The Tournament in the early and the later Middle Ages

What comes to your mind when you think of the medieval tournament? Surely you will think of two valiant knights in shining amoury and bright coulours who ride against each other, only separated from each other through a small fence in the middle of the field. One of the knights will either be knocked of his horse or the lance will break at his armour and there will be another round. Surely you will imagine that the knights will be encouraged from the king and the queen who are sitting on the tribune and the peasants who cheer from their stands.

That is not surprising, since this is exactly the way the medieval tournament is portrayed in most movies. And this form of tournament did actually exist in the later Middle Ages. The early times of the tournament looked very different. They were fought on a larger scale, were more brutal and more spectacular.

These fights were not fought on a normal showground, but in the countryside. There different forms of terrain were available for the knights to use: fields, forest, rivers and bushes. The knights could move freely in this environment and they could rest, if they were able to hide themselves and their horses. Participants came from every corner of Christendom, sometimes even kings took part in this tournaments. A knight could gain honour, recognition and fame by winning such a tournament. One could also make money by capturing rich knights and releasing them only after they promised to pay a certain amount of money. All of this was particulary interesting for young knights with nothing to inherit from their families. Only the first-born son inherited the land of the family. The second-born had to earn everything by himself. Why not doing so by doing something he was trained in for his whole life? Rich but unexperienced participants had to be careful, though. They could be recognized by their coats of arms and become targets of poor knights. High-ranking knights like a king would bring some bodyguards with them to prevent others from capturing them.

The armoury did not consist of the well-known plate armour at this time, the 10th and 11th century. The knights wore mailshirts over padded shirts, a closed helmet and pieces of iron on sensible spots. The protection was not so good as in later times, and deaths and injuries were common. The weapons did not differ that much from later times. They were not sharp, but used with the whole strength by the knights.

The opening of the tournament consisted of the formation of the participants and a charge into the middle of the enemy ranks. You had to be fast, otherwise all the worthwile ransoms were taken by other knights. There were an audience, too. It consisted mainly of other knights who already used chants to support their favourite fighters. If someone managed it to win tournaments constantly, he could become famous.

As we see the original tournament differed from that of later times. It was harder, more dangerous but offered also more chances than the later tjosting. Of course you could also lose more. It was also very much more a training for real battle and offered the knights a possibility to make a living by using their abilities to fight in times of peace.


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