Thursday, May 16, 2013

Medieval Tournament Prizes

I think it would be useful for those who hold tournaments in these times to know what sort of prizes were commonly given at the tournaments of the Middle Ages. The following is a list of prizes that were awarded at tournaments from the twelfth through the sixteenth century, as mentioned in the first two sources in the bibliography. The majority of the references are to fifteenth-century tournaments. Where a given type of prize is mentioned more than once, I have listed the number of different times it was given.

Jewelry and Gems

A golden clasp decorated with diamonds and rubies
A golden clasp
A clasp worth forty pounds
A clasp worth forty marks
A golden belt
A silver belt
A gold chain (2)
An "A" of gold with a diamond
An "E" of gold with a ruby
An "M" of gold with an emerald
A very rich ring
A ring of gold with a ruby (2)
A ring of gold with a diamond (3)
A golden ring (2)
A ruby mounted on a golden rod
A golden rod or baton (4)
A gold crown (2)
A gold circlet
A diamond (4)
A ruby (3)
A sapphire

Arms and Armor

A sword and steel gauntlets
"A set of fine steel armor such as a prudent man would wear"
An elaborately crested helmet (6)
A sword garnished to the value of three crowns

Cloth and Clothing

A velvet cap
A rich silken chaplet
Three fine pieces of cloth
A length of velvet


A swift horse with silk trappings
A bay horse
A noble courser, saddled and bridled
A barded destrier with harness (2)
A white hound with a gold collar around his neck
A bear
A talking parrot
A big dead fish 1


A golden thorn
A horn garnished with gold
A silver gilt lion
A cup of gold worth forty marks
A golden vulture

A few other miscellaneous prizes are also worthy of mention. At a tournament at Nourdhausen during the thirteenth-century Heinrich, margrave of Meissen, set up a tree with gold and silver leaves. If a contestant broke a lance against his apponent, he was awarded a silver leaf; if he unhorsed his foe he received a gold leaf. The fifteenth-century pas d'armes of the Fountain of Tears involved three different types of combat: with axe, with mounted lance, and sword combat on foot. The challenger who fought best in each weapons form received a golden replica of the weapon with which he had fought.

Taken together the prizes give a strong impression of expensive display. A clasp worth forty pounds could represent a year's income to a fifteenth-century knight. Even the helmets frequently given as prizes in Italian tournaments (Piero de' Medici kept four in his bedroom) were primarily vehicles for elaborate and expensive crests. 2 Such a helmet, crested with a silver figure of St. Bartholomew, or with "a naked cupid tied by his hands behind him to a laurel tree," might often cost more than a complete jousting harness. 3 Hosting a tournament was always an opportunity for the wealthiest men in Europe to show just how wealthy they were.

I do not wish to suggest that we should be offering costly prizes. Even our dukes do not have ducal incomes. Worse, an expensive prize puts a terrible strain on a system of running tournaments that depends almost entirely on the honor and good will of the individual contestants. We can, however, recreate much of the spirit of the medieval prizes without going to great expense. Gems and jewels are by far the most common items on my list of prizes. Fortunately, reproductions of medieval jewelry, available through the various museum catalogs and from the merchants and artisans of the Society, are often quite reasonably priced. Brass, gilding, and assorted base metals can simulate expensive gold and silver objects. Cloth, a not unpopular medieval tournament prize, is also within our budget. A single yard of fine cloth, laboriously spun, woven and dyed by hand, might well cost a fourteenth-century English knight a week's wages. 4 A length of such cloth was not, in the Middle Ages, out of place with the other expensive prizes given at tournaments. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution our fabric costs us much less.

I hope that this list may be of use to those who host tournaments. If nothing else it may provide an alternative to the bad custom of giving scraps of green paper as a prize to the victor. And anyone awarding a gold vulture as a tourney prize will have my undying admiration.


  1. This prize was given at one of William Marshal's tournaments. A lady of noble birth awarded a pike to the duke of Burgundy, one of the contestants. He declined it, proclaiming himself unworthy, and it "passed from hand to hand among the upper barony," each man handing it on with speeches of self-deprecating generosity until it was taken home by William Marshal. It is not clear whether chivalry or prudent self-preservation was at work here.
  2. Scalini, 24.
  3. Scalini, 24.
  4. Hart, 37 and 124.


Barber, Richard and Juliet Barker. Tournaments. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989. Cripps-Day, F.H. The History of the Tournament. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1918; reprint New York: AMS Press, 1982.
Duby, Georges. William Marshal: the flower of chivalry. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.
Hart, Roger. English Life in Chaucer's Day. London: Wayland Publishers, 1973; New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1973.
Scalini, Mario. "The Weapons of Lorenzo de' Medici." Art, Arms and Armour: An International Anthology. Vol. 1, ed. Robert Held. Chiasso, Switzerland: Aquafresca Editrice, 1979.

Copyright Will McLean, 1992, 1997 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Could you please reformat this with some paragraph breaks?