Was Jousting a fight to the death?

When we think of the Middle Ages then the image of two jousting knights is usually among the first connotations we have with that time period. But when imagining a joust one question usually lingers in the background. Were these medieval jousts a fight to the death? And if the death of one of the contestants was not the norm then how did a knight win a joust?

Originally jousts were fought to the death but in the second half of the 13th century that changed. From there on jousts were won by points and not by killing the opponent. A joust was over when one of the knights had earned 3 points. Hitting the opponent at his helmet or shield was worth 1 point, unhorsing was worth 2 points, and killing the opponent was worth 3 points. Even though jousts were no longer fought to the death, deadly accidents still happened.

So let`s take a deeper look!

Was jousting a fight to the death?

During the early days of jousting when the joust was only the supporting act in the days leading up to the melee as the main event of a medieval tournament, the jousts were often fought to the death. But that changed in the second half of the 13th century.

In the second half of the 13th century, both the joust but also the melee were toned down further and further. The reason for that can be found in the fact that the church rejected any type of tournament since it saw the practice of Christians fighting and even killing each other as sinful.

Here you can find out more about that and the other reasons why the joust would develop into the main attraction of a medieval tournament while the melee vanished into insignificance.

Additionally, the joust was also made safer by the implementation of new rules regarding the equipment. So the lances that were used in war and that consisted of more flexible wood that would not splinter on impact were replaced by lances made from spruce wood that would splinter much quicker to reduce the risk of serious injuries and casualties.

Additionally, these jousting lances were often hollowed out to increase the probability of the splintering of the lance on the first impact. And to soften the impact the tips of the lances were replaced by a cup or a coronet to reduce the danger of serious injuries.

However, the splintering of such a jousting lance created a new hazard. The hazard of wooden pieces of the lance flying around and finding their way through the eyeslits of the helmet. There is actually a report of a knight who was wounded by a piece of his lance that found its way through the eyeslits of his helmet and pierced his head. That man however was lucky since he was able to survive that injury for an entire year, more on that here.

And here you can find my article with more information (and a video) on how special armor like the Frogmouth helmet was designed to protect the eyes of the jousting knight.

Another rule that was implemented by the English king in 1292 prohibited the jousting knights as well as the visitors of the joust from carrying sharp swords. That rule was probably put in place to prevent overly eager fans and followers from fighting it out among themselves when the joust did not end as wished.

However, even though all these rules were implemented to make jousting less dangerous and gradually more protective equipment was developed to prevent fatal injuries jousting was still a dangerous affair. Here you can find out more about how dangerous jousting was.

And that actually brings us to how jousts were won when the death of one of the jousting knights was not the goal and measures were implemented to prevent casualties.

The end of a joust – a victory through points

First, it is important to state that there were countless versions of the joust, each with a different set of rules and conditions for winning. But since these sets of rules are so extensive (sometimes overlapping) and generally pretty exhausting to keep apart I would like to only present the two most common conditions for winning a joust and ignore the countless regional details.

Depending on the set of rules it was either necessary to unhorse the opponent or accumulate 3 points to win a medieval joust.

The first version, the unhorsing of the opponent is probably the most straightforward way to win a joust. However, unhorsing a knight, somebody who was trained to ride horses from an extremely early age, was not that easy. Generally, it is safe to say that it was pretty difficult to unhorse a good horseman.

That problem, the problem of a long and pretty boring joust where neither one of the opponents was able to unhorse his opponent and win the joust was circumnavigated by developing a new set of rules.

So unhorsing the opponent was no longer enough to win the joust. Instead, one of the jousting knights had to accumulate 3 points.

Hitting the helmet or shield of the opponent was worth 1 point, unhorsing the opponent was worth 2 points, and killing the opponent was worth 3 points. When neither of the two opponents archived a hit with their lance then nobody got a point. The joust was continued until one of the knights had gathered the 3 points to win. But if the tournament ended before the necessary amount of points were collected then the knight who was last to open his visor won the joust.

Reasons, why a tournamnet could end even though one of the jousts had not been decided yet, could be nightfall or the feast that followed on the tournament.

By the way, the fact that the condition that the death of one of the jousting knights also won the fight tells us that even after all the attempts to make jousting less dangerous men still died. You can find out more about how dangerous jousting was in my article here.

And if you are curious about why tournaments were held in the first place and which purpose they served 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).