Lets go down to the Melee part 1

In the early days a tournament was essentially a large pitched mock battle between two opposing sides. The idea being to practice for war but instead of killing the opponent you made him your prisoner, entitling you to some ransom or a choice of his armour and horse or both.
Most assuredly this was the way William the Conqueror and Richard the Lionheart thought of a tournament, though it is doubtful they would have ever used that word in the context we know today and doubtless he would have been most perplexed and interested in equal measure at how this test of arms changed with time, so what is a Melee you ask? Follow me and lets find out.

Lonc Sejor.

12th century, knight, reenactor
12th century, knight, reenactor

As the early Medieval period slowly changed to the high, the tournament became more regulated but it still would have been an alien and strange event to our eyes, for in the 1160s and 70s jousting at the tilt was not the main fixture of the day but instead in the time of Ivanhoe the highlight of these emerging sporting events was the melée or tourney.
In those days tournaments could be held on any day of the year except the forty days of Lent after Christmas and none could be held upon a friday or a Sunday, the latter for obvious reasons but generally when a lord organised his event he would hold it on a Monday or a Tuesday.
As soon as the date was set, out went the heralds and word spread to the troubadours and minstrels who passed the word in the course of their travels, advance notice would usually be given at least a fortnight in advance of the meet, entailing a tired herald or messenger having to cross the channel or negotiate the Pyrenees in time, no number of knights was to great for a melée.
In France the most famous tournament ground was that found between Ressons sur Matz and Gourney sur Aronde in Picardy, this is not a generalization of a vague spot in northern France, the swathe of land and all its features was the stage that the tournament was fought on.
This international ground attracted knights from all over Europe like bees to honey during the lonc sejor (tournament season).
They came in ones and twos or in companies sometimes under a Lord or sometomes merely under his banner, in this age the field of honour was set in between the two villages in which the knights were billeted. Here the lists were staked out and stands erected so a lady could cheer her champion or a lord puff at the exploits of a protégée, while below them the serfs could jostle in their filth for a view of the action in the lower stalls.

Insiders vs Outsiders.

A 13th Century Crusader but armour has changed little in 100 years
A 13th Century Crusader but armour has changed little in 100 years

Knights would continue to arrive right up until the last minute, the more polite or grand sending ahead a herald to announce their intention to enter the lists and the herald kept a careful count.
Meanwhile food was brought in, banners hung in the hall and the field properly flattened down to afford the spectators a good show. It would not do after all for the elaborate preparations to be undone by a rutted heath tripping up horses in front of in front of the count or dukes guests, at least to begin with.
The evening before the event was a time of feasting at the two villages. These parties, hosted by the principle magnates in attendance were the kick off to the tournament and it allowed the assembled lords and knights to not only mingle but for the latter to engage in single jousts to show off their individual skills that would be smothered in the following day’s melée.
These preliminary jousts were called vespers and gave a taster to all present what was to come tomorrow. Here all could view the finest lances present and perhaps gauge a sporting wager on their outcome during the following banquet.
For more dedicated knights or retinues the night before the melee was spent readying their equipment, discussing strategy and studying the coats of arms of the knights that they where going to single out the next day, who was the richest lord competing? Who where the weakest knights out there? Should they gang up on one rich prize or bag a slew of young bloods? All was taken into account.
With everyone in such a convivial mood it would have been a plum time for any pressing business deal to be resolved or proposed. Doubtless many an alliance, trading agreement and marriage bond was struck after the lances had splintered and the wine had been flowing.
Early the next day the roads would be choked by eager spectators wanting to get a good spot beside the lists to witness the first set too. Those still nursing a hangover from the night before would find no relief as the noise of the crowd would only get louder as the day progressed.
Tournament day was also a ripe time for thieves, hawkers, gypsies and travelling salesmen to make an extra florin or two and stalls and vendors would have set up all around the two villages and especially behind the lists which were soon buzzing with travellers and people from the neighbouring towns eager to catch a glimpse of a fabled champion or a powerful nobleman and his retinue, such crowds also held their danger for in the excitement of the tournament they might brake down the side line barrier and join in the fight.
Amidst the throng of bustling humanity in it’s best and worst forms knights weaved their horses towards the field to be allocated a side. The many mounted warriors, trailing their burdened squires that carried their spare lances and rode their spare horse, were designated into two groups known as those that came from ‘Within’ the principle settlement and those ‘Outside’ it.
While this divvying up was going on lesser feats of arms were going on, local archers might try their hand against butts behind the lists and feats with the quarterstaff enacted against a popular champion for a tankard of wine or ale.
But doubtless while these minor feats of arms might raise an approving murmur from the lower or merchant classes nothing caused a stir in a heart so much, from noble to peasant alike, as when the trumpets sounded and the teams of knights, now fairly (or perhaps less so depending on their piety) rode their horses around the lists in the grand review.

A common mans sport but not the sport of common men.

12th Century Templars, good idea of later head armour.
12th Century Templars, good idea of later head armour.

Such a sight, glittering armour and mail shimmering in the sun, horses stomping proudly, surcoats flickering under snapping pennants and trumpets mingling with the war cries of the knights who dipped their lances and kissed their hilts as they passed the hosts dais, trimmed royally with tapestries and flags and dusted with highborn ladies, their personal heralds shouting their exploits for the avid crowd.
A spectacle indeed to make a maidens heart flutter and her cheeks colour behind her veil as her favourite trotted over to her and bowed his lance for her favour.
Just as much as it was stirring for a lord sitting in the ducal box to see his banner bob proudly above his contingent of knights, hoping that they would outdo his rivals in this peaceable war while giving a nudge and a wink towards the ladies box putting the seal on a marriage contract and at the same time showing himself to be regal and benevolent to his subjects, the host indeed had to be a talented actor.
Thus so too was it exiting for the cheering serfs whose greatest aspiration might be to one day clean the coat of a destrier or polish the armour of one of the armoured warriors now strutting their stuff on the lists, or dare to dream become some sort of lackey to his liege, the tournament was, much as the church was to God, his living link with power.
Enjoyment of this semi gladiatorial bout was not restricted to highest and lowest of course, pretentious patricians who rubbed shoulders with the serfs, talking and acting much like them while gazing upwards with an eye on the Dukes stand and wishing one day to obtain a seat there.
Eventually the cavalcade was over, once the column had shown itself to the whole crowd the two teams took their places opposite one another in two lines facing one another across the field and behind the fanfare, the herald imperiously bellowed the announce that the individual jousts were to begin these were no different in practice from the vespers held the previous evening, it was simply a way of lengthening the day and allowing the younger knights to show off for a wider audience.

Hope you can pardon my bad grammer, See you later for part 2.


0 Replies to “Lets go down to the Melee part 1”

  1. good stuff – didnt realise this was a part of tournaments. Never really saw the melee in knights tale… one of the few films i guess that made you understand the popularity of tournament. bring on part 2

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