At the pas d'armes

Typical stages of the event

A pas d'armes typically comprised the arrival of the challengers at the venue and/or a procession of the individual competitors/teams of competitors entering or riding round the lists, the combats themselves and post-combat festivities such as banquets and dances. The combats, whether on horseback or on foot, generally took place in the same space, but the Pas des armes de Sandricourt (1493) was very unusual in having four different spaces set up for the different types of bout, each of which was given a name evoking Arthurian romance: the 'Perilous Barrier' (foot combat with spears and swords), the 'Tenebrous Crossroads' (a mêlée with lances and swords), the 'Field of Thorn' (single combat with lances and swords) and the 'Labyrinthine Forest' (for individual encounters as if the competitors were seeking adventure in the manner of Arthurian knights-errant...).

Arrival at the castle. Pas des armes de Sandricourt, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Vélins 1033, fol. A2r. Photo: BnF.

Mêlée at the 'Tenebrous Crossroads'. Pas des armes de Sandricourt, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Vélins 1033, fol. B1r. Photo: BnF.

Return to the castle for the banquet. Pas des armes de Sandricourt, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Vélins 1033, fol. B5v. Photo: BnF.

Personnel

Much like a modern film production where everybody knows the name of the director and principal stars, a pas d'armes is forever linked to the name of its entrepreneur, such as Suero de Quiñones at the Paso Honroso (1434), René of Anjou at the Pas de la Joyeuse Garde/Pas de Saumur (1446), the Lalaing brothers at their respective pas, etc. Yet, large numbers of people were involved in the staging and successful running of a pas d'armes, some of whose names are preserved for posterity in the narrative accounts that survive - if they were of sufficently high social status - whilst the names of others of much humbler standing are often only available to us from financial accounts.

Procession into the lists at the Pas de la Joyeuse Garde/Pas de Saumur. Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia, fr. F. p. XIV, 4, fol. 6r. Photo: NLR.

Superstars of the pas d'armes

Defenders and challengers in the pas d'armes were like today's elite athletes in that they had to be supremely physically fit. They also had to be able to perform in a range of exercises (jousting with lances, foot combat with spears, swords, pollaxes and daggers, even wrestling) and to prove that they were sufficiently noble on both the paternal and maternal sides in order to be allowed to compete. Most of them were in their prime when they fought in pas d'armes (aged 20-35) but some older competitors, such as a Swabian knight at the Pas de la Belle Pèlerine (Saint-Omer, 1449) who was thought to be between 50 and 65 years old, could give a good account of themselves! Some Burgundian families, such as the Lalaings and the Vaudreys, produced several generations of excellent competitors.

Ferry II de Vaudémont (d.1470), winner at the Pas de Saumur (1446) and the Pas de la Bergère (Tarascon, 1449). Portrait, 17th century. Florence: Uffizi Gallery. Photo: Uffizi.

Pedro Vásquez de Saavedra (c. 1410-77): star challenger at the Pas de l'Arbre Charlemagne (1443). Coat of arms of 'Peeter Vasquez' from a tournament in Utrecht, 1441. Lyncenich Armorial, Brussels: Koninklijke Bibliotheek/Bibliothèque royale, II 6567, fol. 339r. Photo: KBR.

Adolf of Cleves, lord of Ravenstein (1425-92), entrepreneur of the Pas du Chevalier au Cygne (Lille, 1454). Portrait, c. 1485. Berlin: Gemäldegalerie. Photo: Gemäldegalerie.

Jacques de Lalaing (c. 1421-53), entrepreneur of the Pas de la Fontaine des Pleurs (1449-50). Livre des faits de messire Jacques de Lalaing, Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 16830, fol. 134v. Photo: BnF.

Antoine, the Great Bastard of Burgundy (1421-1504), entrepreneur of the Pas de l'Arbre d'or (1468). Portrait, c. 1460. Rogier van der Weyden, Brussels: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Photo: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.

Women at the pas d'armes

Women's chief role at a pas d'armes was as chivalric muses whose names were often evoked, in coded form, in a fictional scenario. Many pas d'armes are now referred to by these names: the Bergère (Shepherdess) (Tarascon, 1449), the Belle Pèlerine (Beautiful Pilgrim) (Saint-Omer, 1449), the Dame Inconnue (Unknown Lady) (Bruges, 1463 or 1464), and the Dame Sauvage (Wild Lady) (Ghent, 1470). High-ranking ladies of the court are known to have acted out some of these roles at the events themselves.

