Early war games between rival knights and soldiers were called béhourds and could be fought on horseback or on the ground, these early war games lacked the competitive edge and discipline needed to train knights for warfare but these mock battles led to the creation of the more advanced medieval tournament.
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 organized 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.
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, and knights would be representing their families 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, and snake oil salesmen, they were big events of the times like sporting events today.
Kings or other important noblemen 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.
The day of the tournament has arrived, there would be a stand for noble and royal guests erected close to the jousting track, knights and maids dressed in 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 be to a fanfare of trumpets.
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.
Medieval tournament rules were agreed upon and circulated well in advance of the tournament so that everybody knew what to expect and would give information like:
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 horses and expensive body armor. 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 armor 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 high ransom would have been the wrong thing to do for a medieval knight and would have brought shame on him.
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.
In later medieval tournaments, it was the Joust that was the main event of the medieval Tournament, it was a one-to-one combat situation in which armoured knights on horseback would charge each other in jousts with lances raised trying to unseat the other knight from their horses.
The Joust was a great opportunity for young knights to practice their skills against other knights and it allowed them to display their 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.
In a Joust 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 technique.
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.
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:
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 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.
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 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 competition 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.
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.
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 softwood and the ends were blunted and hollow.
The Lance was still able to badly injure 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.
From around the 12th century the safety of tournaments 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 foes during a tournament and the improved armour helped reduce injuries, tournaments were the ideal testing grounds for new armour and weapons.