Medieval Armory: tournaments

We caught up with Alan Murray and Karen Watts to learn more about their work on the history of the medieval tournament across Europe.

Alan, Karen, many thanks for agreeing to answer our questions. Could you tell us a little about yourselves and your work?

Karen Watts: My background is both as a museum curator and university lecturer in history, art-history and material culture. I am Curator Emeritus at the Royal Armouries museum where I was formerly Senior Curator of Armour, working for 30 years both at the Tower of London and at Leeds. I am Professeur de Patrimoine et Archéologie Militaires at the Ecole du Louvre and Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds.

Alan Murray: I am Senior Lecturer in Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds, with research specialisms in the history of warfare and chivalry. I first became interested in tournaments as a result of many elaborate descriptions of them that I read in medieval French and German romances. These show how central tournaments were to chivalric society. I was disappointed to find that literary scholars devoted little attention to these. Since 2010 Karen and I have jointly taught a module on the Medieval Tournament as part of the MA in Medieval Studies at Leeds; we believe that this is the only taught course on tournaments anywhere in the world, and we are pleased that several former students have contributed to this volume.

What was the original inspiration for the book?

AM: We were aware that while individual scholars were doing interesting research on different aspects of tournaments, it would be great to bring together specialists in historical sources, vernacular literature and material culture to bring about a truly interdisciplinary perspective on the diversity of tournaments.

KW: We organised a series of sessions at the International Medieval Congress held at the University of Leeds in 2018, which included both established academics and young scholars. The speakers presented their new research for the first time to an academic audience. The audience response was so positive that we decided to bring fuller versions of the papers together in a single collection.

What regions does the book cover?

KW: Tournaments were popular events all over Europe. They were occasions for young men to prove their worth on an international scene. People travelled to compete in them – often between different countries – and talked and wrote about them afterwards. The essays consider tournaments in England, Scotland, Germany, Italy and France.

How did tournaments change over time? Was a tournament in 1600 radically different to one in 1100?

KW: Tournaments certainly began as training for war: the original main event was a mock cavalry battle called a tourney. My favourite quote about early tournament participation is from Roger of Howden, a 12th century chronicler. He said: He is not fit for battle that has never seen his own blood flow, who has not heard his teeth crunch under the blow of an opponent, or felt the full weight of his adversary upon him. Tournaments were always a dangerous sport. They were never choreographed events. These knights fought hard and the unexpected could and did happen.

AM: By the 13th century the tournament had begun to develop diverse and distinct forms. The joust – a combat between two knights – showcased individual prowess and allowed knights to gain honour in the eyes of their peers. By 1500 knights also dismounted and fought on foot with swords and staff weapons. Increasingly armour became very sophisticated and inventive to offer the maximum combination of protection and manoeuvrability.

What form(s) of social display did you consider? How great a role does chivalric culture play in this?

AM: Just as much chivalric literature devoted considerable space to descriptions of tournaments, we find influences in the opposite direction: many tournaments were held within an allegorical framework derived from romance, so that jousts were interspersed with theatrical elements involving damsels, dwarves and elaborate staging. But they were not only entertainment: they brought honour, prestige and social capital to organisers and competitors alike. By the later Middle Ages tournaments could be very expensive, but organisers clearly thought that the money was well spent.

And did tournaments across Europe generally follow the same trends or were there marked differences between them?

KW: There were so many different types of possible tournaments that, inevitably, the most popular form varied between regions. Tudor England favoured the ‘Joust Royal’, a form of joust with blunted lances. In 15th century Burgundy a theatrical form called a ‘pas d’armes’ attracted role-playing jousters. In the Holy Roman empire, Emperor Maximilian and his contemporaries devised about a dozen different forms of joust, each with its own rules and specialised equipment.

What is next for you now? Do you plan more work in this field?

KW: One of our authors, Professor Rosalind Brown-Grant, is leading a new research project on the ‘pas d’armes’ tournament form. We look forward to participating in it.

AM: To further the study of tournaments we need to make more sources available. I am hoping to translate some of the tournament accounts in Middle High German.


The Medieval Tournament as Spectacle: Tourneys, Jousts and Pas d’Armes, 1100-1600 edited by Alan V. Murray and Karen Watts is out now.

CONTRIBUTORS: Natalie Anderson, Catherine Blunk, Rosalind Brown-Grant, Ralph Moffat, Alan V. Murray, James Titterton, Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriades, Marina Viallon, Karen Watts.

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