Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.01.29 Murray/Watts (eds.), The Medieval Tournament as Spectacle

22.01.29 Murray/Watts (eds.), The Medieval Tournament as Spectacle

Joining a number of recent and somewhat-recent books that take the subfield of arms, armor, tournaments, and chivalric conduct as a serious subject for historical consideration--Steven Muhlberger and Noel Fallows on the tournament, plus Richard Kaeuper and David Crouch on chivalry, Tobias Capwell on arms and armor, and Jeffrey Forgeng’s worthy translations of primary sources--is this edited volume of ten essays. While the works proffered here are not perfect, they are a worthy first volume in the Royal Armouries Research Series and do much to further the argument that the medieval, and especially the late medieval or early modern tournament, was part of a dynamic conversation about status, power, social class, habitus, sovereignty, and rulership. This is, of course, not an original argument, but a thread that runs through the scholarly literature and which deserves to be woven into the wider conversation. As I will discuss below, it is particularly salient to the British historiography--fittingly, since eight of the contributors are based in the UK, and the kernel of this volume came from the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Leeds. (Six of the contributors have a connection to the city.)

The book is organized in a chronological fashion that takes us from the tournament’s hurly-burly origins in the original melee-based affray to the staged authenticity of brotherhood in both kingship and arms that was the Field of Cloth of Gold. (As an enthusiast of the sixteenth century, I was pleased to have the definition of “medieval” abused to include the cinquecento.) The first chapter, editor Alan Murray’s essay on the “Tactics and Ethos of the Tourney in Early German Sources,” addresses a huge lacuna in the predominantly Franco- and Anglosphere history of the tournament. This is an important contribution, but one might quibble with his approach: lacking what we might call “historical” sources (i.e., chronicles), he relies preeminently on literary works. This is a valid approach, but one to which we must bring a healthy dose of skepticism; Murray notes the dangers, but still accepts Ulrich von Lichtenstein’s figures as an accurate count of the number of tourneyers at Friesach (pp. 32-33; 37). He also holds with Lynn White, Jr.,’s “stirrup” thesis, that the transformation in warfare and therefore the birth of the tournament took place in the late eleventh century, when in fact there are (to my mind, at least) clear antecedents in Carolingian military practice (see Bachrach on Nithard’s observations at Medieval warhorses, meanwhile, were more than likely trained to work from the leg, seat, and spur, making the reins more a tool for collection, and making it easier to wield a sword or lance with a shield while riding (not to mention the mechanical aid of the guige strap).

James Titterton’s “Por pris et por enor: Ideas of Honour as Reflected in the Medieval Tournament” most shows the volume’s origins as conference papers, as it proceeds from the rather over-general (Pitt-Rivers on hono[u]r--what about Smail on fama?) to a rather good linguistic analysis of honor in medieval tournaments (the movie Highlander apparently got its terminology for “the prize” correct). This “honor” became heritable and helped to distinguish the noble from the non-noble (as writers such as Llull would later make clear), and also become generalized to groups of people. Titterton does skip around in time (on p. 57, Roger of Wendover in the early thirteenth century to Smithfield in the late fourteenth to René d’Anjou in the mid-fifteenth), but he does give a good overview. I would really like to see this piece expanded into a longer article or monograph that wrestles with a greater variety of sources and dives more deeply into the larger historiography, particularly the role of women in the economy of honor (explored previously by authors such as Ruth Mazo-Karras, to name but one notable authority).

The title of James Beswick’s “Richard I of England and the Smithfield Tournament of October 1390: An Instrument to Establish Royal Authority” says it all. Beswick is not saying anything that has not been said before (i.e., Muhlberger), but he establishes his case with a granular detail and immediacy that we rarely see in such accounts. Royal control over tournaments, Beswick argues, was established by Edward I and Edward III. The Smithfield tournament of 1390 was key to the means by which Edward’s grandson, Richard II, took back control of government and public opinion from Parliament and the Lords Appellant after he declared himself of age in 1389. The Smithfield Tournament, as state theater, as an assertion of unity, and as a display of Richard’s virility, was a success and set the stage for the relative peace and strong rule he would enjoy until he was overthrown by his cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV.