Male competitors at pas d’armes often claimed that their motivation to compete was for love of a particular lady and so many of them wore letters or emblems on their coat armours and horses’ caparisons which refer to that lady’s name in an coded form that is now largely impenetrable to us. Women formed an important part of the spectators at these combats and were sometimes asked for their opinion of how the competitors had performed, thus acting as advisers to the judges in determining the prize-winners and playing a key role in the prize-giving itself.

Some women of particularly high-status (and independent financial means) organised and starred in the post-combat festivities: for example, Margaret of Austria, duchess of Savoy, organised a momerie (a type of dramatised dance) featuring herself and her ladies as Amazons (female warriors) come to assist the entrepreneur, her husband, Duke Philibert II of Savoy, at the Pas of Carignano (1504).

Ladies spectating at a tournament. Brabantsche Yeesten (15th century), Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek/Bibliothèque royale, IV 684, fol. 43v. Photo: KBR.

Setting of the Pas de la Bergère showing the Shepherdess with her sheep (left and centre) and the black and white shields hung in a tree that challengers would have to strike to signal their desire to compete (right). Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 1974, fol. 1r. Photo: BnF.
Click here to read a translated extract of the description of the setting at the Pas de la Bergère (Tarascon, 1449)

The two entrepreneurs, Philippe de Lenoncourt and Philibert de Laigue (disguised as shepherds) organised this event with the permission and financial backing of René, duke of Anjou; the role of the Shepherdess was played by Isabelle de Lenoncourt (Philippe's sister or daughter).

Stanza 22
The shepherdess was wearing a garment
That fitted her body very well,
And was very elegantly laced up at the side;
It was made of a patterned damask
Of a lovely grey colour that was not too dark,
And was very well lined and edged around
With miniver. Yet no other headdress did she wear
Than a pretty townswoman’s hood
Pink in colour, which, howsoever she wore it,
Suited her well, in many people’s opinion;
Her shepherd’s staff, about six feet high,
Had a crook on it made of fine silver.

Stanza 23
She also had a small silver gourd
By her side, with which to refresh her little mouth.
A pouch too she carried with her,
Along with her other things, which was really dainty;
She truly did resemble a gentle shepherdess,
Judging by her manner and her bearing
Which gave rise to many a gracious remark.
The caparison of the shepherds mentioned above
Was wholly grey in colour,
Embroidered in gold; gourds and staffs
Were very prettily depicted on it,
Along with pouches, flints, flutes and little bagpipes.

Original source: Harry F. Williams, ‘Le pas de la bergère’, Fifteenth Century Studies, 17 (1990): 485–513.

Heralds

Heralds were attached to a particular lord and were often named either after that lord or his territory (e.g. Orléans Herald was in the service of the duke of Orléans). They were a professional body of scribes, messengers and musicians who had a vast knowledge of medieval heraldry. The highest-ranking heralds were known as 'Kings of Arms'. Heralds were central to the success of a pas d'armes, playing numerous important roles within it, such as:

  • writing up the advance publicity materials for the event (fictional scenario, chapters of arms, etc);
  • travelling round a territory or territories proclaiming where and when the event would take place;
  • vouching for the noble credentials of challengers on their arrival;
  • helping to distribute the weapons for the combats;
  • helping judges adjudicate the bouts and taking notes;
  • celebrating the feats of arms of particularly impressive competitors by calling out their names or chivalric mottoes;
  • writing up their own reports of events which were turned either into self-standing narratives or given to chroniclers and other writers to develop more fully.
Heralds proclaiming an event (left) and vouching for a competitor’s noble credentials (right), in René of Anjou's Livre des tournois. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 2969, fols 6r and 10r, respectively. Photos: BnF.
Click here for more on heraldry

Heraldry played a crucial role in the pas d’armes before, during and after the event. Heraldic officers served to verify in advance whether or not all four grandparents of the challengers were of noble descent, though it is not clear how strict they were and whether they really forbade ‘imposters’ from participating. During the pas itself, heraldry functioned primarily as a means of identification. For example, this is how Gérard de Roussillon, a Burgundian squire, is described as making his entry in the Pas de la Fontaine des Pleurs (1449-50):

