By Steven Muhlberger
I remember when the mystery of the medieval tournament became clear to me. I was working as a “squire” at a joust in London, Ontario. As a long-time reenactor, I had worn armour and fought in foot combats. Despite my familiarity with re-created medieval combat, I was still puzzled by jousting. Wasn’t it kind of a crazy thing to do – not just for a modern person, but for medieval warriors too? Riding at great speed – indeed, breakneck speed – at another cavalryman and trying to knock him off his horse with a spear? Why do something so dangerous for fun? A close look – a week as a squire – might give me a better understanding of “deeds of arms,” the formal combats of many types so common in the Middle Ages.
Halfway through the first show, it happened. The audience had been watching with some interest as the less experienced jousters took part in spear throwing, “light” jousting, and other riding games. When the audience came back after the half-time break, however, they saw something far more impressive. To great fanfare the experienced jousters, about a dozen of them, rode out and around the arena. Nothing “light” about them! They rode huge, beautiful horses and full plate armour that Henry VIII would have found familiar. They could have ridden out to a nearby battlefield and been ready to fight.
Riders, armour, and horses were so physically impressive that it took your breath away. For a moment. Then the crowd went wild. And I do mean wild. The arena was filled with loud cheers that went on and on and on. This audience was ready for anything. And they got it, too.
Jousting, both now and in the Middle Ages, fascinates. It is an intensely physical experience with a direct connection to the skills of the medieval battlefield. Jousts generate excitement as the participants and spectators anticipate the controlled conflict: the charging horses, the crash of lances on shields and armour, and the resolution.
But there’s more. As we shall see, jousting (and tourneying and foot combats) were tests of the warriors whose duty and profession it was to fight the wars of kings and lords. They were undertaking an extraordinary feat (a “deed of arms”), in hopes of winning renown and being rewarded as a hero. As remarkable as the performance of the modern jousters in London, Ontario was, the medieval equivalent was more so, because the rewards were so much greater. Warriors had a God-given position in the ruling class – if sometimes a subordinate one – because of their military role and the risks and suffering they took upon themselves. If they could demonstrate their worth, they were recognized as men who were dangerous and out of the ordinary.
From warriors to knights
The warriors of AD 1000 enjoyed no hereditary status (the Old English knicht, for instance, meant servant) but had an important and growing role as horsemen (French chevaliers). What distinguished them was possession of good horses and skill in using them: they were, no doubt, the “firstest with the mostest.” In the two centuries following, these horse soldiers slowly transformed into elite warriors. By 1200, knights were no longer just skilled military servants: many were considered noblemen or the next best thing. They were often the younger sons of the military class, lesser castellans, even lords who found no disgrace in calling themselves knights.
Why were these warriors willing, maybe even eager, to adopt the title of horsemen? To be identified as “chivalry” (a word that meant “a group of horsemen”)?
The short answer: horsemanship was still a key military skill, and “chevaliers” valuable, even iconic soldiers. Anyone who could demonstrate “chivalry” was potentially a military asset. Indeed, kings and princes in the twelfth century gained prestige by allowing themselves to be dubbed knights. When Henry II of England, at age 18, wanted to show that he was worthy of the English crown, he had himself knighted by the King of Scots. When it came to educating his own son, King Henry gave the young man into the care of the most skilled horseman of his time, William Marshal. William Marshal progressed from this position as royal tutor to become an earl and, when civil war broke out in England, regent and peacemaker.
These men and many others used the image of a fearsome, bold warrior on horseback to boost their own prestige. The power of that image is revealed by the story of a twelfth-century English woman named Dionisia Hotot, the only medieval woman we know to have fought like a chevalier. According to the family records of the Hotot clan, compiled in the thirteenth century, their ancestor Dionisia “attacked a certain knight, with one blow of her spear bringing him to the ground, and carried off his horse.” Why did she do it? Who knows? But it was a unique “deed of arms,” which added to the fame of her family.
So we see that in Dionisia’s time, and William Marshal’s, “chivalry,” meaning the skills and virtues that were typical of the chevaliers, was increasingly important, whether one was organizing a practical campaign of warfare or projecting an image of power to one’s friends and enemies.
By the mid-twelfth century, it was not just in war that one could prove one’s chivalry, but in large dramatic contests known as “tournaments.” The word “tournament” or “tourney” designated what might be and is often called a “mock battle.” Two or more cavalry troops gathered at a prearranged location, where, wearing their usual equipment, they fought what the French called a “mêlée” (meaning “a confused mass”). These battles must have resembled the still-existing horse sports of buzkashi (Afghanistan) and kok-boru (Central Asia) which can be seen at various locations on the Internet.
