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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

A Short History of Tournaments: Uncovering its Origins and the Melee

Tournaments! The word suggests images of knightly competition, of jousting, parading, pageantry, and ladies cheering on their chosen hero. These demonstrations of knightly prowess, honor, and valor are all at the heart of chivalric culture and gives us our image of what the medieval knight should be. It was not always so.

While the terms tournament and jousting are interchangeable today, they originally meant different games. The general term for tournaments was historically hastiludes, Latin meaning spear games. Tournament meant the group combat and involved two teams of knights competing and came to be called the melee. Jousting meant a single combat between two knights, either mounted or dismounted. Here the term tournament is used in its modern usage for all knightly games collectively, melee for group combat, and jousting for individual duels.

The 11th century would see tournaments coincided with the use of the couched lance on the battlefield. A lance was an 8- to 11-feet-long spear (Fig. 1). To couch it, the lance was held snug under the right arm and held horizontally allowing the combined mass of moving horse and rider to be behind the point of the lance. This resulted in a tremendously devastating blow for an opponent on the receiving end.

Fig. 1. Spear, possibly 500s-late 1000s. Iron and wood.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.163

The couched lance technique became popular after the adoption of stirrups (Fig. 2a), a technology that emerged out the plains of Asia around the 7th century. This allowed for better control of the horse. The high-backed saddle (Fig. 2b) introduced in the 11th century allowed the rider to maintain himself in the saddle after striking with the lance. To effectively use this technique, knights practiced individually with a quintain and in groups.

Fig. 2a. Stirrup, perhaps English 1100s–1200s. Brass-clad iron.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.1008

Fig. 2b. War Saddle, Southern German (perhaps Nuremberg), about 1525,
with modern restorations. Wood (possibly birch), steel, and iron, with modern
leather and textiles. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.76

The tournament, or melee, was a group combat and originally a wargame. Two groups of knights and soldiers gathered in adjacent towns and the lands in between were the tournament fields. The two groups charged each other to break each other’s lines and then turn about and take on those not dismounted. Some knights could ride away instead and be pursued. The object was quite simple, defeat and capture as many opponents as possible and hold them for ransom.

The early melees were destructive and dangerous. There were few rules in the beginning. There were designated refuges for knights to rest and repair armor. Knights could outnumber each other. The weapons of war were used by all while trying to capture not kill, but accidents happened. Honor was to be had in victory no matter how attained, guile and deceit were used to advantage. Little regard was given to those who lived within the tourney area, crops were destroyed, and homes burned. The melee usually ended when one side was clearly defeated, or night fell. This was followed by raucous feasting and partying.

Tournaments might be used as cover for feuding, to exact revenge and commit murder. Large groups of knights and their followers massed in towns attracted the worst behaviors with all Seven Deadly Sins catered to. The Church banned tournaments from 1130-1316, forbidding Christian burial to those who took part. Tournaments, however, were too popular, profitable, and practical to abandon with the ban seeming to have been hardly enforced on a local level. Many priests turned a blind eye toward the offence.

Royal authorities often banned the games for political reasons as tournaments could be used as a cover for staging rebellions, or because tournaments distracted knights from their duties in war. These bans only held up when authority was strong. Richard I of England, an avid tournament fan and participant, took a different route and regulated the games in 1192. He determined which towns could hold them requiring a license for the organizers and a fee for participants.

The arms for war and for tourney were initially the same. The principle body protection for the knight was mail armor, an armor of interlinked iron rings that was best at protecting against sharp edges and to a lesser degree stabbing weapons but offering little protection against blunt force trauma. Mail took the form of a coat or large shirt (Fig. 3) with a hood and sometimes leggings. It was supplemented by a helmet of rigid iron and a wooden shield both of which served to compensate for the inherent weaknesses of mail. The main weapons of the knight were his lance and sword. Supplementing this would be various forms of axes, maces, warhammers and daggers.

Fig. 3. Mail Coat, probably Nuremberg (Germany), early 1500s,
 modified into 1800s. Iron and brass with leather fragments.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.861

The 13th century would see tournaments change. The use of enclosed fenced in fields or lists were introduced to help contain and limit the destructive qualities of the games making them safer to watch. With an increase in popularity markets and fairs become closely intertwined tournaments. 

As chivalry grew in importance so too did the need to identify the knight. A system of symbols painted on shields was developed and eventually these appeared on the surcoat, a tunic worn over mail armor, and crests mounted on helmets. The collective display was known as a coat of armors (Fig. 4) in reference to the decorated surcoat and the system known as heraldry.

Fig. 4. Coat of Arms – Giovanni de Francesco, Florentine (Italian),
1485 or later. Marble. Sculpture. Museum Purchase. 1918.143.1

At the outset of a tournament knights had their shields hung outside their lodgings so to make it known which knights were present. A parade of crested helmets would then be held leading to the lists to open the games.

While heraldry aided in identifying knights in the slog of a melee combat, jousting allowed for individual duels where both combatants were singled out for special display. Jousting gained importance as a martial sport as it allowed for heroic acts to be demonstrated. By the early 14th century jousting would supplant the melee as the main tournament attraction.

Be sure to stay tuned to WAM Updates for the next installment of “A Short History of Tournaments”, which examines jousting and its decline.

—By Neal Bourbeau, Programming Coordinator
     June 16, 2020

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