The joust is an individual conflict between two knights; it is distinct and different from the tournament. It will often be agreed that there should be three rounds; the two men ride at each other, aiming to pass each other on the left-hand side, and to strike each other with their lances. This began to be popular in the 13th century; jousting frequently takes place before the tournament proper begins, often on the previous day.

A particularly famous jouster of the past was the German knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein, who wrote up his experiences in verse. Ulrich, rather unusually, enjoyed cross-dressing, and described a journey he made dressed as the goddess Venus, during which he took part in innumerable jousts and tournaments, all for the unrequited love of his lady.

Thus like a woman I was dressed

And all I had was of the best.

The peacock feathers on my hat

Were rather dear, I’ll tell you that.

Ulrich was eccentric in other ways. On one occasion he even ordered a bath, during which two pages poured rose petals all over him, an experience which, curiously, he seems to have enjoyed. If you are considering taking part in tournaments under a pseudonym, then that of Ulrich would be a good one to choose, but it might be better to claim to come from Gelderland rather than his real homeland of Styria.


Scoring systems are complex, and will vary from event to event. In jousting, the top score normally comes for unhorsing your opponent; breaking your lance is the next best action; striking your opponent on the helmet comes third. The tournament’s overall prize, the ‘man of the match’ award, will be given to the knight who has most distinguished himself, and there may well be differing views on that. It could be that someone who has been unhorsed several times has shown conspicuous bravery, and deserves to be well rewarded.

There is a lot of technique to learn if you want to be a skilled jouster. Controlling your horse properly is important, but it is not easy with so many things to think about at the same time. You have to make sure that your horse takes a straight line, and does not veer off course, or even worse, cross in front of the other jouster. In Spain they have taken to erecting a barrier between the two jousters, so as to avert this, but no one has yet thought of introducing it in France or England.

Do not be tempted to impress by using an oversized lance: if you strike a low blow with a heavy lance, and your opponent strikes you a high blow with a lighter lance, he will unseat you. A medium-sized manageable lance will be much better than a great big one that will unbalance you and pull you out of your saddle. Your horse will go much better if you have a lighter lance. Think about what your opponent is doing, and adjust your own tactics accordingly. It is tempting to close your eyes just before the moment of impact. Don’t do this. Be careful not to turn your shoulder away; Edward Beauchamp made this mistake in a joust in 1381, and was knocked off his horse as a result.

Ulrich von Liechtenstein was expert in jousting techniques. He wrote a boastful account of one of his bouts:

I turned a little from the man

(to knock him sprawling was my plan)

I struck him in the collar then.

I turned and jousted with such skill

Sir Otte almost took a spill.

Here are a few key points to remember:

    Ride upright, with long stirrups, holding the reins in your left hand.

    Use a lance of manageable weight.

    Make sure your helmet is on straight, and that you have a good line of sight.

    Hold your lance in the palm of your hand, not just with your fingers.

    Do not let the tip of your lance tilt up or down.

    Do not twist, or turn your shoulder.

    If your opponent always aims for the same place, vary your own tactics.

    Keep your eyes fixed on the target, not on the tip of your lance.

During the Middle Ages, tournaments often contained a mêlée consisting of knights fighting one another on foot or while mounted, either divided into two sides or fighting as a free-for-all. The object was to capture opposing knights so that they could be ransomed, and this could be a very profitable business for such skilled knights as William Marshal. There was a tournament ground covering several square miles in northern France to which knights came from all over Europe to prove themselves in quite real combat. This was, in fact, the original form of tournaments and the most popular between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—jousting being a later development, and one that did not completely displace the mêlée until many more centuries had passed. The original mêlée was engaged with normal weapons and fraught with as much danger as a normal battle. Rules slowly tempered the danger, but at all times the mêlée was more dangerous than the joust.

The provenance of the heavily armoured, aristocratic equestrian warrior has excited much debate. It has been argued, most notably by Lynn White, that it was the arrival of the stirrup in eighth-century Western Europe that prompted the emergence of cavalry capable of ‘mounted shock combat’. with lance held tightly ‘couched’ under the right arm; and that, moreover, since warhorses, armour, weapons, and military training required landed endowment for their maintenance, it was in effect the stirrup which was responsible for the establishment of a feudal aristocracy of equestrian warriors. More recent research, by Bernard Bachrach among others, has suggested that the solid fighting platform necessary for a rider to engage in mounted shock combat depended upon a combination of stirrup, wraparound saddle with rigid cantle (back plate), and double girthing or breast-collars. With the rider thus ‘locked onto the horse’s back in a sort of cock-pit’, it was possible, experimentally from the later eleventh century, and with greater regularity in the twelfth, to level a couched lance with the assurance of the combined weight of horse and rider behind it. Furthermore, historians no longer accept that the medieval aristocratic elite was actually brought into being by advances in horse-related technology. Rather, an existing military aristocracy-great lords and the household knights whom they armed and horsed-adopted new equipment when it became available, and pursued the tactical possibilities which that equipment offered. Those possibilities could not ensure battlefield supremacy for the knightly warrior. Nor was he the only important component in field armies. But the elite distinction of mounted shock combat, associated as it was with the emergence of chivalry as an aristocratic code of martial conventions and behaviour, gave rise to an image of the nobleman as equestrian warrior which, while being firmly grounded in reality, proved irresistible to manuscript illuminators and authors of romance literature, Although presenting an idealized world, such artistic works reflected the martial mentalite of the nobleman while contributing to its further elaboration and dissemination; and they leave us in no doubt that the warhorse was at the heart of the medieval aristocrat’s lifestyle and mental world.

This was perhaps most clearly displayed on the tournament field. It is surely significant that tournaments begin to appear in the sources in the early twelfth century. Apparently connected with the emergence of the new cavalry tactics, the tourney provided a training ground for individual skills with lance and sword, and team maneuvers by controls of knights. They also offered opportunities for reputations in arms to be made or enhanced, although that depended upon the identification of individuals amidst the dust and confusion of the mêlée. It was probably this need for recognition on the tournament field, as well as the similar demands of the battlefield, which brought about the development of heraldry in the twelfth century. Along with lance pennons, surcoats, and smooth shields, the caparisoned warhorse was emblazoned with heraldic devices, thereby becoming a perfect vehicle for the expression of individual identity and family honour within the military elite. A similar message was conveyed by the martial equestrian figures which, until the fourteenth century, were so commonly to be found on aristocratic seals, and by the ceremonial involvement of warhorses, decked out in heraldic caparisons, in the funerals of later medieval noblemen.


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