A tournament, feat of arms, or at the very least, a joust, seems to be a requirement at many modern day renaissance festivals. The verisimilitude of the event brings to mind chivalrous knights, fair ladies, and the "game" of honor that we associate with medieval romance and chivalry. But what were real medieval tournaments like?
This quick post is meant to be a reference for anyone curious about what "real" medieval tournaments were like, or for those looking to recreate a more realistic tournament in their writing, TTRPG campaign, or other creative endeavor. I am not a tournament scholar and heavily rely on the sources cited below. Please remember that the medieval period is not a homogenous monolith, and customs, practices, and traditions for tournaments changed over time and geographic location.
I discuss medieval tournaments and their historical and literary usage more in our episode on the Dolorous Knight.
That said, let's get into what tournaments actually were. Medieval tournaments originated in the 11th century as military exercises, but gradually transformed into more ceremonial and chivalric affairs by the 12th and 13th centuries.
Initially, tournaments served as practical training for warfare, allowing knights to hone their skills in a (semi) controlled environment. There were two main events in a tournament: the melee and the joust. Over time, the joust took center stage as it was relatively safer and more "honor-oriented" than the haphazard free-for-all of the melee. Further, as the role of the knight became more honorary and "elevated," and as warfare technology developed, the nobles who participated in tournaments were less likely to engage in hand-to-hand melee combat.
As tournaments became more widespread, so too did the "knight-errant." These young men were often third or fourth sons who could attain glory and renown even if they did not inherit their fathers' estates and titles. This role allowed younger sons a path aside from lawyers, merchants, or clergy. However, as tournaments became more popular and the rules stricter, their use as battle training eroded and the entire event became more spectacle than practical - not unlike our modern renaissance fair tournaments today.
Tournament Set-up: (according to Harvey's "The Medieval Tournament")
Tournaments could be held any time of year except lent.
They were commonly held on Mondays and Tuesdays, but never Fridays and Sundays
Just like modern renaissance fairs, there were known tournament fields, and seasons.
Most tournaments were announced two weeks beforehand.
Tournament officials would be elected and chosen beforehand.
The tournament began on a field outside a town or city, where stands were set up for spectators. One side of the stands was for those from the settlement, and the other side was for those visiting, like "home" and "away" sides in modern sports.
Tournament Rules: (according to Konieczny's article "Tournament Rules")
Please note that these rules are according to the Tournament Rules of Banburg from 1478, meaning these are highly codified rules. Tournaments during the early Middle Ages had not yet been codified as these.
Participants had to be of "sufficient noble birth" and could not be "a heretic, or merchant, or seducers" or sexual harassers.
Participants must register by 8, be ready to compete at 10.
Swords were blunted, only one club allowed, w/o nails (save for one on the top, which could be no longer than a thumb).
Hits must be aimed at armor; no one could swipe at gaps in armor.
"The riders were allowed to have squires to assist them, with the number depending on their rank: princes could have four squires, earls and lords three squires, knights two squires, and other noblemen just a single squire."
"These assistants could help their master move around the tournament, but they could not push away opponents with weapons or grasp the bridles of their horses."
No one could hurt the squires or push them forcefully.
Feuds could not be continued during tournaments - all must compete peacefully.
Sumptuary laws (aka laws on how to dress) for audiences included:
"Nobody was allowed to wear any pieces of gold or woven velvet to adorn himself" and "women could not wear more than four skirts."
Again, this is a very brief overview of tournaments. Please see the references below for a far more detailed look into how tournaments operated and developed.
Tournament rules, Medieval Warfare Magazine