Popes, Kings, and Church Fathers Condemned the Tournament

January 9, 2020

We are now far from the rude encounters of the early feudal period, but the grand ornamental tournaments of the fourteenth century were the outcome of the old rough and sanguinary tourneys in which the lists were strewn with the dead and dying.

Robert, Count of Clermont

It was owing to the advance of Christianity that this softening influence occurred—a work of many centuries it is true, and a slow advance of which one would have hastened the progress—an insufficient work which one would gladly have perfected. That the Church bravely struggled against this no person whose opinion is of value will deny. Popes condemned the tourney as “accursed.” From Innocent II to Clement V we can trace a sequence of anathemas and thunderbolts.

Pope Innocent II

The former condemned them and forbade them because they cost men their lives, and the Fathers in Council decided to refuse the rites of [Christian burial] to those who died from their wounds. They would not deprive them of confession nor of the viaticum, but they would deny them ecclesiastical burial. The Lateran Council emphasized this on the 4th April, 1139. Eugene III, in 1148, renewed the same maledictions, and Alexander III and Innocent III and IV followed the same lead. But Nicholas III in 1279 displayed more energy than all on that date, memorable in the history of the tourney.

The King of France, having been weak enough to permit what he had previously condemned, the Pontiff called the cardinal, Simon de Saint-Cecile, “over the coals” for not having prevented such a scandal, and commanded them to excommunicate all those who had taken part in those jousts. The poor king had been already cruelly punished for his laxity; his younger brother, Robert of Clermont, had become absolutely imbecile from the effects of a blow he had received in a tournament in that same year, 1279, in honor of Charles, son of the King of Sicily. The poor young man had come to be dubbed knight, and died an idiot in 1318. What a lesson!

Pope Clement V

Clement V long afterwards confirmed his strictures in a solemn “bull” in the sixteenth year of his pontificate, when he declared that the tourney was fatal to the Crusade, as in the former men, money, and horses, were uselessly squandered! We might pass by the money and the horses, but the men! The men! All the noble blood of Christendom to be shed for nothing!

The Ms.Thott.290.2º is a fencing manual written in 1459 by Hans Talhoffer for his own personal reference and illustrated by Michel Rotwyler.

To the denunciations of the Popes the learned doctors lent their voices. Saint Bernard and Jacques de Vitry, Humbert de Romans, and others took up their parables against the practice. Royalty also chimed in. Philip Augustus made his sons swear never to take part in a tourney. No one should be surprised at Saint Louis detesting it, and Philip the Fair condemned the tourney many times, and he was no coward. The Valois did not sufficiently imitate him.

Humbert de Romans, OP

We need cite no more cases. The popes and the kings could do nothing after all. The French nobles would not hear of any interruption to the course which they regarded as a “school.” They continued to break each other’s bones to show there was no ill-feeling.

León Gautier, Chivalry, trans. Henry Frith (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1891), 460–1.

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