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Medieval Tournament › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 07 May 2018
Jousting Re-enactment (National Jousting Association)
The medieval tournament was a forum for European knights where they could practise and show off their military skills in activities such as jousting or the mêlée, indulge in a bit of pageantry, display their chivalrous qualities and win both riches and glory. From the 10th to 16th century CE tournaments were the principal expression of aristocratic ideals such as chivalry and noble lineage where family arms and honour were put on the line, ladies were wooed and even national pride was at stake.


Warriors have staged practice fights ever since antiquity but the medieval tournament probably developed from the cavalry riders of the Franks in the 9th century CE, who famously practised charging each other and performing manoeuvres of great skill. The organised meetings of knights in order to practice specific military skills and engage in mock cavalry battles took two principal forms:
  • The tournament - a battle between two groups of mounted knights. Often called a mêlée, hastilude, tourney or tournoi.
  • The joust - a one on one duel between mounted knights using wooden lances.
Over time the two expressions have become synonymous for any gathering of knights for the purposes of sport and display of pageantry and may refer to a part of, or the whole of, such an organised meeting.
The origin of the word tournament, just like that of the event itself, is obscure. The original purpose of knight gatherings was probably to practice horsemanship as riders in battle were expected to turn their steeds dramatically, or par tour in French, which may be the origin of the term tourney or tournament. Another possible origin of the name is the early convention that groups of knights would circle each other, or 'turn around', before engaging.


When exactly tournaments began is not known but their first mention in the historical record appears in a chronicle from the abbey of Saint Martin in Tours, France. Under the entry for 1066 CE there is a reference to the death of one Godfrey de Preuilly, killed in a tournament for which he rather ironically made up the rules himself. Many of the early references to tournaments suggest that they began in France. The 13th century CE chronicler Mathew Paris, for example, describes the events as Conflictus Gallicus ('the Gallic - ie French - way of fighting') and batailles francaises ('French battles'). French knights were also famous for their great skill in battle during this period which suggests they had practised hard beforehand.However, there are records of tournaments in Germany and Flanders in the first quarter of the 12th century CE, too. Perhaps introduced into England in the mid-12th century CE, and spreading into Italy at the same time, European tournaments really became popular and more spectacular events from the second half of the 12th century CE.


That tournaments started out as preparation for real warfare is evidenced in the early use of exactly the same weapons and armour that were used on the actual battlefield. An indicator of the realistic dangers they presented is the presence across the 'battle' site of fenced-off enclosures for knights to retreat to and recuperate. These areas are the original lists, a term which was subsequently used to refer to the entire enclosure of the more festive tournaments of later centuries.
Jousting Armour

Jousting Armour

The two groups of knights, numbering up to 200 on each side at some events, wore full armour, carried lances, swords and shields and were organised based on geographic origins; it became common for Normans and English knights to face off against a body of French knights, for example. There were marshals to ensure no foul play but as the field of conflict was usually a large one, perhaps the entire space between two villages, it is not surprising that serious wounds and fatalities were not uncommon. There were not many rules to impose, in fact, and it was not considered unfair for a group of knights to attack a single opponent or attack a knight who had lost his horse.
While honour and glory were strong motivators there was, too, the prospect of financial gain. Knights aimed to steal weapons, armour and anything else valuable that their opponent was carrying or even to capture them and demand a ransom which could be decided upon before the start. There was also a cash prize for the winning team at the end of the day's battle.


Over time the tournaments became more sophisticated and more challenging with the use of mock fortresses to be stormed, for example. Foot soldiers were employed to boost a side's chance of winning and a greater range of weapons, among which the crossbow, was used. Rulers became wary of the events as they might (and sometimes did) spill over into rebellion once a group of knights had got themselves riled up. Consequently, Richard I of England (1189-1199 CE) only permitted their organisation under license and made knights pay an entrance fee while in Germany the emperors only permitted royal persons to participate; such was the prestige which had become attached to tournaments. Philip II of France (r. 1180-1223 CE), in contrast, forbade his son from participating in tournaments because of the dangers involved.
Indeed, the unnecessary deaths which became all too common were one reason why the church consistently disapproved of tournaments in many countries and warned combatants that hell was awaiting them should they be killed therein. The Popes banned tournaments during the 12th century CE and declared that the event was outrageous as it involved all seven deadly sins. Many knights blithely ignored the church's stance, though, and there was even a tournament in London where seven cheeky knights entered a competition with each dressed up to resemble one of the sins.
Joust Re-enactment

Joust Re-enactment

Some tournaments did develop into real battles when retainers and spectators all joined in, which was especially likely in the case of 'revenge' matches between national groups of knights. There was even a risk from the weather: 80 German knights infamously expired from heat exhaustion in a tournament in 1241 CE. More rules were introduced by the late 13th century CE and anyone breaking them had their armour and horse confiscated or even faced imprisonment. Spectators too were obliged to leave all weapons and armour at home. To reduce fatalities, weapons were adapted such as the fitting of a three-pointed head to the lance in order to reduce the impact and swords were blunted (rebated). Such weapons became known as 'arms of courtesy' or à plaisance.


