Medieval knights were the first LARPers

Chivalry may be dead, but nerdiness is forever. This morning I learned that at medieval tournaments it was not uncommon for knights to play live-action roleplaying games as their favourite chivalric heroes.

I’ve been listening to a series of Teaching Company lectures on the High Middle Ages, taught by Philip Daileader. TTC usually brightens up my day when I’m putting away laundry or washing the dishes, and is my favourite source for startling facts (second only Cracked.com).

Daileader discusses how the chivalric romance emerged as a means of moderating the behaviour of nobles who were accustomed to burning, beating, pillaging, and generally having a good time. Chivalric romances described a code of behaviour that extended beyond the tedious “do-not” lists that had previously proliferated, and which were about as effective as sternly worded discourses on proper conduct written by ecclesiastics usually are.

The ascendance of the chivalric worldview was evident in how the style of tournaments changed over time. Around 1100, a tournament was basically Valhalla on Earth: free-for-all melees with unblunted weapons over an unbounded territory. Peasants living in the midst of the tournament would have their houses burned, crops trampled, and lives threatened. That’s just how the nobility rolled in those days.

By 1300, however, these melees had given way to the much more formalized rituals of jousting, with blunted weapons and clear rules. This is where it gets nerdy. According to Daileader,

Some tournaments after 1300, it must be admitted, took the chivalric ideal to rather odd extremes. Some tournaments were organized as round table tournaments, and in a round table tournament, different knights would pretend to be characters from chivalric romances. One person would dress up as Arthur, another as Lancelot, another as Evaine; and they would go around taking part in mock adventures in imitation of what they had heard in chivalric romances.

Daileader goes on to describe how this costumed role-playing seems to indicate the practical impact of the chivalric romance genre, but at this point all I can think about is the fact that 14th-century knights LARPed Arthurian legends in the midst of a medieval tournament! Considering the current popularity of ye olde Renaissance fairs nowadays, I’m surprised that this isn’t more widely known.

That clinches it. If I ever find myself at a Renaissance fair, I’m going as Lancelot. Historically accurate playacting within historically accurate playacting. Now if we could only prove that the Knights of the Round Table playacted the Iliad, we could attain an Inception-level degree of insanity.

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About Alex Colgan

I am a political theory student, freelance writer, and father living in Yarmouth, N.S.
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