Knights and the Traditions of Chivalry

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Knights and the Traditions of Chivalry

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While knights are usually thought of in connection with medieval life, the tradition of conferring knighthood has not died, at least in England. In 1997 rock star Paul McCartney, one of the original Beatles of the 1960s, was knighted by England's Queen Elizabeth II during a ceremony in London. Another rock legend, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, received a similar honor in 2004. Like their forebears hundreds of years ago, these modern knights, in a solemn and formal ceremony, knelt before the queen. The queen then tapped them on each shoulder with the flat side of a bared sword as she "invested" them with the title "knight." From that time on, as a member of the nobility, each knight became entitled to attach the word "sir" to his name, though it is unlikely that either of these rock-and-roll icons will actually do so.

It is equally unlikely that Sir Paul, Sir Mick, or any of the other prominent citizens of Great Britain who have been knighted in modern times will put on a suit of armor, mount a horse, and set out to conquer new realms for his queen. Knighthood for these and other citizens is granted to recognize cultural achievement or service to Great Britain, typically for charitable work. But the underlying concept of service to the realm has defined knighthood since the Middle Ages.

Closely connected with knighthood is the concept of chivalry. Today, people are likely to use the word chivalry to refer to high standards of good manners, protectiveness, and helpfulness. Most often the word crops up in relationships between men and women. A man who politely holds open a door for a woman or who defends her from danger is still said to be acting "chivalrously." The word reflects, as it did hundreds of years ago, a code of behavior that places value on the protection of others.

"Knighthood" and "chivalry" are not the same, but it is impossible to speak of one without the other. And it is impossible to understand either without first looking at the social structure of medieval Europe. It was this social structure that gave rise to the institution of knighthood. In turn, knighthood gave rise to the codes of chivalry.


First we must consider the origins of the words. Despite the romantic, adventurous images that surround the words "knighthood" and "chivalry," the origins of the two words are rather homely. "Knight" is an Anglo-Saxon (Germanic-English) word. It comes from the Old English word cniht, which means simply "boy." It evolved into the word "knight" because many early knights were still in their teens when they began to serve as men-at-arms for their lords.

The word "chivalry," on the other hand, originates in the Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, and French). It comes from the Old French word chevalerie, which means something like "skill in handling a horse." In an age before guns, gunpowder, and cannons, warfare with lances and swords required the knight to battle his opponent personally and up close. Only those who could control and direct the strength and speed of a horse were likely to survive armed combat, although peasants and commoners, in contrast to members of the nobility, had to take their chances on foot. In many early texts, "chivalry" refers simply to the actual ranks of a mounted army, that is, to "troops." In time, though, the word came to stand for much more, in particular, a code of behavior and ethics to which all knights were expected to hold.

Structure of Medieval Society

First, land was the source of nearly all wealth. The Middle Ages began to see the appearance of a small middle class that earned its income through such activities as trade and finance. But most wealth during this time was the product of the land. Land provided lumber and stone to build houses, fuel, food crops, animal fur and fabrics for clothing—nearly all of the necessities of life. Those who owned large estates of land, in later years called "fiefs," had almost always received them as grants from a king for their service, usually in war. With the land came a noble title, such as duke, earl, or baron.

The king ruled absolutely—that is, with complete authority—over his subjects, just as God ruled absolutely over kings. Noble landowners, in turn, ruled absolutely over their smaller fiefdoms in a social and military system called feudalism. Feudalism began primarily in France, but in time it spread through much of Europe, including England. It emerged in the centuries following the withdrawal of the Romans, when Europe was overrun by marauding (raiding and looting), warlike tribes, many of them sweeping across from western Asia or south from Scandinavia. Without the order that the Roman Empire had imposed, life in much of Europe became a free-for-all. Armed bandits, warlords (military commanders), and bands of outlaws were commonplace. The general population had little protection from them. Feudalism provided some measure of security during an extremely insecure period of history.

To drive off these outlaws, the nobles needed to develop small armies of warriors who could pursue them and engage them in combat. The only way they could do so effectively was on horseback; foot soldiers simply could not keep up with the constant movement of plundering armies. Horses, though, were expensive, and it took years to train both the horse and the warrior who rode it. A man who hoped to become a mounted warrior could not do it on his own, because he lacked the time and means to support himself.

To support their cavalry soldiers, called vassals, nobles made grants of land to them. The vassal, in return, owed a duty of loyalty to his "liege lord." In times of peace he farmed and otherwise managed the land with the help of a large peasant class, but when that land came under threat, he owed service as a warrior. In turn, the lord had to provide his vassals with protection and the means of economic survival. This was the essence of feudalism: It was a system of shared legal obligations that bound together the lord and his vassals, as well as the peasantry beneath them. Its chief feature was a rigid hierarchy, or chain of command, with the king at the top, beneath him his barons, then vassals, then a lower order of knights, and, finally, the peasantry. Each level of the hierarchy owed military service to the level above.


A second important feature of medieval life was that it was violent. Violence could erupt nearly anywhere and was almost a daily fact of life. Capital punishment (execution) of the most brutal kind was commonplace. Again, without the institutions of the Roman Empire, legal arguments frequently were settled not in an organized court system but in battle or through vendettas (feuds) between families that led to murder and bloodshed. In competition for sometimes scarce economic resources—land, crops, livestock, peasants—neighboring estates frequently resorted to the sword. They often had little choice; it was either that or starvation.

