Ahh, to be a Knight
Oh, to be a man of impeccable character who, donned in shining armor, saves beautiful damsels from distress. Always fair, always courteous, and always righting wrongs — imagine the magnificence of it all. Just look at that description of Geoffrey of Anjou. If that isn’t glamorous, I don’t know what is. But, if we dig down into the facts, would we find the medieval knight’s armor shining as brightly as we think? Were these men really of impeccable character? Unfortunately, it seems they were not.
Just so we can understand a bit about who these guys were, let's take a quick look at their origins. Now, this isn’t as easy as it seems. The topic is highly debated by historians, but we’ll do our best.
Knighthood seems to have started in the Carolingian empire back in the 9th century. We can keep it all very simple by saying the whole debate revolves around one itty-bitty piece of equipment — the stirrup.
Most scholars agree that this little invention, which came west from the Central Asian Steppes (think Mongols here), did a whole lot for the warrior class. If a guy charges full speed at an oncoming horse while holding a very long lance, he needs stirrups and a high-backed saddle. Otherwise, he’s going to fly off like a tin can covered superman. Some say this invention came in the early 8th-century and swept through France like wildfire, but others believe the transformation was long and slow.
Whatever the truth, we know the Bayeux Tapestry (1070), depicting the battle of Hastings, has more horsemen jabbing with swords overhead than charging in the couched position. Yet we certainly, had mounted knights engaged in shock combat by the second half of the 11th century. Throw in improved castle building and siege warfare techniques, and you have a good recipe for the making of medieval knights.
Thugs in Armor
In 1100, being called a knight wasn’t the compliment it would become later on in the 1300s. These guys were still teeter-tottering between the free and unfree. So, at this point, the basic requirements for knighthood were really just a horse and armor.
Now, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. No-one was going to drop all this expensive stuff in your lap. If you wanted to be a knight, you better be well off or in the graces of someone who was. Smart guys got the bright idea of making aristocratic connections. It literally paid to get in the favor of someone with bigger pockets. This way they could take over when the bills started rolling in.
Being educated in a lordly household helped this considerably. In the 9th century, it was a common practice to send boys destined for a military profession to an overlord. There they would learn things like good horsemanship, strength development, and how to be well mannered. Many lords had several knights in their house, and the older ones helped train the young ones.
For the nobles, the payoff came when they needed someone to do their dirty work. Whenever they wanted to lay siege to a castle or take vengeance on someone who wronged them, they put a knight in charge. Those who excelled moved up the ranks with rewards of castles, money, land, or even help in making a profitable marriage.
Now, what happens when you have a group of guys whose whole identity is wrapped up in their ability to fight?
Well, they want to fight, that’s what. Fighting paid, and perpetual warfare meant Barrons needed to keep knights on their payroll. Even a knight's leisure time was spent hunting or attending tournaments where they could hone their skills.
And so it was that in areas where royal authority was weak, the nobles went wild. (Basically, the lands of the old Carolingian Empire, like France, northeastern Spain, and northern Italy.) If a guy could get a castle, he was set. Not only could he extort all the money he wanted from his peasants, but thanks to his military power, he could loot whenever and wherever he felt like it. These guys were known to kidnap and torture whoever they wanted — even clergy members. In the end, violence among the aristocracy became one of the biggest social problems of the High Middle Ages.
Things were so bad that in 989 the church stepped in with something called the Peace of God Movement. The idea was to grant immunity to the defenseless. It forbade nobles from invading and stealing from churches, stealing from and beating peasants, beating animals, stealing grain, cutting down fruit trees — basically it forbade nobles and knights from abusing those who were beneath them socially. In 1127, the Truce of God was added. This was to restrain fighting among the nobles. Please, no fighting between 9 PM Saturday and 3 AM Monday, or on holy days, or — well, you get the idea.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work too well. Trying to quench an overflow of testosterone by promising points in the afterlife may have worked on the pious, but it just wasn’t for everyone. Some men couldn’t resist taking up their old habits, no matter how much they previously promised to behave.
A new tactic needed to be developed. Clerics (clergy that lived with the nobility) tried writing courtesy manuals outlining the manners a proper knight should display. However, it had the same inherent problem as the Peace and Truce of God. Both focused on the negative, just lists of things NOT to do. Who likes being told what they can’t do? Certainly not medieval knights.
So finally someone got wise. Wouldn’t it be better to write a hero story? Give the guys someone to look up to, someone to emulate? And so it was that chivalric romances came into being in 1150. Over the next 50 years, they spread like wildfire. Guys like Chrétien de Troyes and Andrew the Chaplin wrote about love, romance, and the ideal gentleman in the hopes some good behavior would rub off on the warrior class.
Knights learned to hold noblewomen in the highest esteem, and even to write their own poetry, but unfortunately their good behavior hardly ever extended to the poor. When it came to a knight’s interactions with those outside their peer group, it was an anything-goes situation. In the words of Jean de Venette, writing about the after-effects of a battle in Poitiers in 1356:
The nobles “Subjected and despoiled the peasants and the men of the villages. In no wise did they defend their country from its enemies. Rather did they trample it underfoot, robbing and pillaging the peasant's goods.”
So Where Did We Get the Idea These Guys Were So Good?
You can probably blame that on the 19th Century. Medieval themes were wildly popular during that time.
Queen Victoria, for example, used medieval chivalry for propaganda purposes. In the art world writers such as Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott along with painters such as those associated with the Pre-Raphaelites romanticized the era. The truth wasn’t really their concern. After all, people prefer romantic paintings of knights and damsels over a bruit beating peasants and animals.
Notes and Sources:
The role of the stirrup caused such debate historians gave it it’s own name: The Great Stirrup Controversy.
Life in a Medieval Castle, Joseph, and Frances Gies
Chilvary, Maurice Keen
Medieval Chivalry, Richard Kaeuper