Modern day books and films often depict knights as handsome and brave warriors clad in a suit of armour and atop a large horse. The modern phrase, 'knight in shining armour' (first recorded in writing in 1965), has come to represent a chivalrous man coming to the rescue of a woman. While this romantic stereotype is the popular image of a knight, this chapter sets out to create a more accurate and complete picture of who the medieval knights were.
What was a knight?
In Medieval Europe (500-1500), a new type of warrior known as a knight began to emerge. What differentiated knights from regular foot soldiers, was that a knight fought on horseback. These armed and mounted soldiers usually served a monarch, or a lord, or even the Roman Catholic Church (the Church). In accordance with the feudal system, in return for their promise to serve the king, knights were granted land, called fiefs. Knights were provided with weapons and armour, which included swords, aces, and a coat of chain mail. They were also given a horse known as a destrier, which was especially bred for war.
The origin of the word 'knight' comes from the Anglo-Saxon word cniht, which means 'servant boy.' When 'knight' is translated, however, in French it becomes chevalier, in Italian, cavalier and in German, ritter. The meanings of all of these translations have strong associations with being on horseback.
Early in the Middle Ages, even poor men who were not of noble background could become a knight. To become eligible for knighthood, a soldier simply needed to show bravery in battle. The soldier was pronounced a knight after an already knighted soldier forcefully struck him with the flat of his sword.
By the 13th century, however, the knighthood was an exclusive class. Only men of noble birth who had learned how to read and write, served God as a page and graduated from their military training as a squire, could be knighted. Once the man was 21 years of age and had proved himself worthy, he had to attend a church ceremony in which the king would grant him the status of knight. Refer Image 1
As the Middle Ages continued, the status of the knight grew. With a greater amount of wealth and prestige, knights became a part of the aristocracy (ruling class) and could afford to pay the king or lord money called scutage. Scutage excused the knights from fighting in the king's army, since the money was used to hire mercenaries. Mercenaries were soldiers who were paid to fight in battles. Many suggest, however, that mercenaries were more motivated by the prospect of stealing valuable goods from captured settlements, than by their army wages.
Knights often participated in tournaments to practise their skills while they were not in battle. Early in the Middle Ages, tournaments were the cause of a number of injuries and deaths. It was not until years later, that tournaments were required to follow strict rules and be judged by umpires. Long, blunt poles named lances were developed to be used in tournaments. These lances were used in jousts, which involved two knights on horseback charging at each other, lances levelled, each knight attempting to knock his opponent off his horse. As tournaments grew in popularity, they attracted spectators from far away who were keen to join in the excitement of the festival-like atmosphere. Refer animation
Chivalry and heraldry
Knights were required to live according to particular rules, including that they be loyal to the Church and to their king, protect and help women and the weak, and be brave in battle. This was known as being bound by a code of chivalry.
In reality, however, there are suggestions that very few knights abided by this code. Despite the later knights coming from a wealthy background, it was unlikely that they had an inheritance, since many were not the first-born child in the family. Many believe that knights slaughtered commoners and greedily pillaged cities for anything of value, much in the same way that the mercenaries did. There are also suggestions that they treated the poor unfairly and even cruelly.
When the knights were suited in full armour during battles and tournaments, it was often difficult for them to tell who was an enemy. To solve this problem, heraldry was developed. Heraldry is a system of symbols and specified colours that are worn on a knight's surcoat (an outer garment worn over the armour), banner, shield and helmet. These heraldic symbols were passed from father to son, resulting in their often being associated with a family's coat of arms. Refer Image 2
The Crusades were a series of eight wars which lasted for almost 200 years (1096-1291) between European Christians and Arab Muslims. The Crusades began when a group of Turkish Muslims took control of Jerusalem and killed many Christians who had been living peacefully alongside Muslim Arabs. When the Turkish Muslims began to threaten Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the powerful pope was asked to intervene. Many knights joined in the Crusades to take control of the holy city of Jerusalem. For many knights, the possibility of claiming land was the driving force behind their participation.
Following the First Crusade, military orders, including the Knights Templar, appeared. Military orders combined military and religious ways of life. Each member of a military order was both a knight and a monk. Not unaccustomed to strict and unconditional obedience, these orders were strong and highly disciplined forces. It was this extreme devotion to military training that made these military orders better in combat than most other knights. Powerful military orders reaped the benefits, achieving substantial wealth and power through the conquering of many lands.
While the Knights Templar had an exceptional amount of power and did not have to even abide by the law in the countries in which they resided, their downfall came in 1312 when the order was abolished. The Knights Templar were accused of heresy (beliefs which opposed the teachings of the Church) and their Grand Master was burned at the stake. Refer Image 3