knighthood [way], with chivalry and honor and courtesy to others.”
Wellenstein, who hails from Germany, is a behavioral psychologist. She works with abused children, often providing counsel to young victims before they testify against predators. “[I] actually go in full armor … and protect them,” she said. “So being a knight is not just jousting for me.”
Since undergoing a double mastectomy in 2013, Wellenstein has cut back on full-contact jousting, opting instead to conduct seminars for newcomers to the sport. But before the Roses compete at events, Wellenstein dons a suit of armor and rides on horseback in front of the crowds, sharing the story of her difficult fight against breast cancer. “It was really the worst pain I ever went through,” she said. “I’m nobody special, but I survived … [My message is that] if you have battles to fight, don’t give up. Be a knight in shining armor and take credit for all the stuff you do.”
By laying bare her experience with adversity and triumph, Wellenstein hopes to act as a “strong female role model” for women watching the joust. And the Roses may very well be at the frontier of a larger shift among female devotees of centuries past. At Renaissance Faires, Post said, women no longer confine themselves to costuming as wenches, or maidens, or peasant girls. “There’s been this huge movement of women realizing how strong we are, and they’ll come out dressed in armor whether they know how to use it or not,” she explained. “Because we have warrior hearts too.”