Origin and History of Medieval Jousting

Depiction of a standing joust in an Alsatian manuscript of ca. 1420 (CPG 359); protection for the legs of the riders is integrated into the horse armour.

Jousting is a martial game or hastilude between two horse riders wielding lances with blunted tips, often as part of a tournament. The principal aim was to replicate a collision of heavy cavalry, with each member trying hard to hit the opponent while riding towards him at high speed, breaking the lance on the opponent’s guard or jousting armor if possible, or unhorsing him. The joust became an iconic characteristic of the knight in Romantic medievalism. The members encounter close to three and a quarter times their body weight in G-forces when the lances crash with their armor.

The term is derived from Old French joster, from Latin iuxtare “to approach, to meet”. The word was lent into Middle English around 1300, when jousting was a very famous sport among the Anglo-Norman knighthood. The synonym tilt dates c. 1510.

The History

From the 11th to 14th centuries when medieval jousting was still exercised in connection to the use of the lance in warfare, armor evolved from mail (with a solid, heavy helmet, called a “great helm”, and shield) to plate armor. By 1400, knights wore full suits of plate armor, called a “harness” 

In this ancient period, a joust was still a (martial) “meeting”, i.e. a duel in general and not limited to the lance. Warriors would begin riding on one another with the lance but might proceed with shorter-range weapons after the distance was closed or after one or both parties had been unhorsed. Tournaments in the High Medieval period were much rougher and less “polished” affairs than in the late medieval era of chivalry. The rival parties would fight in groups, with the aim of hurting their enemies for the sake of gaining their horses, arms, and ransoms.

The addition of the term knight (chevalier) dates to this period. Before the 12th century, cniht was a term for a servant. In the 12th century, it became used as a military follower in circumstantial. 

How did Fights happen?

Knights regularly practiced fighting on foot and on horseback in preparation for real war. From the 1100s onward this training became a hugely attractive form of entertainment. Knights rallied from far and wide to see who was the most skillful fighter of all. The most exciting event at the tournaments was jousting, when two knights charged at each other on horseback holding lances. Knights could be killed jousting, but it was worth the risk to be thought a brilliant and skillful knight. For knights with little money or from insignificant families, jousting was a way to become rich and famous.

Because every knight looked the same in armor, they began painting colored ornaments and pictures on their shields and surcoats so they could be identified in battle and tournaments. This was known as heraldry and it is something from the middle ages that we see every day in the modern world. Heraldry comes from the word herald, a man who called out the names of knights at meetings and had to be a specialist at the system.

The decorations and pictures of heraldry are known as charges. When two influential families were joined in marriage they combined their arms by dividing the shield. This was called quartering.

Tournaments were ugly, but the winner would expect to win fame and wealth since the losers’ weapons and armor were usually awarded to the winner. The most skilled knights at riding and fighting in battle enjoyed tournaments for gaining wealth, fame, as well as improving their skills.

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