Jousts and Tournaments – The History

Tournaments and jousts were often held as part of the celebrations of important events in the late Middle Ages through to the Renaissance, and frequently the terms were interchangeable. It may seem strange today but kings and princes prided themselves on their martial ability,  and enjoyed putting their prowess to the test at these events.  The Medieval ideal was that those worthy of Love would be the best fighters, and by doing so would honour those who loved them.

These competitions were essentially team events. Whilst individual prowess was noted and rewarded, it was the team rather than the individual that won or lost. The most common division was into tenant and venan – effectively those who held ground and those who tried to take the ground, or, to put it into modern sporting terms, home team and visitors. The outcome was decided by which team scored the most points by way of victories (tournament) or attaints/ hits (joust). Some of the scoring sheets have survived to this day.


Individual champions were often recognised on both sides, and were not necessarily those who had scored the most victories, but those who had fought most courageously and skilfully in the eyes of the ladies.   Prizes were not monetary but often in the form of a token, such as a brooch or belt, which might still be of considerable value. A talking parrot and a large fish have also been recorded as tournament prizes. The prizes were awarded by the ladies, usually accompanied by a kiss. A truly gallant knight often lamented that he regretted not being champion – not for the prize or fame, but for the kiss!

Even though these competitions were often fought with blunted weapons known as ‘weapons of peace’, it remained a dangerous sport and many knights, princes and even kings were seriously wounded or even killed.  This should not be too surprising, however, when we consider that the object of the games was to beat your opponent into submission with a sword or axe or unhorse them by aiming a spear at their head whilst at the gallop!

By Damien Fegan

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