Back

Vilert A. Loving

The Development of Tournaments in the Knightly Tradition

The tournament is one of the most common events associated with knighthood. They appear constantly in the stories of Arthurian literature, such as those by Chretien de Troyes. For example, Yvain participates in numerous tournaments for a time that is well over the year that was allotted by his wife. The later, tournament-like dual between Gawain and Yvain is seen as the climactic action of the story. In reality, the actual tournaments were not always so glamorous and they had an elaborate course of development. The early period of tournaments (11th-13th century) was intended to be practice for war. They also led to the growth of heraldry and various suits of armor. In contrast, the late period of tournaments was much more aesthetic and had relatively little practical value.

Tournaments are known to have originated in France by at least the mid-11th century . From there, they spread out and became popular throughout much of Europe. They were originally meant as training grounds for war. The early tournaments, in fact, were hardly distinguishable from actual wars because the participants used authentic swords, axes, and lances. To initiate a tournament, a sponsor, such as a king or lord, must first have had a desire to support it. He would have arranged the land for the battle, sent out messengers to notify participants, and provided lodgings for the knights. At the start of the tournament, the competing teams were usually made up of two neighboring towns and they would line up along opposite edges of the field. Once given the signal to begin, the teams would charge at each other on their horses with lances lowered. After the initial pass, swords were drawn and everyone fought in close combat. These tournaments were obviously extremely disorganized and, as a result, there were many serious injuries and fatalities.

In response to the significant risks involved in tournaments, new safety rules were imposed by Kings Richard I and Edward I in England . They exacted a fee from all participants in tournaments and limited the actual number of people that could compete. The knights were also encouraged, though not forced, to use blunted weapons to minimize injuries. Sand was also spread over the tournament field to dampen the impact created when the knights were unhorsed and fell to the ground. However, despite these improvements in safety, there were still numerous deaths during the tournaments since the rules were lightly followed.

Because of this unnecessary loss of life, there were some groups that opposed the practice of tournaments, most notably the church and high secular rulers . The church pointed out the "sins" of the tournaments. These included the pointless deaths and greed from the ransoms gained during the tournaments. The Pope also believed that the tournaments wasted the time and energy of the knights, when they could instead be preparing for the Crusades that were occurring at the time. Regarding the secular rulers, the tournaments were wrong because they altered the loyalties if the knights. One of the major concerns of most rulers was to gain as many loyal followers as possible to support them during wars. Tournaments acted against these interests because the participating knights often became more loyal to their local leaders. The local leaders, after all, were the people whom the knights represented during the tournaments. Thus, as many kings lost strong supporters, they joined the church in an unsuccessful attempt to ban tournaments.

Despite this opposition, the popularity of tournaments continued to rise throughout Europe during the 13th century. This was largely due to four main reasons . First, the tournaments did actually provide valid training for war. Since the knights used real weapons and fought with their townsmen, they gained skills in weaponry and teamwork. The English chronicler Roger de Hoveden stated that "A knight cannot shine in war if he has not prepared for it in tournaments…Then will he be able to confront actual war with the hope of being victorious" . Second, the ransom money from tournaments provided a strong incentive for many knights to participate. When a knight defeated his opponent, he took the loser off the field and demanded a ransom for his victory. This usually consisted of the defeated knight's armor and horse, both of which were worth a large amount of money. In fact, some knights were known to have continuously traveled from one tournament to another for the sole reason of obtaining as much money as possible. The third motivation for tournaments was the resultant status as a social elite. Since armor and horses were quite expensive and there were fees involved with tournaments, the upper class was the only group that could even hope to participate. Thus, it became a status symbol for a person to even be able to enter a tournament. The final reason for the popularity of tournaments was the principle of courtly love. As in the Arthurian stories, knights were always trying to prove their prowess as a knight to show his worthy to his lady. Women, in turn, would often come to watch tournaments and give out pieces of their clothing as tokens to their representative knight.

Heraldry and armor also developed during this time period due to their importance in the tournaments. After the 12th century, there were an increasingly large number of people that took part in tournaments. With the use of helmets, knights were literally unidentifiable underneath their helmets . To compensate, they began to use heraldry on their equipment. Heraldry involved the placement of characteristic symbols or animals on a knight's shield and flag. In later periods, the heraldry symbols became so widely employed that they began to be inherited within families. Thus, based solely on his associated symbols, a knight could be fully recognized by a herald who announced the knight's identity upon his entrance onto the tournament field. Armor styles also changed significantly during the time of tournaments. During the early period of tournaments, knights mostly wore mail armor. This basically consisted of a suit of chain-metal links that covered most of the body. After the 14th century, this changed almost exclusively to the use of plate armor. Unlike mail, plate armor was made of solid sheets of metal that were placed on the knight. Eventually, specific plate armor styles were created just for tournaments. For example, the visor of these styles was set at an angle that was perfect for leaning in a horse to joust. However, the knight would not be able to see while standing on the ground because the visor's angle would be too high.

This change to a tournament-specific armor style is representative of the beginning of a new aesthetic orientation of the late period of tournaments. Compared to the early period, tournaments were now more concerned with entertainment value than actual war training. There was also a rising emphasis on safety. Blunted weapons became more widespread and the armor continued to increase in thickness to prevent injury. In addition, the joust became the centerpiece event of tournaments rather than the melee battle. However, the knights' armor eventually became so heavy that it was nearly impossible to unhorse anybody. The rules then changed so that the goal was to break a certain number of lances on your opponents helmet, shield, or armor. Similarly, the one-on-one sword dual was also changed due to the thickness of the armor. Injury was extremely rare and, oftentimes, the only reason for the knights to stop fighting was out of pure exhaustion. Accordingly, the rules here were also altered and the dual was ended after both adversaries inflicted a certain number of strikes. These drastic changes in the nature of the joust and the dual signal the beginning of the decline of tournaments. They became more of an art than a practical skill. The decline was sped up in the late 15th and 16th centuries, when the increasing use of guns made armor useless in war. Knights, in general, were less important in the military because foot soldiers with guns proved much more effective than a knight on a horse. With this decline in knighthood, the tournament's sole use was for entertainment value. This value inevitably disappeared and tournaments, along with the traditional armored knights, died out in Europe. Nonetheless, although real tournaments are no longer practiced, their influence still remains in much of modern literature and in various festivals that aim to reenact the grandeur of the Middle Ages.

Back