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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.