Friday, April 10, 2015


Okay, who loves a tourney?  I mean, besides me.

Pennants fluttering off the host's castle ramparts, villagers and nobles mingling in the busy grounds all around, merchants hawking their wares, performers juggling and wrestling.  While up in the lists, knights in shining armour preen and perform for ladies in the stands, who bestow their favors--a sleeve, a scrap of silk, and a smile--on their favorites. 

Originally, though, tournaments didn't much resemble our romantic notion of them.  The 'joust'--two men squaring off and taking a run at each other with lances--yeah, that was a latter addition, and even when the joust came to be part of the tourney, it was a prelude to the main event, the mêlée, a pitched battle with, well, pretty much no rules. 

Occasionally the type of weaponry was predetermined for the mêlée, but other than that, it was basically no-holds-barred fighting.  Lords came with their retinues, often comprised largely of men hired for the sole purpose of helping Lord Such-and-So kick Lord Whos-And-Whats knightly arse.  They came to fight, and to win. 

Oh, and to make a lot of money.  

The big money didn't come from official prizes, though, although those could be quite rich.  But the real prize was...ransom.

First came the cavalry rush with lowered lances, which quickly devolved into hand-to-hand combat, on foot, between the two opposing sides.  Death happened, although combatants were not (usually) killed intentionally.   Why kill a guy, when you can bankrupt him, and enrich yourself in the process?  Capture was a much better business plan. 

The loser had to 'yield,' then he and the victor agreed to the terms of the surrender.  Usually horse & armour were taken, and a price agreed-upon to buy them back.  Remember these horses were worth more money than a villager could make in a dozen lifetimes.  The same for armour.  Terms of the agreement were set down in a contract (yes, they signed a contract, right there on the battlefield, in a section called the 'refuge'.  Recognize it?? Cool, huh?) It was all very official and well-run. 

Except when it wasn't.

Tourneys were a dicey proposition for kings and counts. On one hand, tourneys were good training for war, could be useful for raising money, and for channeling the aggressive tendencies of all those young, male, armed citizens, who were so necessary in times of war, and so...unpredictable at all other times.

But they also wrecked destruction on the countryside and any unlucky villagers caught in the crossfire as the battle raged across the land, including farmland (!!)  Often, two villages were designated as the outer boundaries of the battleground, essentially assuring that armed knights in the heat of battle were going to come roaring through the town and across their tended fields.  Note: No village is on record as ever having requested such a dubious privilege. 

The larger concern for a medieval king was this: tourneys were a breeding ground for petty feuds, vengeance, and, at the top of any medieval lord's mind, rebellion.  

Perfect for romance fiction!  I can feel my brain cells firing up, ready to play with the ceremony and drama of a medieval tournament.  I see a dark-haired, hard-hearted hero, and the conceited, intelligent, alluring daughter of his worst enemy....  

Have you read any books with great tourney scenes??  Spill!


Leah Weller (leahluvsmedieval) said...

Oh, I loved this! I've been to many a Ren Faire and watched the flowery jousts but would much rather have an opportunity to walk through a time portal and witness the real deal... an all out do or die (so to speak). :)

Sue-Ellen Welfonder has a scene similar to this in Sins of a Highland Devil, book 1 of her Highland Warriors series. REALLY good series. :) said...

Hey there Leah,

A joust a 'l’outrance! To the death. Very dramatic, in fiction anyhow. I'd be sick to my stomach in real life, to have an 'entertainment' turn into a death match. Although it *was* training for war.... Still, I'd rather watch someone get bankrupted than killed. :)

I will read Sue's book asap, Leah! Thanks for reminding me.