Topping Off a Tournament

By Natalie Anderson

It is an oft-repeated and well-established fact that the tournament began as a form of military training. In its earliest incarnations, it was a bloody, violent – often deadly – and loosely structured affair that involved two teams charging across the countryside, replicating battle conditions while pummeling each other in their field armour. Over the centuries, however, the tournament underwent a drastic evolution. By the fifteenth century, the tournament had become a bewitching blend of theatre and martial skill. The desire to emulate authentic warfare had taken a backseat to the skill which could be put on display in the one-on-one joust. And, as the form and function of the tournament evolved, so too did the equipment.

A particularly fascinating study of this may be seen in the crest – possibly my favourite element of tournament gear, and certainly the source of the most amusement. Worn atop the knight’s helmet, most significantly the crest allowed for a three-dimensional decorative element not applicable to the two-dimensional surface of a knight’s shield or caparison (the textile covering for his horse). These objects could be as simple as streamers of fabric or a plume of feathers, or they could be elaborate constructions made of boiled and moulded leather or cloth stretched over a wooden frame.


A good example of just how ornate these crests could be may be found in a 1519 inventory of the armoury of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) in Augsburg. Listed are ‘One black crest of feathers with five silver gilded pomegranates and in the middle a large silver and gilded pomegranate’ (the pomegranate was one of Maximilian’s personal emblems) along with ‘One feathered crest, made (to look) like an eagle with spread wings and a gilded crown and feet’ (undoubtedly made to replicate the Habsburg crest).

Marx Walther sporting a skewer of sausages as his crest.

Yet these fantastic creations were not just for the uppermost ranks of the nobility. One well-respected tournament combatant from the middle ranks of society was wealthy Augsburg merchant Marx Walther. In his Turnierbuch, or ‘tournament book’, Walther is always identifiable by his trademark crest of a skewer of sausages.


One reason for the impressive size of some of these crests was the enduring popularity in German-speaking territories of the Kolbenturnier, or ‘club tournament’. In this competition, the goal was for participants to knock off their opponents’ crests with clubs or blunted swords. As it lacked the prestige of the individual joust, the Kolbenturnier was more popular among the lower ranking members of the court. To illustrate their status, one Turnierbuch image shows men sporting very utilitarian objects as their crests: a wool winder, a plough harness, and a spindle are all featured.

A Kolbenturnier illustrated in Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod.icon 398.

The crest was a place to show off the mundane, the noble, the unusual – the variety which can be found illustrated in various manuscripts is truly astounding. Sometimes the symbolism is obvious, as in the examples found in Maximilian’s 1519 inventory, and sometimes it remains a mystery, such as the crest worn by one Gasper Lamberger, whose stylistic preferences led him to place a basket of kittens atop his head. Joust for fun.

Gasper Lamberger and his basket of kittens.

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Top Image: A crest of clasped hands from the tournament book of Wilhelm IV of Bavaria.