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Jousts, Tournaments & Chivalry in Sicily
by Roberto Savona

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Jousting in 12th century Sicily.Jousting is a martial contest, outside actual combat, between two mounted knights charging at each other with lances. The sport of jousting grew out of the need for mounted warriors to perfect their skill, and at least one old Sicilian family, the Lanza or Lancia, owes its very name to the lance. The joust was the major event in the tournament, a series of competitions including sword fighting and other hastiludes such as galloping toward a small suspended ring and driving the lance through it, or hitting the quintain (a shield on a pole). Another part of early tournaments was the mêlée, at which teams of knights competed in an event simulating a chaotic battle at close quarters, and usually just as dangerous as a real battle. It is thought that the first recorded tournament in Italy, in 1156, followed an earlier one in Antioch, crusader knights participating in both.

Sicily was a crossroads of Norman, German and then Angevin and Aragonese civilisation, and a springboard for the crusades to Palestine and the Tunisian Crusade of King Louis of France (and Frederick II himself led a crusade to Jerusalem), so it is logical that the island would be exposed to a popular sport like jousting. To some degree, a number of the many cloister capitals of Monreale Abbey reflect the courtly Provençal culture, where the poetry and lore of chivalry flowered. The knights sculpted on the capitals (shown here) in the 1170s may represent actual combat rather than tournament jousts, but that is a minor detail. Two centuries later, such imagery was still alive in Sicily, where mounted knights were depicted in the paintings of the Chiaramonte family's Steri Castle in Palermo. The noble art of falconry, about which Frederick II wrote a lengthy treatise, is also pictured there, and "hawking" was sometimes included in a tournament's sport.

One of the best sources of the day-to-day life of a tourneying knight in the "Norman" world is the story of William Marshall of England, who died in 1219. The Benedictine monk Matthew Paris, who died in 1259, wrote and illuminated a number of works, and several of his manuscripts contain paintings of jousting knights, including Marshall.

By 1200, both Henry II of England and his son Richard Lionheart had brought the sport of jousting under some control by outlawing it in certain areas while encouraging it in others. King Edward I would promulgate more detailed regulations.

Several historical developments are rooted in, or at least closely related to, the jousts and tournaments - courtly literature (in the vernacular), coats of arms, plate armour and certain theoretical (if not always welcome) concepts of courtesy. First, let's cast a glance toward a few sources and trends.

Interestingly, despite the lack of information about tournaments in Sicily, there is no dearth of knowledge about Sicilian jousters outside Sicily.

The Ipomedon, an English romance most likely based on an Anglo-Norman story authored after 1180 by Hugh de Roteland, is set in the Sicilian and Calabrian realms of the fictional King Melyagere (or Meleager) of Sicily at a time when those regions were, in fact, ruled by Normans. This relatively unknown work is thought to have inspired later tales of King Arthur.

René of Anjou, son of King Louis II Anjou "of Sicily," was born in 1409 and ruled a large chunk of Europe that included Sicily, Naples, Aragon, Lorraine and other territories. Written around 1460, his tournament book, Traicte de la Forme de Devis d'un Tournoi, sets forth rules for tournaments, drawing upon medieval concepts which existed over a century earlier, for tournaments were mere spectacles by 1460. In fact, jousts are mentioned only superficially. The older Codex Manesse, written in the early fourteenth century, refers to practices which actually existed before 1300. René's anachronistic writings were probably inspired by earlier treatises, such as that of the French knight Geoffroi de Charny, who died in 1356. The Chronicles of Froissart, written shortly before 1400, are virtually a handbook of chivalry.

Jousts, Tournaments and Duels

How did tournaments work? The knights and their suites (grooms, squires, pages) arrived at the lists, the palisades enclosing the jousting area, on the appointed day, and the first evening might be dedicated to festivities. Tournaments attracted all manner of entertainers and merchants, evoking the atmosphere of fairs.

The first tournament probably took place in France in the middle of the eleventh century, and coats of arms (about which more below) developed around a century later. This coincides with the spread of Norman civilisation beyond Normandy, to Italy and England. There is a dearth of contemporary information available regarding specific tournaments in Sicily. Like football (soccer) matches, they are excluded from the chronicles of important events. Unless a specific incident, such as the death of a prominent noble, was connected with a particular duel or joust, there was no need to mention it.

