Regimes of Chivalric Military Experience

The Regimes of Chivalric Military Experience:

Training – Tournament – Battle


As a professional soldier, the medieval knight participated in several discrete regimes of orchestrated violence. Military training, the tournament, and the military campaign were each imbued with clearly escalating levels of threat, and each presented closely-related but markedly different levels of control over processes and outcomes. The objective of this essay is to examine these three aspects of knightly military experience, identifying those factors which make each distinct. The brief nature of this composition permits us to merely contrast differences and behaviors in general terms. A more complete comparison demands expanded research. We will begin with broad characterizations of each of the three regimes, and then observe how they differ across a number of military, financial, and social qualities.

Training Regime

Instruction for apprentice knights began at a young age, typically the early teens. Training was principally performed within the noble household by family and retainers who acted as coaches for the apprentice. This phase necessarily included physical conditioning, the development of equestrian skills, practice with various arms, and lessons in non-military aspects of chivalry such as etiquette and heraldry. Since it would not make sense for this phase to place the novice in unnecessary peril, the threat level was the lowest of the three regimes we will consider. Such training would involve much repetition, and only some of the activities would be performed in full armor. The non-public nature of training meant that the artistic treatment of armor and weapons, so valued in courtly and tournament life, had little importance in this environment. Similarly, heraldic adornment would not have been necessary.

Tournament Regime

Some time during the mid-teens, the apprentice knight could embark on the tournament circuit. Tournaments represented a significant increase in potential lethality, but in a controlled environment. An early phase of this regime might involve accompanying an experienced knight in the role of esquire, or participation at lower-level encounters such at the bohort. Eventually the young noble would expect to enter the lists as a full participant. We may speculate that his first encounters would be supervised by more experienced knights who would offer some degree of protection. Nevertheless, this phase of “mock war” exposed the novice to mêlée battle and the joust, both of which replicated potential battlefield experiences. Significantly, these encounters were governed by set rules where the primary goals were the demonstration of chivalric skill, the capture of opponents for ransom, the building of knightly reputation, and the gaining of patronage. To control the degree of potential lethality, tournaments may often have retained dated fighting forms and equipment rather than the latest military technologies and tactics. Death was not a primary objective. Nevertheless, danger could not be legislated out of the tournament. It was vital that real risk be present in order for the knight to demonstrate his courage and prowess under threat. Finally, given the public display aspects of the tournament environment, over time the knight’s “kit” evolved artistic treatments appropriate to the status of the individual. The development of heraldry and individual insignia are closely related to this phenomenon and form a bridge to actual battle use.

Military Campaign Regime

Military campaigns and battles represented the highest regime of violence for the chivalric class. Although the participant might attempt to capture his opponent for ransom, the primary objective of this phase was to defeat the enemy, thus lethality was expected. As in the tourney, heraldry was important to the campaign regime, permitting the easy identification of friend and foe and serving a rally function in battle. Nevertheless, we may assume that the highly-decorated armor and weaponry of the court and tournament saw far less use on the battlefield. Actual battle was nominally governed by a general code of chivalric behavior, but we must expect that the prospect of mortality often trumped courtly conduct. Tactics of deception and ambush, while not totally absent from the tournament, would be much more likely in this environment. Similarly, whereas tournament organizers made efforts to balance opposing “teams” in order to produce a relatively fair encounter, the military campaign hoped to achieve advantages in numbers, position, and strategy. Battle offered the least level of orchestration or control over outcomes.

Factors of Comparison

With these general observations in mind we can contrast a number of ways in which the three regimes differed:

