During the Middle Ages, the war was of fundamental importance, both politically and socially. The knight enjoyed a privileged status in the feudal pyramid.
The aspiring knights were trained in simple exercises with a spear or even in combats with other apprentices. Once armed, the knights continued their training throughout their military life, so it became necessary to create the most realistic conditions possible to make the preparation efficient.
Although there were predecessors, it was during the XI century when the tournaments appeared. It was horseback rallies in which the knights faced each other armed with lances throughout different rounds and that, at first, they developed around a circular enclosure where the fighters circled, simulating a battle; hence its name, derived from the word “turning”.
Distributed on two sides, the fighting was carried out by individual confrontations, or compact charges and ambushes in which they tried to knock down the opponent to disarm and capture him. The weapons used were as close as possible to the real ones, usually heavy ones, which were called “polite weapons”, as they had been partly modified to avoid accidents where possible (sticks, spearless spears or blunt swords). However, in spite of all precautions, accidents were not uncommon, with serious injuries and deaths, so that the Church occasionally banned tournaments.
Already in the XI century, a certain homogeneity was sought between the tournaments celebrated in different zones. Thus, in 1066, Godfrey of Preuilly wrote a treatise on norms that was widely used in Germany, England, Italy, and the peninsular kingdoms. Its purpose was to evolve over the centuries, going from being a means of promotion for poor or prestige knights to the most powerful, and training against military contingencies, to have in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a more playful and spectacle for enjoyment, in the first place, of the nobility and, in the last extreme, of entertainment for the flat town.
Tournaments show three main features:
1) a practical aspect of training for the real combat of the war,
2) a playful dimension that makes them a game and at the same time a professional sport whose objective is not to kill, but to win for glory and for the benefit,
3) and a joyful character, which turns them into a spectacle desired by a large and enthusiastic audience.
The tournaments were held together with the castles, periodically or during special events, such as coronations, marriages, signing of treaties or truces, among others.
The organizer established the rules that should govern and sent heralds to the invited gentlemen or who wanted to participate. The celebration took place in a closed room, generally of an oval plan, around which the stands were arranged for the attending public, very lavish and decorated for the important personages, and simple for the flat town. Next to these facilities stood the shops for the knights, their squires, and servants, as well as the officers who took care of the correct development of the event. Besides, the nearby towns were decorated to welcome the visitors and participants, many times coming from distant lands.
Some knights who knew the rules performed the functions of judges, supervised the correct state of the weapons, and swore to the participants about their noble behavior; another important figure was the king of arms, in charge of announcing the various contenders.
The knights had to specify their lineage, since they could only face each other of the same level, and put its banner in the field. Previously, it was customary that confrontations were held between squires with light weapons, such as swords, which served as evidence. Inside the tournament itself, in a first match, each participant chose one of the banners as an opponent, and faced him by throwing himself head-on with his mount and spear; who beat more spears against the rival. At first, it was made without separation between the knights, but over time a fence was placed between them to ensure safety.
The fight then continued on foot, with swords and clubs, to conclude with a collective confrontation between two groups of knights, which concluded when the king of arms gave the signal to stop. In order to avoid accidents, among the rules that governed these battles, were not to injure the rival or the horse, not fight several contenders against a rival and not hit the knight who raised the visor of his helmet. The loser and his weapons were at the disposal of the victor, who received his prize from the judges and used to deposit it at the feet of the chosen lady.
Finally, the tournaments used to conclude with a great banquet attended by all the participants and in which the ladies paid tribute to the winners; not in vain, they also had a certain polite part throughout of the whole celebration.
Other modalities of the contests
The tournaments were elaborate spectacles that entailed a great movement of fighters and big public. Along with them, there were two other types of regimented clashes that had a certain similarity: the joust and the arms passages.
The first consisted of single combat in which non-simulated weapons were used, so that the contestants could be wounded or killed during them.
The arms passages, on the other hand, were challenges or challenges that a knight threw to those who wanted to cross an entrance or passage protected by it; in order to transfer it, they had to face and beat the maintainer, whether individually or collectively, according to rules or conditions previously written in writing; the match was celebrated with a display of means that had little to envy the tournaments.
One of the most well-known steps of arms is the so-called Honorable Step of Suero de Quiñones (1434) in León. The tournaments gradually disappeared in the late Middle Ages, to be extinguished during the sixteenth century, although they were still celebrated exceptionally in more recent times. The last known news was already in the late nineteenth century, in Barcelona and Eglington in England. At the moment there are performances of tournaments with tourist and spectacle character, in medieval castles and historical centers of all Europe.