Northern Lights Submission
For The Love of Ladies: Women’s Agency In Medieval Tournaments
Northern Lights: Large Paper Submission
For the Love of Ladies: Women’s Agency in Medieval Tournaments
By Lady Elizabeth of Rivenstar (aka Elizabeth Ives) (Entrant 4)
105 Jacobs Drive, Coatesville, PA 19320
Shire of Hartshorn-Dale
For the Love of Ladies: Women’s Agency in Medieval Tournaments
In chivalric literature women are often presented in glowing terms; the heroine of the story who inspires knights to pursue great acts of courage and prowess. Medieval chroniclers record that real knights issued challenges ‘for the love of my lady’.1 In stark contrast those same chroniclers often omit women altogether from tournament accounts. Women were in fact present at tournaments as early as 12072 and as tournaments gradually changed from war practices to a sport set apart from the activities of war, women’s roles grew. While their roles in tournaments were largely ritualized and passive, their participation helped to shape the very form of the tournament itself and the culture of the fighters who participated. As more and more women came to see the wide array of martial activities at tournaments, those activities gradually changed to meet the audiences’ desires. Barber and Barker state that the joust “was favored by knights who wished to impress the spectators, particularly their ladies, as there could be no doubt as to the identity of the participants and the result.”3 By 1327, jousting was a common occurrence at tournaments as was the presence of ladies in the stands. It is possible that queens such as Philippa (1310x15?-1369) and Isabella of France (1295 –August 1358) lent credibility to the events and made it possible for other women to attend. So long as women were in the stands watching or, were at the feasts and dances that accompanied tournaments, men sought their attention. As tournaments gradually changed from melee to joust, larger and larger stands were erected, grand processions and theatrical events were included, feasting and dancing added to the festivities, all catering to the audiences’ desires and broadening the impact of tournaments beyond jousting. They became political and social events. Tournaments provided women a real opportunity to see and interact with a wider array of men then they would normally encounter at home.
This interaction helped to shape the culture of knighthood and men-at-arms. Géoffroi de Charny, writing in the mid 14th century, used this relationship to help define the finer qualities of a knight:
And one should indeed honor, serve and truly love these noble ladies and others whom I hold to be ladies who inspire men to great achievements, and it is thanks to such ladies that men become good knights and men-at-arms.4
This was no romantic poem but a practical guide and instructions for a knight. For Charny the practice of chivalry served to encourage acts of prowess, which was, in his eyes, the most important aspect of knighthood. Approved of or not, scandal or secret, villainess or venerated; in matters of love women were described as participating as actively as men. In Charny’s work it was appropriate for women to encourage men to seek prowess and a knight’s glory was something a lady should take pride in.
Over the course of this paper I will explore the relationship between women and the spectacle and pageantry of medieval tournaments, their influence on the culture of knighthood and the broader implications for noble women of the middle ages. The well-developed theory that the presence of ladies as spectators shaped the transition from melee to joust largely takes place before the purview of this paper so I will not address it in full. It is important to understand that I will try to avoid ideas that judge women’s roles as better or worse than at other points in history; modern feminist values did not exist in the middle ages, and therefore, for me, they hold little importance in this study. Without any argument women’s roles changed and it is that change, without modern value judgments that holds my interest.
Not all tournaments were spectacles for public consumption; some were melees or jousts that were held during lulls in wartime, viewable only to opposing sides. This paper will limit its focus to tournaments, jousts, deeds of arms, and behourds that women could have observed or participated in. In these tournaments focus was on the martial sports but they were not the only part of the festivities; parades, church ceremonies, feasting and dancing were all part of the spectacle. Women passively observed the tournament itself but actively participated in all other aspects of the event. Feasting, for example, was an essential part of the festivities that surrounded the tournaments. There is some evidence that suggest that women organized some feasts. The account books of Dame Alice de Bryene show that she organized and oversaw the New Year’s feast at her estates in 1413-1414.5 While this feast cannot be connected with a tournament it does suggest that women had a role in preparing this part of household activities and one might theorize that women could have done so for tournaments but further research is needed. Their participation in these feasts and the other social activities is, however, easier to address. Additionally, the theatrical aspects and the romanticized themes of many of these events put part of the focus on women although the lion’s share remained on the men. In the case of this paper the term tournament should be taken to mean not just the martial aspects of the sport but also the auxiliary activities.
