Medieval Tournaments

Medieval Tournament Origins

Early war games between rival knights and soldiers were called béhourds and could be fought on horseback or on the ground, these mock battles led to the creation of the medieval tournament, these early war games lacked the competitive edge and discipline needed to train knights for warfare and medieval elites came to the realisation that a new system was required.

Early mock battles also known as mêlée’s in the medieval period were chaotic in nature and many knights suffered bad injuries or were killed. Nobility realised there was a need to create organised events where they could closely match the skills of knights, so that the fights could be more competitive and evenly matched in a safer environment.

Medieval Tournament

This is an image of a small tournament that was held in a small town

This led to the creation of medieval tournaments or tourneys’ in which a mock battle called a mêlée and a joust, a one-to-one mounted contest took place. Around the 10th century the mêlée and the joust were combined and this created the first medieval tournament, the first tournament of this type was held in France in 1066.

Tournaments enabled knights to practice their battle skills, it was important for a medieval knight to put on a good performance in a tournament as important people would be present such as lords and ladies, knights would be representing their families that could be clearly seen in their family emblems and coats of arms. Tournaments taught knights to become battle ready and gave them realistic challenges, like in war knights wore full body armour.

Tournaments were the glittering social events of medieval times and could last up to a week, everyone came, Lords, peasants, women, money lenders, minstrels, jesters, snake oil salesmen, they were probably bigger events than sporting competitions today.

Tournament Invites

Kings or other important nobleman set the day of the tournament and would then send out invites to other knights asking them to take part in a contest of arms, usually in the honour of a lady.

Day of the Tournament

The day of the tournament has arrived, there would be a stand for noble and royal guest erected close to the jousting track, knights and maids dressed in the their best outfits and would parade before the distinguished guests, the guest of honour would address the excited crowds before the announcement of the tournament rules was read out by the Grand Marshall. The tournament would being to a fanfare of trumpets.

Royal Box Tournament

Royals and nobility watch a tournament from their Royal box

The Tournament Setting

Tournaments usually took place in large open fields, the tournament area was enclosed by what were called lists or fences. There would be large tents erected for knights and other lords and nobles. Royal boxes were erected in front of the contest areas giving the best views of the jousting event to the important members of society.

The Rules of a Tournament

Medieval tournament rules were agreed and circulated well in advance of the tournament so that everybody knew what to expect and would give information like:

• The general rules and terms of engagement of the tournament
• The location and date of the tournament
• The Tournament Sponsors – who would be paying for the event
• The fighting combat styles that would be taking place at the tournament
• Weapons accepted that could be used at the tournament

Only nobleman and their families were allowed to compete in tournament competitions. This was one of many rules of the medieval tournament. Competitors were usually wealthy medieval people as they had to buy their own horse and expensive body Armour. Only noblemen or squires could talk to other knights during a tournament.

In later tournaments knights were encouraged to capture opposing knights, once captured a knight would have two pay a ransom to get his horse and armour back, surprisingly it was the captured knight who decided how much ransom should be paid, however due to the code of chivalry rules in place, setting a low ransom would have been the wrong thing to do for a medieval knight and would have brought shame on him.

Tournaments – The Jousting Contest

Early tournaments were very aggressive and people were often injured or killed. In early medieval times it was the mêlée and not the joust which was the main event of the early medieval tournament, the joust was considered to be just a warming up exercise for the main event.

Jousting was the highlight of a medieval Tournament; it was a one-to-one combat situation. Heavily armoured knights on horseback would at charge each other in jousts with lances raised trying unseat the other knight from their horses. Jousting was originally a warm up exercise and not the main event, it was a great opportunity for young knights to practice their skills against other nights and it allowed him to display his skills to the watching audience which would include Lords and Ladies. By the 14th century the joust was considered to be the defining contest during a tournament.

Horses charged down tracks that were called lists and knights lances would strike their enemies shields at great speeds, the desired result would be to unseat the challenging knight to gain the highest number of points. Four charges could be made in one jousting match and a knight could also gain points for the best jousting techniques. Three jousting sticks could be used for each jousting match and the winner of the Joust could take the armour or horse of the defeated knight or would be given an alternative prize.