  1. Lethality – The purpose of training was to prepare the young noble for his military profession. The tyro knight would practice against passive targets such as the pell, against other novices, or against instructors who presumably exercised some degree of restraint. Accidents could occur, but a regimen of escalating skills and close supervision would tend to counter this outcome. Tournaments, on the other hand, were partly designed to hone and showcase these combat skills in a controlled environment. Consequently the potential for injury or death was dramatically increased, as demonstrated by historic accounts such as the death of Henry II. Nevertheless, the operative term is controlled As the tourney process evolved, organizers often placed greater attention on reducing lethality, for instance by blunting weapons, or by requiring knights to use unarmored techniques against armored opponents. Occasionally a tournament could escalate into full combat when tempers ran hot, but this was not by design. Military campaigns, in contrast, exposed the participant to a wide range of threats not seen in the training or tournament regimes, including disease, privation, and long-term imprisonment, as well as death in battle. Actual battle also exposed the noble to potential contact with non-knightly technologies not encountered on the tourney field – weapons such as arrows and crossbow bolts, and technologies such as artillery and fortifications.
  2. The Decision to offer battle – The novice trainee would not be required to offer battle other than in a classroom sense. The decision to enter a tournament was certainly influenced by class expectations, but it clearly had latitude for discretion. Refusal to face an opponent might result in loss of prestige, but the decision remained with the participant. We may further assume that within the controlled tournament environment a participant could modify his behavior to enhance or minimize the chance of encounter, capture or injury. In sharp contrast, once a military campaign began, participants were largely committed to the endeavor. Much of the diminished decision-making capability was now shared with the enemy.
  3. Consequences of failure – Failure in training might mean punishment and would certainly mean further practice. If a trainee proved totally inept there could be career consequences if he was moved into a non-combat role. Presumably if the noble trainee’s status was sufficiently high, he might not be required to display his poor combat skills, but for most chivalric participants, military performance was the essential defining characteristic of their class. Consequently, failure in tournament resulted in loss of reputation, the costs of ransom, and potential injury or death. In the third regime, loss in a military campaign had all the risks of tournament plus the potential for the permanent loss of property and status…and perhaps life.
  4. Role of ancillary personnel – In a training sense, ancillary personnel would be those individuals charged with teaching combat skills. These might or might not be persons with higher status than the trainee, but presumably they would require at least some discretionary authority over his activities until he achieved knighthood. In contrast, ancillary personnel in the tournament regime would be subservient to the participant. They would provide various kinds of on-site support and would help to defend the knight in mêlée encounters. In the military campaign regime ancillary personnel would be the troops and workforce required to prosecute the war. These would include subsidiary knights, men-at-arms, physicians, cooks, baggage handlers, and various other support staff.
  5. Investment – The expense of training was a “sunk cost” required for the on-going defense of the noble estate. It was necessary to produce a steady supply of new knights in order to preserve the chivalric social structure and its cultural assumptions. Since equipment and personnel could be recycled, recurring investment did not need to be high. In contrast, tournament participation required considerable recurring investment for travel, equipment “wastage” and support personnel. Sources demonstrate that a large entourage and potential ransom expenses could result in long-term debt and financial stress. Military campaigns raised investment to its highest level, especially because logistics support was extremely difficult in extended operations. Over time medieval armies increased their use of mercenary forces, thus adding another layer of operational cost. Loss of revenue-producing manpower and supervision inefficiency during campaign season increased the inefficiency of property back home and thereby reduced income. Campaign also risked the permanent loss of revenue-generating property, thus threatening overall investment potential.
  6. Cost control and financial incentives – In the training regime, costs could be easily controlled on a daily basis because the decision to train was at the prerogative of the noble house. Once committed to a tournament, however, certain types of costs became “locked.” The loss of honor caused by withdrawal would likely have forced participation in certain activities regardless of cost. Hidden costs might include subsidiary events such as banquets and entertainment. The nature of “locked” cost becomes even more profound in military campaigns, which add further layers of fixed expense.
  7. Logistics – We presume that most training for the novice was performed close to a friendly logistics base. Tourney participation required a mobile logistics train, but it could be limited depending upon the desired depth of commitment. Military campaign implied the most extensive logistics train, often in unfriendly territory with the threat of interdiction. Effective management of extended lines of supply was a major factor is the success or failure of a campaign.
