How Did Medieval Tournaments Work – A Complete Guide

When we think of the Middle Ages then the tournaments are usually among the first things that come to our mind. And while we have a certain image stuck in our heads of how a tournament looked and how it worked I would like to challenge some of these images in this article.

For that, I would first like to present how often knights participated in tournaments compared to how often they fought in battle before then turning to how the melee, the main event of a medieval tournament in which two groups of knights fought each other in a mock fight, worked. Then I would also like to point out the only 3 points in which a melee was different from a real battle (spoiler, the used weapons are not among the differences).

Before the tournament, rules were agreed upon and the knights were divided into two teams that were equal in skill and that were usually made up of knights with a similar geographical background and similar political alliances. As soon as both teams had taken their starting position the melee started with both teams charging at each other until one of them shattered. Then the formation fight turned into duels between small groups of knights. The melee was over when one of the teams was pushed back into its starting position or nightfall came. The tournament ended with a huge feast.

Let`s take a closer look.

How often did knights fight in tournaments compared to battles?

In the following article, I would like to focus on the melee, the main event of a medieval tournament until the late 14th century. In the 15th century the joust, until then a supporting act of the tournaments pushed the melee into insignificance, more on the reasons for that and the 4 reasons why knights jousted in my article here.

The main purpose of the melee was to allow knights to train the tactics that they used in battle. That new tactic that required lots of training, the charge of a formation of knights with under-arm couched lances, only developed in the 11th century. As a direct result, the custom of holding tournaments also spread over Western Europe (although Northern France remained the heartland of the tournaments). Here you can find my article with more information on the origins and purpose of medieval tournaments.

So participating in a tournament was the training for fighting in a real battle. But how often did knights participate in tournaments and how often did knights actually fight in real battles? What was the ratio between these two events?

To find that out we can actually look to the autobiography of the English knight William Marshal (who basically made participating in tournaments his way to earn a living, more on that here).

The English knight William Marshal claimed that he had participated in over 60 tournaments throughout his lifetime but had only fought in 6 real battles. Granted, William Marshal as somebody who earned his livelihood by winning tournaments might not be representative of all knights, but it is still safe to assume that the majority of knights participated in way more tournaments than actual battles.

Do you want to find out more about how a medieval battle worked? Then I would like to recommend you my article here. And here you can find more information on how long medieval battles took.

So to sum it up. It is safe to say that most knights fought in more tournaments than battles. However, even in a real battle knights did often try to not kill each other. That had 3 reasons that will be explored in my article here.

But let`s now finally look at how a medieval tournament worked!

The events leading up to the melee – finding contestants!

Before a tournament could happen the organizer first had to find knights who were interested in participating. Additionally, a location also had to be found.

Finding a location was generally less of a problem since there were about 16 tournament places (that we know of) in Northern France at which tournaments were held every two weeks in rotation. Here you can find out more about how these tournament places looked, how surprisingly large they were, and why Northern France became the heartland of organizing tournaments.

The location and time of the next tournament were announced at the end of the last tournament so that the participants of that tournament were already invited. Additionally, letters and heralds were sent out to invite additional knights who were often baited by not only the promise of fame and fortune but also the promise of strong competition.

Now while fame and fortune sound like a good motivation to risk body and life in a tournament the promise of strong competition surprised me when first reading about that.

But when I thought about it it made perfect sense. After all, competing in a tournament was training for war. And if a knight already knew that all of his rivals were completely inferior to him then he would have probably not bothered to travel to the tournament.

If you want to find out more details about how exactly knights were invited to tournaments and about the heralds (who also commentated the melees live) then you might want to check out my article here.

But for now, I would like to present the 3 points of how a melee differed from a real battle before then finally talking about the start of the melee.

3 Differences between a battle and a melee (tournament)

There were only 3 points in which a melee differed from a real medieval battle.