It is hard to say whether the early medieval tourneys were battles or games. They used similar, perhaps identical tactics in each activity, and fought for similar benefits – fame and profit. In particular, the knights did their best to capture opponents, their mounts, and their armour, so that they could ransom them back for a profit. This certainly makes tourneys sound somewhat gentler than all-out warfare. We have to remember, however, that war in the Middle Ages, especially wars between neighbors of the same religion, were often moderated by similar considerations.
Deeds of arms
As the twelfth century progressed, a new form of tournament emerged to become an expression of noble identity in courtly culture. “Chivalry” became more than the particular way of life of skilled horse soldiers and became a noble preoccupation. Knights, formerly valued solely for their fighting, suddenly became an important presence in the courts of lords and ladies rich enough to define what was fashionable. And what they said was that love was fashionable. Of course there were plenty of knightly roughnecks, but now there were “courtly” or “courteous” knights who competed for the admiration of ladies and damsels, who returned the attention. A whole new branch of literature, “romance,” sprang up, which depicted the knight as the ideal lover. Stories of King Arthur’s court showed how great knights combined the old military skills with the ability to fit into noble society.
Courtly knights and ladies did not scorn chivalric competition. Tourneys continued to be extremely popular and spread from their French homeland throughout much of Europe. In fact, a whole new type of tournament was created to allow ambitious knights to shine. The old “tourney” had been a competition where the team excelled. Individuals could gain much prestige from their team’s victories, but victory depended on effective group action. When tournaments and courtly culture came together, the joust emerged as another way for knights to show their stuff and add to their individual renown.
The basics of jousting were hardly new. There had always been practice rounds before the main tourney. Young or obscure warriors wishing for exposure rode out to fight one-on-one. The new, more organized joust was hardly more complicated. Two warriors, carrying shields for defence and spears for offence, rode at each other and did their best to unhorse their rival. Beyond this, the organization was minimal. The jousters often agreed to run a certain number of courses and then retire. Unlike modern sports, there were no carefully-defined points or victory conditions, except one: If a jouster unseated his opponent, he won, and gained the loser’s horse, usually his most valuable piece of property. More often, neither competitor won an unambiguous victory and the joust ended with the two men gaining nothing more or less than the appropriate share of glory. We can easily visualize how this rather informal competition could slowly have become a favoured alternative to the original tournament. Jousts were easily-organized events and jousting an ideal spectator sport, satisfying non-combatants, participants, and informed observers alike. When poets wrote stories of the knights of King Arthur, the tournaments they discussed were in actual fact jousts, not tourneys.
Tournaments, meaning any sort of “deed of arms”, had a number of different functions. They were opportunities for practicing the skills of chivalry, opportunities for self-advertisement, and a marketplace where lords could recruit new talent. Tourneys and jousts were social occasions of great importance. Not just anybody could take part, and that meant that those who did participate or watch the action from grandstands were demonstrating that they belonged to a privileged community. “Round Table” tournaments, in which knights and ladies played the parts of Arthur’s courtiers, allowed them to take on the roles of avatars of true chivalry. Even tournaments that did not recreate Camelot combined military activities with feasts and other forms of entertainment. The tournament at Chauvency in northern France (1285) was a very ambitious occasion where the ranking ladies added to the event by composing songs appropriate to the event and performing them. When the tournament was over, everyone important was memorialized by the poet Jacques Bretel. His account of the tournament is far more concerned with identifying those who contributed to the celebration than describing the fighting.
Tournaments generated a sense of community. The “chivalry” of the twelfth century had used tournaments to promote themselves as a group, using “sport fighting” to assert their merit. Now non-nobles who could claim a military role demonstrated their importance through performances that grew out of their practical activity.
Urban communities, which from the thirteenth century were increasingly rich and politically active, led the way by staging their own military games. In many of these cities the wealthiest townsmen jousted to celebrate personal occasions, such as their marriages or those of their daughters, a direct imitation of noble fashion.
Italian cities, even more vital and warlike than those in Flanders, developed their own distinctive military or semi-military festivals. The best known is the palio, or a horse-racing festival that was part of civic life in just about every Italian city; the palio was not jousting or tourneying, but it did, like many horse sports throughout history, have a symbolic connection to the military strength of the city, since the very best horses were reserved for soldiers. In one case, the besiegers from one city taunted the defenders of another by staging a palio in sight of the walls, where the besieged could see the fun, but neither take part in it nor put a stop to it. Note that the palio in each city was a competition between defined subgroups within the community, and helped to establish the sense of identity of both the city as a whole and its constituent groups. So did the variety of foot-combats between neighbourhoods or political parties that also took place in Italian cities: combats with clubs and shields, with stones, with specialized shields that could be used for thrusting, and bridge battles. These competitions gave city folk a chance to show outsiders their courage, and, like tournaments, allowed groups within the community to compete in self-assertion by means short of civil war – which in medieval Italy was common enough.
