When we think of a medieval tournament then we usually think of a joust. Two knights in shining armor try to unhorse each other while being watched by a cheering crowd.
But tournaments did not always look like that.
Until the 14th century, the joust was only the supporting act of a medieval tournament while the melee, the mock fight between two groups of knights (with sharp weapons and real battlefield tactics) was the main event. You can find out more about why tournaments became a thing in the first place and the purpose of these early melees in my article here. It wasn`t until the mid-13th century that the popularity and the significance of the joust grew. There were 4 reasons why knights preferred jousting over participating in mass tournaments (= melees).
So let`s look at these 4 reasons to find out why knights jousted.
- Jousting made it easier to judge the individual performance of a knight
- Jousts were a less dangerous alternative to melees
- Participating in a joust offered the prospect of fame and fortune
- Jousts were seen as the sieve of nobility during the Late Middle Ages since only noblemen were allowed to participate
So let`s now take a closer look!
Jousting made it easier to judge the individual performance of a knight
Unlike the melee where two groups of knights were facing each other in an area that could stretch over several hundred acres, more on that here, the joust was a duel between two knights who charged each other on a small field in front of the viewers.
Here you can find out more about how these melees worked and how they differed from real battles in only 3 points.
The duel between only two knights in a relatively small area made it a lot easier to judge and appraise the individual performance of the two contestants. And that was important since knights as members of a warrior class identified themselves over their skills as a warrior.
The other reason why the ability to accurately appraise and judge the performance of a knight in a tournament had to do with the motivations of the competitors to participate in a tournament that will be explored in a bit. By the way. For more information on who was invited to a tournament and how the invited knights were informed about the time and place of the tournament you might want to check out my article here.
But for now, I would like to talk about another important factor why jousts would eventually become more popular than the melee. And that was the reduced risk of fatal injuries.
Jousting as a less dangerous alternative to melees
To find out why the joust was a lot less dangerous we first have to look at the alternative, the melee. I actually wrote an entire article about how dangerous melees were (you can find it here) so I will only briefly sum the article up.
The purpose of a melee, a mock fight between two groups of knights was to train for war. So the same weapons and the same tactics that were used on the battlefield (and that made knights so effective) were also used in a melee. I think it is pretty obvious that using weapons and tactics of war in a tournament setting posed a considerable risk to the health of the participating knights.
But not only the physical health of the knights participating in a tournament was at risk. So was their salvation!
Here you can find out more about why the salvation of a knight who died in a tournament was at risk and why the church generally rejected the ideas of tournaments.
While melees had rules that were agreed upon by the participating knights before the start of the tournament, more on that here, the huge tournament places of several hundred acres as well as the heat of the fight sometimes got the better of some contestants.
Medieval chroniclers also mention that the melees became more and more brutal over time.
And even when we subtract the common narrative that everything was better and nobler in the past we still get the impression that tournaments became more brutal over time. And the joust was a way to end that increasing brutality.
The joust followed clear rules that could be much better monitored than in a melee that stretched over hundreds of acres. The use of special lances that splintered much easier than the war lances that were used in a melee and the development of jousting armor that was much stronger (and because of that useless in a real battle) made jousts a lot less dangerous than the melee.
That eventually resulted in the joust replacing the melee as the main event of a tournament at the end of the 14th century.
But while the tournament in the shape of a joust lost its purpose of being training for war it still remained incredibly popular among knights to participate in these jousts.
And that can be attributed to the following two reasons.
Participating in a joust offered the prospect of fame and fortune
The most important factor of all for why knights participated in jousts was the prospect of being able to win fame and (more important) fortune.
Especially for the third or even fourth sons (the first would usually inherit name and property, the second could often be parked in a monastery) the prospect of being able to win a fortune through their skills as warriors (the only thing they as the penniless members of a warriors class brought to the table) was a strong motivator.
That could however also backfire since the loser of a joust lost his horse and his armor to the victorious knight from whom he could then buy it back. So especially young knights who participated in a tournament and who did not have the money to buy back their armor and horse in the case of a defeat played a highly risky game.
And of course, the risk of a severe or even deadly injury came on top of that financial risk. Here you can find out more about how risky jousting actually was.
The knight who lost a joust lost his horse and his armor to the winner from whom he could then buy it back at a price that was negotiated between the two. Some knights earned their entire livelihood by participating in (and winning) tournaments.
Of course that only worked because tournaments were pretty frequently held, especially in Northern France. Here you can find out more about how often tournaments were held and why Northern France became the heartland of holding tournaments that even attracted knights from England and the Holy Roman Empire.
And that brings us to the last reason why knights jousted although that reason was only viable until the 16th century.
Jousts as the sieve of nobility
But especially during the Late Middle Ages knights who participated in a joust also saw that as a reassurance of their social status.
Until the 16th century participating in a joust was the privilege of the members of the nobility. Interestingly the rise in popularity of the joust in the Holy Roman Empire during the 15th century coincides with the decline of the actual military and social significance of the knights.
Not only were knights on the battlefield gradually replaced by cheaper infantrymen of which some were equipped with early firearms, more on why firearms replace bows here, but the knights were also socially and economically pushed aside by a growing number of wealthy urban tradesmen and craftsmen.
So it seems like the growing popularity of jousting during the 15th century, a time where the actual social and military significance of the knights was an attempt to reassure that the old elevated social and military significance of the knights did still exist since only noblemen were allowed to compete in jousts.
That however changed during the 16th century when the wealthy urban citizens also started to participate in jousts. By the way, that period is also the period where the incredibly unwieldy and heavy armors were designed that have negatively influenced our ideas about how practicable medieval armor was to this day.
Since jousting was still so dangerous that even a king died while jousting and another one prohibited his son (who circumnavigated that ban by forgery) from participating, more and more protective armor was designed. Here you can find out more about that.
And since a joust only needed the knights to sit on a horse and charge at each other the functionality of the armor (like how good one could move in it or if you could properly walk or fight in it) was no longer important. That increased need for security led to the creation of jousting armor like the Stechzeug which was solely designed for use in a joust and was way too impracticable and unwieldy for being used in battle.
So we can state that the more the actual significance of the knights dwindled the more fervent they participated in jousts. Jousts as an exclusively knightly thing had basically become a fond memory of the good old times when knights were still the important social class that dominated both society and the battlefields.
Here you can find out more on what made knights so effective.
During the Late Middle Ages, jousting had turned into a strongly regulated sport that was performed in extremely heavy armor that was solely made for jousting. And while jousting had originally been exclusive to noblemen, that changed in the 16th century when the urban citizens also started to participate in jousts.
So there we have it, the 4 reasons why knights jousted. I hope you found this trip into the Middle Ages just as fascinating as I did. You don`t have enough from the Middle Ages yet? Then I would like to invite you to check out this article here where I talk about the composition and organization of medieval armies.
And if you have ever wondered whether or not medieval weapons were made from steel (and how steel was produced during the Middle Ages) then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).
Sabine Buttinger, Jan Keup: Die Ritter (Darmstadt 2013).