The jouster Matthew Mansour hopped over a fence in the Irwindale, Calif., Renaissance Pleasure Faire's jousting arena to be interviewed and said, "Have a seat, my love. I will recline and look magnificent." Now in his forties and sporting a very dark goatee, he'd started off in character, affecting a British accent and telling me his name was Sir Maxximilian, "two Xs, because I'm just a little dirty." After asking whether he should "drop all this facade," he recounted his decades-long career racing toward the business end of a lance. He began at the beginning: It's not a side job.
1. Jousting is a career.
"I'm a jouster. I'm a professional jouster," Mansour said. "It's my full-time occupation, and that's all. I have performed at other venues, and done some acting bits, but I wouldn't — I'm much more of a jouster."
Mansour's interest in jousting has roots in his childhood. "I met a jouster when I was 12 years old, back in 1980, maybe? Would that make me 12? Yeah, that would make me 12. And he was doing the New York fair, and he was an actor, and he started this joust company. I thought it was the coolest thing, and so I started helping him out." Outside the arena, the young Manhattanite had a job getting coffee for the Central Park carriage drivers. He said one of his first riding experiences was getting on a horse headed to its wagon at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. "When I turned 18, I went on the road as a squire and learned my way up from the ground up."
He's been jousting for almost 30 years.
2. Attempting to strike an opponent with a lance while riding a horse at a high speed takes a lot of training.
Staying joust-ready demands constant work. "We try desperately to stay in as best shape as possible. And we ride — everybody gets two full days off, but those days vary depending on what we need to work on. We invent new games and skills every week to keep ourselves on our toes and to keep everything entertaining," he said. "The training, it's nonstop. We're always working, horses are always working, we never let anything — if you go too long without working what you do, you get out of shape, the horses get out of shape, and we can't have that. Everybody's gotta be on the ball."
Learning how to joust in the first place is a long process. Mansour himself quickly rose through the ranks by accident — after a colleague was injured, they gave him a lance and put him in, but he said it took a year of practice before he was a decent jouster. Learning to ride is the first step; then lance training starts on the ground, with no horse and no armor. "That lance needs to become an extension of your mind, so it's a big long finger, and you have to be able to do amazingly delicate things with it," he said.
Later in the day, he would catch a ring flying through the air on his lance as he was riding his horse through the dirt.
3. The armor isn't just for show. Jousters can and do get injured.
Mansour said injuries happen, "rarely."
"The armor works, and we are exceedingly careful. In this type of show, we're kind of a hybrid. We do real jousting, but we're very theatrical. We have no desire to hurt each other whatsoever. But we do want to hit really hard, so we rely on the equipment to do all the job it's supposed to do. The shield would explode, the shield bends, and then the shield ejects, and then the lance breaks, all before we get hurt."
Mansour himself has only had a few injuries in his decades of jousting. "I've broken my arm, and a few concussions. So, pretty good. Once it was just because there was a rock in the arena and I fell on it. It had nothing to do with jousting, per se."
4. A suit of armor can cost more than $10,000.
Basic armor, he said, costs $4,000, while a very nice suit will cost $10,000 or more. They have to be custom-made. "It doesn't, like, stretch," he said.
5. Jousting is a team effort, and if you don't keep your troupe members happy, they might form their own troupe.
Squires and stage managers are an integral part of not only keeping the show running, but keeping the jousting company, Aventail Productions, functional and fun.
"When we're rehearsing during the week, if somebody has an innovative idea, we'll put it in," Mansour said. "Everybody has that shot to create something."
Mansour stressed the importance of keeping the squires — essentially the arena's stagehands — involved and interested, not just doing menial jobs. "All my crew fights," he said. "In the final fight, they'll be in there; sometimes they'll win. It's outrageous. Very rarely do squires get to ride: They all will ride at some point in the show." His goal is to make sure no one wants to split off and start another jousting company — which is just what he did last year.
He and his partner were jousting with another company when they decided to leave. "They didn't want to change, so we did," he said.
6. Just because they're crisscrossing the country 10 months a year doesn't mean they can't meet friends from other acts.
When Mansour was still in character before the interview began, he called out jokingly to a nearby food truck, "Fetch me something to eat!" Five minutes into the interview, a young boy walked over holding a sandwich.
"Are you — did you actually make this for me?" he asked.
"Everybody in that truck did," said the boy. "It's free for you."
"Thank you very much, my friend," he said.
Mansour explained that individual acts contract out to different fairs, and "there's a Renaissance fair almost any given weekend somewhere in the country." His troupe is on the road 10 and a half months out of the year, generally doing larger shows that last six to nine weeks.
7. The Renaissance fair community is like a family — and sometimes, it is literally your family.
As Mansour was explaining how "squire" is an upwardly mobile position, he gestured to a woman in the arena. "Savannah, the girl in the hat, that's my daughter. She's gonna be the mistress of arms for the first time here at this show. She just started doing it in Arizona," the fair they just came from. I asked if the 15-year-old was always on the road with him. "Mhm. Mhm. And that's my son there in the blue," he said, gesturing to a 12-year-old boy in the arena.
"How many kids do you have?" I asked.
"Three," he said. "The other one's working for Ded Bob" — so, rather than work for the jousters, the 12-year-old assists a comedy stage act with a skeleton puppet who tells jokes. It's hard to gauge whether he's the one with the adventurous streak.