Tournaments in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages were a time of passionate warfare, chivalrous gallantry, and intense social entertainment. Tournaments in the Middle Ages were hosted and held on grand scales as displays of power, prowess, and skill. Typically, tournaments would be hosted by wealthy nobles who sought the prestige of backing such affairs.

They would arrange battles and competitions, enlist competitors from among the strongest members of the community, and arrange for a final tournament prize to be awarded to the winner. Tournaments made for an excellent source of entertainment for the entire community, and the competitions themselves were not intended to be violent or dangerous; instead, they were designed as skill tests and displays of technique and talent. At the same time, tournaments resulted in many injuries and even fatalities, despite the presence of Medieval physicians onsite at all times.

History and Origin of Tournaments

Participants in tournaments in the Middle Ages were generally knights, usually armored and mounted on horseback. The events could solo or team competitions or both. Whatever way the tournament was run, the last knight standing would be entitled to claim victory and the tournament prize.

Such tournaments took place in the Celtic regions of Europe even before Roman times. Later, they were used as military training exercises by the Roman cavalry. They featured two teams attacking and retreating, utilizing custom-made armor specifically for the event.

While primarily a training exercise, these tournaments were also deliberately showy, even extravagant, and designed to engage the audience with a stimulating and exciting display of skill.
By the 12th century, tournaments had spread throughout Europe as both a military exercise and a community-wide social affair. Tournaments were scheduled two weeks in advance, allowing the entering knights time to properly prepare. They were held year-round, though never during the Christian season of Lent.

Elements of Tournaments

A standard tournament involved knights divided into two teams. In the days leading up to the event, knights would arrive onsite either alone or with a group and bunker down in pre-arranged lodgings. Pre-tournament exhibition events allowed individual knights to showcase their personal skills and talents through one-on-one jousting competitions. As the day of the tournament approached, stands for spectators were erected around the main stage and people began to arrive to enjoy the show.

The tournament would begin with a review. Each side would ride out in parade fashion, calling their war cries. The two teams rode out side by side, and once situated, younger or newer knights were often afforded the opportunity to engage in brief jousting events with the knights opposite them.

A bugle call indicated the tournament was about to begin. The two lines of knights would charge at each other on cue with lances out. The initial charge was orderly; however, the melee would rapidly evolve into small groups or individual fights. The two teams continued in this fashion, each attempting to weaken or best the other, until nightfall or until their energy had been fully depleted.

A rich banquet and ceremony would follow the tournament, and prizes would be awarded to the knight deemed best on each side. The host supplied food and drink for the banquet, and dancing, music, and socializing played a large role in the evening’s festivities as well.

Young ladies frequently attended banquets in hopes to attract knights as suitors. In turn, knights would seek to attract the affections of young women, attempting to collect small tokens of their esteem. A knight would often wear a veil or ribbon previously given to him by a woman during a tournament, dedicating his performance in the event to her.

Controversies Regarding Tournaments

Tournaments in the Middle Ages rose to popularity in France in particular, during the early 1100s. Over time, word carried all over Europe, and aristocrats ensured the tradition was carried to England, Scotland, Germany, and Poland. Tournaments, however, carried risks both real and imagined. Despite safety precautions, many tournaments had casualty rates as high as ten percent. Despite regulation, many tournament hosts and participants were accused of cheating and thievery.

Pope Innocent II proclaimed tournaments against the Church in 1130. He not only forbade attendance and participation, but also forbade a proper Christian burial to those who lost their lives in a tournament. The religious take on tournaments was that in glorifying warfare as entertainment, knights and villagers alike would be distracted from the very real and important need to go to war to preserve and maintain religious ideals.

Royals also sought to halt the prevalence of tournaments. They claimed they presented a danger to public safety and order. Thievery and injury were commonplace. In England, King Henry II forbade tournaments in a bid to restore civil order to society. They were resurrected, however, in 1192 by King Richard I, who selected specific locations and sites where all tournaments must be held and established a licensing system to which nobles must adhere before hosting tournaments.

In France, tournaments in the Middle Ages continued largely unabated until Louis IX banned them in 1260. His ban contributed greatly to their decrease in popularity. For the most part, Louis IX’s successors continued to uphold the ban.

The Role of Jousting

Jousting was never intended to be the main attraction of a tournament. However, knights enjoyed the opportunity to engage in one-on-one battle that tested their skills and reflexes. Spectators found the fights riveting to watch. Jousting was largely relegated to pre-tournament exhibitions and post-tournament skirmishes.

By the 1200s, jousting had developed its own significant fan base and had become a more critical part of tournament games. More and more tournaments featured individual fights in addition to or instead of the earlier melee style fights. As melee tournaments continued to fall out of fashion, jousting tournaments held elimination-style rose in popularity and frequency to take their place as a source of entertainment for aristocrats and nobles.

Equipment through the Years

Evidence supports the idea that, at least in early tournaments in the Middle Ages, the armor and weaponry used was no different than that used for warfare. This no doubt contributed to the high casualty rate. By the mid-1200s, knights were using more ornamental armor and less dangerous weapons, such as blunted or curved-tip swords. The change led to an overall change in the style and mission of tournaments.

By the 1300s, tournaments were designed to be artistic and theatrical rather than militaristic. The chivalry, rivalry, and drama of the event were complemented by elaborate costuming and armor. These tournaments continued to be large-scale social events featuring banquets, feasts, and awards, but were primarily sources of entertainment rather than training exercises or skill tests.

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