Even the church accepted violence as a fact of life. In one story, a French knight prayed at a local monastery that God would allow him to avenge his brother's murder by capturing the murderer. Later, the knight and his companions ambushed the victim, mutilated his face, cut off his hands and feet, and castrated him. The knight believed that he had been successful because of divine help, so in gratitude he donated the victim's bloodstained armor and weapons to the monastery where he had prayed. It would seem incredible today, but the monks gratefully accepted them.

The church tried to channel hostility so that it was not so random. As a guide, it used both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Roman law, and the philosophies of early church fathers such as Saint Augustine. It developed a belief system that justified warfare in some circumstances. In the eyes of the church, violence was acceptable or not based on the morality (virtue) of the goal to be achieved. Also considered was the state of mind of the persons responsible for the violence. The church saw the goal of saving the Holy Land as good, so it also saw the violence that accompanied the Crusades, violence of the worst and most brutal kind, as defensible.


Knights as we know them—horse-mounted, armored soldiers—first appeared on the scene in about the eighth and ninth centuries. While horses had been used in war before then, soldiers usually dismounted in combat because they could fight more effectively on foot. Then the stirrup was developed, allowing the soldier to remain on horseback and keep his balance. The advantage of being mounted was that the knight could brace himself on horseback while he charged his enemy with a lance. At the time, this was a powerful military innovation, or improvement.

Training for knighthood began at an early age. Boys as young as seven were sent to serve as pages, or personal attendants, for a wealthy relative or lord. There they would be trained in using weapons and handling a horse. Part of the training might include a period of apprenticeship. As an apprentice, the young knight served as a squire (assistant) for an older knight, helping him with his horse or in putting on his armor.

Once the young man's training was finished, usually between the ages of sixteen and twenty, he would be ceremonially knighted and swear an oath of fealty, or loyalty, to his lord. He also committed himself to a host of rituals and vows that made knighthood a kind of fraternity, or a brotherly group. The knight was now bound to his lord and had to serve for a fixed period of time, typically four years. During peacetime, he was expected to practice his skills as a knight. He did this with other knights through competitive tournaments, but these tournaments frequently turned into disorderly brawls that resulted in senseless injury and death. Later, kings and the church developed more orderly jousting tournaments, with individual events, to minimize this bloodshed. These jousting tournaments, in which a knight would compete against another knight for the honor of his lady love, became a common feature of life late in the medieval period.

Military Customs

The modern-day military has customs that began during the Middle Ages. One is the salute. After full suits of metal armor came into use, knights could not easily identify one another as friend or enemy because visors (the fronts of helmets) covered their faces. The visor, though, could be raised and lowered. One knight would commonly greet another by raising his hand, holding it flat, and using the tips of his fingers to lift the visor so that the other could recognize him. Today's salute mirrors this gesture.

The other custom is that an enlisted soldier is expected to walk on the left side of an officer, just as a squire did hundreds of years ago. As a knight's shield bearer, the medieval squire walked to his left so that the knight, who typically bore his sword or lance in his right hand (most people are right-handed), would be better able to quickly take his shield from the squire in his left hand.

Code of Chivalry

As the pope's warriors, knights were bound by a code of honor, the code of chivalry. Each knight had to swear that he would defend the weak, the poor, widows, orphans, and the oppressed. He was to be courteous, especially to women; brave; loyal to his leaders; and concerned about the welfare of his subordinates, or those of lesser rank and position. Quoted by Grant Uden, in A Dictionary of Chivalry, the knight's code of conduct was fixed in a knightly prayer carved in stone at the cathedral of Chartres in France, one that expresses the chivalric ideal:

Most Holy Lord, Almighty Father … thou who hast permitted on earth the use of the sword to repress the malice [evil] of the wicked and defend justice … cause thy servant here before thee, by disposing [turning] his heart to goodness, never to use this sword or another to injure anyone unjustly; but let him use it always to defend the just and right.

Similarly, in the late nineteenth century, French scholar Léon Gautier listed, in his book Chivalry, what he called the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) that governed the conduct of a knight under the code of chivalry:

  1. Unswerving belief in the church and obedience to her teachings

  2. Willingness to defend the church

  3. Respect and pity for the weak and steadfastness in defending them

  4. Love of country

  5. Refusal to retreat before the enemy

  6. Unceasing and merciless war against the infidel

  7. Strict obedience to the feudal overlord, so long as those duties did not conflict with duty to God

  8. Loyalty to truth and to the pledged word

  9. Generosity in giving

  10. Championship of the right and the good, in every place and at all times, against the forces of evil

To generations of readers, knighthood and chivalry became almost synonymous with, or identical to, respect for and devotion to women, through epic poems and novels such as Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman (1825). The following passage from Scott's novel, in which a Scottish Crusader named Kenneth is addressing a Saracen (Muslim), is typical of the chivalric attitude toward women:

Saracen, replied the Crusader, thou speakest like one who never saw a woman worthy the affection of a soldier. Believe me, couldst thou look upon those of Europe, to whom, after Heaven, we of the order of knighthood vow fealty [faithfulness] and devotion, thou wouldst loathe for ever the poor sensual slaves who form thy harem [the women of a Muslim household]. The beauty of our fair ones gives point to our spears, and edge to our swords; their words are our law; and as soon will a lamp shed luster [a glow of light] when unkindled [the fire is put out], as a knight distinguish himself by feats of arms, having no mistress of his affection.

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