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Tournaments, Jousts & Melees


Tournaments were a great occasion, they often went on for several days and attracted lmany visitors.

A tournament consisted of a series of competitions using a variety of weapons, usually in sets of three per weapon (such as tilting with a lance, blows with the battle axe, strokes with the dagger, or strokes with a sword), often as part of a tournament.Other activities might include archery competitions, sword fights, and wrestling competitions.

The main event was a joust. Two men charged on horse back with wooden lances and tried to knock each other off. Both men wore armor and their horses wore richly embroidered cloth. Wielding the lances took a lot of skill, because they were long and heavy.

As one writer says (Adams, p.22) "Tournaments began in France in about 1050 when several men took part in pretend battles. Since these were dangerous, and men were killed, single combat took it place. The tournament was ideal for men to practice fighting and prove how skilled they were."

Famous jousting casualties included

  • Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond (son of King Henry II of England & Eleonor or Aquitaine), trampled during a joust on 19 August 1186.
  • Leopold, Duke of Austria, killed under a fallen horse during a joust in 1194.
  • The French King Henry II, killed during a joust in 1559. A jousting tournament had been arranged by the King with the dual purpose of celebrating the Peace Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis and also the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth of Valois to King Philip II of Spain. On 1st July Henry jousted against Gabriel Montgomery, captain of the King's Scottish Guard. Henry's eye was pierced by a wooden sliver from the shivvered lance of Montgomery that penetrated his brain. He died an agonising death ten days later despite the efforts of the royal surgeon

On 20 September 2007, Paul Allen, 54, died after a wood splinter from a lance penetrated his eye socket and lodged in his brain as he was being filmed for Channel 4's Time Team programme at Rockingham Castle in Northamptonshire. The splinter had gone through the slit in his helm, and into Mr Allen's left socket and entered his brain in the accident - exactly what has happened to the French King Henry in 1599.

Jousting was one of many types of martial games in the Middle Ages. These games, requiring great skill, were referred to generically as hastiludes.

Though the first recorded tournament was staged in 1050, jousting itself did not gain in widespread popularity until the 12th century. It maintained its status as a popular European sport until the early 17th century. The joust permitted a better display of individual skill and, although dangerous, offered large sums of prize money. Many knights made their fortune in these events, whilst many lost their fortune or even life. For example, Henry II of France died when his opponent's lance went through his visor and shattered into fragments, blinding his right eye and penetrating his right orbit and temple.


The skills used in tournaments were a reflection of the martial skills applied to battle where the objectiive was to try to kill or disable an opponent. The primary purpose of the jousting lance is to unhorse the other by striking them with the end of the lance while riding towards them at high speed. This is known as "tilting".

The lists, or list field, is the arena in which a jousting event or similar tournament is held. More precisely, it is a roped-off enclosure where tournament fighting takes place. In the late medieval period, castles and palaces were augmented by purpose-built tiltyards as a venue for "jousting tournaments".

The two most common kinds of horse used for jousting were warmblood chargers and coldblood destriers.

Chargers were medium-weight horses bred and trained for agility and stamina, while destriers were heavy war horses. These were larger and slower, but helpful to give devastating force to the rider's lance through its weight being about twice as great as that of a traditional riding horse. The horses were trained for ambling, a kind of pace that provided the rider with stability in order to be able to focus and aim better with the lance.

During a jousting tournament, the horses were cared for by their grooms in their respective tents. They wore caparisons, a type of ornamental cloth featuring the owner's heraldic signs. Competing horses had their heads protected by a chanfron, an iron shield for protection from otherwise lethal lance hits.

Other forms of equipment on the horse included long-necked spurs which enabled the rider to control the horse with extended legs, a saddle with a high back to provide leverage during the charge or when hit, as well as stirrups for the necessary leverage to deliver blows with the lance.

Hastings 2006: One of Duke William's knights attacks King Harold's shield wall.
2003 reenactment of the 1410 Battle of Grunwald
Reenactment of everyday life
Tilting with a lance at a Renaissance Fair.
Codex Manesse: a picture of mêlée at a tournament



Jousting was popular from the high Middle Ages until the early 1600s, when it was replaced as the equine highlight of court festivities by large "horse-ballet" displays called carousels, although non-combat competitions such as the ring-tilt lasted until the 18th century.

During the period jousting was popular, armour evolved from chain mail (called simply mail at the time), with a solid, heavy helmet, called a "great helm", and shield.

By 1400 knights wore full suits of plate armour, called a "harness". A full harness frequently included extra pieces specifically for use in jousting, so that a light military combat suit could be reinforced with heavier, "bolt-on" protective plates on the cuirass (breastplate) and helmet, and also with jousting-specific arm and shoulder pieces, which traded mobility for extra protection. These extra pieces were usually much stronger on the side expected to take the impact of the lance.

