Gateway to the Classics: When Knights Were Bold by Eva March Tappan
When Knights Were Bold by  Eva March Tappan

Jousts and Tournaments

After the young squire had become a knight, he sometimes remained in the castle of his lord for a time or he went back to his father's home. In either case life must have seemed a little tame after all the excitement of entering knighthood. It is no wonder that he was eager to go out into the world to try his new armor and do honor to his lady by his deeds of valor.

There were several ways in which a knight might prove his worthiness to enter chivalry. The simplest was to mount his horse and ride out in quest of adventures. His bright shining armor was protected from rain and he himself from heat by his unsoiled surcoat. Behind him rode his squire, carrying his master's shield and helmet and an armful of lances. The squire was not always a rash, hot-headed young fellow by any means. A man could hardly maintain knighthood properly without a generous income, and many a squire who was fully qualified to enter the ranks of the knights never went beyond the second grade in chivalry. It was well for the venturesome knight errant, or wandering knight, if his squire was some sturdy warrior of middle age who would sympathize with his master's thirst for gallant achievements, but would hold him back from foolish recklessness. The country was wild and rough. Deeds of violence were common, and the young knight might be fortunate enough to find an adventure ready made. He might discover that some maiden fair had been torn from her friends; and he could perhaps rescue her and restore her to them. He might stop at a friendly castle to spend the night and find that its lord would be glad of his aid to defend it against some expected attack of its enemies. Even if all was peaceful, there might be a chance of a contest, or joust. When he appeared at the gate, the porter might tell him that it was the "custom of the castle" for every knight who wished a lodging to joust with one or two of the knightly inmates or with the lord of the castle. If the knight errant vanquished his challenger, he should have the best lodging that the castle afforded; but if he was overcome, he might go his way, or so the porter declared. Visitors were so welcome, however, in the rather lonely castles that I doubt whether any promising stranger was ever allowed to go forth to make his lodgment in the forest. Sometimes the stranger himself was the challenger; and when he came to a castle gate, he would bid the porter say to the lord of the castle that a knight errant would gladly joust with him or some other brave knight. The stranger was welcomed and led within the walls, and the word was carried through the castle that a joust was to take place. Then ladies and knights and squires, the great folk and the small folk of the place, all betook themselves to the tilting-ground. This was a green, grassy, level spot within the courtyard, surrounded by turfy banks for the lookers-on. The knights took their places, one at each end of the open space. They bent low upon their horses and couched their lances. Then they put spurs to their steeds and dashed together with all their might, each trying to strike the shield of the other with such force that he would fall to the ground. Sometimes both spears were shivered. Then the men would take fresh weapons and try a second bout.


entering a tournament

Another way by which an ardent knight errant often made sure of a contest was by taking his stand at a bridge or where two roads crossed and challenging every passing knight to joust with him. If darkness came and no adversary had been found, he would lay down his shield, take his helmet for a pillow, say his prayers, and go to sleep, hoping for better luck in the morning. Sometimes the knight errant, instead of simply challenging the other to a contest, would declare that his lady was the fairest woman in the world, and that he was ready to fight any knight in the land to maintain her preëminence in beauty. The opposing knight was of course equally ready to declare that his  lady-love was far more beautiful. The question must be decided by a combat. This usually meant three courses. The spears were carefully "bated," that is, blunted. This was often done by heading them with a "coronal," a sort of crown ending in from two to six blunt points. These would take hold on shield or helmet, but would do no injury to the wearer. Such a contest was called a joute à plaisance, or joust of peace. Unless something happened to arouse the wrath of the combatants, there was rarely any serious injury done to either of them; but if two knights fought in anger, using deadly weapons, their combat was known as a joute à outrance, that is, a joust to the extreme. After the contest was done, the victor spoke in somewhat this wise to the vanquished: "I bid you make your way to my lady, through whose favor I have won this victory, and submit yourself wholly to her grace and mercy." As one knight after another presented himself to the lady, she must certainly have been fully convinced that her champion was true to her. Moreover, those were times of danger and violence, and every evidence of his courage and valor was one more proof of his ability to guard her and protect her.