He was on horseback, wearing a basinet on his head and sporting a coat armour. Ahead of him he had a pennon and a banner carried aloft with his heraldic arms lozengy Or and azure, a label of three points gules; he had the banner and pennon put up at two corners of his pavilion. He then went straight up to the judge in order to present himself, saying: 'Noble squire, I present myself to you in your capacity as judge appointed by my most redoubtable and sovereign lord, my lord the duke of Burgundy, in order to engage combat with the knight-defender of the Pas, in accordance with the content of his chapters.'

Heraldry was simply everywhere, not only on Gérard’s coat armour, a sleeveless over-garment to be worn over the harness that displayed an heraldic blazon, but also on his pennon and banner which, since time immemorial, were used on European battlefields both as symbols of leadership and as rallying points. Heraldry served not only as a legitimate means of identification vis-à-vis the entrepreneur and the judge of the pas d’armes but also helped spectators to recognise the combatant. Sometimes the organiser did not sport his own coat of arms but one that was in line with the scenario of the pas. For instance, during the Pas de la Fontaine des Pleurs, Jacques de Lalaing wore a white silk tunic strewn with blue tears, as a way of referring to the tears shed by the image of the ‘Dame des Pleurs’ which filled the eponymous fountain of the pas.

Jacques de Lalaing (on the right of the image) in his coat armour at the Pas de la Fontaine des Pleurs. Livre des faits de messire Jacques de Lalaing, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum 114, fol. 123r. Photo: Getty.

Judges

Upholding the rules of engagement in a pas d'armes was the responsibility of judges. Often these were princes, such as the duke of Burgundy himself, but many of them delegated this task to high-ranking heralds such as the Burgundian King of Arms, Golden Fleece, or to knights with many years of jousting experience behind them, such as Pedro Vásquez de Saavedra who had participated in a number of pas d'armes before becoming a judge at the Pas de la Dame Sauvage (Ghent, 1470). Points were awarded based on several considerations including the number of lances broken, if blood was drawn, or if a combatant lost his weapon, etc. Judges were assisted by marshals of the lists who were in charge of men of lesser rank tasked with keeping the spectators apart from those fighting, separating the combatants when the stipulated number of blows had been exchanged or courses with lances run, and stopping a fight if it was becoming too uneven or if one of the competitors risked suffering a serious injury.

The judges' stand at the Pas de la Joyeuse Garde/Pas de Saumur. Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia, fr. F. p. XIV, 4, fol. 10v. Photo: NLR.

As a means of formally signalling the end of a fight between two competitors, the judges would often explicitly instruct them to be good friends and require them to make a gesture of reconciliation by touching hands; they would then either exit the lists together, sometimes with their arms around each other, or depart in an agreed order that upheld each man’s honour. Most competitors at pas d'armes obeyed the judges' rulings, an exception being the Paso Honroso (1434) where the entrepreneur, Suero de Quiñones, broke his own rules by wanting to take off too many pieces of his armour so as to make the joust more exciting and dangerous. The judges refused to allow the fight to continue, ordered Quiñones to be imprisoned in his own pavilion and even commanded his musicians to stop playing as he was escorted away!

Dwarfs, 'Moors' and giants

The fictional scenarios of many pas d’armes drew heavily on literary motifs to create a romantic, fairy-tale atmosphere. Just as in Arthurian romances, there are descriptions in pas d’armes accounts of what would have been considered exotic characters: lions, unicorns and griffins intermingle with dwarfs, giants and non-Europeans. A variety of non-combatant human and animal actors were responsible for bringing this aspect of the pas d’armes to life. Some of these performers were courtiers, or even members of the nobility, while others were professional entertainers hired for only one event. In cases where the characters played were more clearly exoticised, performers might be typecast based on physical traits, sometimes in ways that would be intensely problematic (but still persist) today.

The dwarf in action at the Pas de la Joyeuse Garde/Pas de Saumur. Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia, fr. F. p. XIV, 4, fol. 9v. Photo: NLR.

