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"The Tournament of Tottenham: Don't Tell the Dean"

by Dr. Linda Marie Zaerr, Boise State University

(December 2018 Issue / PDF)

As Tomkyn shot a rubber band at the colorful target, Terry hobbled over to Tyb and tried to drag her away. Perkyn challenged Terry, but a hurried rock-paper-scissors duel deemed Terry the winner. Before he escaped with Tyb, however, I intervened as the ineffectual Dawkyn and (to everyone’s astonishment) averted the attempted kidnapping. Meanwhile, Hawkyn bunny-hopped across the room, Herry sang jarringly, Dawkyn danced, and Dudman practiced aggressive yoga. Contrary to appearance, we were not a gang of renegade fourth-graders, but an upper-division college literature course.

The tournament had begun as a carefully structured system for earning points, with the victor winning Tyb’s hand and a jawbreaker, but it gradually degenerated into a hilarious brawl in which outrageous characters vied for Tyb’s attention and distracted other competitors amid shouts of victory and raucous laughter. The convergence of idealized courtly tournament conventions with riotous real-world and very ordinary people was exactly what The Tournament of Tottenham is about. The students left with a vivid and memorable experience of the character of the text, and all I did was participate as Dawkyn.

The Tournament of Tottenham is a 234-line burlesque in Middle English. In this fifteenth-century poem, the conventions of chivalric romances are parodied when rough peasants from the village of Tottenham stage an elaborate combat for the hand of Tyb, the Reeve's daughter. After preparing makeshift armor, the contenders proclaim formal boasting vows. Then they stage a combat with flails for weapons, winnowing fans for shields, and bowls for helmets. The contestants are soon weary and battered, but Perkyn the Potter by fierce wrangling wins the tournament, Tyb's hand, a fine brood hen, and a cow and pig. The losers limp to the wedding and, after the festivities, go to sleep in great disarray amid much music.

In this brief narrative, the poet creates strikingly vivid characters. Old Terry tries to sneak away with Tyb while the younger men are fighting. Tentative Hawkyn earnestly vows he will not leave the field unless Tyb calls him away or he falls down three times. Dudman subtly slips from praising Tyb to admiring his horse. The parody in the poem moves in multiple directions. Consistently the text skillfully substitutes peasant realities for “the trappings and customs of tourneying” (Harris 89), following the structure, but not the language, of the romance genre. On the one hand, the rough peasants are the butt of humor, but equally the romances themselves and courtly conventions they may reflect are mocked in the poem (Wright). The poet throughout evinces warm affection for the peasants and a genial tone.

The Tournament of Tottenham offers a rare glimpse into the flexibility of medieval entertainment. Apparently either this narrative poem or another representation of the same story was at least once performed dramatically by multiple actors, as indicated by the payment of twenty pence to players performing in Rougemont Castle in Exeter (Cooke). This provides an intriguing precedent for a role-playing approach to the poem.

The Tournament of Tottenham is rarely taught because, although Erik Kooper’s carefully edited and glossed text is available for free online, the language of the poem is so steeped in farming terms that readers are quickly mired among words that carry no meaning today even in translation. But not all the students in a class have to read the text. A small group can work their way through the short narrative poem and engage the rest of the class in the plot and central themes of the story through an immersive activity.

When my Chaucer class was canceled for low enrollment, I laughingly offered A Gamer’s Guide to Medieval Literature, and of course it filled. Medieval culture was as resonant with gaming as our own world today, so, inspired by Huizinga’s Homo ludens and Patterson’s Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature, I put together a set of texts that engaged with games in a variety of ways. The objective of the course was for students to gain insight into medieval culture by contrasting the values expressed in medieval stories with those embodied in modern games, movies, and novels. Assignments stimulated students to consider the role of gender, modes of communication, implicit values, what it means to play, and how playing intersects with living.

When we had developed a strong and active community, the class divided into groups, and each group had one class session, seventy-five minutes, to present a text the rest of the class had not read. I provided nine text options for them to choose from, with a plot summary of each and an electronic folder of materials. For their presentation, I asked them to provide a clear introduction to the text (plot, date and language, and literary features), respond to the game component of the text, and invite students into the text in a meaningful way. The purpose of the assignment was to allow students to bring their strong familiarity with modern popular culture into a medieval text, recognizing both commonalities and key differences. I asked them to create something as a group that responds to a medieval literary work in a way that is new to contemporary culture. By inviting a game as one possible outcome, I hoped the students would find readier access to that which is foreign in medieval culture than they would by constructing formal essays or simple presentations of information. The best case for teaching The Tournament of Tottenham comes from the students themselves, the group who formulated this activity. Here is what they say.

ROBERT: Our goal was to familiarize students with the text and do our best to recreate the tournament atmosphere within the classroom. We wanted to make sure everyone was involved and having a good time. Each student was initially given a character sheet along with three or four weapon and armor cards, which provided a basic framework for who they would be. Some of these devices were drawn from the actual story, like a clay bowl helmet, but most of them were modern, like a pink Barbie helmet. We wanted to incorporate certain elements that we enjoyed from the reading and try to capture the ridiculous and comical nature of the tournament. Our tournament had several possible plots that could be reached by our basic guiding rules. Giving students the opportunity to compete and respond to different scenarios in their own way made the games fun and exciting.

We found the text intriguing because it shows acts of chivalry in the lowly peasant characters, and it satirizes many elements from other medieval texts we read. After hearing of the lovely Tyb, the men drop what they are doing to prepare for the tournament. Their quick jump to action along with their overconfidence reminded me of knights like Sir Gawain and Lancelot.

