Long Reads

A Crash Course on Medieval Tournaments

What Asinus Teaches

  1. What Was a Medieval Tournament?
  2. Who Could Participate in a Tournament?
  3. Two Examples of Aristocratic Tournaments:
    1. Chauvency, 1285
    1. Saint-Inglevert, 1390
  4. René d’Anjou’s Treatise on Tournaments

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

I am a 14th century French knight that has just been eliminated early on in a jousting tournament. Do I stay around and watch? Do I leave in shame? How would I proceed with my day?

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My Answer

Walter Scott is not too far from the truth when he writes the following paragraph in his historical novel Ivanhoe (1820):

“The shouts of the multitude, together with the acclamations of the heralds, and the clangour of the trumpets, announced the triumph of the victors and the defeat of the vanquished. The former retreated to their pavilions, and the latter, gathering themselves up as they could, withdrew from the lists in disgrace and dejection, to agree with their victors concerning the redemption of their arms and their horses, which, according to the laws of the tournament, they had forfeited.”—Chapter VIII.

I would argue, however, that tournaments didn’t follow their own laws but that they actually followed the chivalric code of war! Indeed, jousts and tournaments were nothing like modern sporting events. I get the feeling from your phrasing that you expect knights to face each other off until there’s only two of them left for a great finale. However, jousts and tournaments were true exercises of warfare during peace times more than anything else. It was a way to make war without declaring it.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knight. Lady. Gift. Elephant. Crest. Elephant Crest. Helmet.Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knight. Lady. Gift. Swan. Crest. Swan Crest. Helmet.
Two Ladies Each Giving a Helmet with an Animal Crest to a Knight
Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knights. Armors. Shields. Heraldry. Spears. Jousting. Tournament. Horses. Gallop. Fight. Flowers.
The Joust Between the Knight With a Swan Crest and the Knight With an Elephant Crest – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bold. MS 264, f. 101v

By the end of the 15th century, jousts and tournaments became heavily ritualized and participants were advised to wield non-lethal weapons but such was not yet the case during the 13th and 14th century.

As in regard of shame, there were little to none if you “lost” in a jousting event or in a tournament. The only one and true shame would have been to refuse to participate unless you were already at war or on a crusade. Also, the only way to be definitively eliminated from a tournament or from jousts would have been to die during the event. Otherwise, the goal of such event was to “capture” the opponent or to force him to admit defeat in order to put him to ransom, pretty much like it could be done on an actual battlefield.

Let’s give it all more context, shall we?

Jousts and Tournaments: What Were They?

As stated, they were not sporting events. They were true moments of warfare, at least until the first half of the 15th century. During the second half of the 15th century, jousts and tournaments became heavily ritualized and death was an unlikely outcome. When Henry II of France died from a jousting event in 1547, it was a most tragic accident. In contrast, if Boucicault had died during the jousts of Saint-Inglebert in 1390, people would have figured it was a risk he’d been more than willing to take. As a matter of fact, he was allegedly put on bed rest for nine days before he could return to the jousts.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Jousting. Knights. The Songe of Pestilence.Horses. Castle. Armors. Spears. King. Queen. Tournament. Heraldry. Fall. Victory. Defeat. Swords. Shields.
Jousts Between Knights on Horses and on Foot- Brussels, KBR, ms. 10218-19, f. 141r

Jousts and tournaments were also two different things. A tournament was a warlike battle between two opposing groups of knights, fighting on horses with swords on a delimited area. Each group had to capture as many opposing knights as possible and put them to ransom. It was deemed a very noble exercise since they were fighting with swords, a most noble weapon. However, it left little room for individual prowess. That’s what jousts were designed for. Knights would face each other, individually, either on foot or on horse, according to well-defined pre-established rules and surrounded by expert witnesses: a high lord (king or prince), other experienced men-at-arms, heralds, minstrels, ladies. Of course, tournaments could also be done in front of an audience.

Quantitative studies show that jousts and tournaments were more often organized from winter to spring when war came to a standstill on most years. The Great Lent was often fully booked for such military events. They were also held at weddings, baptisms or other religious celebrations.

Who Would Participate in Jousts or a Tournament?

The people who participated in jousts and tournaments were actual knights, meaning people who actually fought wars. They were skilled warriors. They often served as ranking officers within their lord’s army. That’s why they required a formal authorization to attend such events. More often than not we see mighty dukes, kings or princes ordering a fight to stop and call it a draw because they don’t want to lose their elite men-at-arms in the process of a joust or a tournament.

Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Jousting. Knights. Horses. Castle. Armors. Spears. King. Queen. Tournament. Heraldry. Gallop. Fall. Victory. Defeat. Shields.
Knights Jousting on Horses – Brussels, KBR, ms. 10218-19, f. 121r

Ecclesiastic authorities didn’t have much regard for jousts and tournaments but the urban bourgeoisie held its own warlike events, aspiring to live up to the standards of the nobility. Sometimes we find knights and burghers participating to the same event! It is quite rare, though, and certainly not the norm. The peasantry had its own military tournaments. Archery tournaments were often held in England and France and we have found several instances where kings actually prohibited other kind of “games” that would or could distract the population from the daily practice of archery.