By the 14th century CE, the tournament had become more a spectacle of pageantry and noble lineage rather than real fighting. Especially important for social display was the magnificent first-day procession which went through the area so that knights could impress the locals with their pomp and finery. There was still some danger, of course, when knights charged at each other with long wooden lances, even if their ends were blunted. The size of the field was reduced and the greater safety meant lighter and more flamboyant armour, helmet crests and shields could be used. Skill and honour became the order of the day and so tournaments were a handy way for rulers to bolster their armies, too. As the event became more lavish, the costs rocketed and only the richest knights could afford to host them and participate.
In addition to the financial barrier, knights now had to prove their lineage as the whole event became an exercise in aristocratic display with heralds both proclaiming and carrying the contestant's heritage on banners and their coats of arms. Knights bore their coat of arms on their shield and the covering of their horse which were important identifiers to the crowd. Arms were displayed where the knights slept and on a special tree at the site of the tournament where all the competitor's arms were hung. Finally, some knights could be excluded from a tournament if they had a disreputable reputation. This may be why some knights preferred to compete anonymously.
Tournaments, then, became the best opportunity for a knight to publicly display those qualities any good knight was expected to possess:
  • martial prowess ( prouesse )
  • courtesy ( courtoisie )
  • good breeding ( franchise )
  • noble manners ( debonnaireté )
  • generosity ( largesse )
In addition, and given the importance of chivalry, those who had, amongst other misdemeanours, slandered a woman, been found guilty of murder or who had been excommunicated were banned.
Medieval Tournament Scene

Medieval Tournament Scene

By now tournaments were great social events spread over several days, and they were often held to celebrate such important occasions as coronations and royal weddings or at annual gatherings of specific knight orders. Spectators set up tents around the designated fighting area, the lists, which was spread with straw or sand. There were stands for spectators, pavilions and balconies for the richest onlookers, stalls with refreshments, sellers of horses and fine clothes, intermission performances of drama with musicians and acrobats, pageants, and several banquets over the course of the event.


As tournaments became more select and honour and display came to the fore, so the joust rose in prominence. Perhaps originating from the Latin juxtare ('to meet'), this one-on-one battle between lance-bearing knights within a confined space offered more possibilities to impress the audience - or even a specific lady therein - than the wild scramble over several fields of the original tournament format. The mêlée event did, though, remain a part of the overall tournament event. There were also unofficial competitions held by those knights unable to afford the now expensive tournaments proper. These were often called a 'challenge to arms' and involved a knight or small group of knights issuing an open challenge to all-comers (especially foreigners) with the contest occurring whenever the challenge was taken up.
At a joust a knight set his horse at a gallop and aimed his lance at the shield or throat of his opponent. From the early 15th century CE the two knights were sometimes separated by a wooden barrier (tilt) running the length of the field which ensured they did not collide head-on. A direct hit on the chest or throat usually unseated the knight. Squires provided their master with a replacement lance if it were broken; three weapons seem to have been the norm. Lances became hollow so that they shattered more easily and were less likely to seriously injure. Indeed, complex rules developed where points were given for the number of shattered lances or hits on particular parts of the body like the visor. Mechanical shields were even developed which shattered when struck, thus clearly indicating to the crowd who had hit who first.
Swords were generally not used while still on horseback but if one knight was dismounted then the other would also leave his horse and the two could proceed in hand-to-hand combat if they wished. Maces might be employed rather than swords.Armour became specialised with sections likely to be hit (the chest and right side of the helmet) being reinforced with an extra metal plate, a heavy steel gauntlet ( manifer ) for the lance hand, a grill for the helmet visor and a saddle with protrusions to better protect the legs. If a knight wished to concede at any time then he removed his helmet.
Death of Henry II at Tournament

