Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Review: Jousts and Tournaments

Muhlberger, Steven
Jousts and Tournaments:
Charny and the Rules for Chivalric Sport in Fourteenth-Century France
Union City: The Chivalry Bookshelf 2002 ISBN 1-891448-28-5

Reviewed by Will McLean

The number of surviving medieval treatises on tournaments and jousts is small, and the number that are accessible to the general reader are even smaller. Charny’s Questions are a unique survival from the mid-14th century, and Steven Muhlberger’s translation fills a significant gap in the study of deeds of arms.

Around 1350, Geoffroi de Charny, strenuous knight, captain, bearer of the Oriflamme and first recorded owner of the Shroud of Turin, wrote down a series of questions related to the joust, tournaments and war. We do not have the answers. Even so, the questions asked tell us a great deal we would not otherwise know about how such deeds of arms were performed in Charny’s time. They show us the questions his companions, the members of the doomed Order of the Star, considered both debatable and worth debating. The work illuminates not only the mechanics of contemporary deeds of arms, but also the chivalric values of the time. Charny was a knight writing for knights, and his unfiltered voice is one of the charms of the work.

Muhlberger translates all of Charny’s questions on the joust and tournaments, as well as those questions on war that relate to more peaceful deeds of arms. The French text is presented in parallel. While the questions often give vivid glimpses into situations that might arise at such deeds of arms, they also leave much unsaid. Charny does not answer the questions he raises, and he wrote for men who already knew and understood how such events might be expected to proceed.

Muhlberger analyzes the questions, and refers to a great deal of other medieval material to flesh out the information implicit in Charny’s work. Invitations to jousts in 1390 are quoted, as are tournament regulations from the end of the 13th century, accounts of jousts in Froissart and other sources. Many elements of these are also recognizable in the questions Charny raises. However, the customs clearly changed over time. Without Charny’s questions we would have a weaker grasp of how his deeds of arms differed from earlier and later ones. Comparisons with other surviving treatises, such as that written by Sicily Herald sometime before 1437, and King RenĂ©’s, written in the mid-15th century, show that the customs of the joust and tournament formed a conservative but evolving tradition. Muhlberger is careful to recognize that the evidence of the questions is often suggestive without giving us explicit answers to our questions.

For Charny, formal jousts and tournaments were events where one could gain the horse of an opponent either by unhorsing them in a joust or by capturing the horse in a tournament. There were also less formal events where horses were not necessarily at stake. Many of Charny’s questions hinge on what distinguishes formal, high stakes jousts and tournaments from lesser events. Formal announcement, proper division into teams, and recognized formalities in beginning and ending the contest were all seen as factors. Charny also raises the possibility that an event held between two towns rather than within one may not count as a true tourney; or that the failure of some of the eligible knights present to take part may invalidate the event as a legitimate tourney. Jousts for knights and jousts for squires are contrasted, with the implication that the second may involve different equipment and different assumptions about the loss of horses. This logical hierarchy is quickly complicated when Charny discusses cases where a knight enters a joust for squires and vice versa.

Other questions examine what constitutes proper unhorsing. Suppose a knight is knocked off his horse, saddle and all, but stays in the saddle. Is he unhorsed? If compensation is owed for killed or injured horses, how promptly must it be claimed? Under what circumstances can retainers dissolve a contract to serve so that they may accept a more favorable arrangement?

A warhorse could represent half a year’s income for the owner, so these are serious issues indeed. Muhlberger notes the tension that must have been inherent in high stakes disputes between men whose profession is violence. The value of a body of precedent to resolve such cases is clear. Charny refers repeatedly to “the law of arms and tourneys”, so some sort of body of precedent, frequently oral, must have been available to guide Charny and his fellow men-at arms in disputes that might arise in their profession. However, each of Charny’s questions represents an issue on which the “law of arms” does not, at the time of writing, give a clear answer. His questions, then, represent an attempt to codify and extend the existing “law of arms” in written form.

Steven Muhlberger may be better known to members of the Society for Creative Anachronism as Duke Finnvarr de Taahe. He is also a horse owner, which may give him some insight into the men that gave so much attention to the loss and gain of expensive horseflesh. He writes with sympathy about their concerns, and offers some interesting speculation into the role these deeds of arms may have served as a market for the scarce and troublesome stallions prized as warhorses. Other work about medieval deeds of arms that he has written or edited may be found here.

This is a fine work, invaluable to anyone with an interest in the jousts and tournaments of the period. It also offers a rare window into the values of a strenuous knight in the middle of the 14th century, manifested not in the observations of others, but in his own words and voice.

Copyright 2003 by Will McLean
Review originally published in Tournaments Illuminated Issue 147, Summer 2003

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