By Natalie Anderson
Sketch from the childhood Lehbruch of Maximilian I
Hands down, my favourite image that I came across over the course of my PhD research was the above – at first glance, a rather inconspicuous, unglamourous one. In the margins of his childhood Lehrbuch, or textbook, the future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) has doodled a picture of himself as a knight on horseback. Astride his rather wonky steed, Maximilian is holding his lance at the ready, prepared to take part in that quintessential medieval sport: the tournament. Although, with a well-developed sense of social status, Maximilian has appropriately signed the picture ‘Maximilian archidux’ (in his youth he held the title of archduke of Austria), the young noble still displays the same timeless, universal urge of bored schoolchildren everywhere: to escape their current, mundane surroundings by imagining themselves somewhere more exciting.
For Maximilian, even as a grown man, this ideal escape was always the tournament. And it was the same for many noblemen of the fifteenth century. After all, knightly training was an essential part of a young man’s education, and the ability to excel in the tournament and, in particular, in the individual joust, was an integral part of one’s social standing, image, and networking abilities. Thus this training began at a young age, and a love of the tournament was instilled in boys during their childhood (as is so clearly evidenced by the above image).
Kunsthistorisched Museum, Vienna, Inv. No. P81, P92.
Interestingly, toys played a central role in this. A boy might be given miniature figures of jousting men on horseback to play with, such as these from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
The same toys can be seen in one of Maximilian’s biographies (in the loosest sense of the Maximilian (right) playing with jousting figurines in Weisskunig. word) Weisskunig – a highly allegorical retelling of the emperor’s life. As a young man, Maximilian may be seen playing with similar proto-action figures, learning the rules of the joust. Much as they do today, medieval toys taught their owners about their expected societal roles.
Indeed, play was often a central teaching tool. Another great example of this are the ‘training lances’ that boys used when first being introduced to that most masculine activity of jousting. Rather than being tipped with steel lanceheads, these wooden shafts had two whirling flags on the end, making for a harmless imitation of the actual sport. Soon enough, however, these whimsical objects were exchanged for the real thing.
Maximilian (right) playing with jousting figurines in Weisskunig.
Yet some knights still apparently remembered them with fondness. In one sixteenth century Turnierbuch, or tournament book – a popular form of commemorative tournament literature – one man’s equipment features an image of the youthful training tool. The same object may even be seen in three-dimensional form on his crest! One imagines it twirling eye-catchingly in the breeze as he charged toward his opponent.
When the young Maximilian absentmindedly sketched the above image into his textbook, he was imagining his future as the quintessential medieval knight: clad in shining armour, mounted on horseback, lance at the ready. By the fifteenth century, this was a future all boys were encouraged to imagine, through the use of toys and childhood training. Knightly practices were instilled in them from a young age, and practice for the tournament was a central part of this.
A child’s jousting toy, from ‘Hans Burgkmair des Jüngeren: Turnierbuch von 1529’.