A tournament, or tourney (from the Old French torniement, tornei) is the name popularly
given to chivalrous competitions or mock fights of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (12-
16th Centuries). Although these mock fights didn‟t start out as chivalric.
Playing at the game of war started out as mock battles between two foes who had
gathered small armies. These were what we might call a grand melee. The two foes
would agree to meet at a designated place and begin their mock war. Often times villages
would be overrun in these mock wars and innocent bystanders would be killed.
Something like the medieval tournament was practiced by Roman cavalry, from early on
a critically important arm of the legions: two teams took turns chasing and fleeing each
other, casting javelins in the attack and covering themselves with their shields in the
retreat. These games, known as Hippica Gymnasia are known from ample archeological
and literary evidence to have been quite elaborate displays and were intended to impress
During the Early Middle Ages such cavalry games were still central to military training
as is evidenced by Louis and Charles‟ military games at Worms in 843. At this event,
recorded by Nithard, the intial chasing and fleeing was followed by a general melee of all
combatants. But the tournament, properly so called, does not appear in Europe before the
The earliest use of the word “tournament” comes from the peace legislation by Count
Baldwin III of Hainaut for the town of Valenciennes dated to 1114. It refers to the
keepers of the peace in the town leaving it “for the purpose of frequenting javelin sports,
tournaments, and such like.”
By the end of the first quarter of the century, however, tournaments were clearly popular
in France and especially in Northern France.
Then, in 1130, Pope Innocent II condemned these “war practices” calling them “those
detestable markets and fairs, vulgarly called tournaments, at which knights are wont to
assemble, in order to display their strength and their rash boldness” and claimed that
anyone who was slain in them would be denied a Christian burial. The usual
ecclesiastical justification for prohibiting the tournaments was that it distracted the
aristocracy from more acceptable warfare in defense of Christianity. However, the ban
of them by Henry II in England was due to their threat against public order. Knights
going to tournaments were accused of theft and violence against the unarmed. Henry II
was keen to establish public order in England. He did not prohibit tournaments in his
continental domains, however, and three of his sons were avid pursuers of the sport.
Despite the Pope‟s condemnation references to tournaments over the next half a century
make it abundantly clear that they grew in widespread popularity and acceptance among
the people if not the Church.
France was still the native home for the tournament. Northern France and Champagne
were the scene of most of the tournaments that William Marshall attended in the 1170s
and 1180s. They were popular much further afield as well. We hear of in 1159 a great
tournament held at Antioch in Syria, and a great and ceremonious affair it was for the
Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Comnenus, himself took part in it.
In 1175, in Saxony, after learning that in less than a year no less than sixteen knights had
been killed in tournaments, Archbishop Wickman excommunicated all those who took
part in them.
Tournaments were allowed once again in England after 1192, when Richard I identified
six sites where they would be permitted and gave a scale of fees by which patrons could
pay for a license. But, both King John and his son, Henry III, introduced fitful and
capricious prohibitions which much annoyed the aristocracy and eroded the popularity of
In France, Louis IX prohibited tourneying within his domains in 1260, and his successors
for the most part maintained the ban.
If the tournament had been no more than a question of practice and experience of mock
warfare then it would belong to military history rather than the history of chivalry. But
the concept of the tournament as sport with set rules takes us into a different world. The
rules to be observed during a tournament grew in complexity as the sport matured.
Originally in the 12th century there were only a handful of limitations. The critical
distinction between tournaments and war was of course that the object was to unhorse
and capture opponents, never kill them, and preferably not to injure them.
From a very early date areas of retreat were provided, where knights could retire to rest
themselves and their horses, and repair their armor. There were also boundaries of a kind
by the end of the 12th century. It was agreed that knights who were captured forfeited
their horses and had to find a ransom, but could not be held prisoner once they had
promised to pay. This had not always been the case.
There were also quite complicated arrangements about the intervention of foot soldiers in
support of a knight, either to help him capture another knight or to prevent him from
being taken himself. By the early 13th century, there were evidentially agreements that
certain types of blunted weapons would be used on a particular occasion and it seems that
“round tables” were a kind of temporary association in which each member swore to
obey rules covering the combat. In effect, the ethos behind the regulations was a desire
to see “fair play.”
We know little about the actual rules for fourteenth century tournaments, but there is
evidence for tournament judges and even scoring in Bologna in 1339. The three judges
are named and their duty was to see who won, a notary was present to write down the
blows at their dictation.
It was custom for all knights to swear an oath at the beginning of a tournament. So,
questions were posed in Geoffroi de Charny‟s „Questions on Jousting and Tournaments‟
in the 1350s that showed a concern about what should happen if a knight did not swear an
oath and whether or not that knight should receive a prize or be allowed to request a
forfeiture of a horse if he won. Questions about whether two knights fell should they
exchange horses, and also if a knight acts as a substitute for another and he wins who the
prize of horse should go to, the stand-in or the original.
The capture of horses was highly important to tournament participants, as the overall
prizes were often of less value than a single horse, though the honor of winning the prize
was more important than the financial gain: William Marshall, who made his fortune in
the tournaments of the 1180s, was once awarded a „fine pike‟ as a prize, and one source
even claims that talking parrots were offered to the winner.
The Italian civic tournaments give a fairly consistent pattern, such as the splendid helmets
created by the jewelers of Florence as prizes for jousts there; French and Burgandian
tournaments usually had a jewel as the prize, and the „dank‟ at a fifteenth century German
tournament was similar. Lengths of cloth were also occasionally given, but the prizes at
Burges in 1492 are typical: rubies, gold chains, and diamonds. A skilled knight could do
well financially out of tournaments. The prizes were traditionally given by ladies.
The final touch which ensured fair play and fair judgments of the results was the
introduction of scoring. It is only in the late 15th century that real evidence of scoring is
documented. It appears that breaking lances or unseating opponents were the only
incidents which had a definite scoring value.
Rules which entail disqualification are found from the 14th century onwards: a blow
beneath the waist or under the barrier with a pike, use of any device to fashion a sword to
the hand, dropping a sword, resting on the barrier during the fight, and failing to show a
sword to the judges beforehand.
The tournament began as an informal affair, martial exercises or mock warfare for
knights and squires; by the beginning of the sixteenth century, form and formality have
taken over, and the tournament is essentially an occasion, carefully planned in advance,
held at specific times for specific reasons, such as weddings or funerals, with its own
literary and dramatic conventions. The apogee of the tournament is in the fifteenth
century, when the reality of the fighting still balances the structure of ritual and theatrical
invention superimposed on the martial exercise.
Many men were made rich through the tournaments and many lost fortunes, but this did
not stop any of them from continuing to participate. For the knights, it was all about the
play and the fun to be had and if they won and gained some merit, all the better.
1. Chivalry; Keen, Maurice
2. The Knight and Chivalry; Barber, Richard