Knights and Knighthood

What is the concept of knighthood all about? Knighthood exists in two places simultaneously–in the world and in our imagination. We can speak of ideals versus realities, probably the central problem with knighthood and the chivalric ideals. Swords, horses, jousts, armor, castles, fair maidens, kings, queensthese are the words that come to mind when people mention the word knight. The mental image of a knight embedded in everyones minds shows an armor-clad man on a horse. The noble beings beneath the armor are virtually unknown to many.

Behind every knights intimidating physical appearance lay the values, morals, and history of chivalry that has made these people great historical figures. In the fourth century A. D. the Roman Empire fell and various barbarian tribes invaded Europe. One of the dominant groups was the Franks of central and Western Europe, who gradually expanded their power until, in A. D. 800; their leader Charlemagne became emperor of the West. Charlemagne and his forebears added to the number of horsemen in their army, giving land to mounted warriors.

In the ninth century the empire, torn by civil wars and invasions, broke up. Powerful local lords and their mounted warriors offered protection to peasants, who became their serfs in return. In this feudal system, which first developed in Western Europe, the lords themselves owed allegiance to greater lords, and all were bound by oaths of loyalty. All these lords, and some of the men who served them, were knights warriors who fought on horseback. By the 11th century, a new social order was formed by armored knights, who serve a local lord, count, or duke, and were in turn served by serfs (Gravett, 40).

How were knights made? When boys of noble birth who were going to become knights were around seven years old, they were usually sent away to a noblemans household, usually of his uncle or great lord, to be a page. There they were taught how to behave and how to ride. When they reached the age of fourteen, they were apprenticed to knights to whom they would serve as squires. Then, they could learn to handle weapons and how to tend to their masters armor and horses. Sometimes, they would even go to battle with their masters, to help if they were hurt or unhorsed.

They were taught how to shoot a bow and to carve meat for food. When they were twenty-one years old, successful squires were knighted (Gravett, 48). After years and years of training, they then were faced with high expectations and a code of honor to act by. A knights code of chivalry was made up of a number of rules. They were to possess certain qualities such as prowess, justice, loyalty, defense, courage, faith, humility, largesse, nobility and franchise. Due to its high demand, the code of chivalry caused the knights to perform many a noble deed and to always be available to lend a helping hand.

The lady and the demands of court also shaped what the knight was to become. She demanded, through the romance literature that remains a powerful influence today, that the knight act with strength on one hand, and courtesy and respect on the other. A knight should respect women; he should defend them in their hour of need, eschewing the magnetic gravity of mere lust. Love could be a powerful influence over the knight, a strengthening force that could propel the knight to greatness beyond his own capability.

The church agreed, arguing only that the spiritual love of Christ was superior to the love of a woman; but the important detail was that love as an ennobling motivator was added as a chivalric element that was to stay. As a nobleman and dispenser of justice, the knight was required to seek justice, to defend the right, and to dispense of his wealth with largesse, showing the generosity that thwarted greed and thus helped the knight to ennoble himself in deed as well as blood (Price, 1996).

A knight, under the rules of courtly love had to prove his devotion through heroic deeds and by amorous writings presented anonymously to his beloved, often a married woman of equally high birth or higher in rank. Once the lovers had pledged themselves to each other and consummated their passion, complete secrecy had to be maintained. Because most noble marriages in the Middle Ages were little more than business contracts, courtly love was a form of sanctioned adultery, sanctioned because it threatened neither the contract nor the religious sacrament of marriage.

In fact, faithlessness of the lovers toward each other was considered more sinful than the adultery of this extramarital relationship (Encarta, 1997-2000). Courtly love was a concept that the knights and maidens became famous of. Some legends have become well known, such as that of Lancelot, who fell in love with Queen Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur. The Legend of King Arthur, one of the most enduring tales in recorded history, made knighthood in the middle ages very well known.

In the legend, Arthur is a leader in ancient times who defeats the Saxons and other enemies. He thereby unites the people of Britain in peace and harmony. Eventually his kingdom weakens from withinin part because of the illicit love between Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, and the knight Lancelotand Arthur himself is struck down by his own illegitimate son, Mordred. Many stories then say that Arthur is taken to the island of Avalon for his wounds to be healed. The legend tells that he will return in the hour of Britain’s greatest need (Encarta, 1997-2000).

Somewhere between all these events, Arthur formed the Knights of the Round Table. The Knights of the Round Table were Arthurian knights who sat with King Arthur around a circular table. They became a focal point of fellowship between knights. Some of them are famous as heroes and champions of just cause. In theory, they were brothers; however, jealousy, envy and hatred existed with the fellowship. There were enemies within the Round Table as well as those who were not members of the fellowship.

The duties of each knight, whether associated with the round table or not, were to: (1) Be loyal to the king, in serving through victory and defeat, through famine and a bountiful harvest, (2) To uphold the laws of the land, (3) To kill only in self defense, or for the good of the king and land, (4) To uphold the knights code, (5) To treat all women with the utmost respect and to rescue any damsel that may be in distress, (6) Not to break any oath that has been taken, (7) To give any enemy to be defeated a quick and painless death and to treat all other knights as brothers, (8) To protect and care for the land and not to destroy it, (9) To set a good example for any pages and squires that desire to become a future knight (McNeely). The true knights were easy to differentiate from the knights that only had a lust for power. Unfortunately, nowadays, the true image of a knight is unknown to many. He was faced with high expectations, many missions to complete, and a strict code of honor. There was indeed more to a true knight than what many people knew.

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