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Friday, June 19, 2020

Spotlight on the Sport of Jousting and its Decline

The sport of jousting was a single combat between two knights using the couched lance against each other, charging from opposite ends of a tournament field. Before the 14th century, the melee was the main tournament event, with jousting as a secondary game. Jousting matches were held as a prelude to the melee. Knights wanted to be recognized as individuals in combat and spectators enjoyed the individual contests. By the 14th century, Jousting would supplant the melee as the main sport in popularity and by the end of the century the melee would all but disappear.

Fig. 1. The Third Tournament with Lances, Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, 1472–1553),
1509. Woodcut on cream laid paper. Prints. Museum Purchase. 1935.153

Jousting was played in rounds called courses. Typically, three courses were run with the lance and the fighting might continue dismounted with courses of swords, axes and daggers. Scoring was sometimes done by awarding points for striking an opponent and breaking the lance, or for dismounting him, the latter could decide the match. Different points could be awarded for striking different body locations.

With the development of plate armor in the 1300s-1400s, specialized tournament armor came into use (Fig. 2). Reinforced pieces could be attached to an existing armor strengthening it. These were called pieces of advance, or exchange, or simply reinforces and would be bolted on to the armor.
A feature added to the joust around the late 14th century was the tilt barrier. The tilt barrier was initially a rope barrier draped with fabric and later a wall that separated the jousters to keep the horses from colliding, allowing the knights to be able to better control the horse and aim their lances.

Fig. 2. Composite Armor for the Welschgestech ("Italian Joust"),
breastplate by Anton Peffenhauser (Southern Germany (Augsburg),
ca. 1520 – 1603), other components Southern German, Augsburg, or Italian.
1570–1575. Steel, brass and leather with modern restorations.
 The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.1142

The most common form of jousting was the Joust of Peace. It was focused on being a chivalric contest of skill with lances and swords which were blunted, or rebated, to minimize injury. The lance tip could take the form of a three-pointed coronel (Fig. 3) designed to aid the lance in shearing off armor as well as to break it. The idea was to fairly defeat the opposing knight but not to cause injury. Honor, humility, and fairness were now of greater importance as the combat was to be one of skill not guile.

Fig. 3. Tournament Lance with Coronel Tip, German, perhaps Dresden. 1500s or 1700s.
Painted wood with steel. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.269

In the 15th century a popular type of jousting was the Passage of Arms. In this game a knight or group of knights would set themselves up at a bridge or city gate and challenge all who passed by to joust. They would announce their intentions to hold their ground for a set period or some other goal achieved, such as the breaking of several lances. Failure of a passing knight to meet the challenge could lead to social humiliation and forfeiture of their horse or armor. These were challenges of honor being less formal and of a smaller scale than tournaments and there were few spectators.

The Joust of War was a variant where knights who were at war competed with each other. The combatants used the regular armor and weapons of war. While they could be deadly, the use of plate armor reduced the chances of injury compared to those of former days. It was a chance to demonstrate chivalric pride in the face of the enemy.

A particularly German form of the joust was the Stechzeug. This variant featured heavy body armor (Fig. 4a). The goal of game was to knock off an opponent’s helmet crest. With blows concentrated at the head a thick heavy helmet was needed. Evidence of the force used can be seen with the multiple scars left from lance cornel tips that struck surface of the helmet depicted below (Fig. 4b).

Fig. 4a. Composite Stechzeug (armor for the "German Joust"),
pauldrons by Valentin Siebenbürger (German, 1510–1564),
others Southern German, from Nuremberg. About 1480–1540.
Steel, iron, brass and leather. The John Woodman Higgins
Armory Collection. 2014.1164

Fig. 4b. Stechhelm (Jousting helmet), Southern German,
Nuremberg. Late 1400s. Steel, iron and brass.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.1164.1

Combat at the Barriers (Fig. 5a) was a form of dismounted jousting that knights would play during sieges and was an outgrowth of the Joust of War. Waist-high barriers were placed between the besieged and besiegers. Combat would use various weapons such as the longsword or the poll-axe.

Fig. 5a. Combat à la barrière (Combat at the Barriers), Jacques Callot (French, 1592–1635),
1627. Etching on cream laid paper. Prints. Museum purchase. 1953.7

Gradually this contest became a regular tournament sport practiced outside of war. Heavier armors were used to minimize serious hits as evidenced in the sword marks visible on the helmet below (Fig. 5b). 

Fig. 5b. Close Helmet for Foot Combat at the Barriers, Italian, probably Milan. About 1600.
Steel and brass. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.1156.1

From the 14th century onwards tournaments would become ever more frequently sponsored by royalty, something unthinkable in the past. While declining in the early 15th century with the decline of battlefield chivalry, the late 15th and early 16th centuries would see a huge rebound. Sovereigns such as Emperor Maximillian I and his contemporaries, Henry VIII and Francis I, celebrated chivalry at court, romanticizing it with huge, elaborate tournaments. But this did not survive much past their generation.

The mid-16th century would see the general disappearance of large tournaments. By the 17th century tournaments were more for royal prestige being semi-martial displays of horsemanship. Most involved parading and fancy maneuvers. Jousting was now theatrical and formulaic as direct contact with lances was gradually replaced by the Carousel or Tilting at the Ring (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Lance for "Tilting at the Ring", probably German, 1650–1750. Painted wood
(partially restored) with steel. The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection. 2014.261

The carousel involved riding around a circuit and catching rings on the end the lance, an exercise that had long been done by knights for practice. With no contact there was less risk and less reason for armor to be worn beyond display. By the late 17th century as the reality of armored cavalry on the battlefield faded away so too did tournaments.

We hope you enjoyed the second part of this look at the fascinating and complex history of knightly competitive pursuits.

—By Neal Bourbeau, Programming Coordinator
     June 20, 2020

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