When medieval tournaments go wrong!

By Steven Muhlberger

Medieval jousts and tournaments have been called “mock” battles – conflicts where the risks were less because rules were arranged to keep the level of violence lower than in all-out combat. Knights and men-at-arms took part in these “deeds of arms” not to crush their opponents, but to demonstrate their honour before their fellow warriors on both sides. Likewise, the ladies acted as patrons for the individual competitors and the events as a whole. But these deeds of arms did not always go to plain, and chroniclers sometimes had to mourn the death or serious injury of champions of the lists. When tragedy struck a tournament, the participants and the audience paused to reflect on whether this dangerous game was worth it.

At least some of them did.

What follows is a list of a few noteworthy deeds of arms where an event resulted in unexpected drama.


Tourneyers Wrestle with Popes (1130)

During the Middle Ages, especially the period of the reform papacy (11th –12th century) there were numerous efforts to legislate the proper behavior of Christians.  Clergy and lay people both competed to attain religious respectability. Warriors often thought of themselves as obliged and empowered to fight the enemies of the church.  Knights, so often seen as troublemakers by non-warriors, saw themselves as practiced champions of God. Relations between the clerics and knights were often very uneasy. Popes, bishops and abbots appealed to kings and other warlords when they needed help but deeply distrusted them. The determination of clerics to harness the disorderly energy of “the knighthood” can be seen in Pope Innocent II’s denunciation of typical knightly activities in a church council of 1130:

[They are]…detestable markets and fairs, vulgarly called tournaments, at which knights are wont to assemble, in order to display their strength and their rash boldness.


This same document demanded that men who were killed in tournaments should not be allowed Christian burial.

In 1316 the prohibition was lifted. Had the popes succeeded in imposing clerical standards on Christian warriors?  If we study how clergy felt about warriors and their attitudes toward conflict we see that members of “the order of chivalry” didn’t look very keen on taking orders from the clergy.

The Little Battle of Chalons (1273)

Tournaments pre-dated jousts, and emphasized cavalry tactics. Such combats might escalate in intensity and result in real hostility between the two sides. The “Little Battle of Chalons” which took place in the reign of Edward I of England, was famous for getting out of hand. The “Little Battle” set the king against the Count of Chalons. The two sides included cavalry and infantry, which presumably means that the two teams were practicing battlefield tactics. Edward, out of pride, objected when the count seized him around the neck and tried to take him captive. Quickly the tourney became a no-holds-barred conflict in which warriors on both sides and even spectators were killed.

The Tournament at Chauvency (1285)

Often we have only a brief account of a tournament or a joust. However, in 1285 the poet Jacques Bretel attended a huge celebration at Chauvency near Paris with the intention of describing the wonderful festivities in detail. Bretel was not only interested in the fighting, but in the participation of many nobles male and female who had sponsored the young men in the lists. But he also witnessed crashes and injury and alarm swept the crowd:


Horses and spears smash all together
And they fell in a heap. So
Everyone shouts: “They are dead! They are dead”
Lord God, this is great bad luck!

One herald reacted by scorning the whole sport. He said that the ladies bore a special responsibility for the suffering of the competitors, luring young men into injury and death. The beauty and desire of the jousters were awards that they could not resist.

The Tournament at Neuss (1241)

The violence at Chauvency may have attracted attention in its time, but it was hardly the most shocking massacre we know of. A tournament at Neuss in Germany which took place in hot, dusty, choking conditions resulted in the suffocation of more than 80 knights. Suffocating in one’s armor was not so unusual, if the conditions were bad, but the casualties here must have been daunting for what was supposed to be a competition between friends.


A Joust in a Time of Truce (1381)

If the early tournaments were usually melees, the later deeds of arms were usually jousts – one-on-one conflicts between mounted men wielding lances.  Jousts could be more or less friendly with the jousters defending their own honour or that of their army, their lord, or their families. Like other deeds of arms we have examined, the seriousness of the conflict was up in the air.

In 1381, an English campaign through Normandy ground to a halt. A truce was arranged that allowed English troops to return to designated fortifications. One group of Englishmen ran into a French company at a country inn and they all drank together. As the drinking progressed, one of the Frenchmen, Jean Boucinel, claimed that he and a certain Nicholas Clifford, present in the English company, had arranged a challenge but had been unable to complete it. Clifford said he had no memory of such a challenge and tried to beg off. Boucinel implied that this was simply cowardice, and he browbeat the Englishman into jousting in borrowed armor.

When the joust was run the next morning, Clifford’s lance struck Boucinel in the neck and killed him. How people evaluated this challenge varied. Boucinel’s lord, the Count de la Marche, was crushed by despair. Nicholas Clifford, who was travelling with a small group of friends was clearly worried that Boucinel’s friends would take revenge on him. In the end, the Constable of France used his authority to calm things down. According to Froissart, the Constable insisted that the English should stay and eat dinner with him, thus proving the superior chivalric franchise of the French.

On his arrival to the dinner, the constable said to the English knight:

“In truth, Nicholas, I can very well believe, and I see by your looks, that you are much concerned for the death of Jean Boucinel; but I acquit you of it, for it was no fault of yours, and, as God is my judge, if I had been in the situation you were in, you have done nothing more than I would have done, as it is better to hurt one’s enemy than to be hurt by him. Such is the fate of war.”


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.

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Top Image: Germanisches Nationalmuseum Hs998 fol. 231v