I have seen numerous jousts either in film or re-enactment, but deciding to write about a joust I encountered problems. How were jousts actually started? What were the rules? Were jousts depicted in Ivanhoe the same as Henry VIII’s? How did ladies give favours to their knights?
My joust takes place in 1196, this provides a focus point for my research. My participants are knights who have come together for a wedding, in football terms it a ‘friendly’. Most would have taken part in tournaments and even real battles, a few would be ‘in-training’, squires used to mock battles in training and hoping to show their skills to others.
Battle skills have been practised throughout history, but tournaments emerged from France around 1100 and became common across Europe. They were a chance for knights to show and develop skills. More importantly they were a chance to gain notice and make money. One of the most famous example of success through tournament is William Marshall. A second son with no land, he was a skilled soldier and able to advance himself, initially, through the tournament circuit.
Although we are familiar with the one-to-one joust it was only a part of the tourney. Originally, these were mock battles between two teams, known as the melee. These could last all day and they were not contained, most areas were not “off-limit” and knights could venture into villages or across fields. The exception were designated ‘refuges’ which allowed knights to rearm or recovery, and where, supposedly, knights could not be attacked, however in early days rules were not always adhered to. Knights would be dressed in full armour and could carry lance and sword, other weapons, which would have been used in battles at that time, were prohibited. Axes, bows, spears were not viewed as suitable weapons for a mounted knight. The melee’s aim was to unhorse as many knights as possible. Once unhorsed the rider was supposed to ‘surrender’ to the victor, if he refused then the victor and his squires could drag him to a refuge. Losers usually paid their victor a ransom which could be monetary but was sometimes goods such as; saddle, bridle or armour. Armour, lost in battle, could be gathered by squires and either sold back later or retained. Some knights would disturbed to others in their team.
As mentioned this was a team battle, often teams were from same terrorises; French, Flemish, Angevins etc. As in most team games those that worked well together have a greater advantage and are more likely to emerge as victors.
At the end of the day the victorious team was usually the one with the most mounted knights, and, just like a football match, the players ended the day with a bath.
The joust, as we would recognise it, developed from the melee and consisted of one-to-one combat. Reasons for its gain in popularity include; the use of heavier armour, the decline in population following the Black Death, the enforcement of regulations. From the spectator’s point-of-view the joust was easily to watch as the action took place in front of you, for merchants it meant no more knights running riot through town, also during the famine years landowners would not want valuable crops to be destroyed. Unlike the melee the joust was held on a list, a long narrow strip of land marked with two parallel tracks, later separated by a fence or barrier. Nobility would be seated on purpose built dais, others would stand behind barriers. Fully armoured knights would charge each other with long-lances aiming to strike their opponent’s shield and unseat them. If both unseated then they would fight with swords. If neither was unseated they would charge again, the number of attempts would be to an agreed limit, usually three or five, after which a judge declared winner. The lance was blunt and pronged, to prevent penetrating armour and helping to spread impact.
Besides upper body strength and skill, a knight needed to be an excellent horseman in order to control his horse whilst holding shield and lance. The knight held the lance in his right hand, in a crouched position tucked under his armpit across his saddle pointing forward on his left side. Whilst his left hand held his shield and reins.
Another type of tournament, which became popular in the 13th century, was the bohort which seems to have Germanic origins. The knights’ worn padded clothes, not armour, and were armed with short lances. They did not gallop towards each other, the emphasis was on unhorsing your opponent by thrusting your lance at him in any direction necessary. Other accounts have participants armed only with shields.
In Paris in August 1186, the King’s son, Geoffrey, died. There are two accounts of his death; the popular one states he was trampled underfoot by horses whilst taking part in a tourney. The second has him dying of chest pains after delivering a boastful speech to Phillip in which he maligns his father. Geoffrey was 27 and estranged from his father at this time, the first story would have provided a reasonable explanation of his presence in Paris when the details were conveyed to a distraught Henry. Whatever the truth men did die in tourneys. Henry’s reaction was to ban tournaments in England so that others would not be subjected to a similar loss. This decision was overturned, when Richard became King, as a ‘warrior king’ he recognised their importance in developing the skills of warfare. However, he also introduced regulations (Richard I Charter 1194) governing how they would be conducted. Like all sports, tourneys and jousting evolved. Others would introduce their own rules, prizes changed, equipment, and even rules of who could compete.
Back in 1196 Richard’s regulations would have been the guide to an English tournament. A’ plaisance were being fought in England in 1190s, these focused on individual knights skills and were more likely to attract spectators, including women. Women were not recorded as attending such events until later, however that does not mean they didn’t attend as they could be numerous reasons for their non-mention at this time. Later, with the adoption of the code of chivalry in 13th century, women would have a role to play. Favours were either a lady’s sleeve or veil, which were fastened to the favoured knight’s lance or helm, their use was widespread in 13th century but may have occurred before.
From the film-maker’s viewpoint the joust has many advantages over the melee in plot development and for filming. The melee’s similarity to a battle would diminish its plot value, why introduce a mock fight when a meaningful, real one comes up later in the film? Whereas, with a joust, its rivalry, the participants’ skill, the increase in tension can add to viewer’s experience as can the visual use of colour; pennants, surcoats, nobility clothing. On the budget side less people are involved so easier to choreograph, direct and film. Whilst it cannot be said that clapping to an anthem by Queen ever occurred in medieval England, the atmosphere, the bravado, the travelling from one tourney to another to enhance a knight’s career and the staging of the joust have meant that A Knight’s Tale has received positive feedback from many medievalists.
NB Images are 13th century not 12th, taken from the manuscript ‘Codex Manesse’