Earlier Formats: Tournaments and Festive Jousts
The tournament and the festive joust were designed to serve the needs of teams of horsemen. In the tournament, each team fought as a group. In the joust, the members of each team vied against each other as pairs of individuals. Mounted combat was paramount. From the middle of the 14th c. other contests emerged that treated combat on foot as a worthy deed in its own right.
Challenges to Deeds of Arms
Beginning with the famous combat of the thirty in 1351, challenges to perform deeds of arms became a popular alternative to the tournament or festive joust. Unlike the judicial duel or gage of battle, these deeds were done for their own sake rather than to settle a defamatory quarrel. These combats, however, did appropriate much of the format and procedures of the judicial duel. Although there is no mention of judges at the earliest contests, it soon became customary and expected for these deeds to be controlled and supervised by a judge, usually the most powerful noble or senior commander in the area. In the 14th century these combats were always between national enemies, but in the 15th it became acceptable to challenge the subjects of friendly sovereigns. Often these deeds of arms included an agreement that the loser would pay a forfeit or ransom. However, it was possible to complete these contests without either side being considered a loser, and this is what actually occurred more often than not.
Challenge to Group Combat
Who would fight who was agreed prior to the combat. In theory, this was always a fight to the finish, but judges, if present, might choose to stop the fight at any point and often did in later combats. Champions would go into the fight carrying multiple weapons. Typically, a pollaxe was the primary weapon, but some fights started with thrown spear, and sometimes targes or pavises were used in this phase of the combat. In the Lalaing-Douglas fight both sides had the option of using lances as their primary weapon, although the Lalaing party immediately discarded theirs, preferring to fight with axes. Swords and daggers were carried as secondary weapons.
These contests were extremely dangerous. A group combat is harder to control than a single combat, and the dynamics of such combats put a high premium on eliminating one or more members of the opposing team early. Once this was done the remaining opponents could be overpowered in a succession of unequal contests. Keeping the first casualty alive while putting them out of action was only a secondary goal. Group combats were a risky business, and only rarely fought out in full earnest.
Challenge to Single Combat
By the 1380s, challenges to single combat became popular. More than one single combat might be arranged for the same day, as at Vannes. Who would fight who was agreed prior to the combat. The combat was either for a set number of blows or “as long as they hold out”. The agreed number of blows was often spread among a variety of weapons. If a limited number of blows were to be exchanged, the sequence would end when either champion had struck or attempted that number of blows. Judges had an explicit or implicit ability to end the fight earlier. Other conditions, such as falling or being disarmed, might also end the fight. These contests might be mounted, on foot, or both sorts of encounters. In the earliest contests the weapons were unblunted with no stated restrictions on use. However, Continge vs. de Bars, 1415, was fought with axes without spikes and “without pushing”. This was by no means universal, and spikes and thrusting attacks continued to be used in many later axe combats
“Push” is a term that recurs frequently in accounts of medieval combat, and needs some explanation. From context, it appears to describe an attack delivered with the point of a weapon with the goal of delivering the maximum shock and impact to the target. A successful “push” might drive the target backwards or to the ground. Other techniques could deliver less shock but more penetration, and contemporary accounts refer to “throwing” or “thrusting”.
A specific scenario may help to understand the term. Two men-at-arms face each other. Each is dressed from head to foot in armor of proof, and each holds a spear weighing about two pounds. The spear can be thrown like a javelin, and if it is, and hits the target, it has a significant chance of piercing metal armor, but very little of knocking down a man.
Alternatively, the man at arms can clamp the spear under his arm and charge at his opponent while screaming like a maniac. What makes contact is no longer a two pound missile moving at tens of mile per hour, but a 200 pound or more projectile moving at a few miles per hour. Penetration is limited, but the potential for a knockdown blow is considerable. Not all “push” attacks were done in this way, but the term does seem to have been used for attacks that were intended to maximize shock and momentum transfer rather than pure penetration.
In Que vs. Lalange, the Englishman’s very sharp axe blade and spike raised unfavorable comment. Perhaps there was generally a sort of gentleman’s agreement in many of the later contests that, while the weapons were not blunted, neither would they be particularly sharp or acutely pointed.
If the challenge was for a specified number of blows, it was typically for different weapons in turn: for example, ten blows with spear and likewise with axe, sword and dagger, all fought on foot. In other combats the spear or dagger was omitted. The total number of blows possible for each champion could range from 15 to 63. The sequence could also include mounted combat, or be fought entirely on horseback.
In several cases the sword specified was an estoc, designed only for thrusting and with rondels to protect the hands. Often a set number of paces, such as three or seven, were specified for the run-up in an attack with spear or estoc. In at least one case, the combat between Galiot de Baltasin and Phillipe de Ternant in 1446, immediately following up such an attack was not permitted, and the champions would retreat the set number of paces after each attack with spear or estoc.
Contests for a set number of blows often had a pause at each change of weapons, so that there was an opportunity for the champion to receive the new weapon from an assistant.
In challenges where no number of blows was specified and the champions were to fight “as long as they hold out” or to the utterance, the dynamic was different. As in group combats to the finish, in these contests the champion carried not only their primary weapon, typically a pollaxe, but backup weapons such as sword and dagger in case they lost their primary weapon. In addition they might carry a spear to throw in the initial encounter, and sometimes a shield for protection against their opponents’ throw. In the accounts I have found to date, the shield, if used, was discarded once the champions came to handstrokes
Towards the end of the 15th c., single combats on foot began to be fought across a barrier at about waist height.
Challenge to Single and Group Combat.
At least one challenge, ca. 1400, presented both options. Five French knights wore a garter with a rod and lace attached as token of their enterprise. The rod could be won by nine strokes each on foot with lance, sword, axe and dagger. The lace could be won by twelve courses with lances and thirty-six strokes on foot with sword. To win the garter, the challengers were required to fight to the finish five against five.
Tenans issued a challenge agreeing to meet all comers. The contest might be mounted, on foot, or both sorts of encounters. Although the term is not used in contemporary accounts, the deed of arms at St. Inglevert had the essential characteristics of a pas d’armes or passage of arms. The Perilous Passage of Great Adventure at Valladolid in 1432 was a spectacular event that seems to have made the term popular, and the Pas of Charlemagne’s Tree in 1443 extended the format to combats on foot. Pas d’armes often featured elaborate settings and dramatic scenarios.
Each contest was limited rather than to finish. Typically, each combat was for a specified number of blows. The Pas d’armes de l’Arbre d’Or had jousts timed by a sandglass. Often the comer had a choice of possible encounters. Prior to 16th c., the norm was unblunted weapons for combats on foot, with same caveats as in challenges to single combats. Lances with coronels were sometimes used for mounted combats in pas d’armes from St. Inglevert on.
In 15th century passages of arms each combat on foot used a single weapon, usually an axe but sometimes a sword, rather than a sequence of weapons as was common in individual challenges. However, a comer might undertake more than one type of combat if the rules permitted.
16th century passages of arms might include more than one weapon in each combat: combat with spear before drawing the sword at the champions’ sides, or throwing a partisan before laying on with a two handed sword, as at Noseroy in 1519.
Later passages of arms could include group combat. In the Pas d’armes de l’Arbre d’Or of 1468, the defender and those that had jousted against him in the pas formed one of two teams for a mounted tournament. English deeds of arms in the late 15th and the 16th c. frequently included a mounted melee with the defenders forming one team. The announcement for one of these events specifies that if there are more comers than defenders, the excess would either be fought on a later day, or divided between the comers and defenders. In an English passage of arms of 1512, 1524, or 1548, comers could choose to assault a mock castle defended by the tenans.