The Purpose & Origins of Medieval Tournaments

When we think of medieval tournaments than most of us probably imagine a joust. But for most of the Middle Ages, the joust was only a supplementary event to the melee, the main event in which two groups of knights fought each other. But since the joust was usually held in the days before the melee we can combine both the melee and the joust under the umbrella-term tournament.

So in the following, I would like to explain the origins and the purpose of medieval tournaments

From the late 11th century onwards knights charged their enemies in tight formations with under-arm couched lances, an extremely effective tactic. To inflict the most damage the knights had to train how to maneuver and charge in tight formation. Training these maneuvers was the purpose of the tournaments that originated in Northern France in the 11th century.

Do you want to find out more about how effective knights actually were and the reasons that made them so effective? Then I would like to invite you to check out my article here.

But let`s now take a closer look at the purpose and origins of medieval tournaments.

The origins of medieval tournaments

At the end of the 11th century, an important revolution in mounted combat occurred. From then on knights would start to no longer use their lances in an over-hand or under-hand grip to thrust at their opponents but would instead couch their lance under their arm and charge in tight formations and full galop at the hostile formation. Here you can find out more about how effective such a charge was and why it was such a revolution.

However, that new tactic made intensive training necessary. More on that matter later.

The training events in which knights trained how to maneuver and charge in tight formation were the first tournaments. The first one was held by the French knight Geoffroy de Previlly (who died in 1066) in Northern France. Northern France would not only be the birthplace of the tournament but would remain the center of holding tournaments throughout the Middle Ages.

Here you can find out more about the tournament places in Northern France and how often tournaments were held there. There you can also find out more about why especially knights from England had to travel to Northern France to participate in a tournament for most of the Middle Ages.

But meetings between groups of knights who wanted to test their metal in a playful way did exist even before the actual tournaments originated in Northern France during the 11th century.

There is one occasion during the 9th century when the knights of the Frankish kings Louis the German and his brother Charles the Bald (both grandsons of Charlemagne) met between the cities of Worms and Mainz for a competition where one side pursued the other, then the pursuer became the pursued, and so on. However, the medieval chronicler explicitly mentions that there were neither acts of violence nor even swearwords during that competition.

Because of that, I think one could make the argument that since it was more of a playful competition in horsemanship rather than a serious training for war like the melee (and the 9th-century knights also did not use under-arm couched lances so that training the fighting in tight formations was not necessary) we can still put the first real tournaments into 11th century Northern France.

By the way, later the melee would be much more violent than the playful competition between the knights of Charles the Bald and Louis the German. And even though death was never the goal in a tournament severe or even deadly accidents happened. Here you can find my article with more information on how dangerous participating in a medieval tournament actually was.

But for now, I would like to present a more detailed insight into the purpose of the melee although we have already scratched the surface of that purpose.

The purpose of medieval tournaments

Until the late 11th century knights (who made up the minority of a medieval army) would use their lances in an underarm or overarm grip with which they would stab at their opponents. Using the lance in an under-hand or overhand grip to thrust at the opponent was less effective than charging in full gallop and in tight formations (since the force of the thrust was limited by the strength of the knight), but also needed much less coordination and, as an effect, training.

That tactic changed somewhere during the late 11th century although both tactics were still used side by side as the Bayeux tapestry (there you have mounted knights using over- and underarm grips as well as under-arm couched lances) shows.

By the way, one of the reasons why from the 11th century forwards lances were couched under the arm can be found in the development of stirrups and the cantled saddle. Without these two inventions, it would not be possible to use the new tactic to such an effect.

The greater force that could be delivered by putting the weight of the horse and the knight behind a charge with a lance that was couched under the arm soon pushed the practice of using the lance in an under-arm or over-arm grip into insignificance.

But to maximize the damage that such a charge could do, more on how effective such a charge was in my article here, the knights had to be able to form a tight formation, advance, and maneuver in such an ordered formation, before picking up speed (while still maintaining formation), and then charging into the hostile formation with up to 37 mph (= 60 km/h).

The skill necessary to maneuver in a large formation while balancing a 9-16 ft (3-5 m) long lance that was couched under the arm and the switch to fighting in tight formations made it necessary for the knights to train everything they had to be able to do in battle.

But when we talk about that kind of training in the shape of a tournament then it is important to state that we are not talking about jousting!

Until the end of the 14th century, the joust was just a secondary event held in the days before the main event, the melee. For more information on why knights jousted and why the joust became the main event of the tournament during the 15th century, I would like to recommend you my article here.

According to medieval chroniclers the melee, a mock fight in which knights trained for war, only differed from a real battle in three points. 1) Participating in a melee was invite-only. 2) rules and the degree to which violence was accepted were agreed upon before the start. 3) each team had an area where it could not be attacked. Apart from that the tactics and weapons used in a melee were identical to the weapons that knights used in real battles.

For more information on how the melees worked and what purposes the areas where knights could not be attacked by the opposing team apart from being able to rest you might want to check out my article here.

And for more details on where (and how often) tournaments were held I would like to refer to my article here.

Now I think it is pretty clear that two formations of knights charging each other with real weapons carried a certain risk to the health of the participants even though they had agreed on the acceptable level of violence before. The danger for the life (and the salvation) of the knights that participated in melees was actually one reason for the growing role of jousting.

To learn more about the other 3 reasons why jousting took over the place of the melee as the main event of a medieval tournament you might want to check out my article here.

And if you should be less interested in the also not undangerous sport of medieval jousting but you want to find out how a medieval battle actually worked then I would like to recommend you 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).