Medieval Knights and Chivalry
The Medieval knight had to be strong, robust, and had to be trained in riding and in wielding the lance and sword. He had to be a member of a noble family. If he was enrolled in the army’s lower ranks, he had to win his horse and armor on the battlefield, or by some extraordinary service he performed for a lord. A knight had a double position: he had to be the best soldier and the best vassal. The knightly order formed the elite of the Medieval army and of the feudalism.
The Medieval knights were subject to the rules of Chivalry, a military and political establishment. The highly praised chivalric rules of training and conduct were followed even by women, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, who earned the name of Crusader Queen.
The knight’s education began very early in life. From his earliest boyhood, the son of a noble exercised in running, climbing, riding, swimming, shooting with a bow, and hurling the spear. At about twelve years of age his real education began. It was the custom that sons of nobles should be sent to the castle of the overlord to receive their education. There they served as pages or squires, serving at table, cleaning the weapons and armor, and attending the lords at tournaments or in battle. They learned how to use different weapons, and acquired high skills in horsemanship or in fighting. In addition, towards the end of the twelfth century, the custom required that they make verses and sing them to their own accompaniment.
The youngsters also learned how to manage their estates, and how to rule their subjects. Indeed, the government of an extensive fief required a large amount of time and energy. The lord had to administer justice, hold court, and police his domain. Hunting was not only a sport, but a necessity, as this was one of the main sources of supply for the table. Above all, fighting was the preferred occupation of the knight in the tenth and eleventh centuries. There were plenty of opportunities for practice. The kings were engaged in struggles against rebellious barons, and private wars between nobles were common.
The knights of the early Medieval times could be brutal and violent warriors, with little respect for women who were seen mostly as trophies. The softening of the knights’ behavior was mainly a result of the Church actions against brutality. In the same time, the knights began to value bravery in their enemies, and from here sprang the laws of the Medieval war, such as generosity and loyalty among opponents.Chivalry, lords and vassal knights
A feudal lord had various ranks under his command, and his duty of honor was to protect and defend them. If he failed to do so, he could be abandoned by them and considered a coward by his peers. Any wrong done to a protégé was an outrage to the protector. On the same note, the knights became the champions of all the feeble.
The vassal’s fidelity to the lord and the duties to be performed aided in the birth of a chivalric ideal. After residing periodically at the lord’s court, even the toughest warrior developed a certain sociability and courtesy. Every knight in residence was ambitious to capture women’s’ attention, and to be praised by the trouvères who were familiar entertainers at banquets.
Knighthood was usually conferred by the suzerain, and this fact determined to a great extent the duties of a knight, which were practically the same as those of a vassal, but more idealized. The knight ought to be brave, generous, and faithful. He had to protect the weak, to observe his oath faithfully, and to keep his honor spotless. Chivalry introduced high ideals, but did not always succeed to enforce them among the turbulent nobles of the age.
Chivalry, as described in the romances of the Middle Ages was a system on its own, within the feudal system. It was the knighthood with a moral and personal character. In its ideal form, it was even a military barrier against oppression and tyranny, a corrective of feudal despotism and injustice.
The gallant Medieval knights obeying its principles, were somewhat purer and brighter than any preceding heroes. The Chivalry established woman in her just rank in the moral world, and many of its principles of action were of religious inspiration.
The gradual refinement of manners and the influence of the Church led to the ceremony of knighthood and the ideals of Chivalry. The amusements, too, became somewhat less coarse. Minstrels, and tournaments threw a fictitious glamour over the life of the nobles.
The chronicles written by monks sometimes give us a glimpse of Chivalry. Many knights had their own biographers. There are also the romances of Chivalry. But the most valuable information we have is written by Froissart, truly a Medieval Herodotus. Despite the naiveté of language, he describes in a vivid and colorful style both the political events and the chivalric manners.
As the times changed, new classes and new ideals appeared. The increasing wealth of the merchants and town people in general caused the decline in the importance of the nobility and of Chivalry.
For more on Medieval Knights and Chivalry, here are some resources for your perusal:
- Definition of Chivalry - Looking at its main principles, we can find more than one definition of the custom and institution of Chivalry.
- Chivalry - Origin, the etymology of the term, and the difference between the rules of the feudal system per se and Chivalry.
- Medieval Code of Chivalry - The ten commandments of the Medieval Code of Chivalry, and the inclusion, starting with the 11th Century, of the doctrine of love.
The "Amour Courtois" or the system of Courtly Love
- Courtly Love - This unique Medieval system, brought to perfection in the times of the troubadours and trouvères, was actively promoted by Eleanor of Aquitaine. Great writers like Chrétien de Troyes refined the ideas of the courtly love system, while De Amore by Andreas Capellanus is the treatise best explaining the laws and principles of the system. Related to the courtly love is the Court of Love, where love generated issues were judged.
- Perceval, the Story of the Grail - A poem of Chivalry written by Chrétien de Troyes, part of his Arthurian Romances cycle.
- Langue d'Oc - The language used by the troubadours of Southern France, as opposed to the Langue d'Oil, the language of trouvères in the North.
- Middle Ages Knights - A history of the Knights in the Medieval period, with references to personal service as a main part of the knights' education.
- Medieval Knights and Jousting - Jousting, an encounter involving two combatants, was the preferred sports of the knights. Based on strict rules, it provided them with the opportunity to show their individual skills, and to honor their ladies. Many royals were perfect knights, and champions of jousting.
- Medieval Tournaments - A history of Medieval tournaments, from the 12th to the 15th Century. While jousting focused on individual skills, many tournaments were actually mimicking war. They involved more combatants, and quite frequently could last many days.
Knights Defences and Weapons
- Medieval Armor - From the Norman Conquest until the end of the 15th Century, the Medieval armor evolved from the chain mail armor to the full plate knight armor.
- Medieval Swords - A history of this symbol of Chivalry, covering more than four centuries, from the Norman Conquest until the late Middle Ages.
- Medieval Helmets - About the development of helmets and great helms from the Norman Conquest until the 15th Century.
- Medieval Shields Designs - Different formats of shields and materials used for their construction, the most sophisticated being those of the 14th Century.