The medieval tournament was a forum for European knights where they could practise and show off their military skills in activities such as jousting or the mêlée, indulge in a bit of pageantry, display their chivalrous qualities and win both riches and glory. From the 10th to 16th century CE tournaments were the principal expression of aristocratic ideals such as chivalry and noble lineage where family arms and honour were put on the line, ladies were wooed and even national pride was at stake.
Warriors have staged practice fights ever since antiquity but the medieval tournament probably developed from the cavalry riders of the Franks in the 9th century CE, who famously practised charging each other and performing manoeuvres of great skill. The organised meetings of knights in order to practice specific military skills and engage in mock cavalry battles took two principal forms:
- The tournament - a battle between two groups of mounted knights. Often called a mêlée, hastilude, tourney or tournoi.
- The joust - a one on one duel between mounted knights using wooden lances.
Over time the two expressions have become synonymous for any gathering of knights for the purposes of sport and display of pageantry and may refer to a part of, or the whole of, such an organised meeting.
The origin of the word tournament, just like that of the event itself, is obscure. The original purpose of knight gatherings was probably to practice horsemanship as riders in battle were expected to turn their steeds dramatically, or par tour in French, which may be the origin of the term tourney or tournament. Another possible origin of the name is the early convention that groups of knights would circle each other, or 'turn around', before engaging.
When exactly tournaments began is not known but their first mention in the historical record appears in a chronicle from the abbey of Saint Martin in Tours, France. Under the entry for 1066 CE there is a reference to the death of one Godfrey de Preuilly, killed in a tournament for which he rather ironically made up the rules himself. Many of the early references to tournaments suggest that they began in France. The 13th century CE chronicler Mathew Paris, for example, describes the events as Conflictus Gallicus ('the Gallic - i.e. French - way of fighting') and batailles francaises ('French battles'). French knights were also famous for their great skill in battle during this period which suggests they had practised hard beforehand. However, there are records of tournaments in Germany and Flanders in the first quarter of the 12th century CE, too. Perhaps introduced into England in the mid-12th century CE, and spreading into Italy at the same time, European tournaments really became popular and more spectacular events from the second half of the 12th century CE.
Organisation & Development
That tournaments started out as preparation for real warfare is evidenced in the early use of exactly the same weapons and armour that were used on the actual battlefield. An indicator of the realistic dangers they presented is the presence across the ‘battle’ site of fenced-off enclosures for knights to retreat to and recuperate. These areas are the original lists, a term which was subsequently used to refer to the entire enclosure of the more festive tournaments of later centuries.
The two groups of knights, numbering up to 200 on each side at some events, wore full armour, carried lances, swords and shields and were organised based on geographic origins; it became common for Normans and English knights to face off against a body of French knights, for example. There were marshals to ensure no foul play but as the field of conflict was usually a large one, perhaps the entire space between two villages, it is not surprising that serious wounds and fatalities were not uncommon. There were not many rules to impose, in fact, and it was not considered unfair for a group of knights to attack a single opponent or attack a knight who had lost his horse.
While honour and glory were strong motivators there was, too, the prospect of financial gain. Knights aimed to steal weapons, armour and anything else valuable that their opponent was carrying or even to capture them and demand a ransom which could be decided upon before the start. There was also a cash prize for the winning team at the end of the day’s battle.
Over time the tournaments became more sophisticated and more challenging with the use of mock fortresses to be stormed, for example. Foot soldiers were employed to boost a side’s chance of winning and a greater range of weapons, among which the crossbow, was used. Rulers became wary of the events as they might (and sometimes did) spill over into rebellion once a group of knights had got themselves riled up. Consequently, Richard I of England (1189-1199 CE) only permitted their organisation under license and made knights pay an entrance fee while in Germany the emperors only permitted royal persons to participate; such was the prestige which had become attached to tournaments. Philip II of France (r. 1180-1223 CE), in contrast, forbade his son from participating in tournaments because of the dangers involved.
Indeed, the unnecessary deaths which became all too common were one reason why the church consistently disapproved of tournaments in many countries and warned combatants that hell was awaiting them should they be killed therein. The Popes banned tournaments during the 12th century CE and declared that the event was outrageous as it involved all seven deadly sins. Many knights blithely ignored the church’s stance, though, and there was even a tournament in London where seven cheeky knights entered a competition with each dressed up to resemble one of the sins.
Some tournaments did develop into real battles when retainers and spectators all joined in, which was especially likely in the case of ‘revenge’ matches between national groups of knights. There was even a risk from the weather: 80 German knights infamously expired from heat exhaustion in a tournament in 1241 CE. More rules were introduced by the late 13th century CE and anyone breaking them had their armour and horse confiscated or even faced imprisonment. Spectators too were obliged to leave all weapons and armour at home. To reduce fatalities, weapons were adapted such as the fitting of a three-pointed head to the lance in order to reduce the impact and swords were blunted (rebated). Such weapons became known as ‘arms of courtesy’ or à plaisance.
Heraldry, Honour & Pageantry
By the 14th century CE, the tournament had become more a spectacle of pageantry and noble lineage rather than real fighting. Especially important for social display was the magnificent first-day procession which went through the area so that knights could impress the locals with their pomp and finery. There was still some danger, of course, when knights charged at each other with long wooden lances, even if their ends were blunted. The size of the field was reduced and the greater safety meant lighter and more flamboyant armour, helmet crests and shields could be used. Skill and honour became the order of the day and so tournaments were a handy way for rulers to bolster their armies, too. As the event became more lavish, the costs rocketed and only the richest knights could afford to host them and participate.
