A couple of years ago I had a vague idea of writing a novel about a man who made money from tournaments. It didn’t come to anything, even though I read somewhere that adultery was so rife as to be the norm at such events. Tournaments have come up again in my reading recently, so I thought I should learn more about them.
I have more than enough information for one blogpost, so this will be an introduction and another post will deal with tournaments in the fourteenth century.
There’s a very good chance that you’re not thinking about tournaments as you read this, but jousting. They’re not the same thing. Some tournaments did feature jousts, but a joust on its own was not a tournament. Jousting is what you’ll have seen in films – two heavily-armoured knights on huge horses charging at one another on horses. They’re usually separated by a long fence. This last was a Spanish invention and wasn’t used in England until long after the fourteenth century. The English generally trusted their own ability to keep their horses running in a straight line towards an opponent without the help of a partition. Sometimes jousts included knights fighting on foot with different types of weapons. It was the charging horses, however, which provided the greatest entertainment.
Tournaments began with a very serious purpose, which was to enable knights to practise warfare when there wasn’t a war. They fought in teams against one another. Men could be captured and ransomed, just as they could in a war. Some knights, among them William Marshal, made a very good living from tournaments.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries tournaments were mini battles. Two different types developed in the thirteenth century. The tournament á l’outrance was like a real battle and men were often killed. A tournament á la plaisance was more of a chivalric festival and was a bit safer.
The mêlée was the main event of a tournament. It was used to train knights to work together in a cavalry charge. They had to be able to keep formation when facing the enemy and this was the safest way to train them. Safety was, however, relative. Both sides charged at one another and fought until one side won. They were huge events and at least one had about 3,000 participants.
Injuries were common. Some men did not want to take part because of the risk of injury. If they were going to be injured, they preferred it to be in a real fight. There were many, on the other hand, who would rather be fighting in a tournament than fighting in Scotland, and Edward I restricted tournaments in an effort to raise a large enough army to take on the Scots. He had been a keen participant in tournaments in his youth, but they had to go when they conflicted with his ambitions.
Jousting was not quite as dangerous as a mêlée, but death or serious injury were still possibilities. Being knocked from a horse at speed was often fatal. Participants were usually bruised or had bones broken. Jousts became popular in the thirteenth century and eventually dominated tournaments.
Since tournaments were gathering places for men trained to fight, they could provide the opportunity for men to plot rebellion. They were suppressed by Henry III and Edward II for that reason. Unlike his father, Edward I, and his son, Edward III, Edward II was not in the least enthusiastic about tournaments. It was one of the many things which made those around him doubt his suitability to be king. Edward III knew how to use tournaments both to impress his nobles and to tie them to him with bonds of loyalty and friendship, as we’ll see next week.
Here is a video to show you how exciting jousting must have been. There are videos of mêlées, but they’re usually quite small and the men (and women) fight on foot. They’re also incredibly violent.