I will consider Ralph Moffat on documentary sources for specialized jousting armor and Maria Viallon on the tournament saddle together, as they deal with the material equipment needed for the tournament. Again, these are two good, informative pieces, and have unfortunately filled me with the fiscally unwise desire to commission a new saddle for my horse and some exchange pieces for my jousting harness. As far back as the thirteenth century, Jean de Joinville mentions a specialized jousting hauberk, and Moffat’s accounts of mains de fer, polder-mittons, and other pieces for the joust show the parallel evolution of sportive forms and material culture. Viallon, meanwhile, makes use of sources such as Pietro Monte and Dom Duarte, who discusses the use of various saddles in various “tournament” games, and also how Italian and Spanish saddles were different from those of northern Europe. (Note that she does not mention Fiore dei Liberi, but specialized saddles are also well-illustrated in his various manuscripts, and also the Forgeng translation of Duarte by Boydell and Brewer is probably the better edition.) Viallon’s article is also, needless to say, a really good source for anyone interested in medieval tack and equitation. To modern eyes and seats, saddles that completely enclose the rider seem rather bizarre, and I would like to learn more about how they affect one’s horse and riding. Numerous experimental archaeologists such as Arne Koets, Robert Macpherson, and Tobias Capwell have done significant work in reconstructing medieval saddlery from a practical horseman’s point of view, and I would like to see their take on reconstructions of such saddles.

I do need, however, to address some of Catherine Blunk’s assertions in “Between Sport and Theatre: How Performative was the Pas d’armes?” She asserts that, contra this, a pas need not have a theatrical aspect, using a line from my 2015 article in the Handbook of Medieval Culture as a bit of a straw man. However, my point was that the pas was a challenge format--and in any case, seeking a field from an authority, putting on armor, and engaging in public, premeditated violence was always inherently performative. Perhaps the theatricality has been over-emphasized in the historiography, but, though such productions are of inherent interest to historians, what makes a pas a pas was not elements of staging, but the aspect of ritualized challenge; the ruler granting the field “civilized” the violence to enhance the prestige of nascent states. As I concluded in my article (taking my cue from Noel Fallows’ excellent analysis), “By the fifteenth century, the tournament may thus be called a ‘martial performance’: a means of demonstrating, through learned gesture, acquired taste, and carefully practiced skill, one’s class and status.” This is not very different from Blunk’s conclusion that a pas was an “amicable physical competition between noblemen from a variety of European courts.” We should, rather (as Muhlberger suggests) see these under the umbrella of “deeds of arms,” which also suggests that we could bring in the link between nascent state sovereignty, the assertion of a right to personal violence, and even dueling.

The gauntlet of the theatrical pas is taken up in Rosalind Brown-Grant’s “Representations of the Pas d’armes in Burgundian Prose Romance: The case of Jehan d’Avennes.” She deals more with the historiography of the pas, and how the chivalric ideal embodied in literature mirrors the “history” of the chroniclers’ accounts. In contrast to Blunk’s assertions, Brown-Grant seems to take pageantry as normative, but more importantly, she rightfully points out the preeminence of carefully-written chapters of arms and the terms of combat in real-life examples as opposed to literary idealizations, which, again, define the form of the pas. One might say that the chapters of arms themselves, being quasi-legal formulae, are themselves a form of literary production, albeit one that involves anticipation, not memory.

Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis’ “The Foot Combat as Tournament Event: Equipment, Space, and Forms,” on late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century foot combat, combines Moffat and Viallon’s interest in equipment with the other authors’ interests in the forms of the tournament. I found in this essay the eternal reviewer’s conundrum of reading a work in one’s field of specialization where the author has not expressed things exactly as one would have put them. Please take the following comments in that vein. First, though Tzouriadis concentrates on the practice of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, dismounted fights for pleasure or honor occurred throughout the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries; these antecedents ought to have been mentioned, as should have the later combats at the barriers mentioned by Sydney Anglo in his 2007 article “The Barriers: From Combat to Dance (Almost).” Likewise, the great bascinet was hardly something that only popped up in the late fifteenth century, though as Tzouriadis points out, it and other specialized foot-combat equipment were carried to extremes of specialization in his focus period. On pp. 156-57, Tzouriadis says that tournament combat moves “away from the ideas of duelling or sparring,” which, even if “sparring” was anything approaching a correct term, as Muhlberger points out, sport, duel, war, and politics all shaded together rather messily, and of course noble tournaments were very different from the working-class entertainment that was the Fechtschule. On p. 172, Tzouriadis digresses upon “sideswords” and “rapiers,” which are modern terms for things that contemporaries would have merely referred to as “swords” of various makes and qualities. The Gladiatoria manuscript mentioned on p. 175 may follow the order (longest to shortest) of foot combat, albeit in a dueling context, but then, too, so do two out of three of Fiore dei Liberi’s original manuscripts from the first decade of the fifteenth century. Finally, the presence of extra weapons at a tournament (p. 179) indicates perhaps not poor quality of materials, but that the objective was to break the weapons, just as the objective of jousting was often to snap lances.

While I would have greatly appreciated a wider perspective and contextualization for this article (an editorial decision?), I do want to commend Tzouriadis’ move away from sword-fetishization and towards pole weapons. At the same time, I need to wonder why all of us, curators and historians alike, use the German ahlspeiss instead of the (Victorian) English “awl-pike.” A bec de corbin is a bec de corbin, but there’s a perfectly good English term for a spear-thing with a long pointy head and a rondel at the base.

Natalie Anderson’s “Power and Pagentry: The Tournament at the Court of Maximilian I” details how chivalric performance was a critical part of the Holy Roman Emperor’s official propaganda. It is an excellent coda to, and brings up fond recollections of, the 2019 Last Knight exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Anderson does a wonderful job of illustrating the variety of martial entertainments, how they functioned as statecraft and a declaration of Maximillian’s worth as a ruler and a nobleman, as well as concluding that the cash-strapped emperor’s reach may have often exceeded his grasp.

The thread of early modern rulership is concluded with Karen Watts’ “The Field of Cloth of Gold: Arms, Armour and the Sporting Prowess of King Henry VIII and King Francis I.” Watts wonderfully details not just the diplomatic, but the personal meaning of this encounter. She details the preparation, the physicality of the two kings, the undertakings, the planning and organization, and the symbolism of both the goings-on and the equipment. Watts’ great triumph is that she brings out that this was not just a diplomatic affair--she looks inside both the words of the chroniclers and the now empty shells of Henry’s armor to bring out that this was an encounter between two living, breathing, sweating men, men of embodied experience and who loved martial sport, and who, because of accidents of birth, saw the other as perhaps the only person they would ever meet with whom they could compete as a true equal.

Overall, this is a good volume that furthers the conversation about chivalry, deeds of arms, and statecraft, as well as gives good details on the actual artifacts. It adds to the fundamental studies by Anglo and Barber and Barker, as well as those of Muhlberger and Fallows. Alas, we will likely not see this conversation carried on much outside of sessions organized at rather open and welcoming conferences such as Leeds and Kalamazoo and the papers that emerge therefrom. It is worth noting that, according to their biographies, four of the contributors--Anderson, Beswick, Titterton, and Viallon--are not in, or are retired from, full-time academic or para-academic fields. This reflects the general interests of the field of medieval and early modern studies in the early twenty-first century, as well as of this particular interest. Arms, armor, and chivalry do not get one a job these days.

Finally, in keeping with the above theme of the sad state of the scholarly world, I need to address the print quality of the book; the pages wrinkled after just a few weeks being kept safe and dry in my computer bag. I know budgets are tight, but surely Boydell and Brewer could have afforded better paper?