The tournament judges were nobles, while the announcers were heralds. The joust was the main event, and by 1400 - during the sport's slow decline - a wooden barrier (or "tilt") was used to separate charging opponents. It was easy for a joust to turn into a duel, so the Statuta Armorum issued by King Edward I of England beginning in 1267 banished sharp (lethal) lance tips and sword points while setting forth specific rules for general decorum. King Louis IX (Saint Louis) was known to oppose tournaments, but his brother, Charles (King of Naples), is not known to have shared his pious sibling's reservations.

In fact, the attempts of various pontiffs and sovereigns to control, discourage or even outlaw tournaments met with scant success. Tournaments marked the first time in European history that the participants in a major spectator sport were nobles while the crowds enjoying the events were mostly peasants and tradesmen. Nobles also passed the time in hunting, falconry and chess, but these were not "public" sports.

In his Constitutions of Melfi of 1231, Emperor Frederick II (as King of Sicily) did not address jousts and tournaments specifically, yet he did outlaw trial by single combat (duels), save for exceptional cases involving knights, by their mutual choice and when no witnesses were available to testify at trial (the English word comes from the practice of "trial" by ordeal or combat). He also established firm rules for the "champions" who represented nobles in duels.

Earlier, Roger II, in his Assizes of Ariano (1140), had established the rules of lineage governing entry into knighthood. Frederick continued his grandfather's policy, exercising even further control. This is relevant to our discussion because only actual knights, rather than other mounted men-at-arms, could compete in tournaments, and (as a general rule) only men who were themselves the sons of enfeoffed knights could be dubbed knights. With the exception of a few particularly wealthy merchants, only the feudal landholders could afford to equip a knight, whether for tournament or war.

Charles of Anjou, after losing Sicily in the War of the Vespers, challenged King Peter of Aragon to a duel in a neutral French territory of the English monarch, Edward I. It was agreed that each king would be attended by a hundred knights. In the end, however, Peter and Charles, and their respective entourages, arrived at the designated place at different times of the same day. En route to Bordeaux for the duel, Peter had evaded a planned Angevin ambush, the fact of which proves that medieval kings were rarely encumbered by chivalric ideals.

By 1500, tournaments and jousts were reduced to the level of mere pageantry. Gone were the days of the joust as true competitive sport. One of the last great "symbolic" tournaments of this kind was held in Palermo during the visit of Charles V in the old tilting grounds - the Fiera Vecchia or Old Fair - near the Magione (the estate of the Teutonic Knights) and what is now Via Lincoln outside the oldest city walls.

Literature and Art

In an age devoid of mass communication, the travelling troubadour and minnesinger provided the entertainment. Italian historians credit Charles of Anjou, King of Naples, with a further popularising of the romances in southern Italy (his wife was from Provence) during the thirteenth century. The romances - and for a time the tournament itself - were more popular in Italy's feudal South than in the mercantile North.

The minnesinger Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival was written in the first years of the thirteenth century, during the reign of Frederick II, who was Eschenbach's monarch. With a view to parallels with contemporary authors, Parzival was written after Tristan but before the Song of the Nibelungs, all part of a courtly literature that began with the French "chansons de geste." In Sicily, meanwhile, the sonnet was born as part of the Sicilian School of romantic poetry in the works of Ciullo d'Alcamo, author of The Dialogue. This marked one of the earliest known literary uses of Late-Medieval Sicilian, an Italic language with numerous French and Arabic influences. The works of Dante, in Italian, followed.

In Sicily, the Song of Roland has long been a favourite in marionette shows, and this was the kind of tale illustrated on decorated horse carts. It is difficult to ascertain precisely when these stories first became popular, and whether there is indeed an unbroken continuity of tradition from Norman times.

Victorian fiction sought to rekindle the mood of medieval Sicily, complete with tournaments. Of note is Elizabeth Fries Ellet's Scenes in the Life of Joanna of Sicily, published in 1840, which seems to have been influenced by the work of Sir Walter Scott.

Armour and Horses

Firearms eventually rendered the knight obsolete. Modern cavalry was based on altogether different principles. In his heyday the jousting knight was clad mostly in plate armour rather than chain mail. One of the earliest European uses of plate armour was at the Battle of Benevento in 1266, part of a bloody campaign that decided Sicily's fate in favour of the Angevins over the Swabians, laying the groundwork for the War of the Vespers some years later. By then, heraldry was in widespread use.

Horses, like their riders, were also heavily armoured, and they had to be specially bred for strength and endurance as well as speed. Arabian horses and allied breeds were much preferred. Baldassare Castiglione, author of a guide to tournaments and courtly behavior, mentions that at the Chinon Tournament sponsored by Gaston IV de Foix in 1446 (attended by René of Anjou) there were horses from Sicily. These were probably the San Fratello breed, which has Arabian bloodlines.