Death of Henry II at Tournament

The victor of a joust won prizes such as a gold crown, a jewel, a horse or a falcon while less commercial recompense took the form of a certain lady's kiss or garter. The biggest prize, though, and the reason why many knights devoted a career to tournaments, was the ransom from the loser. Expected to pay a fee and donate his horse, weapons and armour, the loser was permitted to leave the field only when he gave his word or parole that he would pay up as soon as possible. One of the most successful knights at tournaments was Sir William Marshal (1146-1219 CE), whose exploits led his contemporary Archbishop of Canterbury to declare him the greatest knight that had ever lived. Sir William was the subject of a 19,000 line poem L'Histoire du Guillaume Maréchal which recounts his impressive rags to riches story and undefeated record in jousts.
Just as tournaments had originally been practice sessions for war, so knights began to practice for the tournaments. A common device to hone one's lancing skills was the quintain - a rotating arm with a shield at one end and a weight at the other.A knight had to hit the shield and keep riding on to avoid being hit in the back by the weight as it swung around. Another device was a suspended ring which the knight had to catch and remove with the tip of his lance. Inexperienced knights often had their own jousting events held on the eve of a tournament proper. Such practice sessions and preparation events remained necessary both to win jousting events and survive them for it remained a dangerous sport for the unskilled despite the safety precautions.


In the 16th century CE fighting on foot, sometimes with the opponents separated by a low fence, became more common, as did other sporting challenges such as archery and the expensive pageantry and inherent danger of jousting brought about its slow decline. Then, when Henry II (r. 1519-1559 CE), the king of France, was killed in a joust in 1559 CE after a splinter from a shattered lance entered his visor, the tournaments lost much of their wider popularity. Tournaments continued in one form or another in some countries well into the 18th century CE and there were one-off revival tournaments in the 19th century CE but the age of chivalry and knights was by then a distant memory as firearms became the staple weapon of war.

Poulnabrone › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 30 August 2015
Poulnabrone (Jehosua)
Poulnabrone is a portal tomb in the region known as the Burren, County Clare, Ireland. The name means "Hole of the Quern Stones", but the site is also commonly referred to as "Hole of the Sorrows". Dated to c. 4200 BCE it stands 5.9 feet high (1.8 meters) and 12 feet (3.6 meters) long in a field surrounded by the karst stone formations which make up the Burren. It is defined as a dolmen : a single-chamber, megalithic tomb distinguished by a capstone resting on upright stones. It is the best known and most often photographed of the almost 200 dolmens in Ireland because of its near perfect symmetry. Excavations at the site in the 1980's CE uncovered human remains and grave goods, establishing the site as an ancient tomb, but it may have served other purposes as well. Dr. Carleton Jones, who worked at the site, suggests it may have been an "ancient billboard" as well as a tomb marking the territory of the tribe of the Burren.


All the stones used in construction were brought to the site from miles away -- none match the geological make up of the Burren -- and were then assembled with perfect balance and precision, no concrete, and no compounds whatsoever. The massive capstone of Poulnabrone rests on five upright stones: two portal stones, two orthostats (upright stones), and an end stone. Archaeologists who have worked at the site since the first excavations in 1986 have concluded that Poulnabrone was erected as a doorway between this world and the next based upon artifacts uncovered there and the slant of the capstone.


The burial chamber measures 9 inches (25 cm) deep, though archaeologists believe it was once deeper -- 21.6 inches (55 cm). In 1985 CE the capstone cracked and the dolmen collapsed; this provided archaeologists with the opportunity to excavate the site thoroughly without worrying about disturbing the dolmen's delicate position. When the work was concluded, the capstone was repaired and Poulnabrone reassembled precisely as it had been before.


Excavations by archaeologist Ann Lynch in 1986 and 1988 CE found the remains of 22 people from the Neolithic Age buried in the dolmen: 16 adults, six children, and one newborn. All the adults had died before the age of 40. The skeletons were brought to the tomb after the bodies had decomposed elsewhere, suggesting to Lynch an elaborate burial ritual in which the flesh and organs of the deceased had to first be returned to the earth before the more enduring bones could be placed in the portal to the next world. Some of the skeletons showed scorch marks indicating they had been burned, but Lynch ruled out the practice of cremation since the marks were so uneven and the bones largely intact. She suggests that parts of the bodies were burned away to hasten interment in the dolmen, possibly because of an imminent festival or ritual. As these festivals corresponded to astronomical/seasonal occurrences, they could not be delayed in waiting for a body to decompose at its leisure.
Along with the skeletons, Lynch found a polished stone axe, beads, jewelry, arrowheads, pottery sherds, and other remains of personal possessions, all indicating a tomb for people of high standing in the community, most likely a chieftain and his family.The capstone of the monument is at an angle, and the skeletons of the deceased were placed in the front, at the highest point of the roof, with their possessions. It is thought that the dolmen was designed this way to enable the soul to depart easily from the lower angle at the back. Although scholars and archaeologists can only speculate, it is possible that the low angle had to do with the ancient inhabitant's vision of the Underworld and the monument was specifically tilted in recognition of the Otherworld above the earth and the Underworld below; the slope of the back angle was thought to hasten the departure of the soul down to the realm of the afterlife.