Jousts and tournaments were true exercises of warfare during peace times. It was a way to make war without declaring it.

It wasn’t too rare that young knights would partake on a long journey across Europe to fight as many jousts or tournaments they could. They’d often join in on actual wars too. The famous Reisen in Prussia against the Pagans was a hotspot of chivalric “tourism” if we can allow ourselves a little anachronism.

Tournament of Chauvency (1285)

Reported only by a long narrative poem, some scholars suspect that the Tournament of Chauvency may have never taken place. Indeed, historical facts were preferably written in prose during the Late Middle Ages whereas poetry was considered the form of fiction. Nevertheless, we can account for every participant of the aforementioned tournament. None of them is fictional or made up.

This tournament happened at Chauvency-le-Château, a little town in Northern France. Many nobles from the western border of the Holy Roman Empire participated to the event. The event was announced by heralds all around the region and it contributed to its substantial attendance. Every day knights fought on the field. Every night they gathered for a feast: they danced, they sang, they spent a jolly good time together among their wives and ladies. All in all it was a joyful event though blood was spilled and injuries occurred. It is worth maybe reminding that the medieval society conceived war and violence as a natural and necessary aspect of human life. Boys were encouraged very young to play with weapons and to master them.

  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knights. Armors. Shields. Heraldry. Spears. Jousting. Tournament. Horses. Gallop. Fight. Royalty. King. Queen. Ladies. Admirers. Castle.
  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knights. Ladies. Dance. Sing. Play. Countess of Luxembourg.Tournament. Party. Night. Tournament After-Party. Music. Instruments.
  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. Knights. Armors. Shields. Heraldry. Swords. Jousting. Tournament. Horses. Blood. Fight. Battle. Joust. Wound.

Jousts of Saint-Inglevert (1390)

Jean II le Meingre, called Boucicault, ranked among the most renowned knights of the French kingdom at the end of the 14th century. He was so great and so brave despite his short height that his cult following survives to this day.

I wish I was kidding.

On the year 1390, when France and England agreed on a peace treaty, Boucicault received the king’s authorization to organize a 30 days jousting event. He called every knight from the Christendom to meet and challenge him and his two friends at Saint-Inglevert. It appeared French and English knights disagreed on which country had the most chivalrous warriors and this main event was supposed to give an answer to this hot-heated debate.

Boucicault and his two friends had their pavilions out in a field and they were hosting anyone who would challenge them, inviting them to dinner on a large round table (the Arthurian trope was very common during such events). For thirty days, they faced knights from England, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and France. Boucicault was put on bed rest for nine days but he got back on his horse and went right back at it. The jousts followed very strict rules but the losers were expected to pay a tribute to the victors. At the end of the event, however, Boucicault and his two friends didn’t keep anything from their spoils and gave it back to their opponents! Much to their honor.

The concept of chivalry was getting more and more sophisticated. It didn’t only apply to wealthy landowners who fought on horses. It came to define a culture and its elite. Gallantry was becoming the best part of chivalry. Friends or foes, everybody was expected to behave honorably and follow a chivalrous code of conduct.

“Traité de la Forme et Devis d’un Tournoi” (1462-1465)

By the end of the 15th century, René d’Anjou wrote a treatise on jousting and knightly tournaments: how to announce them, how to hold them, how to bring them to a conclusion. This treatise was written in several lavish manuscript that contains vivid and amazing depictions of such events and as a conclusion of this piece, I wanted to give you a few links to browse them at will.

  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. René of Anjou. René I of Naples. Good King René. King. Treaty. Tournament. Tournament Treaty. Heraldry. Lord. Semy-de-Lys. Throne. Sword. Fleur-de-Lys.
  • Illuminated Medieval Manuscript. Illumination. René of Anjou. René I of Naples. Good King René. King. Treaty. Tournament. Tournament Treaty. Heraldry. Lord. Sword. Horses. Knights. Jousting.

In Conclusion: TL;DR

Did knights stay around and watched if they lost a tournament?

Most certainly. And they lost only because they couldn’t keep up with ransoming fees. Or died…

Did they leave in shame?

No. Shame only belonged to the people who didn’t show up or openly refused to join in on the event. It could even be a legitimate military tactic during a siege that had been brought to a stalemate to bait an enemy with a knightly duel. Could they bear the dishonor of denying an open challenge?

How did they proceed with their day?

They most certainly waited for the night to come and the feast to continue if they hadn’t been critically injured. They also had to start gathering money to pay off their ransom or pay back the equipment they agreed to relinquish to their victorious opponent.

Short Reads

How Philip the Good wished that his son proved his manhood

Comment Philippe le Bon espéra que son fils prouvât sa valeur
[Version française ci-dessous / Read the story in French below]

Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, had quite a string of bastards, but only one legitimate son, who would later be known as Charles the Rash. The latter’s mother, Isabel of Portugal, cherished him. He was the only son she had who survived beyond infancy.

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2644, f. 265r

Charles would later on prove to be a very skilled tactician and fighter. Yet, at the prime age of seventeen, he still had pretty much everything left to prove. No surprises there, young noble lads were only supposed to start their proper military training between fourteen and sixteen years old. They usually didn’t launch their chivalrous career before they reached eighteen.