The elaborately turbaned and robed dwarf who guarded the shields at the Pas de la Joyeuse Garde/Pas de Saumur (1446), for instance, may have been played by one of the real men of smaller stature who are documented as members of the household of René of Anjou, entrepreneur of that event. Likewise, the men described in a narrative account of this pas as ‘Moors’ who led lions in its opening procession may have been drawn from the group of Black and North African men known at René’s court or those playing them may have been wearing blackface. The role of a giant at the Pas du Perron Fée is likely to have been performed by a genuine person of larger stature who was employed at the Burgundian court for these kinds of festivities.

The 'Moors' in action at the Pas de la Joyeuse Garde/Pas de Saumur. Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia, fr. F. p. XIV, 4, fol. 6r (detail). Photo: NLR.

Artisans, craftsmen, labourers and others

Most narrative accounts of pas d'armes tell us very little about the part played by those of non-noble status in the staging of these events or their accompanying festivities. One exception is the Pas des armes de Sandricourt (1493) which states: 'Also present were doctors, surgeons and apothecaries who were there to provide assistance to those in need of it, all at the expense of the knight-defenders of the pas. [...] There were also armourers, saddlemakers, milliners, tailors and all kinds of craftsmen, all of whom ate and drank at the castle of Sandricourt'.

Building the lists at the eponymous hero's fictional pas d'armes in Antoine de La Sale's prose romance, Jean de Saintré (1456). Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek/Bibliothèque royale, 9547, fol. 109v. Photo: KBR.

More informative are the urban financial accounts which often mention individuals by name who were paid for their particular services, as at the Pas du Perron Fée (Bruges, 1463), organised by Philippe de Lalaing:

  • ‘paid to Master Anthonis Goossins, carpenter, for the work done by him, that is to make a covered alley where the shields with the coats of arms were hung; to close off the ends of the alley with moving barriers, both inside and outside; to make a house in the middle of the said alley c. 14 feet wide and 22 feet long, where the judges with the heralds were seated; to erect the fences and to take them down again when needed; for all this work done by nine master carpenters and a servant: 12 lb. 2 s. 9 d. gr.’
  • 'paid to Victor Prumboud with his servants to dig out pits and to insert the stakes on which the shields with the coats of arms were hung, and for several other pits to be dug on the said place; total cost: 18 s. 9 d. gr.'

Animals

The animal stars of a pas d'armes were undoubtedly the horses. These powerful and courageous destriers and coursers were raised from foals for jousting or for the battlefield according to their temperament. Since these animals were very valuable, many of the rules of engagement at pas d'armes stipulated that any competitor who harmed or killed his opponent's mount would be asked to leave the field or to pay a forfeit. The horses' caparisons (trappings) were often as elaborate as those of the knights and as integral to the overall chivalric effect produced.

A knight and horse in matching chequered clothing (right) and lions attached to a pillar (left). Pas de la Joyeuse Garde/Pas de Saumur. Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia, fr. F. p. XIV, 4, fol. 9r. Photo: NLR.

Other animals appearing in pas d'armes include actual lions, as at the Pas de la Joyeuse Garde/Pas de Saumur (1446), and artificial griffins (a mythical animal with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle) as at the Pas du Perron Fée (1463). At this latter event, four griffins were used to pull open the 'Enchanted Column' out of which the entrepreneur, Philippe de Lalaing, made his entrance into the lists. Were these griffins automata or did they have men inside them pulling them on ropes? Whichever it was, it all added to the drama of the event for the captivated audience...

Griffin from the Alphonso Psalter (late 13th century). British Library, Add. 24686, fol. 18r. Photo: BL.

Arms, armour and fighting techniques

Jousting with lances on horseback

By the era of the pas d’armes, expertise in mounted combat with the lance had become the ultimate attainment of the chivalrous knight. Specially trained horses were spurred on with or without a tilt (wooden barrier) and an agreed number of courses were run; for example, up to 100 or 101 were stipulated by Antoine, the Great Bastard of Burgundy, entrepreneur at the Pas de l’Arbre d’or (Bruges, 1468). The aim was to strike horse and rider to the ground and to shatter a lance off the body or – best of all – the head. At the Pas de la Fontaine des Pleurs (Chalon-sur-Saône, 1449-50), for instance, one challenger ‘was struck on the head near to [where] the other two blows [had landed] and he received such a forceful blow that his horse turned – and some said that his armet’s visor was raised [i.e. forced up].'