NICOLE: When we had all read the story, we decided on using a role-playing approach because the tournament is actually more of a drunken brawl. Since Dungeons and Dragons is a fairly complex game, we decided to use a technique I found when I was teaching a group of ten-year-olds. When the children get up and play, they inadvertently role-play their characters better. By taking classic birthday party games like Pin the Tail on the Donkey and giving them a medieval make-over into games like Pin the Lance on the Knight we were able to create our own tournament that the students could actually compete in, rather than just rolling dice and narrating what they do as their character. We split the class into two groups so everyone could be more involved. It was the end of the semester, so one of our main goals was to give everyone a bit of fun. The other was to show exactly how chaotic the text was even to attempt to read. Based on details from the text, we added “Special Skills” for characters to use to distract or impress Tyb. Hawkyn is introduced hopping (line 15), for example, so we gave him the special skill of the Bunny Hop.

JZ: Each member of our group drew on our strengths, and I was no exception as a Theater Arts and English major. Performing as Tyb in one of the two class tournaments put my Theater background to use, and coming up with an introduction put my Creative writing skills to work. I settled on an introduction that would feel like an opening ceremonial greeting or announcement to the guests and tournament players, and I pulled details from the text to point out that the tournament was “sponsored” by “true drinkers” and Tyb’s father, the Reeve. I tried to incorporate aspects of the story while giving brief instructions on what the players needed to do along with an explanation of the story and its background.

ROBERT (also playing Tyb): At the beginning of the tournament, I was treated with kindness and respect from our gracious competitors. They proclaimed their love for me and boasted of their valiant steeds, powerful weapons, and impenetrable armor that would aid them in combat. I was impressed by their charm and eloquence. My affection was short lived, however, as the men proceeded to the first event, archery. I watched in suspense as Hawkyn nocked his nerf bow and approached the shooting line. I felt a sharp pinch on my cheek. Apparently the arrow had backfired and hit me right in the face. He quickly apologized, saying that his love for me made him so nervous that he couldn’t keep a steady hand. As we moved into the second event, jousting, I was shocked by the awful performances and overall lack of talent. Only a few competitors managed to hit the target, most missing by several feet. In the javelin toss, I was met with the same level of dissatisfaction. It was clear that the skills boasted of at the beginning of the tournament were just great lies to win my affection. Near the end of our tournament, I was showered with various gifts including a beautiful drawing, a lovely poem, and a mysteriously shaped pink sculpture. Taking into consideration everything that happened, I narrowed my selection to two competitors. Since it was such a close tie, I let them battle it out with a roll of the dice. Hud triumphed over Herry and won my hand in marriage along with a jawbreaker candy. The losers joined us to watch the ceremony, and we ended the evening singing our favorite song, “Beveria.”

GECKO: As someone who wants to teach English in the future, I face the challenge of engaging students with literature. In our project, we used The Tournament of Tottenham as our guide for accomplishing that goal. Evidence indicates this poem was performed in the Middle Ages, and our activities reflected a similar kind of parodic performance. By utilizing a performative game, we were able to build bonds and experience the text in a way it may have been experienced in its own time. The bonds created through performing and playing our Tournament of Tottenham built a sound understanding of a piece that we still discuss when we see one another in passing. My husband, who is not an avid reader, attended our Tournament of Tottenham session and participated in the game, and that experience inspired him to read the poem.

JZ: I think overall, the introduction and the explanation from the other members of my group on how to play the game really pulled in the class and made this one of the best experiences I’ve had of an activity related to literature. The Tournament of Tottenham is the kind of story that can easily be taught to students of all ages, and I think my goal, along with my group’s goal, was clearly to get the class not just to understand the story, but to want to engage in the story as well.


Open Game Chest
Gamer’s Guide to Medieval Literature

Here is your chance to introduce the class to a medieval text they haven’t read. You will work in groups of 3 or 4, and the goal is to explore the game components of the text or its game potential. You will have the entire class time, and it is a good idea to plan two or three different activities. Who knows? You may inspire everyone to read the story as soon as they have two minutes to rub together.

Your presentation should:

Clear transmission of information and analysis does not have to take the form of a slide presentation or lecture, though those approaches can be useful for part of the time. You can convey information in the form of a game, or you can act out the story or make a movie. Make sure you include analysis of the text in some way, not just plot. How is the game motif involved?

On the day of your presentation, each of you should turn in 1-2 pages describing your involvement in the project and your idea of how the activities your group set up would be effective in introducing the class to this text, providing some analysis, and engaging people’s interest.

You will have the entire class period on March 16 to work together with your group.

You can earn points in the following way:

Group Presentation (10 points possible)

Individual Paper (10 points possible)


Works Cited

Cooke, William G. “The Tournament of Tottenham: An Alliterative Poem and an Exeter Performance.” Records of Early English Drama, vol. 11, no. 2, 1986, pp. 1-3.

Harris, Leslie. “Tournaments and The Tournament of Tottenham.” Fifteenth-Century Studies, vol. 23, 1996, pp. 81-92.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Beacon Press, 1950.

Kooper, Erik, ed. The Tournament of Tottenham. From Sentimental and Humorous Romances. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2005.

Patterson, Serina, ed. Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Wright, Glenn. “Parody, Satire, and Genre in The Tournament of Tottenham (1400-1440).” Fifteenth-Century Studies, vol. 23, 1996, pp. 152-70.

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