The medieval tournament is one of the enduring images of the Middle Ages, with knights fighting to impress beautiful and unattainable ladies. In reality, jousting was a dangerous sport and participants undertook years of training before risking their safety in a tournament. Jousting was most popular between the tenth and fifteenth centuries. It was a fast-moving and colorful spectator sport, with knights riding on horseback, decorated with the coat of arms of the noble they represented. A tournament was held in a field called the lists and in the later medieval period, castles often had their own lists within sight of the castle buildings. Days before the joust, the knights taking part would gather in the area, with the knight’s coat of arms on display at the windows of his lodgings. Lists would be published before the big event, naming the combatants, the rules of the tournament and the type of combat and weapons permitted.
The sport of jousting was favored by kings and noblemen as it was a way to keep knights in peak fighting condition and develop their war skills, which could be needed at any time. Knights enjoyed the tournaments as they had the glory of fighting and the thrill of being watched by an appreciative audience, without the discomfort of a war fought far from home. Traditionally, a knight would ride at a tournament for a lady, usually someone who was married and above him on the social scale. The lady would give her favor, something like a hair ribbon or handkerchief, and the knight would ride with the favor attached to his clothing during the tournament.
To start the joust, a herald would signal the charge and the horses would charge towards each other, each ridden by a knight armed with a lance (a long pole usually made of wood). The object of the joust was to unseat the opponent, but sometimes points were awarded for striking the other knight. If neither knight was unseated from his horse, the two men would turn their horses and charge at each other again.
Horses in Jousting
The horses used for jousting were bred for a heavy weight and trained to run at the exact speed needed for the charge without flinching. The horse had to be strong enough to carry the knight and his armor and calm enough to perform in front of a cheering crowd. In early tournaments, the loser in a charge would forfeit his horse to the winning knight. As the years progressed, the winner usually received money instead.
Injuries During a Medieval Tournament
Whatever the prize, participants were at great risk and it was not unusual for a knight to break bones falling from his horse or from the blow of an opponent’s lance. Deaths were not uncommon . A notable example from 1379 was a jousting accident involving the second Earl of Salisbury who killed his own son during a tournament. As the Middle Ages progressed, the fighting at a joust became more ritualistic and the riders were in less danger, with showmanship and ceremony becoming more important than risk-taking. The Statute of Arms for Tournaments of 1292 was a turning point in the history of jousting, stipulating that knights had to abide by rules of chivalry. Lances were now blunted and the audience expected to see good riding and fair play, rather than a fight to the death.
Barter, James, A Medieval Knight, (The Working Life) [Lucent Books, 2005]
The author R. Bellerby published this article for the first time in Mart 2008.