upper class war games -- 1/31/20

Today's selection -- from Chaucer's People by Liza Picard. Upper-class war games included tournaments and jousts:

"In peace, 'hastiludes', upper-class war games (the word is derived from the Latin hasta, a spear or lance, and ludus, a game) included both tournaments and jousts. They strengthened the network linking the territorial magnates to the Crown. They also provided a safety valve for those testosterone-fuelled young men who had nothing particular to do during the sporadic truces punctuating the French War. Although nationalist feelings were beginning to knit nations together vertically, there were still strong bonds linking the upper echelons of society horizontally across the various nations of Europe. Henry of Grosmont habitually received into his household boys from the noble houses of Spain, Aragon, Portugal, Navarre and France, to be 'brought up in his noble court in [the] school of arms and for to see noblesse, courtesy and wor­ship'. The solidarity among European aristocracies even extended to a series of jousts between the English and the French knights to while away the eleven months that it took for Calais to fall to the English in 1347. The high-ranking French prisoners joined in the hastiludes of 1348 celebrating their own defeat at Crecy.

"There were two kinds of hastilude: a tournament, or tourney, and a joust.

"A tournament was a vast armoured free-for-all. In the previous century it could involve two hundred knights or more on each side. By the fourteenth century this had come down to a more manage­able number, but the combatants still fought on foot as well as on horseback, and used any available weapon, maces, swords, daggers and axes as well as lances. There had been a 'great tournament' at Dunstable 'of all the chivalry and gentles of England' in 1345. Twelve judges watched the proceedings, and gave a prize to the contestant who had performed best. Edward III fought in tourna­ments himself, in 1342, 1343 and 1348, usually incognito, although surely his disguise was easily penetrated by those in the know, who must have alerted any possible adversary not to damage the ruling monarch.

"Chaucer gives a description of a tournament in the Knight's Tale.

"The Knight could be supposed, by Chaucer's audience as well as by us, to know what he was talking about, so if due allowance is made for the elaboration of the Knight's story-telling style, we have a first-hand account of a fourteenth-century tournament.

Page from the Manesse Codex, a book copied and illustrated between 1305 and 1340 in Zürich.

"Palamon and Arcite are both in love with Emily, the daughter of King Theseus of Athens. They stoop to fighting each other 'without judge or other officer' in a most unknightly way. This is interrupted by Theseus, who gives each of them fifty weeks in which to collect a hundred armed knights, and then fight it out properly in a tournament -- and may the better man win, and marry Emily. The great day dawns, the opposing teams make their way to the lists, a herald calls for silence and Theseus states the rules. Only one mounted charge, with a sharp lance, is allowed. The combatants may go on fighting on foot, with long swords (i.e. not short, stabbing swords) and maces. Any knight who loses is out of the battle and has to retire. The tournament will stop if either leader is killed or captured.

"The pace quickens (not before time). The heralds stop riding up and down. Trumpets blare. They're off.

In go the lances full sadly [firmly] in arest [under 'armour'];

In goes the sharp spur into the [horse's] side.

There [are] seen men who kan [know how to] joust and

who kan ride;

Shafts are shivered on thick shields ...

Up spring [the broken] spears twenty foot on high; Out go the swords ...

The helmets they hew to pieces and cut to shreds; Out bursts the blood in sterne [terrible] red streams. With mighty maces they shatter the bones[.]

"A horse trips and falls, the rider goes on fighting on foot but has to retire, according to the rules. The noise is inconceivable.

"At this juncture Theseus calls a halt for much-needed refresh­ments, like the lemon slices in the interval at a local cricket match. After which Arcite, with twenty others, manages to capture Pala­mon, so the fight is over and Arcite gets Emily. (I need hardly say that the story doesn't end with Arcite and Emily living happily ever after. Palamon gets the girl after all.)

"Jousts were quite different. They were contests between pairs of knights. The technique of jousting needed impeccable horseman­ship, physical strength and sheer courage, as well as a perfectly trained horse. The object was not to kill your opponent, only to win on points -- to hit him squarely and break your lance on his body armour. The horses had to charge full-tilt at each other. Not until the 1420s was a barrier put between them. The natural impulse of a horse, let alone its rider, would be to swerve away from this oncoming attack, which was where the training came in. If your opponent fell off his horse, it counted as two broken lances. But what with their helmets restricting their view and their horses swerving at the last moment, the jousters quite often missed each other completely. By the end of the fourteenth cen­tury 'frog-mouthed' helmets (looking indeed like caricatures of Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows) had been designed so that the wearer had a clear view only when he was leaning forwards in the correct position for couching the lance and taking aim. At the moment of impact the jouster would straighten up to receive the blow of his opponent and in doing so his eyes were protected, though the same action also rendered him virtually blind."

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Liza Picard


Chaucer's People


W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Copyright 2017 by Liza Picard


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