Let’s Go Down to the Melee part 2.

Time to Go back to the Tourney and Catch up with the knights methinks.

Broken bodies and broken lances having been cleaned from the dust of the lists and the last victor having saluted the Duke, as his rival was dragged groggily back to his lines the trumpets blared again and he herald’s imperious hyperbole echoed across the lists, announcing that the melée was about to commence.

The two teams were arrayed facing one another across the lists, behind them stood formed infantry, they would take no part in the fighting which was strictly for the nobles, instead they were to serve as a protective wall for any knights forced to flee the engagement.

Armour for War and Armour of Tournament differed little
Armour for War and Armour of Tournament differed little

The squires stood ready with spare mounts and three extra lances, and at this stage there is  no evidence to suggest that blunted weapons were in use, the day had yet to come when the tourney was strictly a cushioned affair.         

In the conquerors day a lance, or rather spear, was predominantly used overarm or underarm, the classic and realistically more natural couched position was not then known, but in the melée of the 12th century, knighthood had changed somewhat.

The term originally describing any well armed mounted warrior had, with the rising power of the church, become something more than a mere thug in a mail hauberk, now they were a part of the elite of the land, pledging their swords in the service of their feudal lords and to the defence of Christendom.

Just as a knight was now a title to be earned, and with it the hallowed spurs that were clipped on your heel by your liege, so had their training become more formalised. Proficiency with sword, axe and mace was the norm, military theory had also advanced the use of the simple spear to the lance of popular imagination. The knights preparing to

12th Century Knight with Lance
12th Century Knight with Lance by Christa Hook.

test their skills in ‘friendly’ contest now made use of the couched position in which the lance was clamped firmly under the arm, and levelled across the horses neck, harnessing the driving power of the destrier and slimming down the knight into a streamlined missile.

As the trumpets blew the fanfare the lances lowered into an hedge of bristling spears and at the word the knightly spurs were pressed into the horses flanks, and both lines launched themselves forward in the grand charge. The cheering acclamation of the crowd was drowned by hoof beats, this was the spectacle that all had been waiting to see. As the horses accelerated to full gallop, their hooves eating up the ground and spitting it out behind them, pennants billowing bravely out above the bobbing sea of helmets.

Smashing into one another with an almighty crash of snapping lances and rending armour, those not unhorsed wheeled tightly around to pick out individual opponents, while those unhorsed unsteadily tried to get to their spare mounts, woe betide the knight who could not remount after falling, to brave the contest on foot was a perilous undertaking.

From here the melée (or in later times tourney, a name taken from the quick turn that they performed after the first pass) degenerated into a series of running battles that spread far and wide from the lists and could cover miles of land previously staked out as the tournament ground.

I think we can imagine spectators watching the battle rather like people would follow a hunt. With groups of knights wheeling and charging dozens of times across the field, which incidentally could be the size of 9 sq Km or the size of 20 full size golf courses, you would have to be fast to keep up.

After the initial engagement the melee would brake up over miles of ground, often far out of sight of spectators, it was as close to real war you could get, the land was used to its every advantage, forests, ditches, hedges and rivers could be used for ambushes or just

12th Century Templar Knights in Battle
12th Century Templar Knights in Battle

as a safe place to see to your wounds before rejoining the fray. I even like to think of small posses of knights braking off from the main battle and ranging across the field in the chance of capturing more prisoners and splitting the profits afterwards.

As lances were broken on shields and helmets, out came the swords and maces and the snap of ash shafts was replaced by the thud and gong of steel on wood, the crowds cheers drowned out by the tumult, the neighs of horses and the distinctive war cries of the knights such as Prince Henry of England’s team “Dieux Aix”.

The object of this confusion was to obtain prisoners, if you could make your opponent drop his weapons and call for quarter, you could win your fortune. The melée was taken extremely seriously (If there are any gamblers reading they will understand) and if you yielded to an opponent you would be expected, as in war, to pay ransom for your freedom and possibly surrender your horse and armour to your vanquisher.

Indeed, for as many wagers that were brokered behind the staked lines of the lists each knight had already gambled a considerable stake on coming out of the melée with his liberty intact.

The only time limit was the fading of light and it was rare that two determined sides would fight on into the setting of the sun. More commonly both sides would fight to exhaustion  but some would end earlier when one side would be utterly broken and flee behind the spears of the infantry guard.

The crowd cheered the combatants off the field, hooting at those who did not fight bravely enough or were captured too quickly and crossing themselves solemnly as a stretcher passed them with one of the many fatalities.With the coming of night a great banquet was held by the host at which amidst the free flowing wine, roasted pork and other such savoury delights the bravest and best knight from Outside and Within was awarded prizes of gold and silver as a testament to their heroic efforts.

The hope being of course that at least one of the Duke’s men would be one of them, proving to all the power of his arms, no little puffing of course went to the lord of the other knight who’s prestige could only be heightened by his retainers victory.

After all the more celebrated warriors a lord had in his retinue the more fearsome he was to his neighbours and were better to prove this than to have the fact witnessed by several hundred of the best and worst people, soon the troubadours would be spreading the news far and wide, of the valiant efforts of the knight and the great might of the lord.

Hope you enjoyed it. Join me again for another adventure in Historyland.







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