Tournaments, Melées and Duels

Amaury, the hero in The Hunter & the Heiress, has previously competed in tournaments and has been a champion at the joust. I thought we would look today at the kinds of formalized combat that developed during the Middle Ages. The book is set in 1375 which is right around the time that formalized combat started to evolve into what we think of as a tournament. People have likely settled disputes with one-on-one combat or duels since the beginning of time and certainly the defense of one’s honor has often been a part of that.

Melées were the earliest formalized medieval combat. For these events, a number of knights gathered at a specific location and rode to war against each other in a big free-for-all. Knights would try to capture other knights, then would charge a ransom for their release. Some younger sons of noble families undoubtedly found this an exciting way to make a living. By the 14th century, though, melées had become less popular in favor of either a tournament of numerous events (possibly including the melée) and single combat.

Tournaments were often hosted by kings to celebrate marriages and coronations. Many knights would come together at an appointed time and place—Smithfields near London was one such location—and compete. These were displays of pageantry and affluence—it became increasily common for there to be costumes involved with references to legends.

The tilt or joust required mounted knights to ride toward each other. This became more developed in the fifteenth century, after the end of the Hundred Years War. Specialized plate armor was developed for tilting (both for the knight and the horse) and the median wall was added between the two knights. The goal was to unseat the opponent but piercing the opponent’s shield without giving him any other damage was considered to be artful. Fifteenth century armor becomes quite splendid, as there is a pageantry element to this display.

Single combat involved two knights battling each other on foot. In some places and times, these disputes were limited to the use of certain weapons; in others, there was more flexibility and the combatants could decide. This could be a means of settling a question of honor, as it is in The Hawk & the Hunter, and it might not be endorsed by the local authority. In the fourteenth century, kings and barons tried to control ritualized combat with limited success—which is why the Baron of Clyffton declines to attend the duel in the book.

Duels could also be commanded by a judicial authority when a verdict could not be decided in the court—it was believed that the divine would favor the innocent party. This was called a gaige de bataille and over the fifteenth century, elaborate rules were developed to govern such a duel. They might be fought until one combatant died, or the loser might be executed. In 1386, for example, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques le Gris fought a judicial duel after Carrouges accused le Gris of raping his wife. Carrouges threw le Gris to the ground in the duel, but le Gris refused to confess to the crime and Carrouges killed him. This was the last gaige de bataille ordered in France. In England, John Walsh of Grimsby fought a judicial duel in 1384 with Martlet de Villeneuve, who had accused him of treason. Walsh won the battle and Martlet was drawn, hung and beheaded for making a false accusation.

Pas d’armes were competitions that gathered a number of knights to demonstrate their prowess and these events became popular in the fifteenth century. One of the earliest occurred at St. Inglevert in 1390 (that’s south of Calais.) Three French knights invited other knights to joust against them in a specific location, where they would await challengers for a specific period of time. Another pas d’armes in 1443 at Dijon called the Pas de l’arbre de Charlemagne is also well-chronicled: two shields were hung in a tree for contenders to select their event, the black one indicating eleven courses of jousting with sharp weapons and the violet one indicating foot combat with swords or axes. That event continued for twelve weeks.

In all these forms of medieval combat, knights could battle à plaisance or à outrance—for pleasure or to the utmost. In the former, there might be a time limit on the match, or a victory declared after a certain number of hits were made, or when one opponent was thrown to the ground. In the latter, one combatant had to surrender, be injured or die to end the fight. These battles could also be fought with weapons of peace, which were blunted, or weapons of war, which were not. The idea was not to kill one’s opponent, but deaths did occur. It was a dangerous game—Elizabeth has a good bit to say on this in The Hunter & the Heiress.

I wanted to show you some wonderful images of jousting knights or medieval manuscripts but all the ones I found were copyrighted and unavailable for use. 😦 Here are two 16th century German books that are available to view on at least these websites. When you have a few minutes, take a look!

Look at some images of knights from Hans Burgkmair’s Turnierbuch ca 1530

Look at some images from the Knights Tournament Book ca 1550

Here also is the online facsimile of the Codex Manesse, a book created between 1304 and 1340 in Germany including songs. Here’s a lovely image of a knight accepting tributes from the ladies. And here’s a melée. The images in this book are wonderful depictions of medieval life, including several of hunting and hawking.

Look at the entire Codex Manesse online facsimile


The Hunter & the Heiress, book two of the Blood Brothers series of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

Nothing could be further from Amaury de Vries’ expectations than joining his half-brother’s company of mercenaries in the wilds of Scotland. A knight and a champion at the joust, he expected to inherit a holding—until the man he has known as his father revealed a terrible truth and disavowed him. Left with nothing, Amaury rides to Kilderrick, where he loses his heart to a beautiful noblewoman in the forest. A practical man, he knows he has no right to court the lady, but when she is abducted, Amaury follows, determined to fulfill his knightly duty by aiding a damsel in distress.

Elizabeth d’Acron has been a pawn and a prize, pursued for her father’s wealthy holding, and wants only to be desired for herself. Seized again, she vows she will surrender to no man—even the handsome knight who comes to her rescue. And truly, there could be no one more vexing than this confident yet inscrutable man, so concerned with duty that he could be wrought of stone—but Elizabeth soon learns that she can trust Amaury to defend her at any cost. She does not expect the seductive fire awakened by his touch, much less his conquest of her wary heart—but has she fallen in love with a man whose affections are already claimed?

Snared between duty and passion, Amaury finds himself beguiled by the lady who challenges his every expectation, but knows he has little to offer her. But when Elizabeth is threatened by a former suitor who will not be refused, Amaury risks his all in her defense, hoping it will be enough. But can he intervene in time? And will love alone convince Elizabeth to place her hand in his for all time?


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