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Arthurian tales of elaborate tournaments originated largely in the High Middle Ages. During the actual High Middle Ages, tournaments as we think of them in Arthurian tales did not exist. However, during the late Middle Ages, tournaments were a common celebration of the golden past that never was. Most people in the late Middle Ages were just as uninformed about the High Middle Ages as people today are about the “wild west.” By the late Middle Ages, knighthood was in decline—by Malory’s time, the knight of romance was obsolete.
We think of tournaments in terms of two opponents in the arena, starting with a joust, then ending with a one-on-one swordfight. The real tournament of the High Middle Ages was the melee, similar to later tournaments only in that it was a game. The melee was staged exactly like a true battle would be, save that weapons were not real. Confrontations could take place on foot or on horse, but the joust would be rare to nonexistent since the heavy jousting armor worn for sport in later periods had not been invented (a joust in an actual war was almost always fatal).
Injuries were common in the melee. Fatalities also occurred, though an effort was made to promote safety. Melees were often spectator events, but they took place over large areas instead of in small arenas. The objectives of a melee were various: gains were made by capturing knights on the other side and later ransoming them. Sometimes awards were given to the winners or those who achieved “great feats of arms.” The melee was also a chance to practice the tactics of warfare and to prepare young men for the circumstances of actual battles.
If one examines earlier works of Arthurian myth, one can see that the tournaments are not the turn-based arena events pictured in movies, but a disorganized rabble. Men are easily lost miles from the castle, overtaken by groups, or even killed when the melee is used to disguise a personal vendetta. A desire for an orderly, romantic sport eventually led to jousting as we think of it today, but the development took a long time.
Note: You’ll see no citations for the above information. I didn’t bother with footnotes since the same information is repeated in several dozen introductions to many types of books. Think of this as a lecture instead of an essay. As this topic is not particularly controversial, I trust the reader will take confidence in my research skills and to pursue his own research if his interest is sparked.