On a purely visual level, one of the most accurate cinematic portrayals of fourteenth century jousting and tournaments, despite some modern music and a few anachronisms, is the 2001 film A Knight's Tale.

Coats of Arms and Heraldry

In theory, coats of arms - the colourful designs painted on shields and embroidered on surcoats - existed to distinguish friend from foe during the heat of combat when the visor of his helmet concealed each knight's face and therefore his identity. Yet battles had been fought for centuries without the benefit of coats of arms. Often, each opposing side simply wore colours different from the other, and here the analogy to athletic teams is appropriate.

While coats of arms were certainly seen during the latter Crusades, it seems that they originated at tournaments, where they made it easier for both the heralds and the spectators to identify the participants.

Heraldry is a topic unto itself. What is most important here is that by the middle of the thirteenth century, if not somewhat earlier, coats of arms served a practical purpose as identifying insignia, and were already regarded as ensigns of nobility because they were hereditary in the feudal (landholding) class, passed from father to son. Almost two thousand coats of arms of Sicilian families are known to us, and at least another five hundred blazons have been lost to time.

Tournaments sometimes occasioned the knighting of esquires; an investiture (dubbing) might also be undertaken on the eve of a great battle.

Legacy of Chivalry

The "code" of chivalry was a general standard of behavior born into the world of courtly life. This unwritten "code" reflected Christian principles but also transcended them in some ways, setting forth aristocratic ideals. Esteem for women, protection of the weak, honesty in all circumstances, courage in the face of enemies, and responsibility in feudal dealings were are part of the code. Did knights follow the code? Sometimes.

The culture of jousts and tournaments has left us an interesting legacy. It would be ridiculous to claim that the world of knighthood ever engendered anything approaching the fullness of true chivalry. Nevertheless, certain practices have survived from the so-called "Age of Chivalry" to our day.

Hat tipping and the military salute both trace their origin to the practice of the helmeted knight lifting the visor of his helm to communicate and - particularly before the dawn of heraldry - to identify himself. Waiting to begin eating until all at table have been served probably has a courtly origin.

As its name implies, courtesy (the word cortesia in Italian) was the standard of "courtly" behaviour expected at court, particularly in the presence of ladies - as opposed to the women of lower social classes. The practice of a seated gentleman rising when a woman or cleric enters his presence is probably rooted in the world of courtly life, knighthood, jousts and tournaments. So is the tradition of holding a door open for a lady to step through, and giving her priority in many social circumstances; the phrase "ladies first" reflects a chivalrous ideal.

Such "gallantry" has at times been exploited to keep women from being treated as the social equals of men (this is certainly true in Italy, where women could not even vote until 1946), but it often makes life more civilised.

The practice, and expression, of "throwing down the gauntlet" is connected with tournaments, challenges and duels. Our repulsion at the act of a man striking a woman comes from the code of chivalry. Flag dipping was a phenomenon parallel to lance etiquette.

The concept of the duel, and the less ephemeral principle of "one against one," are based on the rules of jousting and sword fighting as they existed in knightly tournaments. An entire culture of sportsmanship has grown from this, including the prohibition on attacking a man from behind, or using a weapon to attack an unarmed man. In an earlier time, the Romans occasionally embraced the idea of "fair play" in gladiatorial games but did not always adhere to it, and in the event there is no evidence that medieval knights based their attitudes on any Roman ideal.

Modern military rules of engagement and conduct, though not derived directly from the code of chivalry, were influenced by it.

The very concept of the "gentleman" may be little more than a Victorian revival but - at least in theory - the ideas of "not kicking a man when he's down" and "not besmirching a lady's name" reflect medieval standards of courtesy.

Another vestige of the Middle Ages is the gentleman's "word of honour." Here again the reality rarely lives up to the ideal, but the principle that perjury was a vice, while the testimony of a nobleman might be accorded more weight than that of a peasant (however honest), is thoroughly medieval; Frederick II mentions it in his Constitutions.

The civil treatment of prisoners of war, and especially knights, coincided with the growth of courtly courtesy and the code of chivalry, though it was a few centuries before such civility in wartime became general. The word courtship (and corteggiamento in Italian) recalls traditions from the era of tournaments.

Times change, but rare is the man who construes the word gentleman as anything less than a compliment.

About the Author: Roberto Savona teaches history and writes about historical topics. Thanks to Vincenzo Salerno for his assistance.

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