Tournaments, jousting and weapon games in the Middle Ages

Tournaments, jousting and weapon games in the Middle Ages

Favorite sports of nobles in the Middle Ages, the tournaments know from the 12th century an extraordinary vogue in France before spreading in Germany and England. Originally war games, they turn into a spectacle. These are ritualized simulacra of violent fights between two teams in the open countryside and later of jousting between knights competing in pairs during chivalrous festivals, given in the 14th century "in honor of the ladies", during ceremonies, princely weddings and other receptions ...

Weapon games

Nobles like to stand out with guns in hand, clashes for which they train daily from an early age. A formative exercise for jousting, the ring race sees skillful knights aiming for a ring attached to a pole. The lords also encourage papegaut shooting or wrestling which appear as interludes in weapon festivals. For "the safety and defense of the kingdom" an edict of King Charles V in 1369 banned dice and other games favoring bow and crossbow exercises, "esbatements" more suitable by their military character.

Learning war while having fun is what the young boys of the aristocracy do, who practice Behourd (fencing on horseback), and the handling of wooden swords. The courses of the castles are schools where we train young athletes who must acquire flexibility, agility and vigor. They practice running, stone or javelin throwing, high jumps or fully armed, escremia (stick or sword wrestling) which are muscular entertainments preparing for military art.

La Quintaine, a difficult test, is an articulated wooden mannequin placed at the top of a post called a "stache". Rushed at a gallop, the jouster must give a violent spear blow against the target equipped with a hauberk and a shield to knock it down, aiming it right in the middle. If the jouster does not strike straight or does not break his lance, he risks being thrown off, ridiculing himself in front of the assembly.

While the nobles wield the sword, spear and mace, bourgeois and peasants practice with sticks or fists, shoot with bows or crossbows. Archery skill is essential in a siege. The papegaut (parrot) is a green painted bird placed on top of a perch or on a rampart to serve as a target. Brotherhoods of the papegaut bring together the best shooters and distribute prizes. A formidable weapon in the hands of the Bretons, the shod stick or "thrust" already appears in a poem by the troubadour Marcabrun in the 12th century.

Tournaments, mock battles

Regularly practiced at St John's Day, at Pentecost or in great circumstances (princely weddings, plenary courts), the games of arms took place in the 12th and 13th century on a huge field of exercise pitting two armed groups against their leaders and their soldiers. During these pitched battles we face each other with a real weapon, sword, spear and mace, as a team from province to province. Horses and riders line up in two lines for the maneuver to be executed. At the signal given by the trumpets or by the bell of the tournament, the troops charge in a great crash of maces of arms and swords. Sometimes the whirlwinds put so much ardor into the confrontation that they forget the sporting dimension and that fighters lose their lives. The Duke of Brittany Geoffroy Plantagenêt died at the age of twenty-eight from an injury received at a tournament given in his honor in 1186!

This expression sums up the mixed tournaments where the stake is not only sporting: prisoners are taken there (the ransom of which is dearly bought) and the richly harnessed horses as well as the weapons of the vanquished belong to the winner, representing a very lucrative trade. which gives rise to controversies on the ground. Some unscrupulous knights take advantage of the confusion to enrich themselves. Many barons and lords have ruined themselves to parade in these fairs of arms! This is why the Council of Clermont condemns in 1130 these detestable and mercantile games.

Spectacular tournaments in the 14th and 15th centuries

The Finder Jacques Bretel evokes in his writings "The tournaments of Chauvency", the evolution of chivalrous society. The fights carried out in open fields turn into an “elegant” sport practiced in closed space under the spectators' stands, the “hourds”. These steps, magnificently decorated with tapestries, badges, pavilions and banners, welcome princes, ladies and young ladies dressed in their finery.

The combatants, kings-at-arms and squires make a solemn entry, with their extravagant emblems and helmets of exaggerated dimensions. The crest, a sort of plume surmounting the helmet, is decorated with various patterns: heraldic animals, horns, branches, peacock or ostrich feathers, and enhanced with a banner, the "lambrequin" fluttering in the wind. The knights display bright colors: red, green or blue on their shield, their banner or the cover of the horses. We do not spin to get rich but to show our skill and rank with all the panache necessary. The staging is that of courtly novels whose nobility cultivates a nostalgic taste.

The day before the tournament takes place the review of swords, banners and helms where we recall the chivalrous laws (see chivalry in the Middle Ages). The knights present themselves on the said day preceded by their trumpet minstrels and followed by their squires. The appellant's emblazoned banners are brought and planted in the lists. The two teams fight until the retreat sounded by the trumpets. The winner's prize is awarded by the tournament queen accompanied by her bridesmaids, the king-at-arms and the judges.

For the love of the ladies

The desire to please ladies is no stranger to the staging of tournaments. Already at the time of the troubadours, the knights lend themselves to the games of courtly love. The champions will spin around in the hope of seducing a beautiful heiress. The sporting encounter becomes a place of seduction. According to the chronicler Jean d'Authon, the ladies were so adorned at a tournament held in Milan in 1507 in the presence of King Louis XII, that "it was magic".

The erotic element is evident in the custom of ladies offering their favors to their favorite knight. It is a scarf, a veil, a sleeve (some dresses have sleeves sewn so as to come off for this use) or other adornment with which the chosen one adorns the top of his helmet. , his shield or his coat of arms. In the frenzy of the fighting, the ladies offer so many adornments to the knights that in the end they find themselves bareheaded with their sleeveless coats, without shirt or chasuble and laugh at their adventure "not having noticed of their undress! "

Weapons and armor

Highly regulated, tournaments require specific equipment very different from those of war, requiring the wearing of a light breastplate under which is a corset padded with canvas and tow to cushion the blows of sledgehammer and sword. The tournament helm has large diamond patterns on the front for breathing and viewing.

For jousting, singular fights, the gunsmiths reinforce the helmet by removing the large openings, replaced by a narrow slit at eye level. This helmet, named '' toad's head '' by its shape (weighing up to 9 kg) is attached to a steel corselet by huge hinges. The jouster's armor is of considerable weight to give more power to the lance and steadiness to the rider. The breastplate is reinforced on the left side by a gauntlet on the forearm, a steel plate protecting the shoulder. Attached by a strap to the armor, the shield or targe is a wooden shield covered with leather or deer horn with a raised grid to dodge the blows of spears.

The so-called courteous lance, furnished with a ratchet (point with three rounded ends in order to distribute the impact and avoid piercing the armor) is light and fragile to break easily on the helmet or the shield of the adversary. The rider must brace himself on his mount so as not to “wank in the saddle”. It takes a lot of dexterity to direct the blow. This combat is followed by a joust on foot "at the barrier" with confrontation with an ax or mace.

The fatal joust of Henri II

In June 1559, brilliant chivalrous feasts were given on the occasion of the marriages of Marguerite, the king's sister with the Duke of Savoy and of Elizabeth of France with Philippe II of Spain. The lists are established in the Saint-Antoine district, in front of the royal hotel of Tournelles.

On the 30th, after having run several games, the king, wearing the colors of his mistress Diane de Poitiers decides (despite the predictions of the queen's astrologer) to grant himself a last lance of revenge against the Count de Montgomerry who l 'did' jerk off '. Unfortunately, the opponent's spear breaks and pierces the king's visor, crossing his eye right through. The king will die for ten days in great suffering.

The tragic death of Henri II will precipitate the decline of these games so popular with the nobility.

Sources and illustrations

Tournaments and Arms Games in the Middle Ages, by Gérard Lomenec'h. Editions Ouest-France, February 2015.


Video: Knights of Valour: Full Contact Jousting