The lance had to shatter at a certain point along its length to prove that the blow (coup or attaint) had had the force necessary to kill an opponent had they been fighting in an actual battle. Even the most skilled jousters could miss their opponents or make a foul attaint. At the Pas du Perron Fée (Bruges, 1463), for example, it was noted that both Jean de Ligne and Frederik van Wittem ‘broke no lances’. Louis de Beauvau, a competitor at the Pas de la Bergère (Tarascon, 1449) who also wrote up an account of the event, had to admit that on one course ‘[I] did nothing for I crossed my lance’. That is to say, he crossed the lance-shaft in front of his opponent. The chapters of arms (rules of engagement) of the Pas de l’Arbre d’or were very clear-cut in stating that ‘no lance shall be considered broken if it is broken on the saddle, nor by an attaint below the saddle; it must be broken at a point between the coronal [rebated lance-head] and the grapper [a section behind the grip] at least’.

Coronal, c. 1500 (VII.1543). Photo: Royal Armouries Board.

Lance-head, late 14th or early 15th century (VII.632). Photo: Royal Armouries Board.

Lance-head, late 14th or early 15th century (VII.1365). Photo: Royal Armouries Board.

Charles Brandon’s lance, 1500–30 (VII.550).  Photo: Royal Armouries Board.

Many of the chapters of arms insisted on competing in war harness. This meant complete plate armour with sections of mail at the armpits and groin. It protected the fighter both on horseback and on foot. Coat armours of fine fabrics with heraldic blazons (such as that of Lancelot of the Lake at one pas) were worn over the polished steel. Fine armours were produced in various parts of Europe. The craftsmen of Southern German cities such as Augsburg and Nuremberg used excellent steel. The Milanese were famed for their mastery of the craft. René, duke of Anjou, purchased a jousting helm from Milan. There were also skilled men working in other places such as Brussels and Liège. The Great Bastard of Burgundy’s personal armourer, probably an Italian, was based in Bruges. 

The joust could, however, be run in war harness or jousting harness, as at the Pas de la Belle Pèlerine (Saint-Omer, 1449) – or even a combination of the two. An observer at this pas noted that: ‘the armet – which was not attached for the said Messire Bernard bore it only on his head [i.e. without its attachment to the body defences by a strap or clasp] as one commonly finds in Spain – was thrust up by this blow which was a heavy strike, so much so that the said Messire Bernard was struck and injured in the face in three places.

Specialised jousting equipment was well developed by the era of the pas d’armes to prevent serious injury. The most recognisable defence is the jousting helm: thick and heavy with a substantial padded lining, it is affixed to the torso defences. Its sight and keel-shaped front reduce the chance of lance-splinters flying in. These helms had attachments for beautiful crests. Bespoke steel-plate arm and shoulder defences (manifers, polder-mittons, pauldron- and couter-reinforcing plates) were used in many of the jousts in pas d’armes to avoid injury. The designations ‘single’ or ‘double’ harness, as at the Pas de l’Arbre Charlemagne (Marsannay-la-Côte, 1443) refer to just such reinforces.

Polder-mitton, probably Flemish, mid-15th century (E.1939.65.q.[6]). R. L. Scott bequest, 1939. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Polder-mitton, probably Flemish, mid-15th century (E.1939.65.q.[6]). R. L. Scott bequest, 1939. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Jousting helm, English or Flemish, late 15th century with later modifications (E.1939.65.ah). R. L. Scott bequest, 1939. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Manifer, Flemish, c. 1500 (E.1939.65.q.[5]). R. L. Scott bequest, 1939. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Armet, Milanese, 1450 (IV.498). Photo: Royal Armouries Board.

Armour for the joust of peace, 1490–1510 (III.864 III.731, III.1378). Photo: Royal Armouries Board.

Pauldron and pauldron reinforce (shoulder defences) from the ‘Avant’ harness, Milanese, 1438–40 (E.1939.65.e.4). R. L. Scott bequest, 1939. Photos: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Jousting with lances at the eponymous hero's fictional pas d'armes in the prose romance of Jean d'Avennes (1460s); both competitors are wearing sallets with elaborate crests. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 12572, fol. 34r. Photo: BnF.

