Water Jousting in Séte – France’s Medieval Sport Tradition

In the south of France, there is an unusual traditional sport that comes along once a year. Water jousting (joutes nautiqes) is just like horse jousting, but is played between two rival boats that row towards each other. Water jousting is a major event in some French towns, most famously in the port town of Sète. Here, the annual water jousting festival draws thousands of spectators, watching and celebrating along the river with drinks, frites and that gorgeous Provençal sun.

Origins of Water Jousting

It is thought that water jousting originated in the Old Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt almost 3 millennia ago, where it was more a form of brawling than a leisurely sport. Stone carvings show Egyptian fishermen engaging in jousting activities. The sport was noted in Ancient Greece and Rome, eventually coming to France around 570BCE, but records are scarce about the sport during this time.

It wasn’t until around the 13th century that the sport became popular in past records. Records show that crusaders, soon leaving to go to war, would practice their jousting in this way. As a spectator sport, it began to attract the interest of royalty, with Queen Elizabeth I reportedly one of the game’s viewers.

For the people of the town’s and cities surrounding the Saône River, jousting became ingrained in their local culture. In the town of Sète, one of water jousting a biggest town’s, water jousting first took place in 1666, to inaugurate the port’s opening.

Rules of Water Jousting

The rules of water jousting havn’t changed much since those medieval days, and many traditions are still carried on. There are always two teams competing; the blue team composed entirely of bachelors, and the red team made up of married men.

Each boat has a jouster, 10 oarsmen, and a drummer and an oboist to drive the rowing rhythm with medieval tunes. The jouster, like the rest of the crew, wears only white. He wears a rudimentary wooden breastplate, carries a huge 2.8 metre long wooden lance to knock his opponent into the river, and a 70cm high rectangular box- shield called a pavoir with quadrants to catch the opposing lance. He stands 3 metres above water level on a wooden platform at the front of the boat, on a platform called the tintaine.

The two boats charge towards each other, and the jousters level their blunted lances. The jousters aim for a particular quadrant in the pavoir. When they collide, the winner of the one that stays in the tintaine; the loser tumbles into the river. Rowboat teams move out to collect the fallen jouster, playing in mock fighting before picking him up. A jouster only has on chance to stay on the boat; once a jouster falls, he’s out of the contest. Jousting requires not just size and weight, but also precision, timing, and balance in the face of changing conditions.

Training for Water Jousting at a Young Age

Water jousting is a serious business in the towns that practice it, with the role of jouster often passing down from generation to generation. In the Languedoc region of France’s south, there is even a water jousting school. According to the French Ministry of Culture, children can begin learning as young as 8 years old, learning how to balance and aim the lance while being pulled along land on a wooden cart. In the city of l’Estaque, near Marseille, the oldest jousters are 62. While the sport is mostly exclusively for men, women are slowly being integrated into water jousting.

In the main event, competitors compete based on age group, and by weight class. The prize for winning the jousting competition? There’s no prize money – water jousting is done for fun. The winner’s names have the honour of being inscribed on a pavoir, which is on display in the town’s Paul Vallery Art museum.

When is the Water Jousting Festival in Sète?

The festival takes place around the 25th August each year, and lasts for 6 days. The Canal Royal packs full of people during this time, enjoying a Pays d’Oc wine and a tielle of Sète (a local octopus tart).

phare saint louis sete urban sketching view of French lighthouse
The Saint Louis lighthouse in Sète

Other Water Jousting Festivals and Towns

The Saint Louis Festival in Sète has occurred ever year since 1666. The festival runs for 5 days in August, and is one of the town’s major events. The canals of Sète become the scene for socialising, drinking rosé and partying as the jousters compete. There are other notable water jousting festivals in Port town’s along the south of France, including L’Estaque, Cassis, Martigues, La Ciotat, and L’île Sur la Sorgue.

La Pointe Courte

La Pointe Courte is a 1955 French film directed by Agnès Varda. The film takes place in the town of Sète, in a quarter known as the fisherman’s village. The film has a scene of water jousting, in which a young man wins the tournament, and the right to court the daughter of his neighbour.

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Water jousting is a proud tradition in the port town’s of France’s south, a competition that passes on from generation to generation. For town’s like Sète, the water jousting festival is the event of the year, and a great way to discover the culture of the Languedoc-Roussillon region.