Long Reads

A Crash Course on Medieval Tournaments

What Asinus Teaches

  1. What Was a Medieval Tournament?
  2. Who Could Participate in a Tournament?
  3. Two Examples of Aristocratic Tournaments:
    1. Chauvency, 1285
    1. Saint-Inglevert, 1390
  4. René d’Anjou’s Treatise on Tournaments

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

I am a 14th century French knight that has just been eliminated early on in a jousting tournament. Do I stay around and watch? Do I leave in shame? How would I proceed with my day?

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My Answer

Walter Scott is not too far from the truth when he writes the following paragraph in his historical novel Ivanhoe (1820):

“The shouts of the multitude, together with the acclamations of the heralds, and the clangour of the trumpets, announced the triumph of the victors and the defeat of the vanquished. The former retreated to their pavilions, and the latter, gathering themselves up as they could, withdrew from the lists in disgrace and dejection, to agree with their victors concerning the redemption of their arms and their horses, which, according to the laws of the tournament, they had forfeited.”—Chapter VIII.

I would argue, however, that tournaments didn’t follow their own laws but that they actually followed the chivalric code of war! Indeed, jousts and tournaments were nothing like modern sporting events. I get the feeling from your phrasing that you expect knights to face each other off until there’s only two of them left for a great finale. However, jousts and tournaments were true exercises of warfare during peace times more than anything else. It was a way to make war without declaring it.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knight. Lady. Gift. Elephant. Crest. Elephant Crest. Helmet.Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knight. Lady. Gift. Swan. Crest. Swan Crest. Helmet.
Two Ladies Each Giving a Helmet with an Animal Crest to a Knight
Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knights. Armors. Shields. Heraldry. Spears. Jousting. Tournament. Horses. Gallop. Fight. Flowers.
The Joust Between the Knight With a Swan Crest and the Knight With an Elephant Crest – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bold. MS 264, f. 101v

By the end of the 15th century, jousts and tournaments became heavily ritualized and participants were advised to wield non-lethal weapons but such was not yet the case during the 13th and 14th century.

As in regard of shame, there were little to none if you “lost” in a jousting event or in a tournament. The only one and true shame would have been to refuse to participate unless you were already at war or on a crusade. Also, the only way to be definitively eliminated from a tournament or from jousts would have been to die during the event. Otherwise, the goal of such event was to “capture” the opponent or to force him to admit defeat in order to put him to ransom, pretty much like it could be done on an actual battlefield.

Let’s give it all more context, shall we?

Jousts and Tournaments: What Were They?

As stated, they were not sporting events. They were true moments of warfare, at least until the first half of the 15th century. During the second half of the 15th century, jousts and tournaments became heavily ritualized and death was an unlikely outcome. When Henry II of France died from a jousting event in 1547, it was a most tragic accident. In contrast, if Boucicault had died during the jousts of Saint-Inglebert in 1390, people would have figured it was a risk he’d been more than willing to take. As a matter of fact, he was allegedly put on bed rest for nine days before he could return to the jousts.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Jousting. Knights. The Songe of Pestilence.Horses. Castle. Armors. Spears. King. Queen. Tournament. Heraldry. Fall. Victory. Defeat. Swords. Shields.
Jousts Between Knights on Horses and on Foot- Brussels, KBR, ms. 10218-19, f. 141r

Jousts and tournaments were also two different things. A tournament was a warlike battle between two opposing groups of knights, fighting on horses with swords on a delimited area. Each group had to capture as many opposing knights as possible and put them to ransom. It was deemed a very noble exercise since they were fighting with swords, a most noble weapon. However, it left little room for individual prowess. That’s what jousts were designed for. Knights would face each other, individually, either on foot or on horse, according to well-defined pre-established rules and surrounded by expert witnesses: a high lord (king or prince), other experienced men-at-arms, heralds, minstrels, ladies. Of course, tournaments could also be done in front of an audience.

Quantitative studies show that jousts and tournaments were more often organized from winter to spring when war came to a standstill on most years. The Great Lent was often fully booked for such military events. They were also held at weddings, baptisms or other religious celebrations.

Who Would Participate in Jousts or a Tournament?

The people who participated in jousts and tournaments were actual knights, meaning people who actually fought wars. They were skilled warriors. They often served as ranking officers within their lord’s army. That’s why they required a formal authorization to attend such events. More often than not we see mighty dukes, kings or princes ordering a fight to stop and call it a draw because they don’t want to lose their elite men-at-arms in the process of a joust or a tournament.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Jousting. Knights. Horses. Castle. Armors. Spears. King. Queen. Tournament. Heraldry. Gallop. Fall. Victory. Defeat. Shields.
Knights Jousting on Horses – Brussels, KBR, ms. 10218-19, f. 121r

Ecclesiastic authorities didn’t have much regard for jousts and tournaments but the urban bourgeoisie held its own warlike events, aspiring to live up to the standards of the nobility. Sometimes we find knights and burghers participating to the same event! It is quite rare, though, and certainly not the norm. The peasantry had its own military tournaments. Archery tournaments were often held in England and France and we have found several instances where kings actually prohibited other kind of “games” that would or could distract the population from the daily practice of archery.

