By Danièle Cybulskie
To think of the word “medieval” is, for many people, to think of tournaments. Tournaments were a uniquely medieval phenomenon that were part-military training, part-sport, and of a character all their own. Full of colour, pageantry, and action, the tournament was a marked part of medieval society for centuries.
According to the romance Perceforest, Alexander the Great came up with the idea of tournaments from watching swordfish joust at each other as he was dragged under the sea behind a boat in a glass barrel (p.40). Sadly, that is not actually where tournaments stemmed from, although that would have been amazing.
In his book Tournament, David Crouch suggests that tournaments came out of peace bargaining in northern Europe around the first half of the eleventh century. He suggests that this early work to promote peace between squabbling aristocratic landowners may be the reason that tournaments were traditionally held on borderlands. I suspect that this may also be because tournaments used a huge amount of resources, and anything to spread the burden of the expense around would likely have been a good option. Tournaments were also something to distract sons who weren’t likely to inherit, “aristocratic vagabonds” who might easily cause trouble at home. At least on the tournament circuit, they were causing trouble elsewhere.
Of course, tournaments did not begin as the individual jousting competitions that we – and Alexander the Great – may be more familiar with. In the beginning, the main feature of the tournament was the grand mêlée, a massive team-against-team battle. To begin, knights on horseback would line up in single lines facing each other and charge, hoping to unseat their opponents (multiple lines would have led to people getting trampled on the first charge, as Crouch notes). After that, knights would turn around (“tournament” has its origins in the French for “to turn”) and try to unseat more people.
Finally, the fight would end up on the ground, where knights would fight to capture other knights and nobles to hold them for ransom. As Crouch says, there was even a special holding pen for captured knights, who were honour-bound to stay there. Dishonourable knights might sneak away to fight some more. Captured knights usually forfeited their horses, although captors might ask for money, too.
Grand mêlée tournaments generally lasted for only one day, although the rise of fictional super-knights, like those in Arthurian romances, who could fight for days, as well as the increasing popularity of the joust, encouraged longer and longer tournaments, which culminated in the grand mêlée on the last day for obvious reasons (a.k.a. many, many injuries). Rules increased in order to make tournaments safer for the knights involved, including blunting the weapons and placing more emphasis on the individual joust. Crouch pins the end-date on the grand mêlée tournament as the 1340s, which makes sense because The Black Death in the late 1340s would have decimated the warriors who would have participated. From then on, the joust was king.
Early individual jousting was about unseating one’s opponent, and did not begin with a barrier between jousters. As Christopher Gravett says in Knight: Noble Warrior of England 1200-1600, “accidental collisions” – or deliberate collisions – and knee damage from getting too close were a real danger. As barriers began to be a part of the joust around 1400, the likelihood of lances shattering increased, and that became one of the goals of the game. Gravett notes that this kind of jousting “did not help increase skill for war”, which emphasizes the tournament’s new place as a sporting activity, and (probably not coincidentally) coincides with the rise of gunpowder which was already changing the face of European warfare.
Tournaments were more than just war games: they were spectacles in which everyone got involved, from the farmers whose fields got flattened by tents, to the tournaments fans who stood and watched, to the merchants who fed the masses, to the ladies who provided favours, like their sleeves. Noble ladies also got involved by donating prizes, which, as Crouch says, were “generally either live animals or expensively made and gilded representations of animals”, and they sat in the stands to watch the action. Even the clergy got in on the action by condemning Christians for fighting each other and sometimes dying needlessly, or by performing masses the morning the tournament began.
Like so many other medievalists I know, I love A Knight’s Tale– yep, the movie – because it captures the fun and the spirit of tournaments, even with all of its (acknowledged) anachronisms. Tournaments were a fun, fierce, competitive tradition, complex in their rules and their evolution. To learn everything you wanted to know about tournaments, check out David Crouch’s book, and for a piece of the action, a quick Internet search will help you find a joust near you.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Jousting scene from Ms.Thott.290.2º is a fencing manual written in 1459 by Hans Talhoffer for his own personal reference and illustrated by Michel Rotwyler.