The focus of this paper has also been limited in both time and location. It will cover from the lifetime of Edward III of England to Philip the Good of Burgundy (1327-1467) and as such it will also be limited to England, France & Burgundy. Both Edward and Philip enthusiastically enjoyed tournaments. They actively participated and hosted events. More importantly for this paper, their Lady consorts, Queen Philippa of Hainault and Duchess Isabel of Burgundy, actively participated and are well documented at the tournaments of their husbands.
Modern scholarship is somewhat limited on the subject of women and tournaments. Recent work on tournaments focuses on arms & armor, the evolution of tournaments, and the concept & culture of chivalry. There is very little modern work on women and tournaments. What little work there is tends to focus on the 12th and 13th centuries because much of the focus of feminist studies is on this earlier period. Juliet Barker’s book The Tournament in England 1100-1400 proved useful but only focuses on women for a single chapter, as dose Barber and Barker’s Tournaments. There is an abundance of work on courtly love and chivalry within literature but literature bears little resemblance to real life and so it had limited use in this paper. Having said this, the majority of the materials for this paper have been collected from original sources in translation. These will be discussed further below. While a reader might question what value can be found in a study of women in tournaments when the medieval authors did not always see the value of women, I would argue that to study the tournament without including women would be to study an incomplete picture.
Historic sources often omit women from tournament accounts altogether; for example tournaments held in celebration of the churching of Queen Philippa and the baptism of her children in 1338 & 1341 do not include her presence at these tournaments.6 This omission is not universal but it is prevalent and this certainly hinders modern scholarship. Therefore historic sources for this paper include tournament accounts, treatises on chivalry, and instruction manuals on how to host a tournament. Supplementing these sources will be wardrobe accounts, social commentary and courtly etiquette lessons for ladies. When historic sources do mention women within this context it is usually in positive terms; literature is not so kind. Richard Kaeuper writes “If women are protected [in courtly love literature and poetry], idealized, sometimes even worshipped, they may also be denounced as wily, unstable, controlled by appetite, the very impediments to real male concerns in the most timeless manner of anit-feminist diatribes.”7 The literature of courtly love, while interesting and not unrelated, will not feature prominently in this paper. Women were idealized and reviled in real life as well, so I shall not ignore this relationship altogether.
The most important sources for this paper are tournament accounts and Géoffroi de Charny’s work The Book of Chivalry. It was written in the early 14th century for members and aspiring members of the Order of the Star, a newly formed order of chivalry in France. It contains practical and pragmatic advice to those who would seek knighthood. It is a reformers book; it implies by its very existence that the ideals laid out within it are not actually in practice in France. For Charny it is not the lack of courtly behavior that concerns him but lack of resolve on the battlefields of the Hundred Years War.8 Courtly behavior towards women served a purpose; to inspire acts of prowess in knights and men-at-arms. His is one of the few sources that directly addresses the behavior of, and the relationship of ladies and knights and does so in truly pragmatic terms. The Book of Chivalry is not the only work of this type but the others, Roman des eles by Raoul de Hodenc, the anonymous Ordene de chevalerie and Libre qui es de l'ordre de cavalleria by Ramon Llull speak in symbolism and metaphors. They also are written before the scope of this paper and while they had an influence on Charny’s work, he alone writes in pragmatic layman’s terms.
King René’s Book of the Tournament will also be addressed. Written in 1450 by René d’Anjou, as an instruction manual on how to hold a tournament, this book provides a very clear, if singular, image of women’s roles at tournaments. René’s work was not the only book of this type but the others have been lost. Tournaments accounts from a variety of sources, including Froissart will be used as well. Not only do these reports tell us who was at what tournament but in some cases they tell us of the additional activities surrounding the main event.
