Fighting for Fun?

What Was At Stake in Formal Deeds of Arms of the 14th Century?

Steven Muhlberger

Delivered at Nipissing University, March 7, 2001

Let me begin by admitting that I’ve lured you here under false pretenses -- at least in one terminological respect.    The announced title of this paper led you to believe that I would be talking about “tournaments” in the fourteenth century.    I used that term because it is widely understood, but it is inexact.  The “tournament” was only one kind of formal deed of arms practiced by knights and other “men at arms” between the 12th and 17th centuries.  I’m not going to talk about any “tournaments” at all.

My focus will be on a few specific formal -- that is ceremonious and ostensibly friendly -- “deeds of arms” described by Jean Froissart, a prolific 14th century writer with an intense admiration for “deeds of arms” and chivalry.   Froissart wrote hundreds of thousands of words in his Chronicles of his time, devoting almost all of his attention to the Hundred Years War, with particular emphasis on the actions of individual warriors.    Froissart’s depiction of chivalry has had a tremendous cultural influence over the last 600 years; the nineteenth-century French historian Michelet called him “the Walter Scott of the Middle Ages.”    It would be more accurate to characterize Scott, that towering figure of romanticism, as “the Jean Froissart of the Regency.”

My current research interest is in Froissart and how he depicted the wars and “men at arms” -- fully armed warriors -- of his time.    Before I talk about what he has to say about “formal deeds of arms” (which you can continue to think as “tournaments”), let me talk very briefly about the history of such combats.

The original tournaments arose in the twelfth century.   These tournaments were a team sport or maybe more accurately mock battles which  were conducted in the open with next to no rules.  Instead of receiving prizes, knights sought to capture opponents and their horses, with the intent of keeping the horses and ransoming the riders, just as they would in a real battle.   It was a form of high stakes gambling.   In part because they were good practice for real cavalry warfare, and because they were exciting, tournaments became a central part of aristocratic life in western Europe, attracting the sponsorship and even the participation of major nobles, and large crowds of spectators, noble and common.

By the time of Froissart, other kinds of “formal deeds of arms” seem to have been more popular than tournaments between teams.   Individuals “jousted.”  Everyone thinks of this term in connection with equestrian  combat where pairs of riders charged each other with spears, each hoping to unhorse the other.   This was in fact a popular and prestigious activity.     Jousting on foot, however, was common, too.  Similar combats were being done on foot, usually with sharp weapons, spears, swords, daggers, or axes.   Some jousts were major events staged by royalty, for instance at royal weddings; others required only the simplest preparations.1

Before we go further, let’s look at some pictures, all of them medieval illustrations of deeds of arms recorded by Froissart.    We can’t take them as accurate depictions of the reality, since they are all from the next century; the illustrators had no contact with the actual events, and they put people in the armor and costumes of their time, not Froissart’s.   They do, however, nicely show us some features of formal deeds of arms.

The first illustration shows an elaborate joust sponsored by King Richard II in London in 1390; the main event was jousting of 60 English knights against foreign challengers.   Here are the knights being led in parade by their ladies (inaccurately portrayed; the ladies rode, too).

The second shows a joust between Sir Reginald de Roye, French, and Sir John Holland, English, which took place in Spain before John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and pretender to the throne of Castile, and the King of Portugal.  Note the wooden lists, the solid gallery for spectators, which included the Queen of Portugal, and the presiding noble, probably meant to be John of Gaunt.

Third is a joust on horseback between the Lord of Clary, French, and Sir Peter Courtenay, a parliamentary knight and brother of the Archbishop of Canterbury.    This was a single encounter that had been arranged only the day before.    It took place outside of Calais before the commander of the garrison.   Peter Courtenay, according to Froissart, was defeated:   that’s him on the ground with a lance in his shoulder.

Fourth is a joust on foot at Bordeaux.   Note again the list barriers and gallery (or a permanent building used as a gallery).   There were probably a lot more people present than shown here.    The combatants are using battle-axes of a sort used in challenges.

The fifth and last illustration shows the most famous formal deed of arms described by Froissart, in which three French royal chamberlains jousted at St. Inglevert against 39 English, Netherlandish, Gascon, and Bohemian knights over four day.   It was held in the country between two towns; the French defenders set up pavilions and shields to be struck.    Here Reginald de Roye met John Holland a second time.

