The Medieval Tournament

CULTURE | June 25, 2019

French participants take part in a fight against Serbian fellow enthusiasts during the medieval tournament "Battle of the Nations" at the Smederevo fortress, in eastern Serbia, on May 4, 2019. Source: (gettyimages.com)

 Most people’s experience of the medieval tournament goes as far as attendance at a summer Renaissance Faire and watching faux knights duke it out while gnawing on turkey legs and washing it down with overpriced mead. Lots of dosts, thees, and miladies are mandatory. Never mind that turkey is native to North America, and it was impossible for the bird to be a part of a real faire’s fare -- it is still great fun, nay? But the essence of the tournament’s pageantry, chivalry, and enduring popularity make for a curious historical subject.

The two teams stand ready; each side has 24 knights with clubs, each with a banner-bearer (Ms. fr. 2693 56v/57r, King René's Tournament Book). Source: (Wikipedia)

The Tourney

The medieval tournament originated in 11th century France. It was originally a form of training for war and deadly for participants that had evolved from riding exercises by Frankish cavalry riders.

These were war games in which groups of knights fought on horseback. This was known as the tourney or mêlée. Early tournaments were proclaimed over a region. Knights would then gather at the appointed place and be divided into two squads on horseback. Each team typically had twelve to twenty knights though there could be many more. They would then take a position on opposite points of the lists, the battlefield under the command of a leader. Then at a signal, the two sides would charge each other. From the initial clash, some knights would be knocked from their horses. Those still on horseback would then wheel about and reenter the fray. Those on foot would use swords or other weapons. It eventually became a free-for-all. The word for tournament derives from the medieval French word for a turn, indicating the movement of the horsemen. Fighting would continue until a signal was given.

A tournament in progress (René d'Anjou). Source: (Wikipedia)

Prizes were given to winners which could be cash or valuable items. A tournament in 1344 featured a peacock as a prize. Another featured a golden lion. Yet another had a clasp of precious stones. In addition to this, knights who lost a tourney could be captured and ransomed. Since these early bouts had hardly any rules, there was great motivation to win by any means possible. At times, the tourney devolved into a real battle as tempers grew hot. For example, at a tournament held in Neuss near Cologne in 1240, sixty combatants were killed. In 1273 at a tournament in Châlons, France, the Count of Châlons grabbed King Edward I of England by the neck to unseat him. It grew out of control and became known as the Little Battle of Châlons.

The red knight and blue knight face off as they gallop along the tilt during a jousting performance at Sudeley Castle annual jousting event in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. Source: (Photo by Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images)

The Joust

The joust which is often confused with the tourney and is was what popular imagination normally thinks of being the centerpiece of the medieval tournament. The competition consists of two knights charging at each other with lances with the aim to unseat the opponent. If neither knight could unseat the other, other weapons were used such as blunt swords. The joust was more regulated than the mêlée. Lances were aimed at an opponent’s armored body, otherwise, it was considered foul play. The lances were made of soft wood so that they would easily splinter.

Jousts were frequently held with the tourney but often they might hold independently. In fact, it was not unknown for jousts to be held on streets or in open squares. These types of events were often held in the honor of ladies or held by royalty to celebrate a wedding or some other seminal event. They were dangerous, too. In England, the Earl of Salisbury died in a joust and his grandson, Sir William Montague was killed in a joust by his father. In these early jousts and tourneys, the typical armor was chainmail which evolved to the full plate by the 15th century.

A reenactment of the quintain in 2013. Source: (Wikipedia)

The Quintain

Related to jousting was a training exercise called the quintain. In this trial, a knight would aim at a stump, post, or a human figure and try to stay steady in the saddle upon impact. In time, the figures were placed on pivots so that if the knight hit the figure off center (a bad hit) it would spin. Sometimes bags of sand would be used so that when they spun around, they would strike the knight in the back. Putting the lance through a ring was another variation of this game.

Watercolor, probably by Barthélemy d'Eyck, from King René's Tournament Book. Source: (Wikipedia)


The Church condemned tournaments throughout the period stating that tournaments violated each of the seven deadly sins and were a cult of violence. Fair enough. Pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull against them in 1228 threatening excommunication. Church councils refused to bury those knights killed in them in consecrated grounds. Many kings discouraged them because of their deaths.

However, this was duly ignored and at a tournament, in London, some knights dressed up as each of the sins. Which sin won the tournament is unknown, but my guess it was “wrath.” In fact, tournaments became larger and more elaborate.

Source: (Getty Images)


By 1292 it became apparent that some reform of the tournament was needed. A Statue of Arms for Tournaments (Statutum Armorum) declared that swords should be blunted and banned clubs and maces. The change came slowly. By the mid-fourteenth century, crown-shaped heads (coronels) replaced sharp lance points. Special horse harnesses gave more stability and safety. The mixed weapons free-for-all of earlier years had become highly regulated. Kings, instead of barring them, charged license fees to hold them.

Yet historians name the wooden barrier that separated opponents as being the most important innovation although it only started making regular appearances very late in the Middle Ages. The barrier, known as the tilt, was often cloth-covered, allowed for some safety from the collision. Foot fighters would battle across the barrier, too.

Elaborate jousting armor. Source: (Wikimedia)


As time wore on, the tournament became more of a spectacle. It was organized by heralds who recorded the devices worn by participants and keeping score. So popular was the activity that heralds traveled throughout western Europe offering safe conduct to elite knights who wanted to travel to and compete in a prestigious tournament. The mêlées themselves became more elaborate, with faux fortresses and moats. There were fewer knights on the field which meant that they could wear flashy armor with intricate helmet crests.

By the 14th century, it was difficult to participate in a tournament unless you had means and a pedigree. Licenses were required and because of how lavish the events became it was an extremely expensive prospect to host a tournament. Also, especially in continental Europe, many territories only allowed those of noble blood to take part.

Vanquished, 1884. Private Collection. Artist : Leighton, Edmund Blair (1853-1922). Source: (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

 Tournaments gradually waned in popularity. By the late Renaissance, they looked nothing like the original bloodbaths that they were. Today, when you attend a Renaissance Fair, you are looking at the Renaissance version of a joust and in most cases, you wouldn't see a tourney. However, it is notable that jousting has seen a modern renaissance and is practiced as an extreme sport in some quarters.

Mead, anyone?

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.