Jousts and tournaments were true exercises of warfare during peace times. It was a way to make war without declaring it.

It wasn’t too rare that young knights would partake on a long journey across Europe to fight as many jousts or tournaments they could. They’d often join in on actual wars too. The famous Reisen in Prussia against the Pagans was a hotspot of chivalric “tourism” if we can allow ourselves a little anachronism.

Tournament of Chauvency (1285)

Reported only by a long narrative poem, some scholars suspect that the Tournament of Chauvency may have never taken place. Indeed, historical facts were preferably written in prose during the Late Middle Ages whereas poetry was considered the form of fiction. Nevertheless, we can account for every participant of the aforementioned tournament. None of them is fictional or made up.

This tournament happened at Chauvency-le-Château, a little town in Northern France. Many nobles from the western border of the Holy Roman Empire participated to the event. The event was announced by heralds all around the region and it contributed to its substantial attendance. Every day knights fought on the field. Every night they gathered for a feast: they danced, they sang, they spent a jolly good time together among their wives and ladies. All in all it was a joyful event though blood was spilled and injuries occurred. It is worth maybe reminding that the medieval society conceived war and violence as a natural and necessary aspect of human life. Boys were encouraged very young to play with weapons and to master them.

  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knights. Armors. Shields. Heraldry. Spears. Jousting. Tournament. Horses. Gallop. Fight. Royalty. King. Queen. Ladies. Admirers. Castle.
  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knights. Ladies. Dance. Sing. Play. Countess of Luxembourg.Tournament. Party. Night. Tournament After-Party. Music. Instruments.
  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knights. Armors. Shields. Heraldry. Swords. Jousting. Tournament. Horses. Blood. Fight. Battle. Joust. Wound.

Jousts of Saint-Inglevert (1390)

Jean II le Meingre, called Boucicault, ranked among the most renowned knights of the French kingdom at the end of the 14th century. He was so great and so brave despite his short height that his cult following survives to this day.

I wish I was kidding.

On the year 1390, when France and England agreed on a peace treaty, Boucicault received the king’s authorization to organize a 30 days jousting event. He called every knight from the Christendom to meet and challenge him and his two friends at Saint-Inglevert. It appeared French and English knights disagreed on which country had the most chivalrous warriors and this main event was supposed to give an answer to this hot-heated debate.

Boucicault and his two friends had their pavilions out in a field and they were hosting anyone who would challenge them, inviting them to dinner on a large round table (the Arthurian trope was very common during such events). For thirty days, they faced knights from England, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and France. Boucicault was put on bed rest for nine days but he got back on his horse and went right back at it. The jousts followed very strict rules but the losers were expected to pay a tribute to the victors. At the end of the event, however, Boucicault and his two friends didn’t keep anything from their spoils and gave it back to their opponents! Much to their honor.

The concept of chivalry was getting more and more sophisticated. It didn’t only apply to wealthy landowners who fought on horses. It came to define a culture and its elite. Gallantry was becoming the best part of chivalry. Friends or foes, everybody was expected to behave honorably and follow a chivalrous code of conduct.

“Traité de la Forme et Devis d’un Tournoi” (1462-1465)

By the end of the 15th century, René d’Anjou wrote a treatise on jousting and knightly tournaments: how to announce them, how to hold them, how to bring them to a conclusion. This treatise was written in several lavish manuscript that contains vivid and amazing depictions of such events and as a conclusion of this piece, I wanted to give you a few links to browse them at will.

  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. René of Anjou. René I of Naples. Good King René. King. Treaty. Tournament. Tournament Treaty. Heraldry. Lord. Semy-de-Lys. Throne. Sword. Fleur-de-Lys.
  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. René of Anjou. René I of Naples. Good King René. King. Treaty. Tournament. Tournament Treaty. Heraldry. Lord. Sword. Horses. Knights. Jousting.

In Conclusion: TL;DR

Did knights stay around and watched if they lost a tournament?

Most certainly. And they lost only because they couldn’t keep up with ransoming fees. Or died…

Did they leave in shame?

No. Shame only belonged to the people who didn’t show up or openly refused to join in on the event. It could even be a legitimate military tactic during a siege that had been brought to a stalemate to bait an enemy with a knightly duel. Could they bear the dishonor of denying an open challenge?

How did they proceed with their day?

They most certainly waited for the night to come and the feast to continue if they hadn’t been critically injured. They also had to start gathering money to pay off their ransom or pay back the equipment they agreed to relinquish to their victorious opponent.