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Medieval Tournaments

This page is dedicated to the Medieval Tournaments, the Chivalric encounters mimicking the war, and which at a later stage evolved in the sport of Jousting.

Medieval Tournaments from the 12th to the 14th Century

Medieval Tournaments-Seal of Richard I
The Second Seal of Richard I
Used c. 1197-1199

The Bayeux Tapestry and the miniatures of old Manuscripts are picturing the knight armed for war or tournament.  His armor was rough and ready; on his head he wore a metal cap, the chain mail was protecting his body and legs, and he carried a shield.  For 100 years after the Battle of Hastings there is little change. 

An early Manuscript of about 1219 or a little latter, compiled by a minstrel in the form of a chanson de geste, from the lips, or perhaps the memory, of one Jean D’Erlée, gives not only the description of the dress and the armor of the knights, but also of the Medieval tournaments of the time.  The Manuscript portrays the all-absorbing sport of the period; no romance of chivalry gives such a living image of the sport, in which the knights seek, as in war, to unhorse and make prisoners, and even call to their aid troops of men fighting on foot.

It is entitled “L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal”, being the life of William, Earl of Pembroke, who, born in 1144, was at an early age a frequenter of tournaments, a pastime of which he made a very profitable profession.  After the coronation of Henry (the eldest surviving son of Henry II) Pembroke was made his knight guardian when he traveled abroad. 

The contests seem to have been held in open country, featured perhaps with little woods, a bridge and a stream, and when the word lices is used, it appears that it had the same meaning as recet, or an agreed place of refuge. 

During this times, the Medieval tournaments were a real fight;  it is noted that,  sometimes, the sentiment of chivalry was not present, and a lone knight was not protected from the attack of many, or he was taken prisoner when he was unhorsed or had lost his weapons, for one of the objects which actuated many of the combatants in attending the Medieval tournaments, and undoubtedly Pembroke, was to make money.  Pembroke admitted capturing 500 knights, who must have paid a large sum of money as a ransom, and for the return of their armor and horses. 

One passage in the narrative tells us that Pembroke was associated in a sort of partnership with one Roger de Gaugi, which resulted in a large mutual profit, and this, the editor of the Manuscript points out, was not a unique case in the lives of the warrior knights. 

From the poem we learn that the knights wore either heaumes (helms) or visors (ventaille).  The heaume was a great piece of armor which entirely covered the head and face.  The ventaille was a piece of plate laced to the coif to protect the face when no heaume was worn. Allusion is often made to the lacing of the heaume and of the ventaille.  There are references to the hauberk and mail defenses of the legs, chausses, which appear to be wrought differently, for whereas the hauberk was cleaned by rolling it in a barrel, the chausses were rubbed.  From old Manuscripts illuminations we know that the early chausses were laced behind the leg and under the foot.  Also we learn that they were fastened at the upper ends underneath to the hauberk.  At this period if not before, the breastplate had come in, for it is mentioned  in an edict of Louis VII, of 1163, and Richard I wore one when he tilted with Guillaume des Barres.

Medieval Tournaments-Helm
The Tilting Helm of Sir Nicholas Hawberk

But the heaume is the most interesting piece of armor of the period. It is well illustrated at this date on the second Seal of Richard I, where he is figured wearing it and with flowing surcoat under his hauberk.  We should also note that the Medieval tournaments were licensed in England under his reign.

Soon, the fashion will change and the surcoat will be worn over the hauberk. By the year 1300 the heaume had become purely a tilting piece; for war, it was discarded for the bascinet.  It was too heavy and unwieldy for the soldier, who had carried it in the field at his saddle–bow, only to put it on at the last moment, when the leader shouted “Helms on”, as at the battle of Marchfeld in 1278. 

From the date of the description of the tournaments contained in L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal (who died in 1219), to the account of Les Tournois de Chauvenci of 1284 is a long period, but the descriptions by Matthew Parris of numerous tournaments, and the countless prohibitions by Popes and Kings, prove that the tournament was at the height of his popularity during the 13th Century.

Les Tournois de Chauvenci is also written in the form of a chanson de geste by one Jacques de Brétex, a trouvère, whose patron was Henry de Blamont, one of the combatants.  The reader will be at once struck by the change from the rough combats of Pembroke to the more courteous fête in which the presence of the ladies of the court, dancing, and minstrels played so great a part. 

Minstrels were welcomed at every kind of festivity where they had their galleries in the castle or manor Hall.  All great lords had minstrels in their pay.  They accompanied kings, even when going to war. The tournament commenced with practicing at jousting; the tourney was the real business of the fête.  The heralds arranged a careful ceremonial.  The list of the knights included great names: Henri III of Luxembourg, de Ligne, de Hainault, de Lalain.  To this tournament came also some English knights “from over the sea”.  Many of their ladies looked on listening to the heralds as they proclaimed the combatants, encouraging the knights and deciding who were to receive the prizes. 