Nevertheless, as Charles was in Brussels with his father and mother, it was decided he would engage in his very first public jousting event. That was well beyond what was expected from someone his age.

One question was on every lips. Who would face the heir apparent to Philip the Good, the mightiest Duke of Christendom? It had to be an honourable knight, for sure. Yes, well, certainly someone of note!

After much deliberation, it was concluded that the young Charles would face Jacques de Lalaing, the most adored knight of the court, but not only that, Jacques was the best knight of his time. His skills were so unparalleled that no-one, in the whole kingdom of France, dared to challenge him when he had called out for people to meet him on knightly venues.

Jacques de Lalaing had had to go all the way to Spain to find worthy opponents!

That day on the Grand’Place of Brussels, which was very different to the one we know today —for the French hadn’t bombarded it yet—, Charles of Burgundy met Jacques of Lalaing on the jousting field.

Paris, BnF, fr. 2644, f. 142r

Jacques of Lalaing was a careful man. On the first charge he didn’t lower his spear, yet the heir of Burgundy shattered his on Jacques’ shield. When he witnessed such a thing, Philip the Good was much displeased. “Don’t spare my son, go at it!” The Duchess Isabel didn’t like such an idea. She wanted her son to be safe. Jousts were not always the merriest business. Nevertheless, the duke wished his son would prove his strength. The noble couple even argued in front of everyone.

However loud the duchess protested at her husband’s notions of manhood, Jacques of Lalaing fulfilled his Lord’s command. The second time he charged the young Charles, he lowered his spears.

The heir of Burgundy showed no fear. Spears shattered on both Charles’ and Jacques’ mutual shields and neither of them fell from their steed. Philip the Good gloated with pride and everybody applauded at Charles’ prowess, happy to see that their duke had a strong and healthy successor.

This story isn’t an isolated incident. At the battle of Crécy in 1346 (about a century before the aforementioned joust), Edward III, king of England, denied to bring reinforcements to his son and heir saying: “Let him win his spurs!” There was a very long standing culture regarding how aristocratic men where expected to behave. The legend has it that William Marshal, when he was yet a child, saved himself from execution, back in the 12th century, as the king suddenly grew fond of him because he was toying with a weapon.

Charles the Bold, depicted by Rogier van der Weyden

Version française

Philippe le Bon, duc de Bourgogne, eut une ribambelle de bâtards. Toutefois, il n’eut qu’un seul fils légitime – que l’on surnomme aujourd’hui Charles le Téméraire. La mère de ce dernier, Isabelle de Portugal, le chérissait particulièrement. Deux de ses fils étaient morts en bas âge, Charles était le seul à avoir survécu.

De son vivant, l’héritier de Philippe le Bon démontra à maintes reprises ses talents de combattant et de tacticien. Néanmoins, au jeune âge de dix-sept ans, il avait encore tout à prouver. Alors qu’il se trouvait à Bruxelles avec son père et sa mère, il fut décidé qu’il se lancerait dans sa première joute officielle. Une question pendit toutefois à toutes les lèvres. Qui aurait l’honneur de l’affronter en premier ? Ce devrait être un preux chevalier, quelqu’un de remarquable. Après moult délibérations, il fut arrangé que le jeune Charles affronterait Jacques de Lalaing en personne, le chevalier le plus adoré de la cour de Bourgogne, un chevalier tel qu’aucun, en France, n’avait osé relever ses défis. Il avait dû se rendre jusqu’en Espagne pour trouver des adversaires dignes de l’affronter. Enfin, donc, Charles de Bourgogne rencontra Jacques de Lalaing sur la Grand’Place de Bruxelles, prêt à en découdre.

Jacques de Lalaing était un homme prudent. Quand il chargea la première fois, il ne baissa pas sa lance, bien que celle du jeune héritier de Bourgogne se rompît sur son écu. Quand il constata la chose, le duc de Bourgogne s’avéra bien mécontent. « N’épargne pas mon fils, va donc ! » La duchesse Isabelle n’appréciait guère une telle idée. Elle eût préféré que son fils restât en parfaite sécurité, mais le son époux désirait que son fils prouvât sa valeur. Le noble couple se disputa. Cependant, au second envol, Jacques de Lalaing respecta les vœux de son suzerain et abaissa sa lance. L’héritier de Bourgogne de montra aucun signe de faiblesse. Les deux lances se rompirent sur les boucliers respectifs de Charles et Jacques. Aucun d’eux ne chut de son destrier. Philippe le Bon exulta de fierté et tout le monde applaudit la prouesse du jeune Charles, bien heureux d’observer que le duc avait pour lui succéder un héritier aussi vaillant qu’en parfaite santé !

Olivier de la Marche, Mémoires. Edited by Henri Beaune & J. d’Arbaumont. Paris: Renouard, 1883-1888. Cf. t. 2, p. 214-215.

Further reading:
Martin de Riquer, “Les chevaleries de Jacques de Lalaing en Espagne”, in Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1991), 135/2, 351-365.