medieval tournament

From War Games to Chivalrous Spectacles: The Evolution of Medieval Tournaments

Medieval tournaments were exciting events that originated from early war games and mock battles called béhourds. During chaotic times, these war games lacked discipline and fairness, often resulting in fierce competition without proper organization. They were mainly about showcasing individual strength and bravery rather than promoting sportsmanship. However, as time passed, people needed safer and more organized events to bring them together without the risk of unnecessary casualties. This led to the creation of medieval tournaments, where participants could display their combat skills in a controlled and regulated environment. These tournaments not only satisfied the public’s desire for entertainment but also provided a platform for knights to prove their courage and prowess. With rules and regulations in place, medieval tournaments became renowned for their chivalry and attracted participants and spectators alike.

History of Medieval Tournaments

Medieval tournaments
Medieval tournaments by Marjon is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Medieval tournaments were exciting events that emerged during the Middle Ages. They brought together knights and nobles to showcase their martial skills and chivalry. Tournaments consisted of two main components: mêlées and jousts.

  • In mêlées, knights engaged in mock battles, demonstrating their prowess in combat. They fought in teams, aiming to capture opponents or score points. These contests simulated real battlefield situations and allowed knights to practice their skills.
  • Jousts, on the other hand, were one-on-one combat competitions. Mounted knights charged at each other with lances, attempting to unseat their opponent. Jousts emphasised individual skill, courage, and horsemanship.

The combination of mêlées and jousts began in the 10th century. This fusion of combat styles paved the way for the first recorded medieval tournament in France in 1066. Held at the behest of William the Conqueror, it showcased the prowess of knights and marked the beginning of a popular and influential tradition that would endure for centuries to come.

Medieval Tournament Features

  • Inviting Knights to Tournaments:

Messengers were sent to various knights, delivering formal invitations to participate in the tournament. The invitations included details such as the event’s date, location, and rules.

  • Establishing the Tournament Day and Noble Hosts:

Planning: The noble hosts, usually high-ranking lords or royalty, selected a suitable day for the tournament. This involved considering factors like availability, significance, and the convenience of participants and spectators.

Announcement: Once the date was established, the noble hosts made a public announcement, spreading the news across the realm through messengers, heralds, and town criers.

  • Code of Chivalry and Tournament Conduct:
  1. Principles: The Code of Chivalry, a set of moral guidelines for knights, heavily influenced tournament conduct. Knights were expected to demonstrate bravery, honour, fairness, and respect towards opponents.
  2. Fair Play: Knights were required to follow strict rules during tournaments, ensuring fair competition. Cheating, using excessive force, or dishonourable conduct was strictly prohibited.
  3. Knightly Etiquette: Chivalry promoted courteous behaviour on and off the battlefield. Knights were expected to show respect towards their hosts, fellow knights, and the audience, maintaining a dignified and honourable demeanour throughout the event.

Medieval Tournaments Setting

Here are some key points about the tournament setting:

  1. Boundaries: Tournaments were hosted in expansive open fields, enclosed by robust lists or fences. These structures helped maintain order and provided a clear space for the participants.
  1. Tents for Knights and Nobles: The tournament grounds featured numerous tents, serving as temporary dwellings for the knights and nobles participating in the event. These tents offered shelter and served as a gathering place for the participants before and after their performances.
  1. Royal Boxes: Distinguished guests, including royalty and high-ranking nobles, had the privilege of watching the tournament from elevated and lavishly decorated royal boxes. These special viewing areas gave the guests an excellent vantage point to witness the thrilling displays of skill and bravery.
  1. Spectators: The tournament setting was meticulously designed to offer the best views for spectators. With clear sightlines and strategically positioned seating areas, the audience could immerse themselves in the excitement, cheering on their favourite knights and witnessing the dramatic clashes firsthand.

The Rules of a Medieval Tournament

Medieval tournaments by Marjon is licensed under CC0 1.0

Before the tournament, some rules were established to ensure fairness and safety. These rules encompassed the general terms of engagement for all participants. 

Some of the general rules were: 

  • All participants were required to adhere to the rules and regulations set forth by the organisers.
  • Knights and warriors were expected to demonstrate chivalry, honour, and respect towards fellow competitors.
  • Any form of cheating or unsportsmanlike conduct resulted in immediate disqualification.
  • Safety measures were observed to prevent unnecessary harm or injury to the participants.
  • The decisions of the tournament officials and judges were final and binding.
  • Participants were required to wear appropriate armour and protective gear during combat.
  • Lethal strikes or intent to harm were strictly prohibited; the objective was to display skill, not cause serious injury.
  • All weapons used had to meet the safety standards set by the organisers.
  • The tournament often had specific rules for each combat style, which participants had to follow.
  • Any disputes or conflicts were brought to the attention of the tournament officials for resolution.

Accepted weapons for the tournament depended on the rules set forth by the organisers. Swords, lances, shields, and other traditional medieval weapons were commonly used. However, these rules sometimes also restricted the use of certain weapons to maintain fair and balanced competition.

Tournaments – The Jousting Contest

Jousting, once a warm-up, became the main event in medieval tournaments. This one-to-one combat between armoured knights on horseback captivated audiences with its daring spectacle. The intense display of skill, bravery, and strength embodied the chivalrous ideals of knighthood and served as a platform for young knights to gain recognition and establish their reputation.

Melee – The Tournament Finale

The mêlée was an exciting team competition in early medieval tournaments. Blunted weapons were used to ensure safety, but competitors still displayed their strength, skill, and strategy. Winning brought honour and prizes, celebrating the bravery and skill of victorious knights. It was a spectacle that delighted both participants and spectators, epitomizing the spirit of medieval chivalry.


Medieval tournaments evolved from military exercises to public entertainment, showcasing the skill and gallantry of knights. Their lasting impact still endures as a symbol of valour and courage.

Leave a Reply