While hunting was the favorite sport of the nobility, tournaments were by far the most avidly attended organized activity of the period. Basically, a tournament was a series of battles with blunted weapons. The object was the same as in real combat, to vanquish your opponent. While killing your opponent was discouraged (by disqualifying the perpetrator), non-lethal injuries were accepted as part of the game. Those who demonstrated their ability in these affairs won enormous respect from their peers, as well as the adulation of the commons and the many lovely young ladies in attendance. Perhaps most important of all, the victors won a lot of money. Not only were the winners of various events awarded prizes by the organizer of the tournament, but it was customary for the loser to pay the winner, in each one on one combat, an amount off money representing what one would have to pay as a ransom if defeated and captured in combat. Some successful tournament contendors made over a million ducats a year at it.
The tournament evolved from earlier contests to become a recognized activity in the 11th century. It was in that period that the use of lances in cavalry charges became a common practice. This was because the technique of couching the lance under the arm and maximizing its impact was developed during this period. This led to the joust, which became the centerpiece of all future tournaments. By the 13th century it was becoming a social activity as well, with increased participation of the noble women (as well turned out spectators and presenters at the awards ceremonies). Dances and parties became standard nighttime activities once the ladies joined the spectators on a regular basis. Before that, the lads would just get together and drink after the day's fun and games.
The joust was an idealized form of knightly combat that rarely occurred on the battlefield. In a joust, two knights charged each other, armed with a lance, the object being to use the lance to unhorse one's opponent. No doubt this event became the premier tournament event because of the dramatic effect of two mounted knights in full armor charging each other at full speed.
The earliest tournament jousts simply had two groups of knights chase each other over an open area, called the lists, attempting to unhorse each other with lance, sword, or simply fancy riding. The lists covered an area that might be as large as several hundred acres, and the joust might involve over a hundred knights on each side. This was a very rough game. Deaths were common and ten percent or more of the participants might be injured (largely from being unhorsed). During this period, knights began to wear additional padding (layers of wool cloth) under their armor as protection from the blows from blunted swords and the falls from their horses.)
During the 12th century, it became more common to have knights go one on one in jousts. These were pretty simple affairs. The two knights, separated by 100-300 yards of open space, would charge each other until one was unhorsed. From this came all the rules for awarding points and penalties for "unchivalrous" behavior (like hurting the horses or hitting the other fellow when his back was turned).
Eventually, by the 15th century, most jousts took place on what we now think of as "the Lists." This was a field up to 100 yards wide and 300 yards long. Running down the middle of the lists was a five foot high wooden fence called "the Tilt." Eventually, another fence was added to each side of the tilt so that the horse had no choice of where to run.
The scoring of a tournament was originally the same as for a battle. If you unhorsed a knight, he was your prisoner and you got to keep his armor and mount. This meant you got several thousand ducats per prisoner, or lost as much if you were unhorsed. Prizes were smaller if you were dueling on foot. Keeping everything sorted out when masses of knights were jousting simultaneously was a major factor for the growth of one on one jousting.
See Also: Scoring
Jousting was all about the skillfull use of the lance while riding a fast moving horse. This was in recognition of the mounted knights most formidable weapon, the massed charge of lance equipped armored horsemen. It was this tactic that had defeated the Roman legions, Viking raiders, and just about every other foe encountered. These charges sometimes failed, but that was rare. Anyone on the receiving end of these attacks could simply count themselves lucky if they survived. Until the 11th century, the charge was largely a mass of fast moving horses and men armed with swords or axes. Until the 11th century, knights used their spears like swords, for thrusting, not as what we now think of as lancers.
The point scoring system recognized the importance of getting a straight on strike on a target of value. The three most valuable actions all involved fancy lance work. While dismounting an opponent was important, it only counted if you did it while breaking your lance. This mean that the other fellow hit the ground because of your lance work, not because he simply lost his balance. Causing the other fellow to drop his lance because of your lance hitting something was considered equally skillful, while shattering your lance against the tip of the other knights lance was considered the ultimate trick shot, even if it was of little military value. Breaking your lance at the base indicated a skilled blow had been struck, while breaking your lance within one foot of the tip indicated some sloppy lance handling. Breaking a lance when hitting your opponent between saddle and helm was considered worthy of one point, but, again, was militarily useless as no damage was done.
Really sloppy lance work was penalized with the loss of points or disqualification. Actually, two of the more common grounds for disqualification had to do more with chivalry rather than battlefield utility. Lancing an opponent's horse or striking the other fellow in the back were perfectly acceptable combat procedures. But jousting was controlled, violence where the knights could indulge their good manners and love of horses. Getting disqualified for running into the tilt three times was an effective way of getting someone off the field who was too inept to be there in the first place.
See also: Hitting the Target
Controlling the Horse
To boil it all down, a jouster had to keep his horse under control, avoid falling, and somehow manage to do the kind of fancy lancework that would yield points from the tournament judges.
See Also: Decisions, Decisions
Despite all the skills required, and risks undertaken, there was never a shortage of knights who would deck themselves out in their best arms and armor, mount their most powerful steed, and enter the lists. There, they had only to wait for the Master of the Joust to shout "Laissiez-les aller," the signal to spur ones mount forward to glory, or a sore back.
See Also: Types of Tournaments
Tournament rules sometimes stipulated fines to be paid to the families of knights killed during jousts, even though possible death was a fact of life in all tournaments.
Betting was often very active at tournaments, especially when several knights with impressive reputations were in action.
See Also: The Festival Aspect
Gunpowder brought an end to the Medieval tournament. By the 17th century, the nobility no longer fought on horseback with a lance. Armor was still worn, in an abbreviated fashion but more for display than for protection. Jousting no longer had any battlefield use and while jousts continued, the action was provided by a smaller number of hobbiest jousters rather than the thousands of professional warriors who had previously provided the participants. The tournaments stressed the other activities, which now include dueling with swords as we know it today, athletic contests, parades, pageants, and entertainers of all sorts. Tournaments evolved into pure entertainment, rather than practice for war.