Tournaments of the Medieval Knights

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., The College of William and Mary

Medieval knights have a reputation today for their manners of chivalry and their skill on horseback. In this article, explore the tournaments where knights practiced jousting, tilting and more. Discover how the chivalric code may have influenced the nature of tournaments.

Knight in a tournament
(Image: strannik72/Shutterstock)

Romance Defines the Age

Chivalric knights drew their inspiration from literature, such as “courtesy books” and romances of the era, that offered guides for behavior.

Lays of Marie de France
Lays of Marie de France contains short poems and stories about courtly romance. (Image: Marie de France; translator Eugene Mason/Public domain)

No investigation of chivalric knighthood would be complete without mention of Marie de France, the most important female author of medieval romances and a poet who lived in England during the late 12th century. De France was attached to the court of the Count and Countess of Champagne, specializing in writing short poems known as “lais,” that often ended unhappily. Literary historians have suggested that as a woman, she had a different perspective on courtly romance. From a feminine perspective, de France saw that for the woman involved, idealization was not as satisfying and fulfilling as male authors made it appear to be.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Another important romance author, “Andrew the Chaplain,” or Andreas Capellanus, a court chaplain, wrote a remarkable how-to guide for would-be courtly lovers that gave specific instructions regarding how to woo women of different social classes: lower, middle, and upper nobility, lower middle, etc., and other permutations. Capellanus intended to tell his audience exactly how to win a woman’s heart.

Assessing this literature’s impact on real-life medieval knights is difficult. One method historians have devised to determine whether knights changed the way they acted and whether it was in response to chivalry, is to examine the history of the tournament.

Let the Games Begin

Tournaments were the favorite pastime of the medieval nobility, allowing them to keep their military skills sharp. They enjoyed participating in tournaments almost as much as they loved hunting, another favorite activity. The earliest documented tournaments were held around 1100, first taking place in northern France. They became all the rage, and as they spread throughout Europe, their popularity among knights surged.

Tournaments, as they first existed, were chaotic affairs with few rules. Before a tournament was held, invitations were sent out to knights from various regions—often to hundreds of knights at a time—inviting them to congregate at the time and place where the tournament would be held.

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When the knights arrived, they were divided into teams that were usually based on geographic origins, such as the northern French versus the southern French knights, or the German knights versus the French. There might be dozens or even hundreds on a team. Boundaries were set to indicate where the tournament would take place, and safety zones designated to specify areas where knights could not be attacked. Often, a single tournament included acres and acres of land.

Knights tournament
The goal of a knight tournament was not to kill the opponent, but to un-horse someone, and take the person captive. (Image: Photo Spiri/Shutterstock)

This was the extent of the rules for the early tournaments. They were fought using real weapons like swords, lances, or any instrument with a sharp edge. In combat, almost anything was allowed in terms of attacking an opponent. The goal was not to kill your opponent but to un-horse someone. Victors could then take the person captive, hold them for ransom, and claim his horse, armor, and money. It was common, even accepted, that someone could die as they were stripped of valuables during the tournament.

In addition to using real weapons during the course of the fighting, the nobles often wound up attacking innocent bystanders. The peasants who lived in the area suffered tremendously during the early tournaments. Nobles would ride through their crops in pursuit of one another, trampling next year’s harvest. Commonly, an opponent from the opposing team would be trapped in a peasant’s house seeking a place to hide. The best way to get the knight out was to set fire to the house, even though the peasant who owned the house was uninvolved in the tournament.

The Tournaments Turn Violent

The medieval tournaments were so violent that early in their history the church attempted to prohibit them. A church council in 1130 tried to forbid tournaments, an effort church councils would repeat over and over without much success. Tournaments were forbidden in parts of Europe where royal authority was especially strong and kings were able to restrain their nobles. Kings knew the harm that could be done to their subjects if the tournaments were fought.

The very violent, realistic tournaments found earlier in the High Middle Ages had changed by the time 1300 arrived. They had become more subdued, civilized, and they closely resembled modern images of tournaments as we conceive of them today.

