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Tournament Culture in the Low Countries and England

Tournament Culture in the Low Countries and England

By Mario Damen

Contact and Exchange in Later Medieval Europe. Essays in Honour of Malcolm Vale, edited by Hannah Skoda, Patrick Lantschner and R. L. J. Shaw (Boydell, 2012)

Introduction: In 1279 John I, duke of Brabant, travelled to England to arrange a marriage for his son with Margaret, daughter of King Edward I. According to the chronicler Jan van Heelu the duke deliberately sought out tournaments and chivalric games (tornoy ende feeste) and he was not disappointed. A tournament was arranged, probably at Windsor, with the royal couple as the most important spectators. But when the time came to divide the teams, it emerged that the duke’s conroi was short of a few tourneyers. Then Queen Eleanor of Castile decided that six bannerets, ‘the best of the entire country’, probably with their retinues, should join the duke’s team. However, according to Van Heelu, it was commonly known that one could not beat the duke of Brabant even without equal numbers. After the tournament ‘young and old, both knights and heralds’ spoke of the duke’s performance and his chivalric deeds, all of which increased his honour and prestige and finally produced the marriage alliance to which he aspired. The marriage was concluded in July 1290 and was preceded again by a big tournament, probably a Round Table, this time at Winchester and with the participation of Edward’s prospective son-in-law, the future John II of Brabant, who by then had already been staying at Edward’s court for five years. John I died at a tournament in Bar-le-Duc in 1294, organised on the occasion of the marriage of the duke of Bar with Eleanor, another daughter of Edward I. Numerous English knights must have witnessed the fatal wounding of the duke’s arm during a joust with a French knight.

In England and the Low Countries towards the end of the thirteenth century, a common chivalric culture had emerged which permitted exchanges and mutual participation in tournaments on both sides of the Channel. On the fringes of the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire in particular, the ‘classic’ tournoi came into being. It was a spectacular imitation battle between two teams of hundreds of tourneyers over several square kilometres in the countryside. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, however, the English tournament became a more formalised, ritualised and exclusively aristocratic event. A similar development took place in the Low Countries, but not at the same moment, and indeed, the earlier reciprocity of form between English and Low Countries’ tournaments was replaced by divergence. In his book on medieval courts and culture, Malcolm Vale has already pointed at this tendency towards ‘greater exclusiveness’, especially in the Low Countries. Yet until the advent of the house of Burgundy, which between 1384 and 1430 acquired most of the principalities of the Low Countries, jousts and tournaments had offered the possibility for the noble and urban elites who did not form part of the ducal household, to intermingle with the ruler and his direct surroundings on an informal basis. After the Burgundian takeover, however, this situation changed and there was an ‘increasing sense of separation between Burgundian court society and the urban society in which it lived’.

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