Fighting with swords on horseback

All knights and squires would have learnt the art of swordsmanship from a young age. Fighting on horseback with this weapon required great skill. Swords were often blunted, as at the Pas de l’Arbre d’or (Bruges, 1463), but this did not prevent the competitors from really going at each other. Indeed, it was stipulated at this same pas that the blows would all be dealt with the full strength of the arm until the fighting was called to a halt by the ladies.

Fighting on horseback with swords at the event of the 'Labyrinthine Forest' at the Pas des armes de Sandricourt (1493). Paris: Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, 3958 Réserve, fol. 14r. Photo: Arsenal.

This type of combat often started out being fought with lances. At the Pas du Perron Fée (Bruges, 1463), for example, ‘the knight-entrepreneur [Philippe de Lalaing] and Henri de Chissey spurred their horses and came against each other with lances lowered but neither broke as they passed by and they threw the lances down. Then they came again with the swords in their fists and approached and the swords rang out very harshly to such an extent and until such time as Henri had accomplished these twenty-seven sword strokes and the knight-prisoner had dealt nineteen and no more’.

Rebated sword, as illustrated in René of Anjou’s tournament treatise of c. 1460. Livre des tournois, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 2695, fol. 31v Photo: BnF.

The typical helmet-types used in foot combat were the sallet (favoured by Jacques de Lalaing) with or without a visor, and the basinet. At the Pas de la Belle Pèlerine (Saint-Omer, 1449), the lord of Haubourdin had the visor removed from his basinet when an opponent wanted to fight with a pollaxe with spikes that might well have penetrated the sight apertures. The armet (a close-fitting and fully-enclosing type of helmet) was also in use; for example, at the Pas de la Fontaine des Pleurs (1449-50) a Sicilian squire, Jean de Boniface, was ‘armed in an Italian armet’ for his combat with the pollaxe.

Stained glass panel, English, c. 1450 (45.92), detail of a warrior armed in a basinet. Gifted by Sir William and Lady Burrell to the City of Glasgow, 1944. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Sallet, Brescian, 1460 (IV.498). Photo: Royal Armouries Board.

Stone carving of a visored sallet, French, 15th century (44.28). Gifted by Sir William and Lady Burrell to the City of Glasgow, 1944. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Armet, Milanese, 1450 (IV.498). Photo: Royal Armouries Board.

Using pollaxes in foot combat

Pollaxes were the most popular weapon for the many pas d’armes combats fought on foot. Used in both war and tournament from the 14th to the 16th century, a pollaxe is a staff weapon, often between 120 and 180 cm in length, which was designed to be held in both hands. The pollaxe regularly has spikes at both ends of the wooden staff, but the main offensive elements are either an axe head, a hammer or a spike, of which it could have a combination of any two of these, as seen in the examples pictured here, even if it means that the pollaxe does not actually have an axe head.

Pollaxe, mid-15th century (2.48). Gifted by Sir William and Lady Burrell to the City of Glasgow, 1944. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Pollaxe, 1490-1510 (VII.1542). Photo: Royal Armouries Board.

Pollaxe, 15th century (VII.1670). Photo: Royal Armouries Board.

Combat with pollaxes could be fought until a certain number of blows had been dealt, or a combatant was disarmed or thrown to the ground. This number could rise very high indeed; at the Pas de la Fontaine des Pleurs (1449-50), a squire called Jean Pitois challenged the defender, Jacques de Lalaing, to fight until sixty-three blows had been struck!

The variant parts of a pollaxe according to the 15th-century fencing master, Hans Talhoffer. Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Thott 290.2º, fol. 110r.

Illustration from Hans Talhoffer’s fight manual, German, 1443. Glasgow Museums, R. L. Scott Library, E.1939.65.2585, Talhoffers Fechtbuch [...] aus dem Jahre 1443, ed. G. Hergsell (Prague, 1889), R. L. Scott bequest, 1939. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Fight interpreters at the Royal Armouries compete with pollaxes in replica 15th-century harness. Photo: Royal Armouries Board.

