In Days of Old When Knights Were Bold…

Georg Rüxner, ThurnierBuch. Von Anfang, Vrsachen, vrsprung, vnd herkommen der Thurnier im heyligen Römischen Reich Teutscher Nation

Published in Simmern, 1532

 

Chivalry was called for during a tournament – but those who wrote about tournaments, on the other hand, were sometimes less chivalrous. For instance, in his famous tournament book, Georg Rüxner, a 16th century German herald, had a quite lax handling of the truth. What is more, he used different names for his writings: Rüxner, Brandenburg, Jerusalem, Rugen… But what is a tournament book, anyway?

This wood engraving by Hans Burgkmair the elder from 1504 is believed to show Rüxner as herald of Jerusalem

Let us remember: The knights’ craft was warfare, which also constituted an essential part of class consciousness. A knight proved his abilities in so-called tournaments. These competitions had a sophisticated set of rules. The most important thing at these meetings, however, was to cultivate high-tone relations with one’s peers and introduce one’s daughters to the market of courting bachelors. People intensified already existing contacts, established new ones, and distanced themselves from outsiders.

At Rüxner’s times, this distancing was particularly important. As the knights spent more and more money on their tournaments, the city’s upper classes purchased aristocratic titles and equipped their halls with shining armor – and often paid for the knightly competitions in the city. After all, the knights were often lacking both the space and the money to organize the expensive festivities themselves. However, strict regulations were imposed to prevent any bourgeois climber from taking part – the participants were not allowed to trade, had to have committed absolutely no criminal offence, and had to present knightly ancestors who, in turn, had to have been participants in tournaments on a regular basis as well. The judges checked all this during the helmet inspection. The next day, the hewing and stabbing began. Banquets and dances followed thereafter, as part of the aristocratic self-portrayal.

 

With his tournament book, Rüxner takes us into this world of dazzling banners and shining armor. It lists 36 tournaments, which are said to have taken place between 938 and 1487, with all participants, it states the names of the winners and organizers, and illustrates pivotal moments with engravings. Rüxner’s tournament book was not the only one of its kind, but it was particularly successful. Many knights referred to it as a kind of “Genealogical Handbook of the Nobility”, which registered the alleged deeds of the illustrious ancestors…. At that time, the knights were anxious to prove their exclusive right to the tournaments. The tournament book helped to set oneself apart from the ambitions of the patricians of the city. However, today, the first 14 tournaments are considered to be completely fictitious, whereas the later have to be taken with a pinch of salt.

At any rate, Rüxner added a lot of creativity to what he did in his other works, the genealogies. There he met the need of numerous “clients” to get a family tree that reached as far back as possible. According to Rüxner’s “research”, Count Palatine Johann II von Simmern, to whom the tournament book was dedicated, was a descendant of the Trojan hero Hector!

In order to prove his tournament book to be historical and to protect himself from competition at the same time, Rüxner provided a particularly imaginative example of fictional sources: A Magdeburg-based vicar had presented him with a tournament book written in Low German that contained a list of the oldest tournaments. After he had translated it into High German, the vicar had burned the original. Rüxner thus claimed that only his tournament book could be used as a source for the oldest tournaments. As a matter of fact, apart from his claims, we have no evidence of these early, invented events.