Friday, September 11, 2009

Tournaments: the display of a martial elite

Juliet Barker’s The Tournament in England: 1100 - 1400 is a highly informative, well-written book marred by a dubious conclusion.

After starting with a chapter on Early Beginnings, the book treats the tournament thematically, dealing successively with The Tournament and War, The Tournament and Politics, The Tournament and the Church, The Tournament as Spectacle, The Tourneying Society, The Forms of Combat, Tournament Armour before coming to a brief Conclusion. As Barker notes, since English knights and squires travelled extensively to tourney, the book includes lots of references to continental tournaments.

I spotted one error – Barker claims that mail was lighter than plate armour (p.168), which anyone who has held both knows is simply not true. Mail was technologically simpler, easier to get on and off and highly flexible. It was also typically heavier, ran the risk of being embedded in the flesh if hit hard enough and did not encourage blows to glance off.

Barker is at pains to point out the seriousness and practicality of tournaments. Which, given the effort and expense involved, not to mention danger, makes perfect sense. The followed were all killed in tourneys: Prince Geoffrey of Brittany, fourth son of Henry II (1186); Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex (1216); Gilbert Marshal, earl of Pembroke (1241); William, son and heir of John Warenne, earl of Surrey and Sussex (1286), John Hastings, earl of Pembroke (1390), at least four members of the Mortimer family – and that is just the most prominent (p.162).
We are told that the estate of Roger Mortimer included three helms for jousting, one for war and six for tournament (p.165). There are moments of humour, such as John of Gaunt, as tournament judge, ruling a particular tactic not illegal, merely unchivalric (p.164). Or William Marshal having resort to a blacksmith so his battered helm can be removed from his head (p.164). The more like actual war a form of tournament combat, the more honour accrued to it. Thus jousting – one-on-one charging with lance – had the lowest status (though barriers were not added until the C15th [p.175]). a plaisance (with blunted weapons) had less status than a outrance (full weapons).

The Church severely disapproved of tournaments, regarding them as spectacles of sin, regularly excommunicating those who participated and denying church burials to those killed during them. But the knightly addiction to them wore the Church down, Pope John XXII finally withdrew the remaining prohibitions in 1316 (p.83) after which tournaments flowered even more strongly.

Barker’s book provides much useful context. It is a hardy perennial of historical comment to blame French defeats at the hands of the English on the arrogance and over-confidence of the French knights. Yet the evidence Barker adduces suggests that, based on tourney experience, French knights did tend to be the best trained and equipped – as individual and small group warriors. Since tournaments were relatively common, and large set-piece battles comparatively rare, the English advantage in army command-and-control and combined arms was somewhat obscured until the one of those rare set-piece battles happened.

Familiar features of medieval life show up: the difficulties of organisation (taking 3 years to organise a particular challenge tourney [p.158]), long-running court cases, intrigue and rebellion (troubled English kings such as Henry III, Edward II and Richard II regularly prohibited tournaments for fear of the plotting that might take place at them).

But tournaments trained knights for war – a major reason why Richard I decided to licence them in 1194 (p.17). They provided opportunities for patronage (which Edward I and Edward III particularly took advantage of). They provided opportunities for knights and squires to demonstrate their skill – whether to each other, great lords, or the opposite sex. They demonstrated the effectiveness of knights, they embodied their social role and conception of themselves.

Both Classical Rome and medieval Latin Christendom had as their greatest spectacle people fighting each other. Yet the differences were profound. With gladiatorial combat, death and dominance was the point. It was slaves and condemned criminals fighting and dying (or just dying) for the pleasure of the Roman citizenry. It was about the ultimate in brutal, public subordination.

With tournaments, it was the elite (up to and including Kings and Emperors) fighting to display their prowess – to each other and, increasingly, to the general populace. Death was demonstrably a risk (the last significant personage to die in a tournament was King Henri II of France in 1559), but it wasn’t the point except as a risk. Skill and honour were the point. And money: a successful tourneyer could make considerable sums through ransoms and prizes, though an unsuccessful one could lose considerable sums.

The ruling elite of medieval Latin Christendom was a warrior elite. That it was a Christian society complicated this, but the knights basically won in the end. They dominated the peasantry, the peasantry was the mass of society, so the social surplus was largely directed to knightly ends (with lots of tussles with the Church). Tournaments rose from the C11th with the rise of the knightly class and disappeared in the C16th with their military eclipse. The sheer resources put into tournaments show how important they were to the ruling elite. That the knightly romance was the dominant literary form – outside the direct products of the Church – expressed this further. Indeed, medieval histories often read like medieval romances because the doings of the same group were central to each and because they, or people who aspired to be as they (in the Low Countries, the urban merchants ran their own tourneying societies, some of whom were consequently knighted), were the audience for the same.

The medieval period of Latin Christendom is, ultimately, the knightly period. They are what make it most distinctive from what came before, what came after and what was elsewhere. (As did the samurai of Japan: both societies stop being medieval when the warrior class loses its distinctive role and transmutes into an officer class.)

None of this is surprising: how and what coercive force is wielded is a fundamental feature of any society. A life-and-death matter. The first basis of power.

Which is why Barker’s lame conclusion is so irritating: Tournament’s
survival must, to a large extent, be attributable to the powerful ideology of the romances as typified in romances. Without it, the tournament must have been suppressed, despite its value as military training. With it, the tournament becomes not simply a military exercise but rather a celebration of all the values that chivalrous society held dear (p.190).
It reflects well on The Tournament in England: 1100 - 1400 that it provides such a mass of intelligent evidence that one can see this does not work. I know intellectuals are always inclined to spruik the value of ideas – it’s what they deal in. But medieval society was, in many ways, a deeply practical society. It was mostly too poor and too competitive to be much else (even the investment in prayer was a form of practicality: with such limited ability to control their environment, of course it looked like a reasonable investment).

Yes, medieval society is also marked by the amazing power of belief. But great lords went to great expense and considerable personal risk for tournaments even before the flowering of romances. As Barker herself points out, the English crown was just about the only one powerful enough to make any prohibition stick, and even it had problems (pp7ff). And Richard I gave in, because tournaments seemed to be giving French knights a military edge (p.17). Which is how medieval society worked – the proliferation of polities forced authority into competition which meant greater provision of public goods to buttress authority and a slow motion constraint on their ability to restrict freedoms.

Yes, of course, medieval romances encouraged the tournament. But they also reflected outlooks grounded in the very social role and sense of identity of the knightly class. Something so useful to and for the key military figures of any realm hardly needed romances to keep it alive. Even with Church disapproval – though it might well be that the Christian gloss (and more than gloss) of the romances helped the Church get over its opposition.

Still, that's ultimately a quibble. The Tournament in England: 1100 - 1400 remains a very useful and informative work.

The Book of the Tournament
The Book of the Tournament has become a classic SCA text. I have the first edition (no pictures). As the author says, it is:
done in elements of style of from several 13th to 15th century sources, inspired by King Rene’s "La Forms et Devise d’ung Tournay," Geoffrey de Charnay’s "Libre de Chevalerie,’ and Raymond Lull’s "Book of Chivalry and Knighthood."
The book is beautifully put together, nicely written, very considered, I find it a quietly inspirational text. That the honour-system of SCA fighting – the self-judging of blows received – is ultimately a point of courtesy to your opponent as much as honour to yourself is a telling point. That the true victory is not winning but upholding the virtues of tournament, is even more so. Prowess is only one chivalric virtue, and not the greatest. It is a book I would heartily recommend to any SCA fighter, anyone interested in chivalry and to martial artists generally.

No comments:

Post a Comment