Ye knowen wel that every lusty knyght
That loveth paramours and hath his myght,
Were it in Engelond or elleswhere,
They wolde, hir thankes, wilnen to be there –
To fighte for a lady, benedicitee!
It were a lusty sighte for to see.
(Knight's Tale, I.2111-16)
Great tournaments – such as the tournament at London in 1390 – were great civic and political events. In his capacity of Clerk of the Works, Chaucer had the task of overseeing the construction of lists for tournaments such as this. There are some interesting parallels between the tournament in the Knight's Tale and that depicted above (see the articles cited in the note to Knight's Tale, 2491-656, p. 839 in The Riverside Chaucer). For an account of that tournament see:
The tournaments were often accompanied by elaborate spectacles, such as those displayed for the entrance of Queen Isabella into Paris, which inspired the English tournament discussed above.
Lesser nobles than kings could also sponsor chivalric affairs; the most celebrated were the
Froissart recounts the engagements in this tournament with loving care. He goes on at great length (like a modern sportswriter who insists on describing every play) with much emphasis on the honor gained by the participants. This was the opinion of some of the contemporary knights who testified in the Scrope-Grosvenor Trial in which Chaucer himself gave testimony. The depositions provide a lively image of the knightly life in Chaucer's time:
The idea that one could gain honor in tournaments as well as actual war has something to do with the (much lauded, seldom observed) ideals of chivalry, which were an attempt to bring into war the same elaborate ritual and rules that governed tournaments. See, for example, Froissart's account of a challenge to a duel (ten against ten) by some Saracens hoping to relieve the boredom of a siege:
That battle did not take place; others did (see the note to Knight's Tale, line 63 p. 801, Riverside Chaucer).
Duels were popular; Chaucer frequently refers to the Judicial Duel, the trial by combat. For the rules governing such duels, and an image of what they might have been like, see:
Jakob Burckhardt's chapter on "War as a Work of Art," in his classic work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, is not concerned with Chaucer's England, but much of what he says applies in at least a general way to the earlier period. (The work was put online by Skip Knox of Boise State University).
For a description of war in the Middle Ages, seen through Froissart's admiring eye (though he also saw its seamy side), see his accounts of the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, the rebellion of Wat Tyler, and the rising of the Jacquerie (peasants) in France.
The tournament in actual life and the tournament in romance were often closely allied; see "The Tournament in the Works of Chrétien de Troyes & Guillaume le Maréshal," which deals with the earlier period.