Christine de Pizan (1363–c.1434) wrote a series of books, during the early 1400’s containing etiquette for women and although none of them speak directly to ladies at tournaments they do provide a general context to work from. Like Charny’s work, the very existence of these works prove that not all ladies were behaving as they should. This lends credence to the works of Henry Knighton, who complained about the behavior of ladies at tournaments. His work must be used with care; Knighton falls into the “anit-feminist diatribes” of the time. Nor is he writing first hand accounts. None-the-less his description of women at tournaments is interesting and illuminating.
Perhaps the first way in which women might have influenced tournaments was through the patronage of troubadours who wrote some of the first chivalric literature that would later influence the development of tournaments and their themes. During the focus of this paper woman’s roles in tournaments were limited to attending as spectators, feasting, dancing, church ceremonies, pageantry and as a source of inspiration for chivalric prowess. All of these roles were ritualized but not institutionalized; they were subject to change and grew over time. Ritual implies both power and meaning behind the events of a tournament. There was certainly symbolism in ladies leading knights in procession by golden chains representing the chains of romantic love but there was also symbolism in beautifully and richly dressed women watching from the stands. Ladies in the stands represented wealth, power, desire, or the stability of kings by the presence of their queens. The display of pageantry was intended for the noble audience rather than the merchants and peasants who might also be watching, although it was certainly not completely lost on them. When considering the impact of this symbolism on nobility it must be remembered that this display was not just for the knights on the field or the men in the stands but also the other women at the event. Ladies went to see and be seen and their presence at these events seems to be as much as about their own desires as social expectations. Barber and Barker theorize that stands were created to help separate the ladies and damsels from lower class townspeople.9 While I do not disagree I believe an additional answer might lie in the height provided by the stands to observe the festivities and to allow the women to be seen by others, both knights and townspeople while still reinforcing the strict social classes of the day.
In short the ladies became part of spectacle of tournaments. This idea is illustrated by a tournament account from Froissart: a tournament was proclaimed to be held Windsor in 1399 and the “queen [Philippa] was indeed present at the tournament in magnificent array, but very few of the barons attended.”10 According to Froissart, this tournament was not a failure due to the queen but instead to an ongoing dispute between the king and his barons. The queens’ attendance and that of her ladies and damsels was part of the original proclamation for this tournament thus illustrating that by 1399 ladies were part of the incentive for knights to attend.
It was during the reign of Edward III that pageantry grew considerably. In 1331 William Montague’s hastilude began the festivities with a procession wherein each lord was lead by a lady by means of a silver chain. In 1386 jousters going to Smithfield were led by the bridle in procession by ladies.11 Again in 1390, jousts were preceded by a procession in which ladies led their knights by means of golden chains.12 The chains are references to the chains of love, in this case symbolic courtly love rather than any sexual relationship. Nor was this the only theatrical trope; in all these cases the ladies wore the same heraldic livery as the knights they were leading. The heraldic display served a function in tournaments; they showed the audience who was attending the event and who the participants were in each pass of the joust. This was even more important in a crowded melee. Scholars can also use wardrobe accounts to supplement this information; these accounts often have detailed descriptions of the clothing ordered for tournaments for both men and women. Therefore they can be used to shed light on the pageantry but also to identify tournaments at which women played a role even if chronicles omit them. For example, in 1348 at Lichfield, two hundred and eighty-eight masks and costumes were provided by Edward III for the men and women of his court, but the chroniclers never mention the presence of women at the event.13 This additional information can not only be used to identify events that ladies attended but also the roles that they filled. It also raises questions as to the participation of these ladies and if their presence can be construed as active or passive. For further insight into this I turn to Knighton’s Chronicle. Henry Knighton wrote in 1360’s of ladies who were attending jousts:
In those days a rumor arose and great excitement amongst the people because, when tournaments were held, at almost every place a troop of ladies would appear, as though they were a company of players, dressed in men’s clothes of striking richness and variety, to the number of forty or sometimes fifty such damsels, all very eye-catching and beautiful, though hardly of the kingdom’s better sort….And thus they paraded themselves at tournaments on fine chargers and other well-arrayed horses, and consumed and spend their substance, and wantonly and with disgraceful lubricity displayed their bodies, as the rumor ran…And thus, neither fearing God nor abashed by the voice of popular outrage, they slipped the traces of matrimonial restraint.14
While he was undoubted biased and not an eye-witness, if even some small portion of this tale is true it brings the behavior of ladies into a very interesting light. The clothing described in his diatribe, parti-colored gowns and hoods, with low slung belts with knives, is indeed the fashion of the day as illustrated by numerous illuminated manuscripts in addition to wardrobe accounts.15 Clearly the reaction to such garments was not always pleasant but men like Knighton were not for whom these women dressed. The power of their clothes and their behavior lay not in someone’s disapproval, although that could be damning, but rather in whose attention they received. It is however difficult to tell if these clothes had the effect that Knighton describes, slipping the bonds of matrimony, but it is possible. I however cannot lay the blame on the clothing but in the behavior of these ladies (if accurate) of which clothing was one possible outward sign. The parti-colored garments, which were split to show one color on each side of the body, were also part of the heraldic display and if we return to the question of active or passive participation in these events, I believe Knighton’s Chronicle lends weight to active participation.