Special jousting helmets were sometimes used, made so that the wearer could only see out by leaning forwards. If the wearer straightened up just before the impact of the lance, the eyes would be completely protected. Some later suits had a small shield built-in the left side of the armour. In some cases this was spring loaded to fly into pieces if struck properly by the opponent's lance.



In modern times, jousting is often done for show or demonstration purposes, and the lances used are usually made of light wood and prepared so that they break ("shiver") easily. Lances are often decorated with stripes or the colors of a knight's coat of arms. In a real joust, the lances were of solid oak and a significant strike was needed to shatter them. However, the (blunt) lances would not usually penetrate the steel. The harnesses worn by the knights were lined on the inside with plenty of cloth to soften the blow from the lance.


Modern Jousting


Modern day jousting or tilting has been kept alive by the International Jousting Association,, which has strict guidelines for the quality and authenticity of jousters' armour & equipment, and has developed the use of breakable lance tips for safety.

Jousting under the International Jousting Association rules follows a points system where points are given for breaking the lance tip on the opposing knight's shield; note that there are no points given for unhorsing an opponent. International Jousting Association sanctioned tournaments also include skill at arms where the riders display their horsemanship and weapons handling skills with swords. They use spears for the rings and spear throw, and use the lance against a spinning quintain.

Many International Jousting Association tournaments also include a mounted melee with fully armoured riders using padded batons in place of swords for safety. International Jousting Association events are not theatrically based and they offer the public a chance to observe living history as opposed to entertainment oriented jousting.

Tent pegging is the only form of jousting officially recognized by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports. The sport involves using a lance or sword to strike and carry away a small wooden ground target. The name "tent pegging" is derived from the cavalry tactic of causing confusion in enemy camps by galloping though the camps and collapsing the tents by pulling up the tent peg anchors with well-placed lance tip strikes. The actual sport of tent pegging, however, originated in medieval India, when horse cavalrymen would try to incapacitate elephant cavalry by striking the elephants with lances on their extremely sensitive toenails.

Ring jousting is the official state sport of Maryland, and was the first official sport of any American state.

The Italian town of Foligno also holds an annual jousting tournament, the Giostra della Quintana, that dates back to the 1613. The Knights have to spear rings from the statue of the Quintana.

The Italian town of Arezzo continues to hold an annual jousting tournament, which dates to the Crusades. Jousters aim for a square target attached to a wooden effigy of a Saracen king, whose opposite arm holds a cat-o-three-tails, three leather laces with a heavy wooden ball at the end of each lace. The riders strike the target with chalk-tipped lances and score points for accuracy, but must also dodge the cat-o-three-tails after they have struck the target.

Modern theatrical jousting competitions are popular at American Renaissance fairs and similar festivals, and feature riders on horseback attempting various feats of skill with the lance, which may not always have a basis in history.

Several international organisations, such as the Society for Creative Anachronism and the International Jousting Association, promote rules to govern their jousting events.

In Port Republic, Maryland the annual Calvert County Jousting Tournament is held every August.



Jousting Photos

Jousting at Arezzo
Jousting at Arezzo
Jousting at Arezzo
Jousting at Arezzo
Jousting at Arezzo
Jousting at Arezzo



Melée generally refers to disorganized close combat involving a group of fighters. A melée ensues when groups become locked together in combat with no regard to group tactics or fighting as an organized unit; each participant fights as an individual.

The French term is the feminine past participle of the verb méler "to mix". Nominalized, it refers to any confused tangle or agitated scramble, in particular unordered combat. Like other common foreign-derived terms used in English, the word is sometimes written without accents as "melee".

During the Middle Ages, tournaments often contained a Melée consisting of knights fighting one another on foot or while mounted, either divided into two sides or fighting as a free-for-all. The object was to capture opposing knights so that they could be ransomed, and this could be a very profitable business for such skilled knights as William Marshal.

There was a tournament ground covering several square miles in northern France to which knights came from all over Europe to prove themselves in quite real combat. This was, in fact, the original form of tournaments and the most popular between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries jousting being a later development, and one that did not completely displace the Melée until many more centuries had passed. The original Meléee was engaged with normal weapons and fraught with as much danger as a normal battle. Rules slowly tempered the danger, but at all times the Melée was more dangerous than the joust.



More on Life in a Medieval Castle


Introduction to Life in a Medieval Castle

Rooms in a Medieval Castle


Officers & Servants in a Medieval Castle

Medieval Clothing

Medieval Food & Cooking


Medieval Drinks


Medieval Gardens

Medieval Warfare:


Medieval Taxes

Medieval Games & Pastimes

The Feudal System



Rivers & Fishponds

Mills: Windmills and Water Mills


The Great Hall at Christ Church College, Oxford




A baker with his assistant. As seen in the illustration, round loaves were among the most common.



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