All five of the illustrations show events I call formal deeds of arms.    By using the word formal, I am making a distinction that Froissart doesn’t really make.   “Deeds of arms” could be acts of real warfare or they could be more friendly confrontations.   I am talking today about the more friendly ones, but I want to emphasize that the line between a friendly and a serious one-on-one combat was pretty uncertain.    If things were meant to be friendly, there were formal elements that attempted to keep matters under control.  Time and place were settled in advance.   Usually there was a presiding noble who could stop the fight by saying, simply, “You have done enough” in other words, enough to uphold your honor.    Also, there were limits to how long the fight would continue.    Finally, if the jousting was on horseback, there was the option of using blunted lances instead of sharp.  On the other hand, there were two elements that tested the limit with real warfare.    Most weapons used were real weapons and, quite often, the opponent facing a knight was actually a real-life enemy, most of the time.   Froissart had a particular interest in this last point of tension.    All the formal deeds of arms he talks about were undertaken in time of truce -- not peace but truce -- between warriors on the English side (not all of them English) and warriors who were loyal to the French king.

The question I want to pose today is why did people who were normally enemies come together ostensibly in friendship and, using real weapons, hit each other very hard.    Make no mistake about it:  these were dangerous games, if games is the right word.  In friendly confrontations described by Froissart, a knight had a spear thrust through his thigh; another was  struck off a charging horse and “lay as if dead;” a third was actually killed by a lance piercing his jugular vein.    What was at stake and what made the formal “deed of arms” worthwhile?

First, there is no evidence that, as in earlier times, horses, armor or equipment were at stake.    A document of the early 14th century takes for granted that jousting knights are competing for each others’ horses.2   There is no hint in Froissart’s accounts that this was still done in the 1380s and 1390s.    Second, the formal deeds of arms we shown in detail do not appear to be sports-like contests with systematic counting of points, like some of the 15th and 16th century jousts that are documented elsewhere.3     At the great royally-sponsored jousts at London and Paris, prizes were given to the best competitor on each side; but in other cases there is no prize at all.

I hope to show in the next few minutes that a subtler and more ambiguous dynamic was at play here.   I begin by describing the deed of arms that took place at Vannes in Britanny in 1381.

The deed of arms at Vannes took place after the failure of a major campaign through northern France, led by the earl of Buckingham.   England’s ally, the duke of Britanny, had  chosen peace rather than war, and made it impossible for the English to take decisive action.  A siege of Nantes, notable for a number of spirited sallies by the French garrison of the town, had come to nothing.  As the two armies sought quarters to recover their strength,  many people were left with a sense of anti-climax.   Challenges had passed between French and English knights while both were at Nantes and had not yet been resolved.  Now, the commanders, the constable of France and the earl of Buckingham, who earlier had restrained individuals seeking adventure in the name of discipline,  competed with each other in graciously expediting these challenges.   They issued passports and hosted formal deeds of arms.

After the constable had presided over one formal deed, the earl was determined to show himself just as hospitable.   Thirty French knights and squires accepted his invitation  to go to Vannes, and were hosted generously in the suburbs (i.e., not within the English-held fortifications).  The day after their arrival, French and English proceeded separately to a large, flat area outside the town for a series of “jousts on foot.”4   When they reached the field the two sides maintained their separation:  the English gathered at one end and the French at the other to see how their champions would do.5

As is often the case, Froissart’s account is not entirely clear:  the terms of the challenges are not entirely spelled out.  The original challenge by a Frenchman,  de Pousanges, against an English ally, de Vertain, had involved each delivering to the other three blows with spears, three with swords, and three with axes.6    This kind of agreement that each would strike the other with a certain number of strokes, more or less simultaneously, is standard in Froissart’s presentation of formal deeds.   When these two met with spears, they “struck their lances lustily against each other” and  Pousanges was wounded.  He “received such a stroke that it pierced through the mail and steel breastplate, and everything underneath, and drew blood, and it was a great wonder that he was not more seriously wounded.”   Nevertheless he continued and “they finished these courses and the other deeds of arms without further mischief.”7

A second challenge then took place between Sir Jean d'Ambreticourt and Sir Tristan de la Jaille.   The agreed-upon “courses” were completed without injury and equal honors were gained.

