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Things to do in the Languedoc:   Water sports:   Sea Jousting (French: Joutes Nautiques)

These jousts take place in the summer - mainly in August - along the Mediterranean coast of the Languedoc. They are exactly what the name suggests, medieval style jousts, but with the jousters mounted on board boats. They attract large crowds of supporters and spectators.

Such jousts take place elsewhere in France, but the Languedoc is the undoubted centre of the sport. Conventions vary from place to place, so the following description is specifically for the "methode Languedocienne".

Two substantial wooden boats (barques lourdes) are rowed towards each other by eight or ten oarsmen. They pass each other on the left, much like horses in conventional land jousts.

One jouster on each boat stands on a special raised platform (la tintaine) at the stern of the boat about three metres (10 feet) above the surface of the water.

In addition to the jouster and the rowers, the crew consists of a helmsman (timonier patron) and two musicians, one playing a kind of drum (tambour) and the other a kind of oboe (hautbois). Also on board, under the tintaine, are jousters who will take part in the next joust.


The boats themselves are painted red and blue and fly red and blue chequered flags respectively.

To add to the carnival atmosphere the crews sing ancient jousting songs, accompanied by their onboard bands as the boats speed towards each other. As well as the two musicians on board, an on-shore band plays along with events.

Jousters carry a shield (a bouclier, technically a "pavois") 70 cm high and 40 cm wide, and a lance now 2.8 metres long (before 1920 it was 3 metres long). They are obliged to wear pure white costumes and white shoes.

A direct hit will propel the unlucky jouster up into air before he falls into the water. The winner is the one (if there is one) remaining on the tintaine after the other has been hoist into the elements.

This methode Languedocienne is practised in eight towns in the Hérault département, (Béziers , Agde, Marseillan, Mèze, Balaruc, Frontignan, Sète, and Palavas) and in one town in the Gard département (Le Grau-du-Roi). Sète boasts no fewer than six fraternities (Societies) and a jousting school. Mèze and Agde have two Societies each, the others one each, making a total of 16 in all.

The most prestigious event is the jousting tournament de la Saint-Louis held at Sète each 25 August, since 1743. There is now also a French Championship held since 1941 and a French Cup (Coupe de France) held since 1962, with four categories of age and weight (heavy and medium, Seniors and Juniors). There is also a league championship between the 16 Languedoc Societies.

Don't expect much appreciation here of other forms of the sport elsewhere in France, especially the Heath and Safety conscious softies who use extra safe lances, or those neighbouring Provençales who employ motorboats.

In case you might think that these events have been created as tourist spectacles, you might be interested to learn that such jousts have been carried out since ancient times. Many tournaments have been documented since the fifteenth century - for example joutes nautiques were laid on for Napolean on 26th July 1808. The jousting took place on the River Garonne at Toulouse to celebrate his visit to the city. Before the fifteenth century, documentation is more patchy. In 1270 as Louis IX (now Saint Louis) left for his abortive Crusade to Egypt, sea-jousts took place at Aigues Mortes.

A tournament was recorded in Lyon on 2 June 1177. Sea Jousts were known all around the Mediterranean coast, apparently promoted by the Romans (who also liked jousts in their water-filled amphitheatres). An account survives of such an event held at Strasbourg in AD 303, in honour of the great Emperor Diocletian. Before that the Greeks had been fans of the sport - probably introducing it to Massalia (modern Marseilles), and before them the Egyptians were practitioners. Bas reliefs from Egypt (III to VI dynasties, 2780 to 2380 BC) show nautical jousts, possibly representing a genuine form of warfare, which look only marginally more dangerous than the methode Languedocienne.

For more information (in French) about Joutes Nautiques in the Languedoc and elsewhere in France, see:

Joutes Languedociennes
Le site du Pavois d'or (Société de Jouteurs Sétoise)
Fédération Française de Joutes et de Sauvetage Nautique

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