A Fun Medieval Supplement to Warfare (Medieval Mondays #6b)


Fewer elements of medieval culture capture the modern imagination like the tournament.

Pictured as it often appears in period movies and shows, the medieval tournament calls to mind any number of the following images:

  • Scores of knights clad in the colours of their family crests with their horses caparisoned to match
  • Ladies in flowing gowns bestowing their scarves and other such fripperies upon their favourite competitors
  • Numerous contests of skill, honour, and sportsmanship, like the medieval version of the Olympic Games, of which the joust is most anticipated activity of all

And most importantly, a refined air of chivalry permeating the entire event.

During the 13th century, however – the height of the Middle Ages – the above perception was the furthest thing from reality.

To be fair, it is much of what the tournament eventually became, some 200 years later.  But its origins were rather different from this.

Last month, I wrote about medieval entertainments that were universally enjoyed by upper and lower classes, men and women.

Although many types of people enjoyed watching tournaments – which were imported from France in the 12th century – participation in them was exclusively an upper class male pursuit.  The same can largely be said of the institution of knighthood, from which tournaments drew their competitors.

According to Margaret Wade Labarge, author of Mistress, Maids and Men: Baronial Life in the Thirteenth Century, 

The thirteenth century tournament was a social occasion, but of a rough, purely masculine type. (p. 172)

The appeal of the tournament in that century ran much deeper than sociality, however.  Deeper still than even the opportunity for princes and great lords to entertain themselves and their friends while showing off their wealth.  Labarge writes,

Just as the real reason for a knight’s existence was his prowess in battle, so the tournament existed primarily as a substitute and rehearsal for the manoeuvres of battle. The tournament was the training-ground of the young knight, and a refresher course for his elders. (p. 173)

Battle practice

In Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages, Matty Williams and Anne Echols reveal that medieval people enjoyed both watching and participating in rough sports – no doubt both cause and effect of the at times brutish nature of medieval society.

Medieval melee, with spectators

Medieval melee, with spectators

The tournament was the very definition of rough.  The courtly jousting that we so frequently envision rarely occurred prior to the 14th century, and when it did, it was never the main focus of the event.

Instead, the highlight of the 13th century tournament was the mock battle (also known as the mass melee) between groups of knights from different regions, with prizes awarded for different categories of knightly skill.

Joseph and Frances Gies, authors of Life in a Medieval Castle describe the melee vividly:

Heralds were sent to the countryside to proclaim the tournament, and on the appointed day the knights donned their armor, mounted their horses, and lined up at opposite ends of a level meadow.  At a flourish from a herald, the two bands of horsemen charged at each other.  The field was open-ended, because when one team was defeated and sought to retreat, the other, exactly as in real war, pursued it through wood and dale to capture prisoners.  When it was all over, the defeated knights had to arrange with their captors for their ransom, usually the value of horse and armor, redeemed by a money payment. (p. 178)

They go on to add that,

The combative ardor of the participants was often very akin to the spirit of genuine war, especially if knightly loyalties were enlisted.  Serious and even fatal injuries were common. (p. 179)

Also common were brawls, both by knights and their squires against each other in the fashion of their masters.  Riled up squires were even known to attack defeated knights, sometimes with sticks and clubs.

Often, men who competed in tournaments ended up injured so badly, they never fully recovered.

Furthermore, depending upon the state of the realm and foreign relations at the time, a tournament could pose a threat to the peace.

Disregarding disapproval

Notwithstanding their associated danger – if not because of it – tournaments remained such a popular noble amusement in the 13th century, attempts to denounce or cancel them – even by the king – were largely ignored.  This despite the fact that on occasion, knights who held tournaments in defiance of the king had his lands seized.

The earliest English tournaments had been sanctioned by the king.  But King Henry III (reigned 1216-1272) was consistently opposed to them, even as a very young king at age 10.

This bias against tournaments may have been owing to Henry III having succeeded to the throne at nine years old in the middle of the First Barons’ War against the crown.

According to Labarge, tournaments provided occasions for the meeting of the most active members of the baronage of England.  The Gieses further explain that Henry III regarded tournaments as pretexts for conspiracy by the barons – perhaps not unjustly since, in several cases – the First Barons’ War included – these events were connected with baronial uprisings.

The Church likewise disapproved of tournaments during the 13th century – not so much for their violence, injuries, and inherent threat of treachery against the crown, but more for being accompanied by massive amounts eating, drinking, and sex.

Some clerics used tournaments to illustrate all of the seven deadly sins at one time.  Meanwhile, the monastic chronicler of the Annals of Dunstable wrote that, “‘tourneyers, their aiders and abettors, and those who carried merchandise or provisions to tournaments were ordered to be excommunicated, all together, regularly every Sunday.’” (Gies and Gies p. 179).

Regardless of the varying forms of opposition, this favourite baronial sport was considered, according to Labarge, “essential seasoning for the young knight – perhaps like the medieval equivalent of the grand tour.” (p. 173).  It was common for young knights to travel oversees with more seasoned companions to compete on the tournament circuit.

William Marshal, who is considered to be the greatest and most honourable medieval knight who ever lived, began life as the landless son of a minor nobleman before going on the serve five English kings and ascend to the rank of earl.  In his early years as a knight, he made a two-year tour of the tournament circuit in France, in the process ransoming 103 knights.

King Arthur’s resurgence

The intermediate stage between the wild melees of the early 13th century and the chivalric pageantry of the 15th century were the Round Tables of the mid-13th century.  The Gieses write:

In the 1250s, a milder form of combat, known in England as a Round Table (named after King Arthur’s assemblies) anticipated the tournaments of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, replacing the mass melee with adversaries in single combat [i.e. jousting] with blunted weapons. (p. 181)

Because these events also involved feasting and games, including skipping, wrestling, stone-throwing, and lance-throwing, clerics held firm in their disapproval, for all the good that it did them.

Because the Round Table could nonetheless still be lethal (such as by weapons that were not blunted as they should have been), King Edward I (reigned 1272-1307) passed a statute in 1267 to prevent riots at Round Tables and tournaments.

This bill limited the number of squires who could be present and specified which weapons were permitted by knights, squires, servants, and spectators.  As a result of this, at all of Edward’s own royal tournaments, not a single casualty occurred.

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

A/N: There will be no new blog posts until the new year.

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

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