Géoffroi de Charny also wrote in 1350 about “What young ladies should wear” in The Book of Chivalry. While this was a very pragmatic book for the behavior of knights, he felt it was important to comment on this issue, in part because the young men of France were extravagant in their fashions, which was, in his view, far more dangerous than the fashions of young ladies. He wrote:
As for the youth of noble ladies, damsels, and other women of high rank, it can indeed be said that for those of them who are in a position to do so, it is fitting to war fine circlets, coronetals, pearls, precious stones, rings, embroidery, to be beautifully dressed, their heads and bodies well adorned according to what is right and fitting for each person to do; it is much more suitable for them to wear fine adornments than for men16
Charny’s reasons for allowing women to wear such extravagant clothing was because it sometimes achieved better marriages for young damsels, it could please a husband, and most importantly “it befits them better than it does men, for the qualities and reputation of men are more quickly known and recognized and in more ways than the qualities and reputation of women can be known.”17 Through fine array and courtly behavior a young lady could gain renown. This is the voice of the audience for which the ladies dressed, not Henry Knighton and it is for men like Charny that these women would risk the wrath of the Church. This too, then lends weight to ladies willingly and knowingly using fashion to serve their own ends, which in the views of Charny, benefited men. By contrast, Christine de Pizan also wrote about women’s dress but she was far more in line with Knighton than Charny. In her view, excessive fashion was prideful and disrupted the social order because ladies dressed like queens and queens like ladies.18 While her view may be conservative her words lend credibility to the extravagance spoken of by Knighton and Charny. Fashion has always been a tool for the individual and the state, with its grand displays, but it is one that does not merely imply but requires more active participation, regardless of the point of view of the wearer or observer.
If we are to consider the question of active or passive participation further then we should turn to René d’Anjou. Women sometimes also awarded the prizes in tournaments but there is no evidence that they played any part in choosing the winners, which lay in the hands of the judges. This is best illustrated by King René’s Tournament Book, in which the ladies who are to award the prize are led around the room by the arm of the judges “who should support her under the arms; and to the right and the left of the knights should be the two damsels on the arms of the two judges who are squires….and in this way they should go three times around the hall, and then stop before the one to whom they wish to give the prize.”19 The ladies in question have no say to whom the prize goes and René does not even see fit to trust them with the names of the winners before the ceremony. This lends credence to the idea of passive roles for ladies. It seems to depend not only on the voice of the author but also the area in which women were participating.
In many of these cases tournaments were being held in honor of marriages, churching, baptisms and diplomatic events. Women played a central part in many of these events and they were also present at the tournaments, especially the auxiliary events. For example, Edward III and the royal family, including Queen Philippa were in attendance for the marriage of Mortimer’s daughter in June 1328, Queen Philippa’s churching and the baptism of Isabella in July 1332 and her churching and baptism of William in June 1348.20 Philippa ritualized seclusion after the births of her children was completed with the ritual of churching and it is likely that Philippa attended the tournaments because the churching ceremonies and baptisms were on the Sunday before the tournaments.21 However some chronicles do not mention her presence at all for some of her churchings but it would be impossible for her not to be present for at those events.
