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(literally, the helm show) played prominently in tournaments
of the 15th Century period. As described in this excerpt from a modern
English translation of King Rene's Livre Tournoi, translated by
Elizabeth Bennett, the basic format was simple. After dinner the judges
for the tournament lead in the ladies of nobility who look over all the
helms, with their crests and banners. The knight is named by the King of
Arms and the ladies look over the selected device of the knight, probably
to ensure that they will know them in tomorrow’s tournament.
The final, and strangest part of the Helm Shau, is
that of the grievance. Any lady may publicly state any grievance they have
against anyone partaking in the tournament. These range from usery to speaking
ill of the lady. The judges then discuss the charge privately and, depending
on the grievance, the knight may be asked to gain mercy from the ladies
of the gallery or may be beaten and forced to ride the barrier as though
he were riding a horse.
A pastime which often proceeded tournaments was the Court
of Love. This was particularly popular during the Late Middle Ages. There
is little evidence that there were Courts of Love before the 14th Century.
There is also little said of courts of love in England. The primary information
on these courts comes from France and Italy.
The courts were, literally, a court where the patroness
(and it was always a lady) hears cases of wrongful treatment of consorts.
As her rulebook, she relies on the Rules of Courtly Love. This lead to
some VERY strange rulings. One of the strangest was a determination by
Isabella d’Este in favor of a man who approached her court. His claim was
that a lady had stated that were she not married to a certain count and
already enjoying the favors of a lover, this man would be her second choice
as lover. The Count later died and the lady married her lover. The man’s
claim was that now she was free to take him as a lover, since she already
had her love as her husband. It was determined by the “court” that, indeed,
she must take this man as her lover or pay a fine unto him (Her husband,
wisely, paid the fine).
These courts were described as finely arrayed pavilions
and high seats where sat the finest of ladies with troubadours and other
entertainment. It was clear that they were primarily oriented toward entertaining
the ladies and lords in question, rather than any serious matters of law.
It is clear from the writings of a number of authors devoted
to the tournament and from the manuscripts of the day, that the Procession
figured very prominently in the tournament. The procession was the chance
for the patrons of the tournament to “show their stuff” as it were. Often
there were small theatrical presentations going on along the streets. If
the tournament was associated with a wedding then the presentations might
surround romance and great unions of love (such as scenes from Tristan
and Iseult). If it was associated with a Coronation, there would be displays
of the stories of great leaders (such as Solomon).
The procession was frequently a place where most favored
children were very much on display. One description of Twelfth Night festivities
in late 1400’s in York, for example, make clear that the procession was
lead by a King and Queen of Misrule and a Boy Bishop. These were noble
children under the age of reason (seven years according to the Catholic
Church). There is similar to display of children described in Rene’s Book
of the Tournament.
Like many other activities related to the gallery, there
is little evidence for this before the end of the 13th Century. The Castle
of Love was, literally, a scaffolded tower which was placed within the
boundaries of a melee. There is not enough description of the activities
of the Castle to really determine exactly what was done here but it is
clear from both manuscripts and artistic renditions, that there are a good
number of Ladies in the “tower”. These ladies are frequently depicted throwing
flowers or chess pieces, as though to defend themselves. Meanwhile, the
knights who are depicted seem to be climbing the “tower” to steal kisses,
sleeves and other favors from the ladies. Given that the tournament is
usually depicted as continuing around the tower, it appears that this is
a voluntary activity. Those who desire to please the ladies allow themselves
to be vulnerable by climbing the tower. This is also corroborated by the
fact that a number of texts describe knights as either pleasing the ladies
or taking home a healthy ransom. It seems that this tension between winning
the tournament and winning the renown of the ladies is very old. The one
difference is that often the ladies had a good prize of their own to award.
For more on this, go to the award section.
It is clear from descriptions such as this one, that ladies were given
prizes to award but it is not clear whether or not they did the actual
the said ladies and gentle women shall give unto the best jouster of all
a costly diamond. Unto the next best a ruby worth half as much. And to
the third a sapphire worth half of that. And on the said day there should
be officers of arms to measure that the spears are of the same length,
that is the coronal, vamplate and 'grapers' inclusive
and anything else pertaining. They shall joust with the said comers, who
may take the length of the said spears with the advice of the officers
of arms, who shall be indifferent to all parties on the said day
Illuminations of the tournaments often show ladies holding up fingers.
