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Come One! Come All! Medieval Tournament Announcements

By Danièle Cybulskie

Tournaments were the big-ticket events in the Middle Ages, attracting people from all walks of life to witness great spectacles of sport and entertainment. But how did tournament organizers spread the word? For an illiterate population, it wasn’t practical to post notices or hand out flyers (not to mention the fact that that may have been pretty unkind to sheep). Instead, organizers depended on the medieval radio: the town crier.

A scene from a tournament, part of King René of Anjou’s Tournament Book, created during the 15th century.

Steven Muhlberger’s great book Royal Jousts at the End of the Fourteenth Century contains a surviving public announcement or “cry” for a tournament that was held in Smithfield in 1390. The cry is addressed to “lords, knights, and squires” and calls them to meet “come Sunday, the ninth day of October next into the new Abbey near the Tower of London” to start the parade of knights and ladies that would open the tournament.

The parade was to march to Smithfield, which is at the other end of London, and feature knights and ladies “all dressed in one color” to match one knight whose shield featured King Richard II’s personal emblem: “a white hart having a crown around its neck with a hanging chain of gold”. Upon arrival at Smithfield, the party would get started.

The next day, the tournament was to begin. The cry is very specific in what is to be expected at the tournament in terms of rules. In addition to the knightly team in the parade, “all manner of knights who wish to come and joust” are to be suited up and ready to go in the field “before the hour of High Prime”, or first thing in the morning. Everyone was to use six lances, which would all be pre-measured “so that they are the same length” in order to prevent any unfair advantage. Each lance also had to “be fitted with appropriate coronels” – that’s the part that goes on tip of the lance – for safety’s sake. (You can see the damage a nasty coronel can inflict in A Knight’s Tale). Finally, the crier says, “the shields of the said knights will be covered neither with iron nor steel”.

At this time in the Middle Ages, tournaments had evolved to the point at which they were meant to be relatively safe places to compete, not the tournaments of old which were much looser. Too many royals and nobles had lost their lives in tournaments over the years, so the rules had become quite strict.

The rules for the Smithfield tournament were laid out in no uncertain terms, and were to be adhered to or else. If a knight was caught jousting with a lance that was too long, he was effectively disqualified (he could not win “any manner of prize or degree”, and knights without the proper coronels would “lose their horse and their harness”. No cheating allowed.

Preparations for a tournament – British Library MS Additional 12228 f. 150

On Wednesday, after two days in which everyone had competed at least once, the six-lance rule was to be thrown out, and the parade knights and sixteen squires were to take on all comers with “as many lances as seem good to them”. This was to be the last day of the tournament, and its grueling schedule of joust after joust would have shown the crowd just who was the best of the best.

In order to hook more knights, the crier’s announcement also included the prizes to be won. These were divided into two categories of winners: those “within” and those “without”. In his notes, Muhlberger describes these categories roughly as the “home team” (within) and the “visitors” (without). The knight within who won the six-lance part of the tournament was to win “a white greyhound with a collar of gold around its neck”, perhaps as a reference to Richard II’s white hart. The knight without was to win “a horn garnished with gold”.

In the Wednesday free-for-all, the knight within was to win “a golden belt” and the knight without “a circlet of gold”. In the (Wednesday) competition of squires, the prizes were “a noble courser, saddled and bridled”, for the winner within, and “a fine chaplet well worked with silk” for the winner without. All prizes were to be awarded by beautiful ladies, a tradition that continues to this day.

The ladies, themselves, were part of their own competition over the course of the tournament, which also included prizes. Instead of being a competition solely based on skill, this was more of a “Miss Congeniality” award, given to “the lady or damsel who dances best or leads the most joyful life”. The winner was to receive “a golden brooch”, while the runner-up received “a ring of gold with a diamond”, to be presented to the women by knights.

To wrap up the Smithfield announcement, the crier decrees that anyone who wants to come for the tournament “will have safe conduct”, guaranteed by King Richard II, for “twenty days before the festival and twenty days afterward”.

Tournament scene – British Library MS Royal 14 E III f. 3

This is an important detail, because a foreign knight kitted out for a tournament looks a lot like a foreign knight ready to wage war.

This final part of the decree ensures that no one will be mistaken as hostile when they come for sport, something that the knights coming from across the sea needed to hear, especially during The Hundred Years’ War.

By this point in the tournament tradition, medieval people knew just what to throw in to an announcement to be broadcast by the town crier: the where and the when; the rules and the penalties; the appearance of noble knights and beautiful ladies; and the tantalizing prizes. This was the most effective way to ensure that the tournament was well-advertised and well-attended, and saved scribes the effort of writing many copies of the announcement. For two more great tournament invitations, and the details on how the Smithfield tournament turned out, check out Steven Muhlberger’s Royal Jousts at the End of the Fourteenth Century.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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