a tournament

These chance jousts at crossroads and castles were good practice in the use of arms, but the grand opportunity for a knight not only to show excellence in knighthood but to manifest ability under the very eyes of his lady-love was found in the tournament, or encounter of many knights in a sort of mimic battle. These tournaments were given by wealthy nobles or by the king himself, and elaborate preparations were made for them long beforehand. The invitations were carried by the heralds of the giver of the tournament. A castle guard would report that a herald with trumpets and escort was making his way to the castle gate. The gate was straightway thrown open, and with a great clattering of hoofs the little cavalcade rode over the draw-bridge and through the low, dark gateway into the courtyard. The trumpeter blew a blast to call the attention of the folk of the castle. He might have saved his breath, however, for long before this, lords and ladies, knights, squires, pages, and servants, even down to the scullions in the kitchen, had hurried into the courtyard or had found some other place where they could hear what the herald had to say. Then came the proclamation of the tournament, addressed to all who would show their right to knighthood and manifest their respect for ladies. The place, the hour, the prizes, the armor and weapons required, and sometimes even the number of squires and attendants that each knight must bring were proclaimed. The herald blew his trumpet and gave his announcement not only at castles, but wherever markets were held. Sometimes, if the tournament was to be of unusual splendor, invitations were sent not only throughout the land of the giver, but even into neighboring countries.


proclaiming a tournament

Traveling was slow work, therefore the invitations must have been given long before the time set for the tournament, but I fancy that there was not a young knight in the land who did not, on the very day of the herald's visit, begin to polish his armor and take a look at his spears to make sure that their ashen shafts showed no sign of flaw. As for the ladies, they, too, had their share of preparations to make, for they must appear in their most sumptuous attire to grace the occasion. Each one hoped that her own special knight would cover himself with glory, and then she would fain look her fairest that all might have respect for the choice that he had made.

The journey to a tournament might be long, but it was safer than other journeys, for even rulers of hostile countries would have thought it unworthy of them to interfere with those who were on their way to a trial of arms. As for the king of whatever land it might be in which the tournament was to take place, he was always delighted with any occasion that gave his knights practice. From far and near little companies of knights with the ladies of the noble households and the squires and pages and servants in attendance rode merrily toward the place of meeting. Once there, they were welcomed by their host, and lodgings were arranged for them. Some were to sleep within the castle itself, some in a neighboring village, some in tents belonging to the lord of the castle, and some had brought their own tents. Wherever a knight was lodged, he planted his spear and banner, and over the entrance he set up the design which was on his coat of arms. These designs were known to all the other knights, and they were carefully scrutinized. In the earlier days of chivalry, only knights of noble descent were allowed to join in a tournament, but in later times not only men of humble birth who had been knighted for their bravery, but even squires were admitted to the privileges of the lists. Occasionally, too, a man who had some good reason for not revealing his name was allowed to join the tourney. Humble birth, then, might be pardoned and concealment of one's name might sometimes be overlooked, but there was one thing that was never forgiven, and that was unworthiness. If a knight had been false to any woman or had broken his word or had shown cowardice or ingratitude, he might as well have remained at home, for he would be forbidden to take any part in the tournament and his banner would be torn down in disgrace.


herald showing armorial bearings of contestants

The courtyard of the castle must have seemed like a village in a time of holiday. There were old friends who saw each other but seldom; there were knights whose rumored bravery every one wanted to see tested; there were gallant youths and maidens fair. There was talk of other tournaments and the feats which had made them remembered, of hawking and hunting, of new castles that had been built and old ones that had been valiantly defended, of weapons and warfare and horses and heroes. There were little trial jousts between knights. There were feasting and music and dancing and singing and exchanging of gifts and plighting of troth.