Tournaments were invite-only

Knights were fighting in battles because they had an obligation to follow their lord just like their lord had an obligation to follow his lord to war. So whether a knight wanted or not, when his lord called him then he had little opportunity to opt out of going to war.

Tournaments were a different story. As already described (and as you can read about in more detail in my article here) the contestants of the medieval tournament were invited by the organizer of the tournament through a letter or – more often – a herald.

Melees had rules that were agreed upon before the start

Not only the joust but also the melee, the mock fight between two groups of knights who were using real weapons and real battlefield tactics, followed certain rules. And although the melee knew fewer rules than the joust it still had some that were usually agreed upon by the knights before the melee started.

Additionally, the degree to which violence was allowed was also agreed upon by the participating knights before the tournament started. However even though these rules were in place and knights generally did not try to kill each other, more on that here, participating in a tournament was still dangerous. Here you can find out more about how dangerous fighting in a medieval tournament actually was.

One of the rules of the melee that made the entire thing a little bit less dangerous was the existance of marked areas in which the knights mustn`t be attacked.

Each team that fought in a melee had an area in which it must not be attacked

As we will soon find out, the melee was fought between two teams of knights and could last for hours while stretching over several hundred acres. But since the tournament was supposed to be training it was important to give the knights a place where they could store their fresh horses and weapons so that a knight did not have to stop just because his lance or sword broke.

So each team that participated in a tournament got an area in which it must not be attacked and where it could store fresh horses and additional weapons, but also captured horses and knights from the opposing team.

Especially the last point, the capture of horses and knights from the enemy team might sound surprising for a tournament that was supposed to be training for war. But not just in tournaments but also in war knights often tried to not kill each other but instead take prisoners who could then be released for some juicy ransom money.

If a knight was able to capture a precious warhorse or even one of the knights of the other team during a tournament then the weapons, armor, and the horse of the captured knights now belonged to him and could be sold back to the defeated knight for a sum of money that had to be negotiated.

That made tournaments an endeavor with huge financial rewards. But let`s now look at how the medieval tournaments actually worked. And let`s start with the start of the melee since the days before the melee started were usually filled with jousting.

The start of the tournament: dividing the knights into teams & taking positions

So let`s start with the beginning of the main event of the tournament, the melee. The melee was basically a mock fight between two groups of knights in which they trained their maneuvers and tactics that made the knights so effective on the battlefield.

But before the fights could start the present knights had to be split up into two teams.

And that was not as easy as one might imagine. I mean, just imagine you were a knight who had traveled to the tournament together with his feudal lord and now you are suddenly put into a different team than your feudal lord (to whom you owe allegiance)….that could have caused some serious problems.

To prevent any conflicts of interest the knights who wanted to participate in a tournament were split up into two groups according to their land of origin so that the teams pretty much represented the political alliances although care was taken that both teams were about equal in skill.

That usually resulted in the English knights teaming up with the knights from Normandy (Normandy was under English control until 1204) while knights from, let`s say, Burgundy and Flanders would form another team.

Independent knights who had traveled to the tournament on their own could choose on which side they wanted to fight although these knights were also mindful of not fighting against their feudal lords.

Here you can find out more about how knights from all of Western Europe could be informed about where and when the next tournament would take place.

As soon as the knights had been split into two teams the rules of the tournament including the degree to which it was acceptable to use violence were determined.

After everything was set the teams would move to their safe areas in which they could not be attacked and where they usually stored fresh horses and additional weapons.

When both teams were in their area then the action started.

The course of the melee: training maneuvers and tactics

What happened then was pretty much like a real battle, more on how medieval battles worked here. First, the two teams had to find each other which could take some time since the tournament places could stretch for up to several hundred acres.

As soon as the two teams had found each other and had moved to a flat ground that was suitable for the use of cavalry they would form tight formations in which the horses were standing so close to each other that the knees of the knights almost touched.

Then they would trot forward while making sure to maintain the tight formation.