By the end of the High Middle Ages, certain ultra-violent practices had been banished from the tournaments. One discontinued practice was the use of kippers. Kippers were people on foot that nobles brought to a tournament to rush out onto the field when their lord had dismounted someone. They would beat the person senseless with clubs so the knight could remove the person’s armor with greater ease and seize their horse. By 1300, the use of kippers was considered bad form.

Uncontrolled trampling through peasants’ fields and roaming across acres of land had come to an end by 1300, too. A different form of the contest had become more popular. Jousting, a one-on-one contest, although still considerably violent, was limited to a specific geographic area. Even in 1300, riders could still die.

Attempts were made to make jousting and participation in a tournament less deadly. The use of real weapons was rare by 1300, replaced by the use of blunted weapons. There was no sharp point at the end of the lance. Knights simply tried to knock someone off of their horse. To prevent the messy head-on collisions that sometimes occurred during jousting, the invention of the tilt was introduced. The tilt was a railing designed to run down the middle of the jousting field to prevent fatal collisions as riders charged toward one another.

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Even with these changes, people were still killed in tournaments. The church continued to condemn tournaments as of 1300, and kings, if they could, tried to keep the fighting in tournaments to a minimum. It was an unusual noble family during the High Middle Ages that could not point to at least one family member who was trampled, fell badly off of a horse, or who was killed in a tournament. Nonetheless, the bloodletting of the early tournaments had lessened.

Chivalry versus Violence

Should these changes be attributed to chivalry or are they independent developments? An especially tricky question, there is some reason to think that these changes should be attributed, at least in part, to the development of the chivalric notion that the display of military prowess is not for frivolous pastime, but only when doing good for someone defenseless.

By 1300, especially in the Late Middle Ages, it became common for knights to be excluded from tournaments because they had violated the code in specific ways: speaking badly of women in public and violating courtly love; burning down peasants’ homes; inflicting violence on the defenseless, or otherwise violating the chivalric ideal. In this instance, one can see the direct influence of chivalry on real behavior.

One should not assume that by 1300, medieval nobility had been tamed completely. The fact that knights who burned down peasants’ houses, spoke badly of women, and pillaged churches had to be excluded from tournaments, informs what we know of the times. It tells you that such knights still existed and that Europe still had a problem to solve.

Tournaments after 1300 took the chivalric ideal to odd extremes. Some tournaments were organized as roundtable tournaments where different knights pretended to be characters from chivalric romances. One person would dress up as Arthur, another as Lancelot, another as Yvain, and they would take part in mock adventures imitating what they had heard in chivalric romances. The fact that they were willing to play-act and pretend to be chivalric heroes suggests they took chivalry seriously.

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The image of the chivalric knight who devoted himself to the love of a lady is just an image. However, it is an image with a purpose and with an effect. Although it never conformed to reality, the distance between image and ideal appears to have narrowed as the High Middle Ages progressed, and knights started to internalize the chivalric code as transmitted to them through chivalric literature. To judge from the development of the tournament in the High Middle Ages, knights and other nobles lost some, but not all, of their bloodthirstiness.

Common Questions About Medieval Tournaments

Q: What did knights do at tournaments?

Sometimes medieval knight tournaments were conducted as individual contests while other times they served as team events. These were highly organized events where knights had to follow a set of rules — it was not just a free-for-all. Often cash prizes were awarded to the winner.

Q: Why did knights have tournaments?

Tournaments for medieval knights served both an entertainment purpose and a practical purpose, as they helped knights to prepare for battle. Family honor factored into these tournaments as well, as knights would fight on behalf of their family, their affiliations displayed in a coat of arms.

Q: What weapons did knights use in tournaments?

In tournaments, knights often used a sword or lance, around 8 to 10 feet in length. Although knights fought with blunted swords or lances, injuries and even the occasional death still occurred.

Q: What were the events of a medieval tournament?

Although we most commonly associate medieval knight tournaments with jousting, jousting was not the main event. That would be the mêlée, where the knights charged toward each other from opposite sides.

This article was updated on October 28, 2019

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