Philippa was, of course, also present for the tournaments to celebrate her own marriage to Edward III in 1328. She is not the only queen to be thusly greeted: the grand entrance of Queen Isabella (1389-1409) into Paris in 1389 for her marriage to Richard II (1367 – ca. 1400) is another fine example. The queen and her ladies attended a three day tournament. This event was well documented by Froissart. He writes that Isabella watched the jousts in the square of St. Catherine on the first day before “The queen of France and her attendants were led back to the hôtel of St. Pol, where was the most magnificent banquet for the ladies ever heard of. The feast and dancing lasted until sunrise, and the prize of the tournament was given…”22 The feasts and dancing were repeated every night. This is not a singular commentary by Froissart; other chroniclers discuss similar events, nor are they limited to queens.23 It was rare to find a lady who was unwilling to participate, however in 1449, Oliver de la Marche describes how Isabelle of Burgundy (1397-1471) refused to watch a deed-of-arms nor had he seen her watch any combat on foot.24 Isabelle seemed to be a rare exception and Oliver de ma Marche does not mention her reasons for refusing. In all of these events women were part of the social landscape and the power of the event. These events were large scale productions with far reaching implications and they held women firmly in their proper political roles. The tournaments served the purpose of reinforcing these roles both by the passive and willing presence of women and the powerful and physical displays of the knights. Yet these displays seem to be temporal in nature, being of greatest importance to those who are present at the tournament rather than the broader scope of history as represented by chroniclers. While chroniclers are notoriously biased the fact that Queen Philippa was not mentioned as being in attendance at her own churchings is significant. If, then, the presence of women is most important in the moment in which it happens, lessening with time, what can be said of women’s roles in inspiring prowess?
Géoffroi de Charny’s Book of Chivalry gives very specific instructions for the treatment of ladies and damsels. For Charny a lady’s purpose was to inspire prowess in knights, squires and men-at-arms. They should do this by not distracting men from the arts of war. His worries were both practical and literary; in the poem Erec and Enide by Chretien, Erec is so in love with his wife that “he cared no more for arms, nor did he go to tournaments. He no longer cared for tounrying/ He wanted to enjoy his wife’s company/ And he made her his lady and his mistress.”25 Charny believed that the knights of France were soft and too luxurious, preferring wine, good food, and women. This distracted them from the broader problems of the Hundred Year’s War. His advice to the women of France was this:
And they are so fortunate that their ladies themselves, from the great honor and superb qualities that reside in them, do not want to let them tarry nor delay in any way the winning of that honor to be achieved by deeds of arms, and advise them on this and then command them to set out and put all their efforts into winning renown and great honor where it is to be sought by valiant men; these ladies urge them on to reach beyond any of their earlier aspirations.26
At the time that Charny was writing this could have real life implications and he never intended this advice to be limited to tournaments. Charny meant this advice first for the battle field and then for tournaments and when knights lost on the battle field it had very real implications for the women who survived the war. This aside he realizes for this idea of inspiration to work that men should respect and honor “the noble ladies who have inspired them and through whom they have made their name.”27 It is difficult to take advice from someone from whom you have no respect. He goes on to add that “Hence all good men-at-arms are rightly bound to protect and defend the honor of all ladies against all those who would threaten it by word or deed.”28
Women in the stands theoretically served to inspire the knights to feats of glory meant to rival romantic literature and as Barker notes the joust was the “nearest that most knights could ever hope to come to the glorious pageantry of romance.”29 The inspirational roles that women filled were partly procedure and ritual rather than real romance; however, here too Charny takes a pragmatic view, acknowledging that affairs will happen. He prefers that sexual relationships be limited to marriage but he advises those who do not do so should be discreet. “Make sure that the love and the loving are such that just as dearly as each of you should cherish your own honor and good standing, so should you guard the honor of your lady above all else and keep secret the love itself and all the benefit and the honorable rewards you derive from it; you should, therefore, never boast of the love nor show such outwards signs of it in your behavior that would draw the attention of others.”30 Both the man and the woman’s honor depend on discretion. How do these relationships relate to a lady’s role in inspiring prowess? Charny believes that ladies should take great pride in the deeds of their knights and through this relationship they too can gain honor and love even if it is a secret. The greatest sin for a woman, in Charny’s eyes is for her to waste her time on “a paltry wretch unwilling to take up arms.”31