The third pair, the English squire Edward Beauchamp and his opponent, the bastard Clarius de Savoye, were mismatched.   Clarius was bigger and stronger than the Englishman.   Edward, despite his best effort, was knocked to the ground during the first course with spears, and again during the second.  His compatriots were infuriated -- with their own champion:  “they said, Edward was too weak to be a good match for this squire, and truly the devil was in him to make him think of jousting against him.”   They seem to have forced Edward off the lists and convinced him to declare he would fight no more that day.8

One might assume that Clarius would be pleased by this turn of events.  After all,  in many types of martial arts competition, including other medieval deeds of arms, knocking one’s opponent to the ground has been considered a definitive victory.9   Certainly the English “team,” if we can call it that, was influenced by this traditional and common-sense standard:   they pulled Edward out to avoid an embarrassing shutout.    Clarius, however, was not happy.   “Wishing to finish his course of arms, he said, ‘My lord [addressing the earl], you do me wrong:   since you wish that Edward should not go on, send me someone with whom I may complete my courses [parfunir mes armes].’”  In other words, Clarius was chiefly concerned to complete a certain number of “deeds of arms,” as he had said he would.  When this was brought to Buckingham’s attention, the justice of Clarius’ grievance had to be acknowledged, and another opponent was found for him, a squire named Jannequin Stincelée.   He gave Clarius a good fight.   In each of three courses, both men broke their spears on the other, “which the lords who watched held as proof that they had done well.”   When they proceeded to swords,  they broke four strong ones in six strokes.  The competitors wished to keep going, and test themselves with axes, but the earl, as host and ultimate authority over the contest, did not wish things to go to “extremes [en oultrance],” and told them they “had done enough [assés en avoient fait].”10    As Thomas Johnes puts it in his translation, “they had sufficiently showed their courage and abilities.”11

Several interesting things emerge from this account.    First, the spectators were intimately involved in the whole process.    Not only do we see English men-at-arms intervening to force Edward Beauchamp out of the competition; we see the watching “lords” -- warriors themselves -- judging the performance of the combatants.     Also, when they did judge, they were not intent on identifying one winner -- a point which could be with many other instances.  One of the most satisfying outcomes was an equally good performance by each.    At least from one point of view -- we’ll return to this -- there did not need to be a victor, or alternately, there could be two.    Halting the combat, too, when both men were still looking good might be better than letting it go to “extremes.”

What strikes the eye most, however,  is the overwhelming concern of participants to avoid disgrace.   If a man has“given his word,” (parolle) or made an “engagement”12  or a “challenge,”  fulfilling it, or “being released” (delivrer) from it was a weighty burden.   Several other cases could be used to make this point.    Let me relate just one, a deed of arms performed immediately after those at Vannes.

Soon after Vannes, a body of English men at arms was traveling to their permanent base at Cherbourg through enemy-held territory on a French passport.  When they stopped at an inn, one of them, an English squire named Nicholas Clifford, was confronted by a French squire, Jean Boucinel, with whom he had an unresolved “engagement.”   The following discussion took place:

Jean Boucinel, recollecting Clifford, cried out, --"Nicholas Clifford!  Ah!  Nicholas, Nicholas, we have often wished and sought to perform a deed of arms; but we never could find fit opportunity or place for it.  Now, as we are here before my lord constable and these gentlemen, let us perform it.  I therefore demand from you three courses with a lance."

"Jean," replied Nicholas, "you know that we are here but as travelers on our road, under the passport of my lord constable. What you ask from me cannot now be complied with, for I am not the principal in the passport, but under the command of these knights whom you see.  If I were to stay behind, they would set out without me."

The French squire responded, "Ha, Nicholas, do not make such excuses as these.  Let your friends depart, if they please, for I give you my promise, that as soon as our joust shall be over, I will conduct you myself within the gates of Cherbourg without loss or peril, as I can depend on my lord constable's good will."

