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Knights in Middle Ages

The history of the Knights in Middle Ages is not simply the history of individuals who held political and social power, but is an important part of the general Medieval history.  So far as the chivalry upheld religion, honor, and courtesy, it elevated society.   Until a greater degree of centralized power was achieved, the feudal lord and his military power shaped the history.  The influential role the knights held during the Middle Ages was not achieved by chance, but by education, faith, and by strictly following the rules of chivalry.

Knights rendering Personal Service to the Emperor
Knights rendering Personal Service at Emperor's Table

Education played an important role in the formation of the knights.  In Middle Ages it began at an early age. It appears from authorities of the 14th Century that boys of noble birth were commonly left under the charge of their mothers till the age of seven. After that age it was the custom to send them to the care of some nobleman or churchman to receive knightly breeding among the squires and pages who served him, thus rendering what is called “personal service”.

Personal service was the custom of chivalry, and lay at the foundation of all medieval institutions. It was no derogation to the dignity of a Prince Elector to bear the cup or wait at the stirrup of the Emperor; the Emperor himself held the bridle of the Pope’s horse. The household of a feudal seigneur and the religious houses were organized in the same manner as the court of a sovereign prince. Hence, the Abbot or the Prior was served by the knights and gentlemen who held lands of him by feudal tenure, or were maintained in his service as mercenaries. The Abbot of Saint Denis never moved from his Abbey without a Chamberlain and a Marshal, whose offices were held as fiefs, and could be transferred and transmitted like any other property.

Personal service was also symbolical of the obligation to serve in war, which was the main occupation of the knights.  In Middle Ages it was also the principal characteristic of feudal land tenure: the vassal was bound to serve his lord in the field, he might also be called upon to serve at home. In return for domestic service, the lord gave his dependant board and lodging and the advantage of sharing in his opportunities of military distinction and royal and princely favor. The attendants of the lord were entitled to their share of the lord’s plunder in public or private war.

During his apprenticeship service with the nobleman or churchman, the future knight was known as a page or henchman, and was under the orders of a squire called the Master of the henchmen. The apprenticeship lasted seven years, during which time he was learning the business of a squire in the stable, the armory, the kennels and the hall. At the age of 14, the boy was old enough to be entitled squire.

Bishops and abbots were served by noble youths sent to them by their parents. In England, one of Cardinal Morton pages was Sir Thomas Moore. In France, the chevalier Bayard was page to his uncle the Bishop of Grenoble, and served as his cupbearer when he dined with the Duke of Savoy.

Besides the schools attached to cathedrals, religious houses and the palaces of bishops and abbots, literature was not neglected by the lords who received boys into their houses. To read and write, to play the harp and sing were part of a knight’s accomplishment. The ladies of the castle also taught them letters, the games of chess and tables, the rules of good manners, and the rudiments of gallantry.

Tournaments-Axe Duel
Tournaments-Axe Duel

However, the principal part of the education was carried out outdoors. All kinds of exercises and games were practiced, such as wrestling, boxing, running, riding, tilting at the ring and the quiltain (an object mounted on a post or attached to a movable crossbar mounted on a post, used as a target in the medieval sport of tilting).

Once a knight, the young noble's main duty was the military service. And the best way to acquire the highest level of combat skills was competing in tournaments, the favorite pastime of the knights. In Middle Ages, the tournament bore a principal part in the lives of all knights,  and the laws of the tournament were inseparable from the love of ladies.  Together with religion, these were the main rules of service for every knight. 

Among the gentler features of chivalry may be reckoned the beautiful institution of brotherhood in arms, by which two knights vowed faith to each other. The brothers in arms wore the same arms and clothes, mingled their blood in one vessel, and received the Sacrament together. They engaged to support each other in battle and in all quarrels, and to have the same friends and enemies.

The brotherhood in arms was one of the most powerful institutions in the life of knights. In Middle Ages, it over-rode all duties, even to ladies, except the duties owed to the King. When Henry Bolingbroke Duke of Hereford deposed Richard II, Louis Duke of Orleans annulled the treaty of brotherhood which he made with Bolingbroke some years before, and challenged him to combat at any place in France with 100 knights and squires on either side. Du Guesclin was brother in arms of Olivier de Clisson. They agreed to support each other against all the world, except the King of Rome and his brothers, the Viscount of Rohan and their several liege lords, they will share all ransoms of prisoners and lands, will acquaint each other of any mischief intended, and will guard each other as brothers.

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