Exhibitions of military skill, known as tournaments, began in Europe some time after a.d. 1000. They continued to be held during the Renaissance, though their form and purpose changed considerably over the years. Early tournaments often featured a mêlée, a combat between groups of men. The fighting was generally conducted in deadly earnest and resulted in numerous casualties. Eventually mêlées were replaced by the joust, which involved two mounted knights who charged at one another with lances. The introduction of blunted weapons and a tilt (barrier) to prevent the horses from colliding made jousting safer. However, jousting could still be a dangerous affair, as shown by the death of France's King Henry II in Paris in 1559 as a result of a wound suffered in a joust.
Banned at times by church or state officials, tournaments remained extremely popular throughout the Renaissance. They were valued as training in martial arts, as a sport, and as a grand spectacle. Tournaments often took place to celebrate occasions of state, such as royal births and weddings or visits by foreign dignitaries. Participants wore elaborate armor and costumes, and special parades might be held before the tournament to show them off. In time the pageantry of the tournament came to be more important than the fighting.
Many Renaissance tournaments adopted themes from classical* or chivalric* literature. A tournament held at the Spanish city of León in 1434 was centered on the theme of a knight supposedly trying to free himself from enslavement to a lady. In other cases, knights would imitate heroic literature by declaring their intention to defend a certain place against all challengers. Around 1460 René of Anjou wrote a detailed, illustrated text describing how tournaments should be staged, and many similar works appeared in the later years of the Renaissance.
By the 1500s it was common for tournaments to have a fictional framework or storyline. For example, a tournament held to celebrate the birth of an heir to King Henry VIII of England featured a challenge from four "visiting" knights of the mythical land of Ceure Noble. One of the knights was played by the king himself. The outcome of many combats in these themed tournaments was decided beforehand. A tournament held for England's Queen Elizabeth I included the staged failure of four knights to capture the Fortress of Perfect Beautie, which represented the Queen's virginity and moral integrity. These late Renaissance tournaments were usually staged to celebrate the reigning dynasty, and those who took part were more like actors than combatants. The tournaments eventually came to include music and displays of horsemanship and may have played a role in the early development of opera.
see color plate 12, vol. 2
- * classical
in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome
- * chivalric
referring to the rules and customs of medieval knighthood