This Underworld, it should be noted would have had no correlation to the later concept of a "hell" where souls are punished; it was simply another realm of the Otherworld. These concepts are only known to have arisen later in Celtic culture, as there is no way of knowing what the people who built Poulnabrone believed since they had no written script, but it seems likely, based on excavations and the positioning of the capstone, that those who constructed it believed something along the lines of their descendants.
Celtic deities were closely tied to the land, and this was especially so of the Morrigan, the phantom queen associated with war, death, and regeneration/rebirth. The Morrigan was at once beautiful and terrifying, taking souls from the battlefield and carrying them away like the Norse Valkyrie or appearing at the moment of death by the hearth or in the field to wrench the soul from the body. The Morrigan and other deities, spirits, faieries, and sprites were greatly feared, and defences were built against them at sacred sites throughout Ireland. The Giant's Ring, a sacred site in Ballynaratty, near Belfast, is a henge monument dating from c. 2700 BCE and consisting of a wide basin surrounded by an earthwork. This same sort of construction can be seen elsewhere at similar sites in Ireland, such as the Hill of Tara in County Meath. Historian Jonathan Bardon comments on this, writing, "It is clear that they were not constructed for military purposes as the ditch in each of the locations was placed inside rather than outside the great circular earthen enclosures. If defence was needed, it was against hostile spirits from the Otherworld" (14).
Poulnabrone, Ireland

Poulnabrone, Ireland

In this same way, it is possible that Poulnabrone was constructed not to ease the passage of the soul to the next life but to discourage spirits of the other realm from entering the world of the living. Every dolmen in Ireland is constructed in this same way, with the slanting capstone, many much larger than Poulnabrone's. The capstone of the Kilclooney dolmen in County Donegal measures 13 feet long and and 20 feet across. Perhaps the monument was designed with the downward sloping back angle as a kind of one-way sign for unseen spirits. As with every aspect of Poulnabrone, however -- and the other dolmens -- this is purely speculation. Dr. Jones suggests that the angle may serve the same purpose as the design of modern houses of worship. He writes:
Early antiquarians sometimes dismissed megalithic tombs as “rude stone monuments,” lacking in aesthetic value. Today, with a more open mind, it is not hard to see [Poulnabrone's] aesthetic qualities. The monument is an amazing balance of mass and energy. The mass is provided by the bulky stones rising straight up from the ground while the energy is captured in the almost precarious tilt of a massive capstone, balanced high above and pointing skywards. Perhaps, Poulnabrone embodies that long gone society's striving for spiritual answers, in much the same way a Gothic arch or a steeple on a modern church reaches towards heaven (1).


The monument was never "discovered" in any dramatic fashion. It has always been standing, except for its brief collapse in the 1980's CE, right where it stands in the present day. Although the interpretation of the name as "Hole of Sorrows" has been discredited by scholars on the subject, the people who live near the site know it by that name as well as "Place of Sorrows".The arrangement of the bodies in the tomb as found by Lynch, and the artifacts buried with them, suggests they were important people to the community, and perhaps the loss of these individuals continued to resonate in the grief of the community long after their passing, giving the site its local association with sorrow. This theory is far from improbable. The Irish have a long memory and evidence of that is plentiful. Only one example of this is the megalithic monument Newgrange in County Meath, which takes its modern name from references by local people in the 1960's CE to the area as the new grange (farm) of the monks of Mellifont Abbey, which was closed in 1539 CE during the Protestant Reformation.
Poulnabrone is a very popular tourist attraction in the present day, with bus tours stopping there regularly in season. In Dr. Jones' words, "it was built to impress, and it still does over 5,000 years later." The monument sits silently in it karst field beyond the parking lot as visitors come and go, as they have through the centuries, while the quiet dolmen remains, keeping its ancient secrets.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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