The Reluctant Travel Writer

Medieval Jousting on Gotland

Leonard Lea Frazer
Exploring Gotland and Visby by bicycle is popular during the summer.
Exploring Gotland and Visby by bicycle is popular during the summer.
The ancient harbour in the foreground, now a park, with the walled portion of Visby in the background. The spires of St. Mary’s Cathedral can be seen reaching up to the sky.
The ancient harbour in the foreground, now a park, with the walled portion of Visby in the background. The spires of St. Mary’s Cathedral can be seen reaching up to the sky.

I’m driving up a sliver of a street in Visby, Sweden, navigating by hunch. I know the outer city wall, with its medieval towers, is up there somewhere. A local, on the street in front of me, is waving his arms frantically in the air. Now, he’s shaking his head and directing me back down the hill. Then I realize, “This is a

A knight’s squire standing by with helmet and long lance.
A knight’s squire standing by with helmet and long lance.

no-vehicle zone.” I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but Visby is one of only two Northern European towns in which the original street grid plan has been fully preserved into the present day. I pop my bright red rental car into reverse, glide down the narrow cobbled street and make my exit out of town.

I had just arrived on the Island of Gotland (in the middle of the Baltic Sea) and after picking up my booked Volkswagen Gulf while at the airport, and having a quick taste of Visby, I headed across to the eastern shoreline. I found a campsite at Aminne, halfway between Slite and Gothem.

My travel journal records that, “By then, it was 8:30 PM and too late to pay for a nights camping. I was told at the campground restaurant that I could just camp and pay the 70 Swedish Kroner the next day. A man and his wife, in the tenting area, explained that I could park my car in their area and still pay the tenting rate.

Had supper at the restaurant; Vegetarian pizza for 50 Kr., Voodoo Beer for 25 Kr. and cake and coffee for 21 Kr. A live band, that sounded like the Canadian group the ‘Bare Naked Ladies,’ was playing at the restaurant.

Preparing for the main event at the jousting tournament.
Preparing for the main event at the jousting tournament.

Had a shower (5 Kr.) and went to bed in my little green tent. Swedish campers were still playing mini-golf under the light of a campground street lamp, well after dark.”

The next morning, I headed back to Gotland’s capital city. Visby was once a principle port in the Hanseatic League (of which there were over 100 ports). The name “Visby” comes from the Old Norse language and means “Village of Sacrifices.” However, by the middle 14th Century the town was referred to as Wi, meaning “Holy Place or Place of Worship.” Worship seemed to have been a key occupation for the entire area of Gotland between the 12th and 15th centuries. Today, visitors to the island can enjoy, and have access to, the 94 medieval stone churches that dot the 1,229 square miles of land surface. Some of these churches were built in a Romanesque architectural style (1150 – 1250) and others in a Gothic design (1250 – 1400).

Visby too has its share of houses of worship. Within the enclosed part, one can see the monumental Sankta Maria (St. Mary’s) Cathedral, built in 1225, and also eight smaller Catholic churches in various stages of ruin. They were originally constructed by German Hanseatic merchants and were abandoned during the great plague of the 14th century when Gotland’s population was diminished. The ancient limestone walls of warehouses, shops, museums, and at least 200 red-tile roofed medieval houses, fill the town. Private dwellings of Gotland residents are part of the original architectural mix along with seven modern hotels (all inside the ringed city walls). On my last day on Gotland I treated myself to a night at the Wisby Hotell. Open since 1855 the hotel consists of three gable-houses from the middle ages and a building over a vaulted alley. There was a swimming pool located in the basement designed around a medieval column.

Horse and rider, with Visby’s limestone city wall in the background.
Horse and rider, with Visby’s limestone city wall in the background.

After leaving my vehicle in a car park outside the outer wall I proceeded to explore the town on foot. That week there was a music festival throughout Gotland with various venues spread out over Visby. As I took in the culture and history I was entertained by street musicians along the way. The ever-present rock wall that circles the town looks like a continuous castle fortress with towers and gateways at various intervals. I had the feeling that I was on a movie set for the sequel to “Excalibur” or a Robin Hood adventure. It’s no wonder that, since 1995, Visby has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. It is one of the best preserved hanseatic cities.

