Participating In Medieval Tournaments – Invite-Only!

Tournaments were an important part of knightly life and training throughout the Middle Ages. Not only did the participation in tournaments allow the knights to train the tactics that they would use in a real battle like charging in tight formations with underarm-couched lances (one of the reasons for the effectiveness of medieval knights), but a victory also promised fame and fortune.

But what were the requirements of participating in a medieval tournament and how were the participants informed?

Invitations to tournaments were usually handed out short-term, often 2 weeks before the event, either in the shape of a letter or – since most people outside of monasteries could not read – by traveling heralds. Additionally, the time and place of the next tournament were also proclaimed at the current tournament. So every knight who heard about the tournament could participate.

Let`s find out more!

Especially Northern France was a center of medieval tournaments, we actually know of a total of 16 tournament places from the 12th century that were all located in Northern France. Every two weeks a tournament was held at one of these 16 tournament places in Northern France.

Here you can find out more about where tournaments were held and which geographical situations were deemed ideal for a tournament.

But how were potential contestants informed about the place and time of the next tournament? And who was invited to a tournament?

The easiest way to advertise for the next tournament was to inform the contestants of the current tournament about where that next tournament would be held. Not only was that a cheap and easy way, but the fact that the knights were already there and had just fought in a tournament (more on how medieval tournaments worked here) also showed that they were generally interested in participating.

Another way to attract new contestants was to advertise by either sending letters – the downside was that most people outside of monasteries could not read – or by sending heralds who traveled through the land and invited the knights they met.

Some of these heralds were actually quite gifted poets who packed the invitation into poems promising fame, fortune, and worthy competition. Especially that last part, the promise of worthy competition attending the tournament can also be found in many of the letters with which knights were invited to a tournament.

Now the presence of strong competition might sound counterproductive when fortune was one of the main drivers for participating in a tournament. But it actually made sense to tease knights by promising them a strong competition with whom they could measure their skills.

Once again, it is important to state that the main purpose of a tournament was to train for war! And the presence of strong opponents offered a good opportunity for productive training! Or in other words: The higher the quality of the participants in a tournament, the more knights were tempted to also participate and compete with those knights.

Here you can find out more about how medieval tournaments worked and why melees – unlike the jousting that was originally only a supporting act – were ideal for training a knight for war.

By the way, the heralds did not only inform knights about when and where the next tournament was held while simultaneously inviting them to participate. Heralds were also used to comment on the tournaments on site.

While most of these heralds during the 12th century were Traveller people there were also a couple of noblemen among them. And over time the number of noblemen among the heralds would rise.

Later heralds were also used to identify the enemy`s fallen knights after a battle, more on the 3 reasons why knights generally tried to not kill each other in battle here.

Do you wonder how heralds (but also the knights themselves) were able to tell each other apart while wearing full suits of armor and helmets that completely covered the face? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.

And if you want to find out more about how effective mounted knights were (and the reasons that made them so effective) then you might want to check out my article here.

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).