Spectacle and drama
The fourteenth century saw an intensification of conflict in the great international war known as the Hundred Years’ War. This resulted in the proliferation of companies of soldiers wandering the European landscape, some paid and organized by rulers pursuing their political goals, others consisting of disbanded warriors looking for an opportunity to gain wealth, or at least a regular wage, through service to a freelance captain. A whole new culture of “companions” grew up among these men who had no homeland except war. Their priority, of course, was plunder, but they also aimed to gain respectability. They turned to the classic way of earning respect: participation in formal military competitions. The fourteenth-century “deeds of arms” were, however, new, derived from the tactical innovations of the era. The “companions” (including knights, squires, and other armoured men who hoped to be recognized as “good men at arms”) were as likely to fight on foot as on horseback. When “companions” fought before a besieged city or in one of the rare pitched battles, their ability to work as a coherent infantry unit was often their most important skill. The first half of the Hundred Years’ War provides us with many of our most famous stories of chivalry; interestingly, it was a chivalry that did not necessarily emphasize horsemanship.
Yet equestrian competition continued to have a special status. While “battles” like the Combat of the Thirty might result from obscure men at arms fighting each other during breaks in campaigning, jousting on a grand style was still sponsored by great lords who wanted to assert their military importance, attract allies, or launch a diplomatic initiative. The most famous joust of the late fourteenth century, at St. Inglevert near Calais, was conceived during a truce between England and France. Three French courtiers, all with established military reputations, felt that French participation in upcoming negotiations for peace should not be allowed to cast doubt on French prowess. With the support of King Charles, the three champions challenged the chivalric world to a month of jousting. The turnout was huge and the hospitality shown to visitors was spectacular – think of the Olympics. The French succeeded brilliantly. If we are to believe the chroniclers, the French jousters faced over 100 opponents and were not unseated once. The event led to an increase in goodwill between the aristocracies of France and England, if only temporarily.
In the fifteenth century, tourneys practically disappeared while elaborate theatrical jousts became ever more common. The pas d’armes, like the Round Tables of the thirteenth century, created a fictional scenario in which a fighter defended a “pass” or “position” against all challengers, who might be supernatural or allegorical figures. At Bruges in 1463, the framing story involved a knight being taken prisoner by a dwarf. The knight was promised his release if he fought a pas d’armes in honour of the Duke of Burgundy. After three weeks of competition, a damsel in the service of the “Lady of the Magic Pillar” set the knight free and the whole company was treated to a lavish feast. This is just one of several occasions sponsored by Burgundy as part of its ambitious fifteenth-century diplomatic strategy.
The fifteenth-century pas still featured real combat and real competition, but a gap between military practice and sport jousting was growing. Specialized armour and weaponry became the norm for jousters – such as the use of the “stop”, which connected the jousting lance to the breastplate, thus stabilizing the jouster’s aim. Specialized equipment meant that jousting was restricted to rich competitors or their rich – and princely – patrons. By the sixteenth century, jousting was a sport of kings and their favourites. But jousting was on the verge of an even greater decline. One of the most dramatic events in the history of jousting took place in Paris in 1550. While King Henry II of France was jousting as part of a wedding celebration, a splinter from his opponent’s lance flew through his ocularium and gave him a mortal wound. Of course, this was by no means the first important person killed in a tournament, but the death of Henry contributed to the destabilization of a Europe already wracked by warfare between Protestants and Catholics. We can’t say that this incident killed the taste for jousting, but it may have contributed to an ongoing slackening of interest. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw gunpowder weapons evolving into the normal weapons of warfare. Charging with a lance was not obsolete but it lacked some of the practical and symbolic relevance that it had had in earlier centuries.
It is very hard to identify the moment when tournaments ceased to be staged. There has been no century since the eleventh in which some kind of equestrian competition has not been both popular and prestigious. Although the military use of horses has been quite rare since the development of the internal combustion engine, the memory of cavalry survives. Even as the average person has fewer opportunities to interact with horses, those interactions are for many of us extraordinarily memorable. Jousting retains the power to seize the imagination of young men (and now women). There is an international jousting circuit that continues to grow in size and sophistication. Indeed, someplace in the world every year, people mount horses, are handed a lance – and for them, the dream of chivalry is reborn.
Steven Muhlberger, before he retired from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II Bourbon published by Freelance Academy Press.