Tournament and gallery. Drawing, Italian,
15th century. Modena, Biblioteca Estense.

I have heard a marvelous story I'm sure you also would like to hear. Far beyond the Rhein, there was a castle where some forty or more knights lived together in peace and harmony under the mayorship of one or another of their number, whom they chose and empowered to settle any disputes that should arise among them. This arrangement proved so successful that they soon were famous in all the land. They stood together against every difficulty, so that no one could prevail against them.

Yet there came a time when they were hard pressed. A powerful lord, with numerous allies and plenty of supplies, went rampaging through the land, conquering and burning. The knights of the castle at last managed to stall his advance. Then, unwilling to suffer such disruption in their peaceful land, they insisted on holding a council, to which all were to come on a certain day, unarmed, to reach a settlement.

On the appointed day, all the knights rode out to the treaty site nearby, leaving behind all their arms, and no one in the castle but their ladies. The ladies made a holiday of it. They gathered on a lovely meadow below the castle walls to pass the day in gossiping and storytelling.

"Our husbands are the bravest and most famous men in all the land," said a young woman. "They've fought for their reputation, and won it. Why can't we do the same?"

"A woman has honor enough in her womanhood," replied an older wife. "Why, womanhood is the crown of prizes, such as neither Hector nor Paris ever won. To love and hold true to one's husband—that's woman's splendid fame."

There was a general murmur of agreement, but the younger woman had more to say. "We're the wives of knights. We must also be keen to win respect and praise. Who can deny that? I know a game we can play, to show that we're as eager for honor as anyone. Since we're all by ourselves, and the men have left all their equipment, let's divide up and have a tournament!"

Some of the ladies were not quite sure they wanted to bestride a horse and fight like a man, but most thought it a fine idea, so even the more timid went along, lest they appear indifferent toward chivalry or disrespectful of majority opinion.

They closed all the castle gates, posting watches with strict instructions to admit no one. Each wife then got out her husband's armor and put it on. Hard iron mail clothed tender feet; soft hands buckled helmet straps; glittering harness hid gentle forms. Soon they were ready, mounted, and divided into two teams, the "Saxons" and the "Franks." One lady was chosen tournament marshal. She rode to the center of the field, doffed her helmet, and addressed the others.

"Take ye each a name, either that of your husband, or some name under which to fight and be recognized in this our tourney!" A maiden rode forth from the ranks. She was beautiful and proud, but already somewhat beyond the usual age for marriage. Her father had lost most of his wealth, whereupon her suitor had withdrawn his attentions, and she had remained single since. But there remained of the family possessions a splendid horse and one perfect suit of armor. Equipped and mounted, she now appeared before the marshal to choose a name of honor.

"I shall be Sir Walraven, Duke of Limburg," she announced, "for he is one of the finest knights under the sun."

She refastened her helmet, rode back to her ranks, wheeled her mount, and galloped to the first joust. She shattered the lance she bore in her white hands against her opponent in such knightly fashion that the field resounded with cheers. "Ho, Limburg, ho!"

Now the other contestants began to joust, lady against lady, riding hard and pressing for victory. In the midst of the battle, Sir Walraven unhorsed opponents right and left, dealing out many a jarring blow, until the field echoed with the cry of "Limburg, Limburg!" Not a few white arms were broken, and lovely heads cracked. As victim after victim got her fill of tourneying, the clash of arms and trample of hooves began to die away, but the Duke of Limburg seemed as fresh and eager at the end as ever.

Then they put all the arms away again, stabled the horses, and got themselves cleaned up, as though nothing had happened, each vowing, of course, to say nothing to the men. But when they returned, they found the horses all sweaty, and many a lady indisposed in her chamber. Soon enough they were hearing from the servants and stableboys whose wife had unhorsed whom and who had shattered the most lances.

When they realized what their ladies had done in their absence, the knights had a good laugh. But one of them was not so pleased. "We ought to give them a good beating," he complained. "If they start running off to tournaments, who's going to stay home and keep house? Have you thought of that? I say, the Devil's gotten into them, and the world's turning upside down. And I'm going to whack all the fight out of one of them, at least!"

"Oh, now, cool off," advised his neighbor. "Everybody else seems to think it's pretty funny. You can certainly tell them we won't stand for it again, if it'll make you feel any better, but beat them? No, no. They're young and spirited—isn't that the way we like them? And anyway, from the looks of them, they've taken quite a beating already. We don't need to add to it. What they need is a bath, and some rest from their glorious labors."

That seemed to satisfy everybody, and they thought that would be the end of the matter. But it wasn't, by any means. Word of the tournament of ladies got out. It was soon a topic of merriment wherever knights gathered to eat or drink. When the news reached Sir Walraven, the Duke of Limburg, he was mightily pleased to hear of the maiden who had fought so bravely beneath the standard of his name. He immediately called his squires, ordering them to prepare to ride.

"I must meet this fine maid, and show her the real Duke of Limburg," he said. He and his retinue were received with full honors that very day at the castle of the knights. When he announced himself and his purpose, the ladies made the girl stand up and then go take a place by his side. She went to him and curtsied graciously.

He rose. "Fair maiden, for the service you have rendered me, you shall have your reward. Call your father." Her father was quickly presented. "Sir," the duke addressed him, "how is it that you have so long not made good your daughter's estate in marriage?"

"My lord," he replied, "it is ever my lament that I lack the means to do so, and that it is she who must bear the weight of my misfortune."

"And what means would be required?"

"My lord, she would be content, even though the dowry might not be great, to do as bidden, even to take one not her equal."

"Now hear my remedy. I endow her with a hundred marks, a charger, and riding horses, for the service she has done in my name. She is worthy, and I am proud to grant her rewards and honor."

The duke also arranged marriage for her with a rich man, at whose side she fought with valor in many a tournament, winning honors as high as any man before or since. And that is the story of the tournament of ladies.