A Tournament, or tourney (from Old French torneiement, tornei) is the name popularly given to chivalrous competitions or mock fights of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (12th to 16th centuries). It is one of various types of hastiludes.
Of the several medieval definitions of the tournament given by Du Cange (Glossarium, s.v. "Tourneamentum"), the best is that of Roger of Hoveden, who described tournaments as "military exercises carried out, not in the spirit of hostility (nullo interveniente odio), but solely for practice and the display of prowess (pro solo exercitio, atque ostentatione virium)."
In fact the earliest use of the word 'tournament' comes from the peace legislation by Count Baldwin III of Hainaut for the town of Valenciennes, dated to 1114. It refers to the keepers of the peace in the town leaving it 'for the purpose of frequenting javelin sports, tournaments and such like.' The earliest reference to a recognisable tournament event is in the history of his church of St Martin of Tournai composed by Hermann of Tournai in the early 1140s, who refers to the accidental death of Count Henry III of Brabant in his town in 1095 in a meeting between his knights and those of the castellan of Tournai. A pattern of regular tournament meetings across northern France is evident in sources for the life of Count Charles of Flanders (1119-1127). The sources of the 1160s and 1170s portray the event in the developed form it maintained into the fourteenth century.
Tournaments centred on the mêlée, a general fight where the knights were divided into two sides and came together in a charge (MFr 'estor'). Jousting, a single combat of two knights riding at each other, was a component of the tournament, but was never its main feature.
The standard form of a tournament is evident in sources as early as the 1160s and 1170s, notably the Life of William Marshal and the romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Tournaments might be held at all times of the year except the penitential season of Lent (the forty days preceding the Triduum of Easter). The general custom was to hold them on Mondays and Tuesdays, though any day but Friday and Sunday might be used. The site of the tournament was customarily announced a fortnight before it was to be held. The most famous tournament fields were in northeastern France (such as that between Ressons-sur-Matz and Gournay-sur-Aronde near Compiègne, in use between the 1160s and 1240s) which attracted hundreds of foreign knights from all over Europe for the 'lonc sejor' (the tournament season).
Knights arrived individually or in companies to stay at one or other of the two settlements designated as their lodgings. The tournament began on a field outside the principal settlement, where stands were erected for spectators. On the day of the tournament one side was formed of those 'within' the principal settlement, and another of those 'outside'.
The evening before the event parties hosted by the principal magnates present were held in both settlements, and preliminary jousts (called the 'vespers' or premieres commençailles) offered knights an individual showcase for their talents. On the day of the event, the tournament was opened by a review (regars) in which both sides paraded and called out their war cries. Then followed a further opportunity for individual jousting carried out between the rencs, the two line of knights. The opportunity for jousting at this point was customarily offered to the new, young knights present.
At some time in mid morning the knights would line up for the charge (estor). At a signal, a bugle or herald's cry, the lines would ride at each other and meet with levelled lances. Those remaining on horseback would turn quickly (the action which gave the tournament its name) and single out knights to attack. There is evidence that squires were present at the lists (the staked and embanked line in front of the stands) to offer their masters up to three replacement lances. The mêlée would tend then to degenerate into running battles between parties of knights seeking to take ransoms, and would spread over several square miles between the two settlements which defined the tournament area. Most tournaments continued till both sides were exhausted, or till the light faded. A few ended earlier, if one side broke in the charge, panicked and ran for its home base looking to get behind its lists and the shelter of the armed infantry which protected them. Following the tournament the patron of the day would offer lavish banquets and entertainments. Prizes were offered to the best knight on either side, and awarded during the meals.
There is no doubting the massive popularity of the tournament as early as the sources permit us to glimpse it. The first English mention of tourneying is in a charter of Osbert of Arden, a Warwickshire knight of English descent, which reveals that he travelled to Northampton and London but also crossed the Channel to join in events in France. The charter dates to the late 1120s. The great tournaments of northern France attracted many hundreds of knights from Germany, England, Scotland, Occitania and Spain. There is evidence that 3000 knights attended the tournament at Lagny-sur-Marne in November 1179 promoted by Louis VII of France in honour of his son's coronation. The state tournaments at Senlis and Compiègne held by Philip III of France in 1279 can be calculated to have been even larger events.
