If you’re not cheating you’re not trying. ….The spirit of fair play entered civilization when the tournament changed from a brutal, deadly combat to a mimic war ruled by the laws of chivalry…

About the middle of May in the year 1357, while the Duke of Lancaster was beseiging the town of Rennes during the interminable series of wars between the English and French, a young knight bachelor named Bertrand du Guesclin asked whether any Englishman would try a passage of arms with him. Accordingly, the battle was halted while a formal joust was held between Du Guesclin and Sir Nicholas Dagworth, consisting of three courses with spears, three strokes with axes, and three stabs with daggers. The two, according to the chronicler Froissart, “behaved most valiantly, and parted without hurting each other. They were seen with pleasure by both armies.” When the chivalrous exercise was over, both sides rolled up their sleeves and returned to the grim task of war, having proved indisputably the existence in the world of a new principle- that of good sportsmanship.

"I have come before you to advise, request and notify you on behalf of the very noble and redoubted lords the Dukes of Brittany and Bourbon that if you wish to please them you will attend a very noble tourney and bouhort of arms that has recently been undertaken by them. These lords have agreed together to choose you over all others on account of the great fame of your valor, the renown of your intelligence and the praise of the virtues that have long endured in your noble persons. So, do not refuse, for much good may come of it:..."

That principle, which today entails, at least in theory, playing a game vigorously and yet courteously and either winning or losing gallantly, was the product of the knightly caste, and above all, of its greatest sport, the tournament. In the development of this mimic combat from its rudest beginnings to its cumbersome decline , the history of chivalry itself may be traced. And the mark it left upon our culture was to manifest itself  ultimately in such novel concepts as fair play and an intense respect of the rules of the game.

jousting in the time of Emperor Maximillian.

For the tournament was a game, essentially. A rather rowdy game certainly, but comparable to Australian rules rugby or Canadian football; albeit a little more hazardous. It was a gallant sport suited to a society based upon personal prowess in warfare. It had rigid rules and methods of scoring, and between its earliest phase, when it was considered perfectly sporting to ride one’s horse over a fallen opponent, and its latest, in which jousters were surrounded, with safety precautions, there was as wide a gap as there is say, between high school cricket and the game played by certain tribes with the heads of their enemies.

---Illumination of knights jousting. This late fifteenth-century manuscript painting show knights in plate armour. No knight would have worn plate armour in combat. Illustration from Paris, Bibliotheque nationale, Espanol 36, fol. 22r.---

One of the most common misconceptions about the Middle Ages is that the tournament was a murderous duel . Actually, it had many forms of which the joust, or spear running, was but one, and that only occasionally to the death. More often, it was what its name implies, a “turning” , a kind of slow eddying of two bodies of fighters within a fenced playing ground called the lists. No one is quite sure when this formal game began, although in all likelihood some form of military competition must have sprung up at about the time when a noble caste of horsemen emerged in society.

The English, as they commonly do with things they enjoy but are ashamed of, spoke of it as a French invention, and not a few medieval writers believed that it was the brainchild of the French knight Geoffrey de Preuilly, who died about 1063. However, most scholars consider that while De Preuilly may have codified the rules of the tourney, the game itself probably came as a logical step from the training of young warriors, a training that began for most of them at the age of seven.

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