At the end of my self-guided tour around Visby I walked to the upper eastern side of town where, much to my delight, I came across five mounted knights riding across an open field just outside the main gate. Each horse and rider had matching colours and insignia; red and black, yellow and black, green and yellow, blue and white and black and red. The knights wore armour and helmets and carried long staves with coloured flags attached. The weather had just turned from sunny to overcast and a strong wind suddenly appeared. The group rode into the wind gripping their long towering staves with the pennants flapping and trailing in the air. I followed the horsemen to a flat designated area where a jousting tournament was about to begin. Crowds of spectators were gathering on all sides of the tournament square.

The dining room at the Wisby Hotell is build inside three gable-houses from the middle ages and also under a vaulted alley.
The dining room at the Wisby Hotell is build inside three gable-houses from the middle ages and also under a vaulted alley.

The tournament was being staged to promote the upcoming “Medieval Week,” which is celebrated every year on Gotland during July. A Market Place in Visby, during that time, consists of some 180 vendors including blacksmiths, glass-blowers, weavers demonstrating yarn dying in huge vats, jesters, musicians, stage entertainers, spontaneous performers and thousands of Swedish folk dressed in period costumes. The week-long Tournament and Market Place draw crowds of 40,000 visitors each summer.

At the demonstration tournament the jousting arena was divided by a wooden fence. The fence provided a wall between the two contestants of each match, who would gallop towards one another, sometimes with long lances. Six less dangerous competitions preceded the Main Event. These warm-up exercises gave all the mounted knights the opportunity to show off their horse riding talents.

The warm-up events, all on horseback, consisted of: 1. Hit the wooden dummy’s shield and don’t get hit by the ball and chain (one rider at a time); 2. Spear and pick up a block on the ground (one rider at a time); 3. Steal the ring from the dummy (one rider at a time); 4. Spear a coloured ribbon suspended from a scaffolding (one rider at a time); 5. Capture the ring – two riders gallop towards each other. There’s a ring suspended in the air above the fence-line on each side of the barrier; 6. Spear three rings in a row, close to the ground (one rider at a time).

A swimming pool, located in the basement of the Wisby Hotell.
A swimming pool, located in the basement of the Wisby Hotell.

During these competitions a Master of Ceremonies, standing by a yellow and black striped tent, announced each knight and introduced the events over a public address system. Beside the MC, three young horn-blowers echoed the applause from the spectators by playing a brief brass jingle. Their song would burst forth after each knight’s attempt at a challenge, much like an organ player at a hockey game.

The Main Event saw the competitors, two at a time, charging at one another on each side of the fence. The rules were simple. Use long lances, aim for the shield of the opposing rider and try to knock him off his horse. Points are awarded for breaking a lance and if no one ends up on the ground, after seven runs, the player with the most points wins the competition.

The knights were all assisted by squires on the ground, whose job was to help their masters prepare for the various competitions by helping them dress in armour, and handing them either short or long lances.

A group of knights from Gotland preparing to enter the tournament arena
A group of knights from Gotland preparing to enter the tournament arena
Two squires set up a wooden dummy during the demonstration tournament.
Two squires set up a wooden dummy during the demonstration tournament.

Jousting was a popular sport for centuries throughout Europe. Geofroi de Purelli was the author of the “Rules of Jousting” during medieval times. He wrote the manuscript in the year 1066. Purelli later died during a joust.

Today, the National Jousting Association has their own set of Rules and Regulations. Jousting has become a popular worldwide sport and, like Medieval Week on Gotland, helps to stimulate learning and study of the Middle Ages.

For travellers to Gotland and Visby, each summer, a variety of accommodations abound. Visitors have camping sites, guest cottages, bed and breakfast homes, and hotels available to them. For more information on Gotland’s annual Medieval Week, visit the website: www.medeltidsveckan.se