Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tournaments & Duels in the Medieval World

What was another name for a gym monkey in the medieval times? A knight! Okay, so maybe that isn’t the best analogy, but one has to keep in mind that the elite of the fighting medieval men had to keep their bodies and skills finely tuned in anticipation for the next fight, the castle siege, or war. Knights made use of the lists, practicing one-on-one sparing, riding against the quintain, and working with their squires.

The daily routine of working out helped. However, knights needed more.  Men brought up in a violent world needed to channel that need, else they went about the land causing havoc. What did knights do during times of peace to keep the battle skills finely tuned?

They spent time bashing each other with lances, swords, and various other weapons at war games, also known as a tournament! In the beginning, the tournaments were'nt always formally organzied. In fact, bands of knights would ride around the countryside ganging up on other knights, squires, or local folk practising their skills. Often, the opposing side ended up dead. Needless to say, the local lords, and Church, wasn't bery pleased with this approach.

The tournament solved the problem to a certain degree (the Crusades completed the solution). Pope Urban proposed and later declared the Crusades as a method to keep the Christian knights from killing one abother, oh and while you're at it, why not take that energy and put it to good use taking back the Holy City of Jerusalem at the same time.

What exactly is a tournament? It is a contest in which mounted knights fight one another while on horseback using various weapons. The contest organizer specied the weapons allowed, and those illegal. Events held at a tourney could include jousts (mounted knights trying to unseat each other with lances), melees (a free-for-all fight between two teams of knights), and duels between two combatants (could be to the death in criminal cases) until one party yielded. Tournaments were held by many societies, utilizing the devices of war on horseback, via chariot, and on foot.

In western civilization, the Church discouraged tournaments, seeing them as a form of sin. At the Council of Clermont, Pope Innocent II actually went as far as to ban men from participating in the sport. The voice of God on earth felt that tournament fighting was a gateway vice which led to other sins: anger, vanity, greed, and lust. Knights ignored the Pope’s ban, choosing to attend and participate despite the Pontiff’s decree. The ban was lifted in 1316 by Pope John XXII.

Knights who were killed could be denied burial in sacred ground, but that didn’t stop the popular activity from occurring. As with today’s modern athletes, winners had fans and female admirers. Ladies would offer favors to their favorute knights (sleeves, handkerchiefs, ribbons) to affix to their body or lances.

It was not unknown for squires to compete, with permision from their masters. Accidents happened during the events. Knights and squires understood the risk of being seriously hurt or killed, even though weapons were normally fought with blunted weapons. Geoffrey, King Henry II of England’s son, was killed in a joust in 1186. Robert of Clermont was left with permanent brain damage in 1279 from a head injury suffered from jousting. King Henry II of France died when a lance splinter pierced his eye.  Henry VIII was hit on the head, suffering a serious concussion and loss of consciousness. It was feared he might die until he woke up. An ulcerous wound on his leg from a joust caused Henry VIII a lifetime of problems; perhaps one reason the once jovial man became ill tempered in his later years.

Knights became obsessed with competing. It is said that there were men who would go from event to event, winning some and losing others just barely maintaining enough to keep their heads above water – not unlike the rodeo cowboys of today. Men bankrupted their lands during the tourney season, even neglecting their duties. Ulrich von Lichtenstein snuck away from a diplomatic meeting to compete in a tournament with his brother.

The profits out-weighed the potential losses, luring men from far away countries. Tournament winners walked away with opponent’s horses, weapons, and equipment. Knights winning the events would go as far as to ransom the losers for riches. Sir William Marshall of England made claim to have beaten 103 knights over his tournament battles. He accumlated gold, horses, armor in his competion years.

King Richard I of England (the Lion-hearted) declared tournaments legal in England in 1194, being an enthusiastic competitor.  He ordered any tournament organizer to get permission before announcing an event. King Richard specified regulations on feuds and taxes. Specialized armor just for the joust developed, becoming fancier, with colorful barding with heraldry marking the coats of arms of the knight. The lances used changed to a coronel type (blunted) to prevent serious injury. A ‘tilt barrier’ was introduced in the 1500’s, another safety measure. The barrier could be made of cloth, rope, or wood – its sole purpose was to keep the competitors separate.

Larger events could be held in hastily made stadiums, with bleachers for the VIPS to sit in. Lower level events would be held outside of the lord’s homes. Tournaments were even held with themes: Ulrich von Lichtenstein and a couple of his friends showed up at one event as King Arthur and his men, taking on all challengers.

