By Steven Muhlberger
Many of the deeds of arms popular in the Middle Ages began as simple activities that allowed knights to practice military skills, or demonstrate their prowess or gain prizes such as the horses or armor that defeated opponents had surrendered. But as time went on these deeds became larger and more spectacular events which were sponsored by and participated in by rich and important members of the aristocracy, and presented to audiences likewise made up of the elite. The tournaments and jousts of later times were often international gatherings where diplomacy, dramatic re-enactments and fighting all came together. Here we will look at some remarkable examples of these deeds of arms.
Ulrich von Liechtenstein, a pioneer of role-playing
I am sure that many readers are familiar with Ulrich von Liechtenstein, the hero of the movie A Knight’s Tale. How many know that Ulrich was a real person who, like the movie Ulrich, was a jousting enthusiast? He was a pioneer whose jousting tours combined role-playing with extraordinary prowess in the saddle.
The historical Ulrich was a man of considerable importance who at two points in his life decided to show his jousting skill by riding across Germany and Italy, challenging all who would come against him. He was accompanied by many other knights who also sought out Ulrich. The distinctive characteristic of these competitions was that Ulrich fought in costume. Ulrich, his companions, and his audience were influenced by the immensely popular Arthurian literature of the time. In 1227 he dressed as Frau (Lady) Venus; in 1240 he played King Arthur. These jousts sound like a lot of fun, although they certainly included a great deal of jousting, too.
The tournament of Hem (1278)
If Ulrich‘s expeditions were impressive, the 13th century also saw bigger and better Arthurian-themed productions. These were called Round Tables and involved in many cases stories more elaborate than Ulrich’s already impressive production. In 1278 at Hem a crowd of tourneyers were treated to an Arthurian joust and musical performances by the main parts played by the sponsors and their relatives, the latter including the prominent Count Robert of Artois. It was an event by and for the regional nobility, their friends and retainers. All the elements came together to define nobility; people who took part in these 13th century Round Tables were perhaps as interested in gaining cultural prestige in real warfare.
Jousting emerges as a sports competition: St. Inglevert (1390)
If the 13th century featured dramatic variations on the tournament, the 14th century was devoted to jousting, which allowed individuals to show their stuff. During the early years of the Hundred Years’ War warriors took the opportunity of truces to promote their reputations.
Following one truce between England and France, three chamberlains of King Charles VI convinced their young, belligerent monarch to allow them to run a great joust which would demonstrate the superiority of French arms. The three chamberlains, Boucicaut the Younger, Renaud de Roye, and the Lord de Sempy would take on any challengers. They in fact succeeded in defeating perhaps a hundred foreigners over the course of a month. The French court, which helped organize and finance the deed was happy with the result which included French and English cooperation in a crusading expedition against Tunis.
A spectacular pas d’armes: The Pass of Honour of Suero de Quinones (1434)
In the 15th and 16th centuries more and more jousts were staged. An example of the spectacular deeds were the deeds organized by Suero de Quinones, a prominent Castilian knight who took it upon himself to sponsor an elaborate joust. The participants used equipment and armor designed for what was becoming a separate sport. Suero wrote the rules and put his personal stamp on the event by arranging a separate competition for himself and a jousting partner, who fought each other according to special rules. He did this without consulting the judges he had hired, which resulted in a prolonged argument about whether these rules could be used. In what must have been the talk of the town, the judges insisted on their authority and Suero was expelled. Finally, Suero sent out his band to play in his support. The judges were not amused and threatened to imprison the musicians. After some more negotiations Suero backed off.
A grand gathering of Christian princes and Crusaders: Lille (1454)
From the earliest days of tourneying and jousting, these deeds were as important as venues for knights to meet friends and strangers as for other purposes. Jousts and tournaments became associated with higher nobility and the sites of diplomacy at the highest level. One of the most famous examples of this kind of meeting was the Feast of the Pheasant at Lille (1453). It was a gathering of major Christian leaders who were planning a multinational crusade to save Constantinople from the Ottomans. The event was extraordinary, including elements of pageantry that had been used before in lesser forms: noteworthy were the monsters who paraded through the feast hall, including a giant leading an elephant which carried a weeping damsel representing the Holy Church in captivity. There was much more and the pageantry included a pheasant upon which Crusaders swore oaths devoting themselves to the proposed expedition.
Was this a joust? It certainly included a joust featuring Adolf von Cleves as the Swan Knight. What might be worth noting that a joust, a tournament, or a pas d’armes was a standard way of drawing attention to a solemn commitment. It showed how these warrior practices had become almost sacraments.
Steven Muhlberger, before his recent retirement from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include the “Deeds of Arms Series” published by Freelance Academy Press.
Top Image: Ulrich von Liechtenstein depicted in the Codex Manesse