When we think of a medieval tournament then we usually think of the joust. Two knights in heavy armor charge at each other in lanes that are separated by a barrier and try to knock each other from the horse. And yes, the joust was a part of a tournament that became more popular during the end of the Middle Ages.
Until then the joust was only the supporting act of the melee, a mock fight between two groups of fully armored knights who used real weapons and battlefield tactics to train for war. Participating in a melee was so dangerous that over time the less dangerous joust would become more popular and eventually replace the melee.
But before we can look at that development away from the melee and to the joust, we first have to explore how dangerous participating in a melee actually was. There were basically two dangers.
Death was a real risk when participating in a tournament since knights used the same weapons and tactics they also used on the battlefield even though the acceptable level of violence was agreed upon before the start. The second risk was that the killed knight couldn`t find salvation since the church refused to bury knights who died in tournaments on consecrated ground. Additionally, a knight could also lose his horse and his armor in case he lost the tournament which could financially ruin him.
Let`s take a closer look.
The dangers of medieval tournaments
Since I wrote an entire article about the dangers of medieval jousting I would like to focus on the melee in this article.
The melee as the fight between two groups of knights was the original form of the tournament and served as training for war. To be the most effective the knights had to train how to move and fight in tight formations. Here you can find out more about the tactics that knights used and how effective these tactics made them.
So the tactics that were used in a melee did not differ from those used on the battlefield and neither did the weapons. Actually, there were only 3 points in which a melee differed from a real battle. One of them was the fact that the participants agreed on the acceptable level of violence before the start of the tournament. You can find out more about the other 2 points in my article here.
And although knights often tried to not kill the opposing knights in a battle, more on that here, their weapons sure were capable of doing some serious damage despite the effective armor that knights wore. And since these weapons were also used in the tournaments there was also a high risk of injuries despite agreements on how much violence was acceptable. By the way, we would probably see the level of violence that was agreed upon as way too brutal, more on that here.
But not only the physical health of the contestants of a tournament was in danger, but so was their soul! So let`s now take a look at the three dangers of participating in a medieval tournament.
The danger to body and life
Let`s start out with the most obvious danger of participating in a medieval tournament.
I think it is easy to imagine how two groups of knights with real weapons charging at each other at a speed of up to 37 mph (= 60km/h) posed a threat to the health (and life) of the participants.
That risk still existed despite highly effective armor and shield that was built in a highly sophisticated way to withstand such impact. More on how medieval shields were built here. However, the risk of death was probably lower than one might expect.
While lacerations and bruises were quotidian injuries during a medieval tournament sources occasionally also report severe and even fatal injuries. However, death during a tournament was not the rule but rather an unfortunate exception after which the tournament was usually canceled.
So in a way, the medieval tournaments can be compared to modern extreme sports where injuries are rather common while deaths are the rare exception.
So one could say that while the risk of receiving a fatal injury was certainly there participating in a medieval tournament was not the death trap that one might expect. But there was another danger that made dying in a tournament even worse than it already was. And that was the risk of not receiving salvation, a fate that terrified the Christian knights probably more than death itself.
The loss of salvation in case of death in a tournament
While participating in tournaments was highly popular among knights for several reasons, more on these reasons here, the church strictly rejected the idea of tournaments.
And there was a reason why the church rejected tournaments.
The church saw tournaments as a sinful estrangement from the knightly duty to fight heathens. After 1130 a decree of a papal synod prohibited knights who had been killed in a tournament from being buried in consecrated earth which meant the loss of their salvation and eternal damnation.
Now while the ban on burying knights who had died in a tournament on consecrated ground could be circumnavigated as long as the family of the fallen knight just promised the local church a donation that was high enough, accepting such a donation was still up to the local priest. And while most didn`t have any moral concerns when it came to ignoring a papal decree for some money, some priests did.
That meant that even when most priests could be bribed into also burying knights who had died in a tournament in consecrated earth there was still no guarantee for that. And because of that, participating in a medieval tournament did not only mean danger for health and life, but also for salvation.
There was however also a more worldly danger connected to participating (and losing) a tournament. Let`s take a look.
The danger of losing horse & armor
One of the reasons why participating in tournaments was so popular among knights was the chance to win fame and fortune, more on that and the other 3 reasons for the popularity of jousts and melees in my article here.
The chance to win a fortune by winning a tournament was a result of the rule that the winner got the armor and the horse of the knight who had lost the tournament.
There were actually areas during a melee where the captured knights and horses could be safely stored without the risk of a liberating counterattack, more on that here.
But the chance to win the armor and the horse of the opponent in a tournament had the downside that there was also the chance to lose one’s armor and horse in case of a defeat. After the tournament was over the victorious knight would usually offer the defeated knight the chance to buy back his armor and his horse, but if the knight was short on cash then he could lose his armor and his horse (which was often the only possession and the only way to make a living when the knight was the third or fourth born son).
Here you can find out more about who would participate in a tournament and how the participants were informed about the time and place of the tournament.
So there were some major risks to participating in melees. And while the risk of losing one’s armor and horse in case of a defeat was still a risk after the less dangerous joust had replaced the melee, the risk of death and the related risk of eternal damnation was reduced.
The joust as a way to make tournaments less dangerous
As mentioned, the rejection of tournaments by the church and the threat of eternal damnation in case of death during a tournament made it necessary to reduce the risks of a tournament. There were several options to make tournaments less dangerous that were all more or less successful.
For example. In Late Medieval England, rules were put in place that prohibited both contestants but also the visitors of a tournament from carrying sharp swords or maces to make the tournaments safer. Ignoring these rules was punished with the loss of the horse and weapons and 3 years of prison time.
Especially banning maces was important since they were more effective against knights in plate armor (that quickly developed during that time) than a sword. Here you can find out more about the effectiveness of medieval maces.
The reason why not only the contestants but also the visitors of tournaments were prohibited from carrying weapons was probably connected to an incident in 1274.
During a tournament between English knights and knights from Burgundy in 1274, the situation escalated when the infantrymen and archers who had accompanied both teams to the tournament intervened and the melee turned into a real battle with countless deads.
By the way, do you wonder why English knights and knights from Burgundy fought each other in a tournament even though their homelands were far apart from each other? Here you can find the answer to why knights from England would almost exclusively participate in tournaments in Northern France and not in tournaments in England.
And here you can find out more about whether or not the teams during a melee were put together according to the nationality of the knights.
Additionally, the less dangerous joust also gained popularity, more on the 4 reasons why the joust gained popularity among the knights in my article here, and eventually pushed the melee into insignificance.
During the Late Middle Ages the joust replaced the melee (= mock fight between two groups of knights). The last melee in England was hosted in 1342 where a total of 230 knights participated, the last melee in France was hosted in 1379, while in the Holy Roman Empire melees were sporadically still hosted in the 16th century.
Do you want to find out why the Holy Roman Empire was called the Holy Roman Empire despite not being Roman? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
And here you can find out more about the origins and the original purpose of medieval tournaments.
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).