They appear to be keeping score of lances broken or crests dislodged but
it is not clear whether they are doing it because they are wagering with
each other, keeping score for the judges or just as a way for the artist
to indicate their level of interest.
King Rene’s book of the Tournament gives a great description
of the Veil of Mercy and how it was commonly used. In the description,
the ladies select a man of honor to wield a veil of mercy. He is to place
this veil upon any man who the ladies judge to have become too exhausted
to continue. The combatant may then exit the field without shame to receive
the ministrations of the ladies (food drink, shade and medical aid if needed).
There are also some illuminations that indicate that the ladies themselves
may have wielded the veil in some tournaments. Again, this may be artistic
license since the mercy of the ladies is being bestowed figuratively in
the case of Rene’s description. The artist may simply have wanted
to drive that home by displaying the ladies as bestowing their mercy literally.
It is interesting to ponder what the reaction of the
knights was to such an action. Would they have thought the person so veiled
a sissy? Was this instituted to prevent undue violence upon the field?
One clear area where the gallery did take part in early
period tournaments was in the raising of ransoms. In Christine de Pizan’s
City of Ladies she describes one of the responsibilities of a noble wife
to be the raising of ransoms for her husband from both war and tournament.
It is also clear that knights recruited ransoms from among the spectators,
even in early tournaments. They would seek out patrons and attempt to gain
increased ransom to return to the tournament. They would also, apparently,
shake down the craftsmen from an area unfortunate enough to have a tournament
in their village.
There is little known about the feasts of early William
Marshal tournaments and of the smaller Pas d’Armes. Little of the documentation
is devoted to the feast. In later 13th century through 15th, Tournaments
the feast earns a mention, though it is slight. On the other hand, there
is good documentation for what goes into a feast, so we know that the Feast
was a multiple course meal with entertainment between courses. In Italy,
it was broken up by lazzis while in England it was probably broken up by
scenes from a play presented by a travelling troupe or sponsored by the
patron of the tournament.
Court is not typically associated with a tournament—dancing
most definitely is. A number of descriptions of tournaments make clear
that the knights and Lords and Princes were expected to attend the dancing
and to dance for as long as the ladies want to dance.
It is typically during the ball that awards are given,
many challenges are made, the King at Arms is selected, the wielder of
the veil of mercy is selected, the helm shau is presented (and many of
the knights involved get kissed and consorted by the finest lady there).
The description in the Book of the Tournament lists three days of fighting
and three days of dancing. After dancing, spiced wine is served to all
The ball is sponsored as part of the tournament. The
tournament awards and pageantry are heavily incorporated into the ball.
This frees the knights to have evenings of pageantry when they are not
wearing armor and to be free to fight when they are wearing armor.
For those who are looking to reenact a tournament,
it might be considered that this allows for a great display of pageantry
without unduly taking time away from the fighting.
This is a list, in no particular order, of some of the
activities listed as being done by nobles during festivals (in particular
festivals where tournaments also took place)
Gossip, of course.
Theatre was associated
with many festivals where tournaments took place. They were usually in
the afternoons, since there is no artificial lighting. There are no playhouses
until the 1400s in Spain and Italy and as late as 1576 in England; the
performance is very likely in an inn yard. Ladies attend, but in England
they are usually veiled or in masks. Many Tournament sponsors would have
the players into their house to perform during the feast.
Footraces: At the
of the Cloth of Gold, footraces were held for children and ladies
during the slow times. The patrons put out three mechanic toys (for the
children’s race) and three ells of fabric (for the ladies race) They then
invited all in attendance to come upon the field and race for the prizes.
Skittles, a bowling
game, (2-20 players) played with wooden pins and a rubber or wooden ball
or disc of hard wood derived from the French game "quilles" was in England
by the 13th or 14th century. Other bowling games included lawn bowling,
and shuttlecock (like badminton).
Nothing here yet--stay tuned! (section added by Brian)
Keen (Excellent overview material)
Barber & Barker
Tournament in England, 1100-1400
Rene's Tournament Book (15th c.)--VERVE edition
Rene's Tournament Book (15th c.)--Horizon edition
Rene's Book of Love (15th c.)--Brazilier facimile
Turnierbuch Fur Rene D'Anjou (Shows a gallery!)
Send us your book recommendations!
Rene's Tourney Book
of Fine Deeds
a Medieval Castle
for Medieval Life