Nicholas was still unwilling, and understandably so given the conditions of the time, to risk his freedom in enemy territory.13   He continued to offer alternatives to an immediate challenge.  But he was in a bad spot.  When Jean replied to one of his proposals by saying “You shall not excuse yourself that way, “ Nicholas  “was ashamed that those present should have heard it, and thought, that since Jean made such handsome offers, he could not in honor refuse them.”   A further counterproposal was put forward, and Jean said, "Don’t look for excuses.  I have offered you such handsome proposals, that you cannot in honor depart without running a joust with me, according to the demand I make."   According to Froissart, “Nicholas was more enraged than before; for he thought, and true it was, that he [meaning Jean], by such a speech, greatly outraged his honor.”   The emphasis here is on the anger of the one challenged, but one can see from Froissart’s text that he visualized a situation that was emotionally charged for both Boucinel and Clifford.14

If there were unwritten rules for a formal deed of arms in the 1380s or 90s -- there were no written ones -- the foremost rule must have been “Do not turn down a challenge; and once you have committed yourself, follow through.”  As we have seen in connection with Vannes), it was not impossible to leave a challenge unanswered or unfulfilled, but it was very difficult.  A willingness to fight, an unwillingness to back down, was central to the identity of a good man at arms.

This was so because there was in fact a strong connection between “friendly” combat and “serious” combat. The engagement outstanding between Boucinel and Clifford, like the deeds at Vannes, originated in warfare, in challenges made and accepted before the walls of the beseiged city of Nantes.   These kinds of challenges, which had been part of medieval warfare for centuries, had a psychological and even a tactical effect.15   If for instance one was part of a beseiged garrison, the willingness of a comrade to venture out against any comer reflected well on the courage of all, and sent a definite message about the determination of the defense.   And of course the man who answered such a challenge was sending a message back.   To be taken seriously, these messages had to be backed up with action.  A truce that ended the conflict between the armies themselves did not cancel out engagements already made.  One still had to prove oneself.  And if Froissart is reflecting reality, there were always plenty of warriors at the end of a campaign determined to do so.

If a “friendly” deed of arms was a forum for expressing this need to demonstrate courage -- or perhaps both courage and skill -- then the danger was clearly an integral part of the event.  Like spectators at an auto race, the watching men-at-arms hoped for a dramatic show while dreading injury to their fellows.  The atmosphere is evoked by this incident from the great jousting meet at St. Inglevert, in which Sir William Masquelee ran against the French champion Boucicaut:

The two knights took good aim, and mutually gave such strokes on their helmets that fire sparkled from them; and, though the points of the lances slipped off, the joust was much praised by all present. They continued their career to their different stations, but did not make any long stay before they again spurred their horses and couched their spears, for they did not drop them, and met with such violence, that their lances must have pierced the shields, if the horses had not swerved.  [A third time] they set off as fast as their horses could carry them, and, on their meeting, hit the visors of the helmets severely. The joust was loudly applauded, for they were both unhelmed, and bare-headed all but the coifs: they finished their career, and then returned to their friends, for they had done enough.16

Without the danger, there was no game.  Presiding nobles were somewhat anxious to stop fights before they “went to extremes,” which might lead to serious injury or death, but often when the combatants were restrained, they complained about it.  And if death or injury did on occasion take place, one could not be surprised.  The result of the challenge between Jean Boucinel and Nicholas Clifford was the death of Boucinel. The constable of France, who had expedited and presided over the challenge insisted Clifford and the other  English travelers having dinner with him and his men.  When Clifford arrived, unwillingly, the constable said:

In truth, Nicholas, I can very well believe, and I see by your looks, that you are much distressed by the death of Jean Boucinel; but I acquit  you of it, for it was no fault of yours, and, as God is my judge, if I had been in the situation you were in, you have done nothing more than I would have done, as it is better to hurt one's enemy than to be hurt by him.   Such is the fate of arms.17

The constable’s offhand equation between a deed of arms which had been surrounded before, during and after with every sign and gesture of amity, and combat against an “enemy” (ennemi) is a bit of a shock on first reading.  It shows, however, the ambiguity of the formal deed of arms and to some degree its attraction.

The fourteenth-century men-at-arms whom Froissart described have often been characterized as a obsolecent class, and the “tournaments” of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries dismissed as “increasingly formalized clashes” which were irrelevant to real warfare.18     However, from the point of view of the men at arms of the time, who bore or aspired to noble rank, I think formal deeds of arms served two very real functions.