As soon as the two formations of knights who all couched their lances under their arms were only 32-43 yds (30-40 m) away from each other they would start galloping and would crash into each other at a speed of up to 37 mph (60 km/h). Ideally one of the teams was able to shatter the other team’s formation so that the knights of the beaten team had to flee. Then the victorious knights would start chasing down their fleeing opponents and try to take them prisoner.

That was the exact same tactic that knights used on the battlefield and that made the charge of the knights such an effective (and feared) force that most infantry formations could not resist. Here you can find out more about how effective the charge of a group of knights was and what metaphor a Byzantine princess chose to use after seeing such a charge with her own eyes.

So when one of the formations broke then the fight between the two formations would turn into groups of knights from the victorious team chasing down and trying to capture knights from the defeated team.

But what happened when neither of the two formations broke?

In that case, the tournament was usually not ended. Instead, both groups would split from each other and try to break the other formation on the second attempt, oftentimes by sending in reserves or performing flanking maneuvers.

In case the additional deployment of fresh reserves did not result in the rupture of the opponent’s formation then the critical (and most dangerous part) of the tournament began. While charging at each other with real lances was already dangerous the individual close combat between knights was probably even more dangerous.

That individual combat was pretty similar to what happened when one of the formations broke and the fleeing knights were hunted down by groups of knights from the winning team. Because of that, I will focus on what happened after one formation broke.

When one of the formations of knights had broken then the knights of the defeated side would try to flee and reorganize as soon as they had gained some ground between them and the knights of the winning side. However, the winning side was obviously keen on stopping such attempts of reorganization and hunted down the fleeing knights in small groups to take some prisoners.

By taking the reins of the enemy`s warhorse a knight was able to gain control over both the horse and its rider. But to stop the other knight from interfering he first had to be dazed, usually by a couple of hits with a sword (or even better a mace) against the head.

While the sword was not really efficient for that job anymore after the Great helmets spread during the late 12th century the mace was ideal for delivering heavy hits against a helmet. Here you can find out more about why maces were so effective. And here you can find out more about how maces were used in a way that made them superior to a sword when facing an opponent in plate armor.

But repeatedly hitting a mace against a head had a high risk of injury, even when the head was protected by a Great helmet. There are several accounts of knights who lost their helmets before they were hit with a sword or a mace. Needless to say that that could end in death. Here you can find more information on how dangerous melees were and how the knights and organizers reacted in case of a deadly incident.

The melee went on until either one team had finally been forced back into their safe area or until nightfall set in.

That by the way is another similarity between the melee and a real battle. Both usually ended with nightfall. Here you can find out more about how long medieval battles lasted.

The end of the Melee: Feasting and negotiating the ransom money

As soon as the melee had ended the heralds, who had commentated the entire event, met with the referees to compare and debated the individual efforts of the knights and who deserved the award for being the best knight of the tournament.

While the referees and the heralds met another important thing had to be done. As soon as the melee was over the winners and the losers would meet to negotiate the ransom money necessary for the losers to get back their armor and horses. As mentioned above, when a knight was captured by the opposing side then he lost his armor and horse (which could mean his financial ruin).

So it was very important to find an agreement on how much ransom money was necessary. By the way, oftentimes the amount of money that was demanded for returning horses and armor to their original owner was rather low. Not because knights were necessarily generous but because every knight knew that there was a chance that he could be on the losing side at the next tournament (or even worse, in a battle where he could face the knights who he had just defeated in battle)

Giving back armor and weapons for a reasonable amount of money was an important part of maintaining a sense of comradeship even among knights from different countries that could save a knight’s life in a real battle. More on that in my article here.

When the negotiations were over the tournament was usually ended with a feast where all the knights who were able to attend could share stories, tell jokes, and bond with each other. The feast was also the time when unknightly behavior and successful feats were acknowledged with either mockery or admiration.

But the feasts of knights are a story for another time. For now, I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about what knights wore outside of battle.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).

Sabine Buttinger, Jan Keup: Die Ritter (Darmstadt 2013).