Chretien de Troyes and Arthurian Romance in the Development of the Tournament
By Bradford Samuel
Senior Thesis, University of Tennessee Knoxville, 1995
Introduction: From life-long medievalists and scholars to those who remember from their childhood the magic of the legends of King Arthur, the first image that instinctively appears in our mind upon mention of the middle ages is the knight in shining armor astride a great warhorse. Images of kings, castles, damsels, and dragons are ingrained into western thought, as is the tournament. Or is it?
It is actually the joust, an individual contest between two mounted knights, that joins these other images in our natural reflection upon the middle ages. The word “tournament” has come to be a catch-all term for the various forms of contests that developed from the original event, a team-oriented contest born in the last half of the eleventh century which eerily resembled actual warfare and which we now refer to as the “tournament proper.”
But how did the joust as an event come to replace the tournament proper? The answer and focus of this paper lies in the old saying that life imitates art. The answer, though, like the question, is much more complex than it may at first appear. The relationship between art and life is of a cyclical nature, meaning that it does not stop with art’s imitation of life, but continues with the roles reversed. Artists draw their inspiration from life and present their work in familiar and spectacular representations, both to which the audience responds and often
imitates. This was the relationship between Chretien de Troyes and the medieval nobility.
We shall see in this paper that Chretien’s tournaments are both authentic representations and of his own design, making them familiar to his audience, yet very different from the tournament proper, the event of his era. Whereas the tournament proper was a melee fought amongst two teams for cavalry training and for sport and by the individual for gain, for Chretien’s heroes it was a sport of individual deeds fought for renown, honor, and to demonstrate one’s prowess.
The chivalrous society quickly responded to this notion of individual feats of arms and eventually replaced the melee with contests fought man-to-man. The influence of Arthurian romance on the tournament does not stop here, however. In their imitation of the matter of Britain, the patrons and participants of the tournament even went so far as to appear in costume of Arthurian characters and to incorporate motifs and scenes of Arthurian romance into the tournament.