Aristocratic enthusiasm for the tournament meant that it had travelled outside its northern French heartland before the 1120s. The first evidence for it in England and the Rhineland is found in the 1120s. References in the Marshal biography indicate that in the 1160s tournaments were being held in central France and Brittany. The contemporary works of Bertran de Born talk of a tourneying world which also embraced northern Spain, Scotland and the Empire. The chronicle of Lauterberg indicates that by 1175 the enthusiasm had reached the borders of Poland.
Despite this huge interest and wide distribution, royal and ecclesiastical authority was deployed to prohibit the event. In 1130 Pope Innocent II at a church council at Clermont denounced the tournament and forbade Christian burial for those killed in them. The usual ecclesiastical justification for prohibiting them was that it distracted the aristocracy from more acceptable warfare in defence of Christianity. However, the reason for the ban imposed on them in England by Henry II had to have lain in its persistent threat to public order. Knights going to tournaments were accused of theft and violence against the unarmed. Henry II was keen to re-establish public order in England after the disruption of the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154). He did not prohibit tournaments in his continental domains, and indeed three of his sons were avid pursuers of the sport.
Tournaments were allowed in England once again after 1192, when Richard I identified six sites where they would be permitted and gave a scale of fees by which patrons could pay for a license. But both King John and his son, Henry III, introduced fitful and capricious prohibitions which much annoyed the aristocracy and eroded the popularity of the events. In France Louis IX prohibited tourneying within his domains in 1260, and his successors for the most part maintained the ban.
The tirocinium is first mentioned by Otto of Freising, referring back to an event at Würzburg in 1127. That and later references indicate that it was a tournament held exclusively for newly-knighted youths (tirones). The new knight was often an easy victim for older and more experienced colleagues. The tirocinium allowed them to gain experience with less danger. Tirocinia were often held following the knighting of royal and princely youths, who were usually knighted in company with dozens or scores of other aspirants.
A further addition to the family of related events was the urban tournament, designed for the youths and young men of wealthy patrician families. These were facsimiles of the aristocratic event rather than simple bohorts. The most famous of them were the tournaments held in the market streets of the great Flemish cities, notably at the religious feast of the Epinette, which is mentioned at Lille as early as 1283. They were not exclusively urban, and attracted neighbouring country knights, but their location and patronage distinguished them from the parallel aristocratic events. This form of mêlée tournament survived the longest.
But jousting had its own devoted constituency by the early 13th century, and in the 1220s it began to have its own exclusive events outside the tournament. The biographer of William Marshal observed c.1224 that in his day noblemen were more interested in jousting than tourneying. In 1223 we have the first mention of an exclusively jousting event, the 'Round Table' held in Cyprus by John d'Ibelin, lord of Beirut. Round Tables were a 13th-century enthusiasm and can be reconstructed to have been an elimination jousting event. They were held for knights and squires alike. Other forms of jousting also arose during the century, and by the 14th century the joust was poised to take over the vacancy in aristocratic amusement caused by the decline of the tournament.
It is a vexed issue as to what extent specialised arms and armour were used in mêlée tournaments. A further question that might be raised is to what extent the military equipment of knights and their horses in the 12th and 13th centuries was devised to meet the perils and demands of tournaments, rather than warfare. It is however clear from the sources that the weapons used in tournaments were initially the same as those used in war. It is not by any means certain that swords were blunted for most of the history of the tournament. This must have changed by the mid 13th century, at least in jousting encounters. There is a passing reference to a special spear for use in jousting in the Prose Lancelot (c.1220). In the 1252 jousting at Walden, the lances used had 'sokets', curved ring-like punches instead of points. The Statute of Arms of Edward I of England of 1292 says that blunted knives and swords should be used in tournaments, which rather hints that their use had not been general until then.