The Origins of Tournaments

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the September 2002, A.S. XXXVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

One of the more enduring images of the Middle Ages is the tournament. Hardly a film or story set in this period does not have one at least in the background, and one film centered on the tourney circuit itself. But the pageantry of the tournament masks the serious nature that caused the rise of this most knightly of activities. This essay will explore the murky beginnings of this unique sport.

The origins of the tournament went unrecorded because those who wrote the records were uninterested in such things, and those who were interested didnít care to keep such records. What references we have of these early tourneys are the result of something interesting to the writer that just happen to occur at a tourney, often the death or major injury of a notable. Even when tourneys became an object of reporting, the result was the equivalent of a box score of a football game. The only true extended descriptions of tournaments appear in the romantic literature with its own problems of teasing apart fact from fiction. Thus few hard conclusions can ever be made about these early tourneys.

The term tourney is ultimately derived from the Latin "tournus" which means turn. This is though to reflect the knightís turning around after each charge. Strictly speaking this only referred to the general melee. A more generic term used in the period was hastilude, which meant "spear game". The joust was strictly a one on one encounter. It comes from the Latin term "juxta" which means close together. They did not come into prominence until late in the 13th century. A lesser known but similar activity was the buhurt or behourd. The main difference was that only padded armour was worn and no or only light weapons were used. SCA tourneys should more properly called buhurts. While the tourney came out of Northern France, the buhurt originated in Germany. Like any sport, a whole vocabulary arose to distinguish the various variations of combat done at a tournament.

The activity that would become known as a tournament apparently started sometime in the second half of the 11th century. An early 13th century chronicle credits a Geoffrey de Preuilly as the inventor, but this is unsupported. While horse oriented training activities have a long history, the tourney is presumed to be a response to a new innovation in military tactics: the couched lance. The couched lance allowed the momentum of the charging horse to be added to the impact of a heavier lance. But this only worked with a group of horsemen attacking at the same time. This required practice, and this practice was the tournament.

These first tourneys had few rules and no specialized equipment. The equipment used was the same equipment a knight would use in actual combat. Blunted edges were an early safety improvement. The only provision was to denote refuges where a knight could recover from injuries, broken equipment, or secure his captives. There were no outer boundaries, no referees, no illegal acts. The action could range over the countryside heedless of the resulting damage. Blunted weapons may or may not be used. Death and injury were common. It was war as sport.

Needless to say, many authorities took a dim view of this activity. Foremost was the church. At the same time that the tourney was gaining popularity, the church was promulgating the Peace of God to reduce and control violence. Thus at the Council of Clermont in 1130 issued a bann, and denied burial on church grounds for those who died at a tourney. Later participants were excommunicated. The bann was not formally removed until 1316 when the church tacitly admitted defeat.

Various kings also attempted to outlaw or strongly control tourneys. Their reasons were more practical. The first was the threat to public order. Since the early tournaments were little more then dress rehearsals for war, it took little for a tournament to become an actual battle. Particularly since sides were chosen mostly on regional and feudal lines. Secondly, tournaments were often used as a cover for those engaging in various plots and assassinations. The Magna Carta is the most famous result of these tourney plots. The notable exception to this was various English kings who would issue licenses as a means of controlling tournaments.

The heart of the tourney region was northern France with England a close second. During the 12th century it is estimated that a tournament occurred roughly every two weeks somewhere in the region. Given that a tournament lasted roughly three or four days, it is easy to see how tourneying could be a full time job. William Marshal is simply the most famous of these professional tourney knights. Germany also took to the tourney, though evidence implies there was a century and a half delay. Tourneys also occurred elsewhere in Christian Europe though without the enthusiasm that existed in France and England. And in many cases they occurred because of the presence of French and English knights without any clear indication that local knights also participated.

Around 1170 a new influence would appear that would greatly change the nature of the tournament; the idea of chivalric love. Romance writers, the most famous being Chretien de Troyes, began using the tournament setting as a place where their heroes could impress and perhaps win the love of their lady. Some life began imitating art as knights began to re-enact the seines in these romances. The lists acquired boundaries and shrank. Grandstands were constructed for the spectators. And pageantry and individual accomplishment became more important. It is likely the need for the individual knight to stand out in the tourney as well as on the battlefield led to the development of heraldry.

Throughout the rest of the period, pageantry and spectacle became an ever more important part of the tournament. While the melee never totally disappeared, it increasingly became less frequent to the point where many tournaments did not have it. The joust became the central activity. But even this began to take second place to the managed theme of the tourney to the point where, in some tournaments, even the outcome was preordained. The political realities of the 17th century ended the tournament. They could not be used to glorify the prince, and no one else could afford them.



Barber, Richard, and Juliet Barker. Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1989.

Bumke, Joachim. Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages. New York: The Overlook Press, 1991.

Clephan, R. Coltman. The Medieval Tournament. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.

Edge, David, and John Miles Paddock. Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight. New York: Crescent Books, 1988.

Robards, Brooks. The Medieval Knight at War. London: Tiger Books International, 1997.

Steane, John. The Archaeology of the Medieval English Monarchy. London: Routledge, 1993.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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