Detail of two knights engaged in combat at a tournament with pollaxes. Although neither pollaxe has an axe head, the text still refers to them as ‘axes’. The Beauchamp Pageant. London, British Library, Cotton, Julius E IV 3, fol. 7v. Photo: BL.

Fights with the pollaxe were an excellent way for combatants to demonstrate their martial prowess, and they did not hold back. The weapons were probably blunted for safety, but they were still dangerous and could cause injuries. At the Pas de la Fontaine des Pleurs, Jacques de Lalaing defeated Jean Pitois by striking him under the eye with the lower spike of his pollaxe.

Jacques de Lalaing fights with pollaxes against Jean Pitois at the Pas de la Fontaine des Pleurs. The image incorrectly shows the combatants fighting with single-handed warhammers as opposed to two-handed pollaxes. Livre des faits de messire Jacques de Lalaing, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 114, fol. 129v. Photo: Getty.

Using swords in foot combat

Fighting with swords at the eponymous hero's fictional pas d'armes in the prose romance Jean d'Avennes (1460s). Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 12572, fol. 42v. Photo: BnF.

As with other combats, there was an agreed number of blows or advances for foot combat with swords. There was also a choice of weapons in combination with others. At the Pas de l'Arbre Charlemagne (1443), pollaxes or swords could be chosen as desired. It might also be agreed that swords with steel blades (as in the romance of Ponthus et Sidoine) would be wielded. The combination of sword and shield is also to be found (as in the romance of Jean d’Avennes). A specific type of thrusting sword – the estoc – was wielded by Jacques d’Avanchy at the Pas de la Fontaine des Pleurs (1449-50) (as recounted by the Burgundian chronicler Olivier de La Marche).

Longsword, c. 1500 (2.85). Gifted by Sir William and Lady Burrell to the City of Glasgow, 1944. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Later pas d’armes which featured long two-handed swords also employed a wooden barrier. This was introduced for the sake of safety as it increased the distance between opponents. This type of combat was usually fought in two teams, as at the Pas des armes de Sandricourt (1493).

Two-handed sword, c. 1400 (IX.1). Photo: Royal Armouries Board.

Claude de Vaudrey took part in several pas d'armes and was renowned for his fighting skills. In fact, his abilities were so impressive that after the French king Charles VIII saw him competing in a tournament in Paris, he willingly returned to Vaudrey lands that had been taken off him during the war between the French and Burgundians in 1479. This particular set of armour was eventually won by Emperor Maximilian I at a tournament in 1495.

Claude de Vaudrey’s foot combat armour, made by Giovanni Marco Meraviglia and Damiano Missaglia, Italy, c. 1495, Hofjagd und Rüstkammer, Vienna. Photo: HuR, Vienna.

Combat in replica armours made by Master Emrys. The one on the right is modelled on one in Glasgow Museums’ collection (E.1939.65.f). R. L. Scott bequest, 1939. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Using spears in foot combat

Casting spears and targes (shields) were employed in one pas d'armes (that of the Belle Pèlerine, 1449). An observer noted that Messire Bernard de Béarn and the lord of Haubourdin ‘each wanted to carry such axe as he pleased, and wanted one throw of the lance, and to fight with the said axes until a weapon was lost or one of them forced the other to the ground’. With one cast, a spear even slid into the gap at the arm-hole of a breastplate. The fighters then threw their targes to trip each other up and closed in with axes.

Defending the 'Perilous Barrier' with thrusting spears at the Pas des armes de Sandricourt, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 1436, fol. 114r. Photo: BnF.

In later pas d'armes, wooden barriers were set up to separate the combatants (as at the Pas des armes de Sandricourt in 1493) and no casting was permitted: thrusting with the spears was the preferred technique here.

