When we think of a medieval tournament then we usually think of a joust that was held in front of a castle.
But until the end of the 14th century, the joust was only the supporting act of a medieval tournament. The main act was the melee, a mock fight between two groups of knights that was training for war. For more information on how jousts and melees worked, which rules the melee had, and how (little) a melee differed from an actual battle I would like to recommend you my article here.
But for now, I would like to focus on where and how often both jousts and melees were held.
Northern France was the heartland of medieval tournaments with a total of 16 tournament places where tournaments that were attended by knights from all over Western Europe were rotatory held every two weeks. These places were several hundred acres large and had separate areas where jousts were held. From the 15th century forward the joust became the main event of the tournament that was now often held close to a city.
Let`s find out more!
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- 1 Where were the first medieval tournaments held?
- 2 Where were medieval tournaments (melees) held?
- 3 How often were medieval tournaments (melees) held?
- 4 Where & how often were jousts held in the Middle Ages?
- 5 Sources
Where were the first medieval tournaments held?
The origins of the medieval tournament can be found in Northern France, the first to ever organize a tournament was the French knight Geoffroy de Preuilly who died in 1066. And even in the 13th century both English and German authors still called the tournaments a „mos francorum“, a tradition of the French.
The first tournament in the Holy Roman Empire is estimated to have taken place in 1127 since the chronicler Otto of Freising reports that the two brothers Conrad and Frerick, members of the Staufer dynasty, held a tournament at the city of Würzburg during that year. Here you can find out more about how the Holy Roman Empire got its name despite not being Roman,
But while the western parts of the Holy Roman Empire, those closest to France, had already picked up the practice of organizing tournaments in 1127, the eastern parts of the Holy Roman Empire still needed a few years. Because of that, the first mentioned tournament in Bohemia was only held in 1245!
In England, tournaments were outlawed for most of the time and only briefly legalized in the years after 1150. Until then, and as soon as tournaments were outlawed again, English knights had to travel to Northern France to be able to participate in a tournament.
By the way, have you ever asked yourself how potential contestants were informed about the time and location of a tournament when most people could not read? You can find the answer in my article here!
But let`s now look at where melees were held in Northern France.
Where were medieval tournaments (melees) held?
Until the end of the 14th century, the main event of a medieval tournament was the melee. The melee was a mock fight between two groups of knights who fought with very few rules in an area that could stretch several hundred acres. The purpose of a melee was to train for war. Because of that, the tactics that were used were similar to the tactics used in battle.
Here you can find out more about the tactics that were trained in melees and that made knights so effective in battle. And here you can also find out more about the 3 points in which a melee differed from a real battle.
Where was the heartland of medieval tournaments in Western Europe?
From the 11th century to the 13th century Northern France was the undisputed center of holding medieval tournaments. Knights from Lower Lotharingia, Brittany, Flanders, Normandy, and Burgundy, but also from England and the Holy Roman Empire traveled to Northern France to compete in these tournaments.
Especially the melee, the training for war, was popular among knights. By the way, a melee only differed from a real battle in 3 points.
- The competitors were invited, more on that here.
- The degree to which violence was allowed was agreed upon before the melee started
- Each team had a safe zone in which it could not be attacked and where the knights could rest but also store fresh horses, weapons, and prisoners. You can find out more about that here.
The reason why Northern France was not only the birthplace of the medieval tournament but also remained its center can be found in the presence of many wealthy barons who could afford to sponsor the tournaments.
Where were the tournament places situated?
We know of at least 16 tournament places in Northern France at which tournaments were regularly held.
Tournament places were areas that could stretch over several hundred acres and that were ideally confined by natural barriers like rivers. Many were also situated between two cities. Valleys were also a popular place to hold tournaments since they offered the spectators a good view.
By the way, these melees were commented by heralds. More on that here. Later these heralds were also used to identify the fallen of a battle. Here you can find out more about how knights (and heralds) were able to tell knights apart even when they were wearing armor and helmets that covered the entire body.
So now we found out where tournaments originated and where they were held. But how often were tournaments held during the Middle Ages?
Let`s find out!
How often were medieval tournaments (melees) held?
The most important source to find out more about how often medieval tournaments were held (and tournaments in general) is the autobiography of William Marshall, an English knight who lived in the second half of the 12th century and whose regular participation in tournaments brought him not only fame but also fortunes and the acquaintance of men like Richard the Lionheart.
Do you want to read more about William Marshall and his fascinating life? Then I would like to recommend you this book* that you can find on Amazon.
During the late 12th century a tournament was held every two weeks at one of the 16 tournament places in Northern France.
Until the late 14th century that goes for both the melee but also the joust since the joust was usually the supporting act of the melee. But that changed in the 15th century when the joust replaced the melee as the main event of the medieval tournament.
Here you can find out more about why the joust rose from the supporting act to the main act while the melee slowly faded into insignificance.
Where & how often were jousts held in the Middle Ages?
Until the end of the 14th century, the joust had been the supporting act of the melee and was as such held in the days leading up to the melee. That changed during the 15th century when the joust replaced the more dangerous melee, more on how dangerous competing in a melee actually was here.
In the 15th century, the significance of jousting as military training declined and jousting became a sport that was mostly held either in or close by cities, often at special occasions like royal weddings, coronations, or the birth of an heir.
By the way, the lower risk of fatal injuries was only one reason why knights jousted. You can find out more about the other reasons in my article here.
While competing in a joust was still seen as a privilege of the nobility during the Late Middle Ages that changed during the early modern period (after 1500). During the early modern period, jousting had become a sport that was also performed by wealthy urban citizens and was no longer exclusive to members of the nobility.
However: Even though jousting was less dangerous than participating in a melee and the equipment that was used during jousts was gradually improved, jousting still remained dangerous. You can find out more about how dangerous jousting was and how the armor was improved to prevent deadly accidents in my article here.
But that is a story for another time. I hope you enjoyed our trip into the Middle Ages.
Haven`t gotten enough of the Middle Ages yet? Then I would like to recommend you my article about the clothing of medieval kings here.
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).