By Ellen Hill
(This article was published in the April-May 2011 edition of Blue Mountains Life magazine)
The crowd sits passively in the grandstand awaiting the start of the St Georges Day Jousting Tournament at the 2010 Ironfest at Lithgow Showground as if it’s a TV show.
Two magnificent steeds canter onto the showground, which has been transformed into a medieval jousting field.
Each is draped in bright colours and clan crests and carries a heavily armoured knight.
The snorting steeds paw the ground, prance and circle impatiently.
The crowd doesn’t even notice.
The knights each raise a clenched gauntleted fist to acknowledge their readiness and the thunder of hooves drowns out the murmuring in the stand.
They charge towards each other at full tilt, lances clasped tightly to their sides.
At the last moment, just as it seems too late, the lances are raised and aimed.
There is a bone breaking crunch and the tip of a lance shatters on a shield.
The shield has deflected some of the shock, yet the impact from a good hit is like being smacked with a sledgehammer.
Still the crowd merely quietly rumbles.
The knights return to their opposite ends, give the signal and once more bear down on each other at about 30km/h.
Sir Luke cops a whack in the throat.
The throng goes quiet and hundreds of eyes gawk as he coughs and gags inside the full crown to neck helmet.
The spectators begin to think this isn’t just a carefully choreographed show of two blokes playing with sticks.
It can’t be.
Horses are notoriously skittish and unpredictable.
The adrenalin and excitement kick in as soon as they hear the crowd and feel the weight on their backs.
They paw the ground, nostrils flaring, harrumphing impatiently, reared up on hind legs without notice and sometimes career off in unexpected directions.
The original aim of the joust was to push your opponent of his charging steed.
Because of the weight of the armour, the fall alone would probably have pulped his flesh, shattered his bones and ended up crushing his vital organs.
Death isn’t encouraged these days and jousting is classified as a sport rather than a chance to bump off your foe, but it’s still a seriously dangerous pastime.
While pipes are used in English jousts today, the wooden lances (spear-like weapons) used at Ironfest are 9ft long with steel coronals (the crown-shaped tip).
As in medieval times, jousting armour is heavy duty stuff – literally, and visibility is limited inside the iron helmets.
The narrowness of the slit helps protects the knight’s eyes from splinters if a lance breaks, which they do at an alarming rate.
Meanwhile, Sir Luke and the English Sir Toby have tied.
Their pre-arranged joust agreement allows a deciding round.
The crowd takes notice now.
This is just as good as the footy.
With a crack of balsa crashing into balsa and a shower of splinters, Aussie Sir Luke Binks wins the tournament.
But the jousting is but one drawcard to Ironfest.
The annual “arts festival with a metal edge’’ celebrates working and playing with metal, bringing together artists, designer makers, blacksmiths, performers of all kinds, musicians, historical re-enactors, machine enthusiasts and hobbyists from around the world.
What started off as art show to celebrate Lithgow’s industrial heritage is now known more for its living history re-enactments and characters.
And let’s be honest, what better way to attract a crowd than the aroma of gun powder, the dull clang of iron and the possibility of spilled blood?
That, and mingling with characters from a long gone past.
But who are these people who dress up in period costume on the weekend pretending to be knights and aristocrats, peasants and crusaders? And what’s the attraction?
Nic Grguric, an archaeology student from Adelaide and a member of the German-themed Black Brunswicker’s Group, says historic re-enactment is an escape.
By day, Sarah Hay works for the Education Department and is a world-class archer. In her spare time, she is Queen Sara the barbarian archer dressed as a fearsome Gothic Amazonian woman in full tribal makeup and headdress atop her freisian horse Fenke.
“It’s in no way historical, but it works,’’ she says.
Photographer Martin Bonnici from Melbourne is known as Squire Bonnici from the invitation-only group Enterprise of the Black Garter when kitted out in full medieval garb.
He has practiced 14th century chivalric martial arts since 2005.
For a typical fight, the 183cm (6ft) tall beefy Bonnici wears a layered outfit weighing about 35kg.
“It’s good fun, crazy,’’ he says.
“It’s a discipline. We are actually dealing with fair dinkum weapons. If you punch someone with a gauntlet it’s different than with a closed fist. This sword can go through a breastplate, so you have to be careful. The prize is the invitation to fight. It’s not just something given to you – you have to earn it.’’
Katoomba’s Michael Lynne is a mural painter and a carpenter by day. He was introduced to a living history group by a neighbour.
“It’s brought out the creative side in my. It’s just like going back to the Middle Ages – all you need is pigs in the street. The battle scenes we do look like you would see in Braveheart.’’
The voice of emcee Friar Craig Batty calling the round robin tournament booms across the ground: “What you are about to see is violent – I can’t sugar-coat it. They don’t wear this equipment because they want it – it’s to keep them alive. We don’t want beheadings – they can be messy, but we will have some disembowellings and hanging…’’
Saxon warrior maiden Lady Elizabeth enters the ring with a sword and a shield to fight Kirk the Mongol warrior armed with a scimitar (curved sword) and leather shield (lamella).
The fight is not choreographed.
Kirk belts Elizabeth twice on the head with his sword and she goes down. He hulks around the ring waiting for another opponent.
“They are not jumping around like ninjas on the tellie, waving weapons around,’’ the emcee thunders.
“They are using real weapons.’’
After a string of fights there’s just Jake the Kid (literally aged just 6 and weighing just 9kg) and 140gk Kirk in full armour left standing.
No fear, shouts the emcee, Jake is “hyped up on a diet of sugar and TV violence so there’s no accounting for what he might do’’.
Kirk goes down and Jake the Kid is the champion.
Over at the Danelaw Medieval Fighting Society tent, single mum Raeleen LeClaire of Sydney says living history groups are a great family activity centred on a common interest.
“Many people have this Hollywood view of what it’s like, that we all run around in sheepskins, but that’s not the case. Most people involved in these sorts of groups try to be as authentic as time and money allows.’’
Raeleen dresses as a 10th century Viking woman along with daughter Elizabeth, while other daughter Veronica prefers to be a 14th century English woman.
“It’s like dressing up as a superhero.’’
Rosalie Gilbert from Brisbane is Lady Rosamund from E’Slite d’Corps at living history events.
“There are lots of misconceptions about medieval women: that they were very hardly done by, wimpy, pathetic, snivelling little things who needed looking after,’’ she says.
“That’s not so. They were strong and independent.’’
Ironfest 2013 will again feature art exhibitions, stalls, live music, dance, street performance, blacksmithing demonstrations, workshops, busking competitions, automotive displays, educational and historical and technological displays.
Also on the program will be popular historical re-enactments, the St Georges Day Jousting and the annual Battle of Lithgow by the Australian Napoleonic Association featuring infantry.
This year [sic 2011], Ironfest will feature the theme Steampunk, a sub-genre of science fiction, alternate history and speculative fiction popular during the 1980s and the early 1990s. It involves an era or world where steam power is still widely used, usually the 19th century and often Victorian era Britain, which incorporates prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy.
Iron Guard member Mitch Luke says living history events like Ironfest are something the whole family could get involved in.
“It’s about food and friendship, as well as history. Living the lifestyle gives you a great insight into what our forefathers had to put up with.’’
* The 2013 Ironfest will be held at Lithgow Showground on April 20-21 using the theme Time Travel. Details: http://www.ironfest.net.