Emperor Maximilian I liked to say he invented the joust of the exploding shields. When a knight charged and his lance struck the opposing shield — bam! — the shield shattered and the shrapnel went up like fireworks. It’s almost impossible to turn the pages of Freydal. Medieval Games. The Book of Tournaments of Emperor Maximilian I and not imagine Batman-style captions. Clank! Thwack! Kapow! The knights and princes of the painted miniatures are all-awl, all-action iron men. Their horses are hooded to stop them bolting and every harness is stitched with bells. All the horse would have heard was the jangling, not the thunder of hooves or the roar of the tiltyard crowds.
The editors of this splendid facsimile of Maximilian’s Freydal (1512–15), published by Taschen, suggest that the impact of two galloping knights in steel armour was equivalent to two small cars crashing at 40 miles per hour. What’s more extraordinary is that the knights who were knocked down generally got up again. The combined protection of concealed leather caps and steel helmets meant that the biomechanical impact on a jouster’s brain when struck and unseated would have been far less forceful than that of a car crash. Which is just as well because the gilded scenes of Freydal show some gnarly falls. As the shields and lances fly, the riders hit the dust. Necks, shoulders and backs are bent, broken and dented. One contestant hangs grimly on, upside down, grasping the horse’s neck, saved from being trampled only by a foot caught in the left stirrup. Other tournament books survive from the Middle Ages, but none show so many spectacular smash landings.
Maximilian, son of Emperor Frederick III of Germany and Eleanor of Portugal, was born in 1459 at Wiener Neustadt, and became known as ‘the last knight’. He caught the tournament bug early, attending his first one at the age of 14, held to celebrate the meeting between his father and Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Tournaments, first staged in northern France in the late 11th century, were feats of diplomacy as much as martial display: somewhere between the Olympics and the G8 summit. The name tournament came from the turns a knight and his mount performed to return to their starting positions ready for the next assault.
Tournaments were settings for elaborate displays of finery, advertisements for artists and craftsmen. Leonardo da Vinci made silverpoint sketches for fantastical winged helmets and breastplates blazoned with roaring lions. Hans Holbein designed tournament armour for Henry VIII (c.1527) with fine etched and gilded steel in a style known as ‘Grenwich garniture’. Even the horses wore cloth of gold.
The artistry was all-embracing, however, including bejewelled dances, opulent costumes, music from 40-strong bands, audience stands draped in tapestries. Tournaments were all-day productions, climactic, operatic, consequential. Noble standing, national branding and match-making were all decided here. Heralds vetted the ancestry of prospective combatants. Tournaments were marriage markets. Victory on the field ensured advantage in the game of dynastic thrones.
Maximilian held tournaments to mark his wedding to Mary of Burgundy (1477), his coronation as King of the Romans (1486) and the First Congress of Vienna (1515). He fed and spread the craze, sending gifts to younger royals who looked up to him like Henry VIII, who received some decorative horse armour and a horned helmet. The Field of the Cloth of Gold, the most famous tournament of them all, was Henry’s tribute act to the pageants of the Emperor who had died the year before. (The lavish tented palace that housed Henry during his famous tête-à-tête with the King of France in 1520 will be recreated for the 500th anniversary at Hampton Court next spring, complete with jousting, foot combat and Tudor wrestling.)
Maximilian was captivated by the whole tradition of jousting, which reached its high point in Burgundy in the 15th century. Here, magnificent chivalric spectacles called pas d’armes were staged in which individual combats were woven into mythical-allegorical narratives. A prince could knock seven bells out of a duke while playing at Lancelot or Galahad. Maximilian confidently traced his ancestry back to Charlemagne, King Arthur, Julius Caesar, Hercules and Jupiter. Freydal, hero of Maximilian’s Tournament Book, is the emperor’s alter ego, defeating all-comers, dancing in pointed slippers, receiving his laurels, in pursuit of a fair lady — an idealised Mary of Burgundy. In Theuerdank, an unfinished second volume, our hero grapples with bears, lions, avalanches, rockfalls, a shipwreck, booby traps and the Devil himself.
Freydal and Theuerdank were part of Maximilian’s ‘programme of paper grandeur’. Between 1510 and 1515, he commissioned not only the Book of Tournaments, but also ‘The Triumphal Arch of Maximilian’, a paper monument constructed from 195 woodcut blocks; ‘The Triumphs of Maximilian’, a 139-block ceremonial procession of heraldic glories; and ‘The Carriage of Maximilian’, an eight-block, 12-horse spectacular by Albrecht Dürer. This was the age of Gutenberg. Paper was modern, urgent and cool; marble expensive, immobile, old hat. Maximilian’s ‘Arches’ and ‘Triumphs’ could be printed many times over and papered as friezes and murals in noble houses across the empire. ‘He who does not care how he is remembered,’ said Maximilian, ‘will be forgotten as soon as the bell’s toll ends.’
If the ‘Arch’ and ‘Triumphs’ celebrate the imperial Maximilian, Freydal is the young, romantic, questing Maximilian. Across 255 miniatures, Freydal competes in 64 tournaments told in four parts: two jousts, one foot fight and a masquerade. While the more than two dozen anonymous artists who worked on the leaves are allowed some creative licence — in one scene, Freydal fights Maximilian’s son Philip the Handsome, who cannot properly be born until Freydal wins the hand of his lady — the folios are accurate to the last pommel in their rendering of equipment. It is thought that Maximilian looked at each preparatory drawing before it was worked up in tempera — coloured pigment bound with egg — and highlighted with gold and silver leaf. What the average Augsburg illuminator knew about lance-to-lance combat wouldn’t fill a manuscript margin. Maximilian knew his escutcheons.
Freydal is a remarkable catalogue of halberds, maces, awls, pikes, daggers, swords, glaves, flails, poles and throwing stars. Freydal often fights dirty. In Folio 186, he thrusts a dagger into the eye slit of Adam von Frundsberg’s visor. In Folio 39 Freydal batters Claude de Vaudry with a mace and kicks him in the shins for good measure. Max always wins.
The costumes are sumptuous, the headwear preposterous. Competitors wear helmets decorated with pheasant feathers, ostrich plumes, peacock fans, stag’s antlers, ram’s horns, ass’s ears and with pelicans, monkeys and bunches of flowers. One rival, Wolfgang von Polheim, used to joust with a basket of eggs on his head to prove his perfect balance. In an early scene Freydal’s horse wears a protective metal shaffron with its own fearsome, lancing unicorn’s horn.
Maximilian delighted in disguises. In the masquerade scenes, guests dress as Spaniards, giants, cockerels and in fetching crimson drag. One of the most beautiful balls has guests dressed as Ottomans in porphyry robes and plaited turbans. Here mummer’s fantasy meets historic fact: in July 1497 Maximilian received the envoy of Sultan Bayezid II and gave a banquet in his honour.
The foreground pageants are rarely so interesting as the background intrigue. Jesters caper, wallflowers pine, minstrels strum in the gallery and Guineveres sit gossiping in rows. One lady plucks another’s skirt as if to say: ‘So pretty! From Bruges?’ An evening’s pause for wine, pipers, acrobats and the kissing of a pale, sleeved hand — then back to the tiltyard, back to the fray