As tournaments flourished, rules were set down. Geoffroi de Charny wrote multiple books on chivalry and the tournaments, being recognized as the shining example of a knight in the 14th century. Charny posed questions for his readers, rather than lecturing them, on the values of knighthood, quests, tourneys, and battles. Ramon Lull wrote along similar lines, only he changed careers, going from knight to monk. Both books are available today, translated in to today’s modern English.

Tournament lists were also used as venue for a trial by combat for either civil or criminal cases if approved by the King and his Parliament. Battles for civil cases could be fought by designated knights until one man yielded. The far more serious criminal cases were fought by the accuser and the accused to the death.

The process of a trial by combat was involved. First, a serious crime had to supposedly have been committed by a member of the nobility. Crimes worthy of a trial by combat included murder, treason, heresy, desertion (of one’s lord), abduction, fraud, and rape. The aggrieved party would appeal to the King to review the case. Should the King’s court decide it was a valid case, and not rule on the matter then both parties would be called to discuss the event before the King and his Counselors.  At that time, the aggrieved party had the right to demand a trial by combat (duel to the death).  The results of the trial would forever be known as the ‘judgment of God.’

This practice was decried by the Church as wrong, tempting God, and became rarer as the years progressed. France eliminated the practice for civil cases in 1258 and it was halted in the late 1400’s for criminal cases. Germany stopped the practice in the 1500’s as did England. Scotland and Ireland allowed the trials to continue through the 16th century.

The phase ‘throwing down the gauntlet’ came from the challenge to a duel: a knight would take off one of his gauntlet (maile gloves) and throw it down in front of the knight he had a serious grievance against. The other knight would pick up the gauntlet (or glove) and verbally accept the challenge.  Written documentation presented to the Royal Courts was required next, and reviewed to ensure the challenge was valid. The knights had to select six men to serve as witnesses. The six men also had the sacred duty to make sure the knight would show up on the proscribed day to fight. If either knight didn’t make his appearance, an arrest warrant would be issued: the warrant would guarantee that man’s guilt and execution.

Once the day of the duel arrived, the two men had to swear oaths:  to accept the will of God as to the result, and if the fight wasn’t over at the end of the day he would present himself at the lists at the beginning of the next and so on until one of them was dead.  The men had to swear not to carry any forbidden arms, and they had to swear not to carry and any items that had spells or have any charms or evil items. Another item of note, should the duel involve a family member, say a wife or betrothed, then that member was required to be present at all times.

A famous duel in 1386 in France, heavily documented, involved three people. Sir Jean de Carrouges, a Norman knight, and his former squire Jacques de Gris. De Carrouges was away fighting in Scotland when de Gris supposedly shows up at de Carrouges’ home and rapes his wife, Margaret. A pregnancy results from the rape. Furious at the crime, de Carrouges challenges de Gris to a trial by combat. Because of the circumstances, (she was the accuser), Margaret was required to watch the proceedings from a separate platform. Should her husband die, she would immediately be burnt to death on a stake.

The two knights, de Gris recently being knighted, mounted their horses after the rituals were done. In trials by combat, there were no rules. Anything went. De Gris killed Carrouges’ horse, forcing Carrouges to fight on foot. Carrouges managed to disembowel de Gris mount, forcing his opponent to the ground. They traded blows; de Gris wounded Jean in the leg. Jacques, possibly believing he had given Carrouges a fatal wound backed off. That was his fatal mistake. Margaret’s husband attacked with a renewed vigor, throwing the alleged rapist to the ground where he eventually cut the knight’s throat, thus ending the battle. Margaret’s accusation was proved true, the rapist dead by God’s hand and the rapist’s body taken away to be burned.

 To read further about the French incident of Sir Carrouges and Sir Gris read:

The Last Duel
By Eric Jager
2004, Broadway Books
ISBN# 0-7679-1416-3

To read about tournaments, read:

Ramon Lull’s Book of Knighthood and Chivalry
By Ramon Lull, translated by Brian Price
ISBN# 1-891448-03-X

Jousts and Tournaments: Charny and Chivalric Sport I 14th c. France
By Dr. Steven Muhlberger
ISBN# 1-891448-28-5

Both books are available from the Chivalry Bookshelf online

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