Medieval Tournament Joust

Jousting knights collide in a joust at a medieval tournament

The Tournament Joust Rules

The Joust tended to start before the mêlée battle as it was considered to be the main event of the tournament, mounted knights would hurtle towards each other down the tracks on horseback with lances and shields raised, they would be an almighty crash as they met at the halfway stage at incredible speeds.

The rules of the medieval joust were as follows:

  • Knights were allowed to charge at each other a total of four times with lances, only 3 lances per match were allowed.
  • If no winner they were allowed to charge four more times with other weapons such as maces or flail weapons.
  • If still no winner they went to ground and fought with alternative weapons such as maces and swords four more times.
  • If there was no decisive winner it went to the judges to vote, giving points for skill and accuracy and making deductions for foul strokes.
  • Judges who kept order at jousting events/tournaments were called Heralds

The Mêlée | Ends The Tournament

The mêlée event was a mock battle that usually ended a tournament and was a team contest, in earlier medieval times it was considered to be the main event. The mêlée involved lots of individual battles within competing teams, there could be any number of men involved in a mêlée but it was not usually too large as to be unmanageable, probably anything up to a one hundred people.

The Mêlée was a military competition that was developed for nobles in which they fought in groups, rather than individually. The knights or nobles attacked each other across an open field.

Whereas the joust competition took place in front of an audience, the mêlée was observed from a distance and medieval people could really only see a group of soldiers fighting each other in the distance.

Knights that fought in Jousts and mêlée’s were from an elite group of people from the wealthy noble families of Europe, in the mêlée they wore full plate armour so that the mêlée was realistic, blunted weapons weapons like flails and pole-axes were used and the team of the last man standing would win the contest.

It was common for knights to receive broken limbs and noses during a mêlée competitions and there was usually quite a lot of blood around at the end, great lords would cite who was the best fighter in the mêlée tournament and the winner would receive a prize such as a weapon, even such things as bears could be given as a prize to the best knight.

Melee at medieval tournament

A melee battle takes place at a medieval tournament

Tournaments |Weapon & Armour Testing

The medieval tournament had several purposes and one of them was to be a testing ground for new medieval weapons and armour, to see how they coped in realistic combat situations.

Tournament Weapons Used

The lance used for jousts was specially designed to ensure that the knights would not harm each other. Jousting lances were usually made out of soft wood and the ends were blunted and hollow. The Lance was still able to badly injured a knight due to the speed of impact but the added safety features ensured that it would not penetrate the knights armour, so that death and injury were substantially reduced. In ground combat situations and in the mêlée mock battles clubs and other blunted weapons such as flails and poleaxes were used.

Tournament Armour

From around the 12th century the safety of tournaments was improved and new plate armour was introduced instead of the chainmail that had been used before, medieval knights aimed for the shields and helmets of their foe’s during a tournament and the improved armour helped reduce injuries, tournaments were the ideal testing grounds for new armour and weapons.

Medieval Tournament Facts:

  • Tournaments were arranged by nobleman usually in honour of a lady
  • Tournament rules were agreed and circulated well advanced of a medieval tournament
  • In early medieval tournaments the mêlée was the main event
  • In later medieval tournaments the Joust was the main event
  • The weapons used at tournaments were adapted to make them safer to use
  • Tournament invites were sent out to knights asking them to take part in medieval tournaments
  • Jousting sticks or Lances were the same thing and were the main jousting weapons used
  • Tournaments had strict rules and codes of conduct for all participants
  • Tournaments were originally military training exercises but became sporting events
  • Medieval tournaments were great opportunities to test new Armour and weapons
  • Medieval knights could be badly injured or killed in medieval tournaments
  • The mêlée mock battle usually ended the medieval tournament
  • Everyone came to the medieval tournament, they were the glittering social events of medieval times
  • A medieval tournament could last up to a week or even longer
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