We gather from this poem that lances both of courtesy and of war were used and that the lists were bounded by barriers. The references to the harness of the knights are interesting records of the early use of plate armor. We also learn that the heaumes were attached by chains. 

The armor which the knight wore is of interest for the history of the Medieval tournaments for two reasons. In the first place, the pageantry of the fête can only be imagined by picturing the knights; in the second place the developments of armor are as much connected with the tournament as with war.

In the second half of the13th Century, the wearing of plate armor was coming rapidly into fashion, first over the mail, to protect certain parts of the body, and then gradually replacing the mail as we advanced into the 14th Century.

The plate developed more quickly on the Continent.  However, covering only certain parts of the body was not the best solution. At the battle of Benevento  in 1266, the Germans wore the plate armor, while the French did not.  Still, the French soon discovered that the new plate armor did not protect the armpits, making their opponents vulnerable when they lifted the arms to deliver their blows.  The Germans lost the battle, thus ending the Hohenstaufen rule in Italy. 

Medieval Tournaments in the 15th Century

Medieval Tournaments-Sir John Astley Jousting
Sir John Astley Jousting at the Tilt
From the Hastings M.S.

René D’Anjou, a king of romance, artist and idealist, was born in 1409 in Angers. He was a typical figure of his time when, in the early years of the 15th Century , dawn broke and touched with the transforming rays of the Renaissance the whole life of Western Europe, and roused from the slumber of the Middle Ages. The Roi René writes and illustrates with his hand his Traicté de la Forme et Devis d’un Tournoy, the most interesting of all authorities on the Medieval tournaments of the 15th Century.

René D’Anjou bore the titles of King of Jerusalem and of Sicily, Duke d’Anjou and de Bar, Comte de Barcelona and de Provence. René himself took part in tournaments.  At his tournament, L’Emprise de la gueule du Dragon, at Saumur, in 1446, he won the prize and he wore a black armor, in memory of the recent death of his queen.

The tournament, which the Roi René describes, commences with the arrival of the heralds of a great reigning noble at the court of another reigning noble to present a challenge, and with it a roll of the names of the knights and squires. The names of the judges, the place where the tournament is to be held, and many other details are described.

The tournament is then proclaimed in various countries and their knighthood invited to take part in it. René describes and illustrates the armor, the weapons, the lists. Then follow the descriptions of the entry into town, where the tournament is to take place, of the knights and their chiefs, under whose “pennons” they are to fight; the inhabitants of the town are ordered to decorate their windows with banners. One particular house is chosen for the feasting and dancing. On the second day the helmets of the knights, each with its crest, are exhibited in a special ”hôtel,” that the “dames et damoiselles” and the judges may “bien veoir et visiter les timbres,” and this was the opportunity to expel from the tournament anyone guilty of any act unworthy of a knight of chivalry.

On the third day after the swearing of the knights a chevalier d’honneur is chosen, who is to bear on his lance the couvre-chef de mercy; by touching any knight in difficulty in the tourney with it, he can prevent at once any further attack upon him. On the fourth day is the tourney. On the cry of laçez heaulmes, the knights take up their positions under the pennon of their chief, and all proceed to the lists. Across the centre of the lists are stretched two cords. During the tourney the supporters of each noble shout their “Cris d’armes”. At the sound of the “retraite” the tourney ceases.  In the evening all assemble for the feast and for the reward of the prize to the “chevalier mieux frappant d’espée.” As he receives his prize the building echoes with his “cri,” and so ends the tournament.

Overall, in the 15th Century, the Jousts became increasingly popular, coexisting with the tournamenta quasi hostile, like the one held in Paris between Sir John Astley and Pierre de Masse in 1428, when Astley killed his opponent.

Medieval Tournaments in the 16th Century

Medieval Tournaments-Maximilian Armor
Suit of Armor of Maximilian I - 1519
The 16th Century was the century of the perfect Royal Knights: Maximilian I, the German Emperor, Henry VIII, King of England, and Francisc I, King of France. It is this century when the Medieval tournaments are touched by the elaborate grace of the Renaissance. Sophisticated artwork was decorating the armors, and the tournament became a pageantry full of splendor.

In 1520, Jousts were held on the occasion of the meeting between Henri VIII and Francisc I. The lists were kept by the Yeomen of the Guard at one end and by the French Guard at the other. On the rise of a hill was a tree of honor, with its trunk wrapped in velvet and gold; and on its branches were hanging the shields of the two Challengers and the Tables, and underneath those of the Answerers. The branches were made of raspberry and hawthorn, the former representing the badge of Francisc I, the latter that of Henry VIII., entwined together as emblematic of the two kings and their peoples.

Henri II, King of France, was another tournament lover. Henry VIII and Henri II. of France were typical examples of the the new school which preached the value of healthy exercise of the body, the school of Rabelais and Mercurialis. Part of every day of their busy lives was given up to some form of physical exercise.

From the beginning of the 16th Century it is interesting to mark how the Medieval tournaments evolved, and the note of athletic sports is more and more accentuated at all Royal Jousts. To jousting were added archery and wrestling.

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