First, however relevant or irrelevant armored knights and squires or for that matter jousting, were to actual warfare -- something we don’t have time to discuss today -- all the higher ranks of the noblility still justified their position in society by their willingness and ability to wage war.    Any individual who rode out between hostile armies to place a challenge, or who arranged with an erstwhile opponent to meet at a formal deed, was asserting his claim to belong to that high rank, to be one of the brave, dangerous masters of society.   He was backing up that claim with his own body.   In a formal deed, the risk might be more limited than in other contexts, but it was hardly absent.   So central was this kind of armed display in the late fourteenth century that earls, royal chamberlains, half-brothers of sitting kings all took part, not just in “real” battles, but in formal deeds, too.

Second, when armed nobles and their closest followers gathered together to play this dangerous sport, they were also making a claim to collective power, and demonstrating a certain solidarity against the rest of the world.     The late fourteenth century was in fact a time when nobles had to defend their privileges  against rebellious peasants and unruly townsmen.    Noble power could not be taken for granted.    When high-ranking warriors met at royal wedding, or a formal deed under the presidency of a king’s son, they were taking part in a select activity, one which only people like them had been trained for, and which required almost as much cooperation as competition.   After all, a jouster on horseback could not strike sparks off the helm of his opponent without that opponent’s active cooperation.   It is not something likely to take place in an open battle.

Thus the formal deed of arms had an individual aspect and a collective one, and in both aspects something very real was at stake.  The individual was there to be tested.    Every man entered the contest intending not just to look good, but to survive,  and to come away from the field worthy of greater respect.    Some inevitably gained more than others.   For the group, the formal deed was not so much a test but an act of definition.   It was, at least in the eyes of its participants, proof that they were all armed gentlemen and that armed gentlemen deserved the lofty place in society that they in fact enjoyed.  The group itself was reaffirmed in a way that was essential to its self-image.


A number of excerpts of Froissart in translation can be found at the Tales from Froissart site.    It has an Index of  Deeds of Arms, Tournaments, and Duels.

Numerous illustrations or illuminations of Froissart and other 14th and 15th century works can be found at the Age of Charles V site maintained by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.   The jousting pictures are here.

One of the two scholarly editions of Froissart's text can be accessed through the BNF's Gallica service.   Use the Catalogues and enter "Froissart" under Auteur.    The search engine will return numerous works, including the Kervyn de Lettenhove edition in its several volumes.

1. The best single book on the history of tournaments is Richard W. Barber and Juliet Barker, Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages (N.Y., 1989).

2. Geoffroy de Charny’s “Les Demands”, edited by Michael Anthony Taylor in “A Critical Edition of Geoffroy de Charny’s `Livre Charny’ and the ‘Demandes por la joute, les tournois, et la guerre,’” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina, 1977.

3. Discussion of fifteenth-century jousting on horseback can be found in Sidney Anglo, "How to win at tournaments: the technique of chivalric combat," The Antiquaries Journal, 68 (1988): 248-264, and  p. 233.

4. Froissart, Oeuvres, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove (Brussels, 1867-77), 9: 326:  “cil qui devoient jouster estoient a piet et armet de toutes pieces...”   Further citations to Froissart are to this edition (KL).

5. Ibid.

6. KL 9: 323; on p. 326 the text shows Vertain and Pousanges preparing to do combat with lances and swords.

7. KL 9: 326.

8. KL 9: 326-7

9.  For instance, Taylor, pp. 77-83, for the jousting of the earlier 14th century.

10. KL 9: 328: “mais li contes de Bouqinghem leur osta et dist que il ne les voloit pas veoir en oultrance et que assés en avoient fait.”

11.  KL 9: 327-8;  Froissart, Chronicles, trans. T. Johnes (London, 1849) 1: 632.

12.   The word used by Thomas Johnes in his early 19th century translation of Froissart, e.g. v. 1, pp. 614.

13.  Taking noble captives for ransom was an accepted part of 14th century warfare.   For the fullest treatment see Maurice Keen, The Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages (London, 1965).

14.  KL 9: 335-7

15.  Matthew Strickland, “Provoking or Avoiding Battle?  Challenge, Duel, and Single Combat in Warfare of the High Middle Ages,” in Armies, Chivalry and Warfare in Medieval Britain and France:  Proceedings of the 1995 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Matthew Strickland (Stamford, 1998), pp. 317-43, esp. 329-39.

16.  KL 14: 147-8.

17.  KL 9: 340

18.  Barbara W.Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century (New York, 1978), p. 65 for this fairly  typical example