When we think of the Middle Ages then we often imagine knights jousting in front of large castles. But whenever we watch movies and series that include jousting scenes then most of us will probably feel a certain level of excitement. After all, there are two of the movie characters that we grew fond of risking their lives by charging each other with lances. That was certainly dangerous, wasn`t it?
So in the following, I would like to talk about how dangerous jousting actually was and how attempts were made to reduce the risk of severe or even deadly accidents.
Strict rules that were vigorously enforced, special jousting armor that offered excellent protection but was way too heavy and impracticable for a real battle, and the use of lances made from spruce wood that splintered quickly instead of war lances made from the more flexible ash wood made the joust less dangerous than the melee. However, jousting was still dangerous and some kings explicitly prohibited their sons from jousting.
Let`s find out more!
How dangerous was medieval jousting?
Originally the most important part of a medieval tournament was the melee, a mock fight between two groups of knights. Here you can find out more about the origins and purpose of these types of tournaments. During that time the joust was only the supporting act for the melee.
However, that changed slowly, and at the end of the 14th century, the joust had replaced the melee as the main event of the tournaments. You can find out more about the 4 reasons for that in my article here.
Small spoiler, the fact that jousts were a lot less dangerous than the melee was one of the reasons. So that already gives us an idea of how dangerous jousting was when it became increasingly popular as the less dangerous version of a tournament.
Both the introduction of detailed rules that were vigorously enforced as well as the ability to use much heavier (and because of that much more protective) armor made the joust a lot less dangerous than other types of medieval tournaments.
By the way. The idea that the armor used for jousting was so heavy that the knights could no longer climb their horses on their own and had to be lifted by either a cran or their squires is a myth that stems from a 1940s movie.
There is however a small particle of truth in that myth.
The armor that was used in tournaments was indeed a lot heavier than the armor that was used in battle (also not to the extent that knights could no longer walk or climb their horses). The reason why jousting armor was a lot heavier and more impracticable than armor that was used in battle can be found in the differences between a joust and a battle.
A jousting knight only had to try to hit his opponent with a lance while his horse was charging at the opposing knight in a fenced lane. He did not have to worry about other opponents, he did not have to keep an eye on his surrounding to prevent being caught off guard, and since hitting the horses during a joust was taboo he also did not have to worry about losing his horse and having to fight on foot.
He only had to worry about the lance of the knight that was coming right at him. So it was not necessary that the armor was light, and flexible, but also protective enough that the knight would be able to fight on foot. The jousting armor just had to protect the knight against the hit from his opponent’s lance.
So sacrificing the functionality of armor in favor of better protection against the hit of a lance (and the splinters that filled the air when the jousting lances broke) made sense and resulted in armor, the so-called Stechzeug, that was completely useless on the battlefield but ideal for protecting the knight during a joust.
One example of such an impracticality of jousting armor is the Frog-mouth helmet that you can see in the following video.
The visier of the helmet is so narrow and so far up that the knight had to tilt his head forward to be able to see anything. If he had his head in a neutral position he didn`t see anything.
Now not seeing anything as long as you don`t tilt your head forward means certain death on a battlefield, more on how medieval battles worked here. But in a joust vision was not that important since the knight did not have to worry about any other enemy than the knight who was charging right at him.
So a jousting knight who wore a Frog-mouth helmet would have tilted his head forward while charging at his enemy (allowing him to see his opponent) but would have pulled his head up right before the two knights hit each other with their lances. Needless to say that that made the helmet completely useless for any sort of real battle.
But because of its special (and in most situations outside of jousting impractical design), the Frog-mouth helmet only presented a smooth steel plate to his opponent which limited the risk that pieces of the splintering lances found their way through the visor into the helmet (and the head) of the knight.
We actually know about one accident where the wounded knight was hit by a piece of the splintering lance that pierces his head. But more on that and how even a French king was killed in a joust in the next paragraph.
An Example of a severe injury that was received in a joust
There are several examples where severe injuries are mentioned as the result of a joust but I decided to pick two. One because it was such a severe wound, and one because the killed knight was a French king.
Gregor Baci – having the head pierced by a lance and surviving for one year
In the 16th century the long splinter of a jousting lance, remember these lances were specially built to splinter when hitting the armor to reduce the impact of the hit, found its way through the visor of the Hungarian knight Gregor Baci, pierces his right eye socket, and came out at the back of his head. That wound was treated by sawing off the splinter at both sides and Baci continued to live with the splinter in his head for an entire year before he died due to a non-related infection.
Here you can see the picture of Gregor Baci:
That injury (that was captured in a painting that can be seen in the castle of Ambras in the Austrian city of Innsbruck) was analyzed by experts at the medical university of Innsbruck. And while it is hard to produce an exact analysis of how realistic a survival of one year was since all the experts had to work with was the painting they still concluded that it was possible for Baci to survive such an injury.
They named several reasons for that.
First, the wound channel that can be imagined by looking at the picture meant that the brain was not injured so there was no sepsis of the meninges. Second, the jousting lances were painted with paint that contained lead. Normally lead is not overly healthy but in that case, it prevented infections.
Because of that modern medical experts assume that Gregor Baci could have survived without any serious impairments even though a splinter of a jousting lance that could not be removed had pierced his head.
And in 1559 the French king Henry II was even killed in a joust.
These kinds of accidents persuaded some royal parents to prohibit their sons from participating in a joust, sometimes with little success.
Kings prohibited their sons from jousting because of the dangers
A famous example of a king who (unsuccessfully) tried to prevent his son from participating in a joust is Frederick III who prohibited his son, who would later become the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) from participating in any jousts since he saw jousting as too much of a risk for his heir.
Maximilian, on the other hand, did not only ignore his father’s command, he actively circumnavigated it by committing forgery to be able to joust. That alone shows how popular jousting was, more on the 4 reasons for its popularity in my article here.
So: While jousts were still dangerous they were still a lot less dangerous than the melees and were as such extremely popular among medieval knights (and later also among the citizens of increasingly important cities).
Was jousting a fight to the death?
But even though jousting was dangerous and the financial stakes were pretty high when a knight participated in a joust the jousting knights would still try to not kill each other (even though there was no rule explicitly outlawing the killing of an opponent during a joust).
Do you want to read more about the Middle Ages? Then I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about how common (or more precisely how rare) swords were during the Middle Ages as well as the reasons for that.
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).