In addition to the financial barrier, knights now had to prove their lineage as the whole event became an exercise in aristocratic display with heralds both proclaiming and carrying the contestant’s heritage on banners and their coats of arms. Knights bore their coat of arms on their shield and the covering of their horse which were important identifiers to the crowd. Arms were displayed where the knights slept and on a special tree at the site of the tournament where all the competitor’s arms were hung. Finally, some knights could be excluded from a tournament if they had a disreputable reputation. This may be why some knights preferred to compete anonymously.
Tournaments, then, became the best opportunity for a knight to publicly display those qualities any good knight was expected to possess:
- martial prowess (prouesse)
- courtesy (courtoisie)
- good breeding (franchise)
- noble manners (debonnaireté)
- generosity (largesse)
In addition, and given the importance of chivalry, those who had, amongst other misdemeanours, slandered a woman, been found guilty of murder or who had been excommunicated were banned.
By now tournaments were great social events spread over several days, and they were often held to celebrate such important occasions as coronations and royal weddings or at annual gatherings of specific knight orders. Spectators set up tents around the designated fighting area, the lists, which was spread with straw or sand. There were stands for spectators, pavilions and balconies for the richest onlookers, stalls with refreshments, sellers of horses and fine clothes, intermission performances of drama with musicians and acrobats, pageants, and several banquets over the course of the event.
Ladies attended and often sponsored the tournaments which, along with the boom in romantic literature of the period, added some romance to the occasion and increased the desire for everyone to be as chivalrous as possible. Ladies might give certain token articles to specific knights they favoured such as a veil which was then tied around the receiver’s lance. Costume, too, became an important element with some knights dressing themselves up as such legendary figures as King Arthur, as traditional enemies like the Saracens, as monks or even court ladies. This was especially so at the event known as the Round Table where knights each pretended to be a character from the Arthur legends.
As tournaments became more select and honour and display came to the fore, so the joust rose in prominence. Perhaps originating from the Latin juxtare (‘to meet’), this one-on-one battle between lance-bearing knights within a confined space offered more possibilities to impress the audience - or even a specific lady therein - than the wild scramble over several fields of the original tournament format. The mêlée event did, though, remain a part of the overall tournament event. There were also unofficial competitions held by those knights unable to afford the now expensive tournaments proper. These were often called a ‘challenge to arms’ and involved a knight or small group of knights issuing an open challenge to all-comers (especially foreigners) with the contest occurring whenever the challenge was taken up.
At a joust a knight set his horse at a gallop and aimed his lance at the shield or throat of his opponent. From the early 15th century CE the two knights were sometimes separated by a wooden barrier (tilt) running the length of the field which ensured they did not collide head-on. A direct hit on the chest or throat usually unseated the knight. Squires provided their master with a replacement lance if it were broken; three weapons seem to have been the norm. Lances became hollow so that they shattered more easily and were less likely to seriously injure. Indeed, complex rules developed where points were given for the number of shattered lances or hits on particular parts of the body like the visor. Mechanical shields were even developed which shattered when struck, thus clearly indicating to the crowd who had hit who first.
Swords were generally not used while still on horseback but if one knight was dismounted then the other would also leave his horse and the two could proceed in hand-to-hand combat if they wished. Maces might be employed rather than swords. Armour became specialised with sections likely to be hit (the chest and right side of the helmet) being reinforced with an extra metal plate, a heavy steel gauntlet (manifer) for the lance hand, a grill for the helmet visor and a saddle with protrusions to better protect the legs. If a knight wished to concede at any time then he removed his helmet.
The victor of a joust won prizes such as a gold crown, a jewel, a horse or a falcon while less commercial recompense took the form of a certain lady’s kiss or garter. The biggest prize, though, and the reason why many knights devoted a career to tournaments, was the ransom from the loser. Expected to pay a fee and donate his horse, weapons and armour, the loser was permitted to leave the field only when he gave his word or parole that he would pay up as soon as possible. One of the most successful knights at tournaments was Sir William Marshal (1146-1219 CE), whose exploits led his contemporary Archbishop of Canterbury to declare him the greatest knight that had ever lived. Sir William was the subject of a 19,000 line poem L’Histoire du Guillaume Maréchal which recounts his impressive rags to riches story and undefeated record in jousts.
Just as tournaments had originally been practice sessions for war, so knights began to practice for the tournaments. A common device to hone one’s lancing skills was the quintain - a rotating arm with a shield at one end and a weight at the other. A knight had to hit the shield and keep riding on to avoid being hit in the back by the weight as it swung around. Another device was a suspended ring which the knight had to catch and remove with the tip of his lance. Inexperienced knights often had their own jousting events held on the eve of a tournament proper. Such practice sessions and preparation events remained necessary both to win jousting events and survive them for it remained a dangerous sport for the unskilled despite the safety precautions.
In the 16th century CE fighting on foot, sometimes with the opponents separated by a low fence, became more common, as did other sporting challenges such as archery and the expensive pageantry and inherent danger of jousting brought about its slow decline. Then, when Henry II (r. 1519-1559 CE), the king of France, was killed in a joust in 1559 CE after a splinter from a shattered lance entered his visor, the tournaments lost much of their wider popularity. Tournaments continued in one form or another in some countries well into the 18th century CE and there were one-off revival tournaments in the 19th century CE but the age of chivalry and knights was by then a distant memory as firearms became the staple weapon of war.