  8. Potential for political gain – Novices would have limited opportunity for political gain so long as they remained near their base. This could improve somewhat when they accompanied experienced knights to tournaments or on campaign. Participation in tournaments by the mature knight offered rich opportunities for establishing political ties and alliances as well as the prospect of political scheming. This was one reason why monarchs feared loss of control over the tourney process. Military campaigns also provided opportunity for political gain, but at greater risk, and then only if the campaign met with success.
  9. Potential for increased status – The training phase of a tyro knight prepared the individual for graduation into knightly status, but its insular nature did not offer much opportunity to achieve acclaim or recognition. This was largely the function of the tournament, where the proficient knight could demonstrate martial prowess and establish his reputation as a fighter. Frequent participation in tournaments was thus essential to founding and maintaining the knight’s career. Military campaign obviously offered the prospect of success and recognition, but was a less available option than the tournament circuit because of costs, frequency, and uncertainty of outcome.
  10. Level of technology employed – All three regimes would have had to maintain a degree of currency as technologies evolved throughout the chivalric period. Innovations in tactics were likely to have been shared between training, tourney, and battle regimes. Nevertheless, we may assume that basic training could be simulated without using the very latest in armor or weapons. Participation in battle placed great emphasis on practicality and (presumably) upon the composition and strength of the opposing forces. The tournament regime, with its inherent degree of controlled artificiality, eventually experienced a divergence from “true” military requirements. Thus knights could be confident of reasonably “fair” matches with definite types of equipment and carefully orchestrated encounters. Technology could be tuned to the specifics of tournament encounters. For example, saddles might be specialized for the mechanics of the joust. Armor could be explicitly designed for the tournament, as in the example of helmet configurations that offered good sight lines only in the tilt, or where breathing holes were placed only on the side opposite the opponent’s lance. Similarly, armor could be lightened with punched holes if the knight was assured that an arranged encounter was to employ weapons where this modification posed no risk. A tournament knight would often have the option to adjust his armor and weaponry “suite” for a specific type of encounter, for instance by electing protection over mobility, or vice versa.
  11. Frequency – Military training was the essential “work” of the proto-knight, and we may assume that daily conditioning, instruction, and practice consumed the majority of his time. When he achieved knightly status, the tournament became crucial to his continued development and career success. In some areas tournaments were held as often as every two weeks. Military campaigns would have been the least frequent of the three regimes, and much of an individual campaign would have been “down time” rather than battle. The predominant form of military campaign during the medieval period was the siege, in which chivalric skills were employed far less frequently than in the tournament. Significantly, we know that training continued even during campaigns, and that on occasion tournaments would be arranged between the combatants of an extended campaign or siege.
  12. Participation by non-combatants – The training regime would have taken place primarily in the environment of the noble estate or manor. Those not directly involved in training might have occasionally observed the process, but since it was on-going, it is unlikely to have drawn enthusiastic attention. In contrast, the tournament drew crowds of non-combatant observers who cheered their favorites. Roles such as musician and footman would be a requirement at the tournament, but not in training or on campaign. Sources tell us that one function of heralds was to stir the observers and provide color commentary. Significantly, women were part of the audience and often played important symbolic roles such as that of the “Queen of Beauty” or as the favorite in a chivalric romantic pledge. Tournaments also required certain types of non-combatant roles such as organizers, judges, and site construction personnel. Military campaigns also had specialized non-combatants of types that would not have appeared in the other two regimes. These might include personnel like siege engineers, sappers, and cooks. Military campaigns would also involve classes of combatants not normally seen at tournaments, such as archers, crossbowmen, and other non-chivalric fighters.


The military experience of the chivalric knight can be expressed in three related regimes – training, tournament and campaign. A comparison of multiple factors reveals that each of these regimes presented variations in participation, control and class implications. The identification of these differences helps us understand the role of the knight as an essential member of medieval society.

Although beyond the scope of this essay, any number of additional factors might be proposed with which we can identify significant differences between the three military regimes. This suggests an opportunity to expand and refine this analysis in a more ambitious paper. The range of chivalric experience can be illustrated by original images and equipment from this period, as hinted in the examples on the following pages.



Factors of Control in Chivalric Encounters

Factor Training Tournament Campaign
Potential lethality Low Medium High
The decision to offer battle Absent Discretionary Constrained
Consequences of failure Low Medium High
Role of ancillary personnel Teach Support & Protect Protect & Assault
Investment Low Variable High
Cost control and financial incentives Low High Very High
Logistics Simple Moderate Complex
Potential for political gain Low Medium High
Potential for increased status Low High High
Level of technology employed Varied Specialized Varied
Frequency High Medium Low
Non-Combatants Infrequent Integral Specialized