If then a lady’s role is to inspire prowess in knights, then her presence at tournaments is essential to this process. Not only is this, the environment in which discreet relationship can be carried on but ladies are visual proof of a knights prowess on the field and honor on and off of it. The relationship is complicated and multifaceted. It goes both way in fact; In Charny’s poem “Livre” he advises that “a knight should be a good horseman before he tried his hand at the lists, and he gives us a sad little vignette of a knight who goes up to his lady, and is asked to joust for her. He cannot make his horse obey him and is unseated in the melee; muddy and disheveled, he tried to keep out of her sight.”32 Not only does the lady reflect upon the knight but the knight reflects upon her and in this mutual relationship there is both power and agency. In many cases this power seems to be very personal rather than largely political. A husband, a father or a lovers honor could rest on the behavior of women and although disregarding this was highly self destructive it was none-the-less personal agency. In 1374, Alice Perrers, the lover of Edward III, rode in procession from the tower of London to the jousts at Smithfield as the ‘Lady of the Sun’(Edward’s personal badge was a golden sun).33 Although she was a widely unpopular mistress to Edward she was able to use the tournament for great personal agency.
The joyful tenor of most of these festivities should not undermine the modern scholar’s comprehension of women’s roles at tournaments. As examples of the political power of kings, who showed the stability of the kingdom through the presence and appearance of their wives and children, women could have a significant if passive role. They were in fact, one of the significant reason for which men came to tournaments. This is not only seen in the tournament announcements of 1399, as previously discussed, but also in the orders of Edward III who on three separate occasions, required the presence of ladies in great number; in 1331 when the stands collapsed, 1342, five hundred ladies of high birth were summoned for tournaments and again in 1358.34 The presence of ladies added respectability and appeal to tournaments. Even if this role was temporal, short lived and forgotten by medieval chroniclers, it does not diminish its significance for those that attended the tournaments. Men showed off for women and this too adds to the personal agency of women, nor were these women people whom the knights could simply take what they wanted. Failing to show respect and courtesy towards women could have real repercussions first and foremost for your own honor. For example in King René’s Tournament Book, in one of the preceding ceremonies before the joust, ladies inspected the crests of the knights. And if
one of them has spoken ill of the ladies, they may touch his crest, and the matter will be considered the next day. All the same no one will be beaten at the tourney except by the decision of the judges, and after the case has been debated and proven and found to merit punishment: and in that case the malefactor will be well beaten, so that he feels it in his shoulders, and so that he will not in the future speak ill of their ladies, as he did before.35
While the matter was to be decided by the judges, this illustrates that women did have some influence, for why include this option if women did not? This rule and the rule delimitated by Charny place women in the role of courtly love; idealized, protected and honored. By placing noble women in the role carved out by courtly literature knights were forced to recognize that ladies were something worth protecting. The knights would not have recognized this change if there was not something in it for them; it allowed knights “an even greater valorization of their powerful place in society in general.”36
The relationship between women and prowess is not a passive one. It requires action on the part of both partners and its repercussions were felt by both. Honor was not limited to men, nor was personal agency. The tournament allowed women in the 14th and 15th centuries to participate more fully in the courtly society in which they lived. These theatrical events were created for both sexes, enjoyed by both and most importantly, affected by both. While I cannot imagine that this effect would be limited by the event itself, it remains to be examined if women’s agency escaped the confines of the tournament and played a part in their daily lives.
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-------, The Anonimalle Chronicle 1333 to 1381, Edited by V. H. Galbraith, (Manchester: 1927) Online ed. Edited and Translation by Steven Mulberger, North Bay, Ontario, Nipissing University, 2001. http://www.nipissingu.ca/department/history/muhlberger/chroniqu/texts/ANONIMF.HTM#1346 (accessed February 5th, 2009)
-------, Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe; A Sourcebook, Editor Emilie Amt, New York City: Routledge, 1992, ISBN# 9780415906289
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