On the night before the tournament everybody went to bed early; but when the morning had come, the courtyard was no longer a village on a holiday, it was rather a village hard at work. No one was idle, for the handles of the shields must be tried, the armor must have its final polish; straps, rivets, and buckles must be examined for the last time. Horses must be fed and rubbed down. Even the musicians were testing their clarions and kettle-drums and pipes and trumpets as if the success of the whole day depended upon their being in full tone. Everybody was discussing those who were to contest. One was a favorite because he had distinguished himself elsewhere, another because of his great strength or his determined manner or his skill in managing his horse. Of course every lady had her favorite knight; but the ladies were bound to be fair, for they were umpires if any dispute arose, and the prizes were presented according to their decision. Early in the morning the contestants had been to mass, and now, when all was ready, every one turned toward the lists. These had been prepared long before. A level oblong area had been fenced off with a double row of wooden railings. Between the two was a space saved for those who were to assist injured knights or who held some position of responsibility. Outside of this space wooden galleries, often very handsome, had been built for the spectators. These galleries were gorgeous with tapestry and banners and with the bright-colored dresses and sparkling jewels of the ladies. The lord of the tournament had already announced what arms it would be allowable to use. As a general thing, it was forbidden to bring into the lists any weapon with a sharp point. The broadsword, but not the pointed sword, was sometimes permitted. The points of the lances were removed or protected by coronals or covered with pieces of wood called rockets. The heralds now proclaimed the rules of the contest. He who broke most lances was to have the first prize; but they must be broken in strict accordance with the laws of the tournament; for instance, to break a spear by striking a man out of his saddle counted three points, but to break one by striking the saddle itself made a loss of one point. To meet coronal with coronal twice was regarded as worthy of a prize, but it counted less than to unhorse a man with a spear thrust. The prize was lost to any one who struck a horse, or struck a man when his back was turned or when he was unarmed. To break a lance across the breast of an opponent was looked upon as a shame because it showed poor riding, and to ride well was the most essential qualification of a knight. Shakespeare laughs at the "puny tilter, that spurs his horse but on one side." If for a moment of rest or for any other reason a man took off his helmet, no one might touch him until it was replaced; but to prevent any abuse of the privilege, he who removed his helmet twice for any other reason than because his horse had failed him lost all chance of a prize.


the feat of arms, st. inglebert's

After the constable had examined the arms of the knights, he looked carefully at their saddle fastenings to make sure that no one proposed to stick to his horse by leather straps rather than by good horsemanship. When all was ready, the heralds cried, "Come forth, knights, come forth!" and a glittering cavalcade made its way into the lists. The horses in their superb trappings, their bridles blazing with jewels, pranced and caracoled. Sometimes every knight was led by a chain of gold or silver, the other end of which was held in the white hand of some lady fair. The armor gleamed and flashed in the sun. Armorial bearings shone forth on the brightly polished shields. From jeweled helmets and from lances fluttered gloves or ribbons belonging to the ladies who were watching so eagerly, and from many a knightly shoulder hung the richly ornamented sleeve of some comely maiden.

The knights were in two groups separated by a rope, one party at either end of the lists. Behind them rode their squires, often as many as three to a knight. "Let go," cried the ladies. The trumpets sounded. "Do your duty, valiant knights!" the heralds shouted. The rope was snatched aside. The knights bent low, put spurs to their horses, and with lances in rest dashed forward to meet their opponents, each one calling the name of his lady-love. "The eyes of the beautiful behold you! Onward, onward!" cried the spectators. The minstrels played, the trumpets blared, the plain was shaken with the trampling of the horses; the din of arms and the cracking of stout ashen spears filled the air. Men were thrown from their steeds, blood mingled with the dust—and the first course had been run.

Sometimes there were several such encounters; and when the end had come, the heralds cried, "Fold your banners!" and soon the lists were deserted. After the knights had bathed and dressed, they met the ladies in the great hall of the castle and banqueted and made merry. The scene for which all waited was yet to come; and when the feasting had been brought to an end, the fair lady who had been chosen "Queen of Love and Beauty" took her seat upon a dais. The heralds led up to her one brave knight after another, rehearsing in a loud voice the claims of each to a prize; and as they knelt before her, she presented to each one the reward which in the judgment of the ladies was due to his valor. This was sometimes a silver helmet or one richly ornamented with gold, a crown of gold, a golden clasp, or perhaps a diamond, ruby, or sapphire, set in a heavy golden ring. With every gift the "Queen" made a little speech which always closed with the hope that the recipient might be happy with his lady-love. "The victory was owing to the favor of my lady which I wore in my helmet," was the proper reply for the knight to make. After the prizes had all been awarded, gifts were made to the heralds. Then followed a ball; and here not the man of noblest birth, but the man who had shown most valor in the lists was most highly honored. With music and dancing the long, bright, joyous day came to its close.


conferring prizes

Frequently a single day was not enough to satisfy the love of knightly prowess, and on the second day the lists were given over to the squires. They wore the armor of their respective knights and strove their best to do it honor. Prizes were presented to them by young maidens. Sometimes there was even a third day of tilting, and in that case both knights and squires took part.