Combat in replica armours made by Master Emrys. The one on the left is modelled on one in Glasgow Museums’ collection (E.1939.65.f). R. L. Scott bequest, 1939. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Armour of Henry Herbert, earl of Pembroke, mid-16th century (E.1939.65.f). R. L. Scott bequest, 1939. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Engraving of a combat at the barrier at the court of Lorraine, 1627 (E.1939.65.1199). R. L. Scott bequest, 1939. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Combat in replica armours made by Master Emrys. The one on the right is modelled on one in Glasgow Museums’ collection (E.1939.65.f). R. L. Scott bequest, 1939. Photo: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

Accompanying festivities

A pas d'armes was usually accompanied by lavish post-combat entertainments such as dances, dramatic interludes known as entremets, and feasting. A very popular form of dance was the momerie that featured lords (and sometimes ladies too) dressed in costume and often acting out mock-fights, as at the Pas of Carignano (1504). When a pas d'armes was part of a bigger occasion, such as an oath-swearing ceremony prior to going on crusade (i.e. the Pas du Chevalier au Cygne at the Feast of the Pheasant, Lille, 1454) or a marriage (i.e. the Pas de l'Arbre d'or at the wedding of Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy and Margaret of York, Bruges, 1468), these entertainments would be even more spectacular and take place over several days and nights. A particularly elaborate set of entremets featuring the Twelve Labours of Hercules was staged for the Pas de l'Arbre d'or.

Dancing at the court of Mary of Hungary in Binche, following the tournament known as ‘The Adventure of the Enchanted Sword and the Gloomy Castle' (1549), with Philip II of Spain as the most important participant at the event. The dance on the right seems to be a momerie featuring a choreographed mock-fight. Drawing by an unknown Flemish artist, 1549. Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek/Bibliothèque royale, Cabinet des Estampes, F.12930. Photo: KBR.
Click here to read a translated extract from the account of the Amazons interlude organised by Margaret of Austria, duchess of Savoy, during the post-combat festivities at the Pas of Carignano (1504) defended by her husband, Philibert II, duke of Savoy

This speech is delivered by an elderly damsel playing the part of the Amazons' herald; the 'queen of the Amazons' was played by Margaret herself and the whole interlude was a wife's loving tribute to her husband.

'Because of the good name and fine renown
That have now spread to many a land
Of the best duke who ever lived,
Seeing that he keeps his people in a state of peace
In his lands of Piedmont and Savoy,
Herewith, sent to him
By the wise lady, queen of the Amazons,
Are some of her ladies - lovely, virtuous,
And expert in the pursuit of arms -
Who have wasted little time in making their way here
Swiftly, and not without some difficulty and travail,
To this castle of Carignano
Where they had heard
That he wished today to disport himself
In the noble pursuit of arms,
The better to keep his subjects practised in the arts of war.
He himself would personally undertake -
With just one other gentleman -
To defend the
pas at a barrier
By thrusting at and repelling
Those knights who wished to see
If they could try and win [the barrier] from him on that day.
And seeing that it is said, in many places,
That in this land there are some good knights
Who take pleasure in performing deeds of arms -
Whether in war or for love of the ladies -
These Amazons have now arrived here,
As you can see, equipped and ready,
To help him if he is brought down
And to come to his aid, if needed,
[Being] determined to defend this
pas
On his behalf and not to fail him.
There is one, in particular, whether she be close by or distant,
Who will always ready herself to come to his assistance
And who wishes word to spread far and wide
Of all he personally accomplishes and all his deeds;
For this is what she came into this world to do
And this good intention is what has brought her here.
Though she may be of the highest nobility
Known between here and Carthage,
And of a most chivalrous stock,
She could not be happier,
And she thanks God wholeheartedly
For having destined her for such a person
As he who has upheld the
pas this day,
With the help of God, and come out on top.
'

Original source: ‘Tournoi fait à Carignan par le duc Philibert le Beau,’ in Samuel Guichenon, Histoire généalogique de la royale Maison de Savoie, 2nd edn, 5 vols (Turin: J. M. Briolo, 1778), vol. 4/2, pp. 476-7.

Prize-giving ceremonies were also a key part of these entertainments, involving expensive items such as golden swords, rings, crowns, circlets, etc. These prizes were often given for political reasons (i.e. to honour the most prestigious challengers, as at the Pas du Perron Fée) but they could also be awarded to those who had performed exceptionally well, as at the Pas de la Fontaine des Pleurs. Ladies of the court were frequently asked to bestow these prizes on the winners with a kiss whilst they, out of modesty, tried to refuse them, saying that other competitors had performed much better than they had done. All of this ritual added to the courtly atmosphere of the pas d'armes...

Prize-giving in René of Anjou's Livre des tournois. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 2695, fol. 103v. Photo: BnF.