Such was the general course of tournaments, but they differed at different times and in different countries and according to the wishes and rulings of the givers. Sometimes if the leaders of the two sides chanced to be enemies or rivals, the tournament became a little war. Deadly weapons were then smuggled into the lists, and the ground was drenched with blood. The intention of the tournament, however, was that the utmost courtesy should be shown and that an opportunity should be given to manifest skill in arms and cultivate it rather than to wound or maim or destroy life. At best it was a rough and sometimes a fatal sport, but it did teach men that even in the midst of the most eager struggles for victory it was possible for them to recognize laws and exercise self-restraint.

An appeal to arms was often made to settle questions of justice. If two men claimed the same piece of ground for instance, they might decide the ownership by a contest. Even if a man was accused of crime, he was sometimes allowed to prove his innocence—if he could—by showing himself or his chosen champion the victor in a duel. Under Charlemagne a test of endurance was legally used when two men differed. They were made to take their stand before a cross with their arms stretched out. The one whose arms first dropped lost his suit.

In charges of serious crime, however, the people of the Middle Ages often used methods that might well appall the most innocent. One was to bind the accused, hand and foot, and let him down by a rope into the water. It was believed that if he was guilty, the water would refuse to receive him and he would float; but that if he was innocent, he would sink. It is to be hoped that the officers never forgot to rescue the man who sank. Far worse than this was the ordeal by boiling water. This was a matter of much ceremony. It took place in the church. First, a cross, a censer, and relics of the saints were borne into the building. The priest followed, carrying a copy of the Gospels. He chanted a litany and the seven penitential Psalms. He prayed that the truth might be revealed, and that if the accused had had recourse to herbs or magic, it might not save him. Holy water was sprinkled about, particularly upon the kettle, in order that any illusions of the devil might be driven away. Then with many prayers the hand of the accused was thoroughly washed. He drank a cup of holy water and plunged his hand into the boiling kettle. The hand was sealed up, and at the end of three days it was formally examined. If it showed no sign of a burn, the man was declared innocent; but if there was a blister "half as large as a walnut," this was regarded as proof of his guilt.

Another ordeal was that of the hot iron. This sometimes consisted of carrying redhot iron seven or nine paces; sometimes of walking upon burning ploughshares. In the eleventh century Queen Emma of England was accused of crime and was brought into the church for the test. The pavement was carefully swept and nine redhot ploughshares were laid upon it. The queen's shoes and stockings were taken off and her cloak thrown aside. Two bishops, one on either hand, led her toward the iron. Throughout the church there was sobbing and weeping. "Help her, help her! Saint Swithin, help her!" the people cried. The bishops, too, were in tears; but they bade her not to fear, for God would not suffer the innocent to come to harm. Then she stepped upon the ploughshares, one after another. The old account says that she felt no pain and that her feet showed no injury.

The theory of these trials was that God would always save the guiltless; but many explanations have been attempted of the reason why hot water and hot iron did not burn. If the water, or the melted lead, which was sometimes used, was hot enough, feats similar to these have been performed. In regard to the test of the redhot iron, it has been suggested that during the many prayers that seem to have been said after the irons were laid in place, ploughshares on a stone floor would cool very rapidly. Again, we are reminded that all these trials were in the hands of the priests, that the people were expecting miracles, and that if the priests wished to save a man, they could easily arrange some deception or could harden his skin by some ointment—only no one can guess what the ointment could have been.

People connected with the Church were not obliged to undergo such experiences; for, no matter of what crime they were accused, they could always demand a trial before the Church courts. This was called "benefit of clergy." In some of the Church courts of the thirteenth century, if a man accused of crime swore that he was innocent and could bring in twelve of his friends who would lay their hands on some holy relics and swear that they believed him, he was allowed to go free. To escape in this way was not quite so easy as it looks; for the general belief was that a perjurer would probably be made a dwarf or would be unable to remove his hands or would even be struck dead. Naturally, then, the compurgators, or fellow-swearers, were somewhat nervous, and if they made the least mistake in repeating the required form of words, their oaths were of no avail. Not only priests, but all their assistants, even to the door-keeper, were allowed benefit of clergy. In some places if a man could read a single line, he was allowed the same privilege. It is even said that the same verse of the Psalms was always used as a test. Besides the comparative comfort of the trial, the punishments of the Church courts were exceedingly light when contrasted with the brutal penalties of the kings' courts. But for the man accused of serious crime who could not make out that he had any connection with the Church or any "book learning," there was generally little hope of escaping some one of the ordeals which have just been described.

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