The flowering of chivalry

The first battles in which Richard the Lionheart participated took place in a period when a particular kind of combatant was establishing himself: the knight. Emblematic of the Middle Ages, chivalry was also linked to this period in the same way as the castle and the troubadour. Pictured as a noble warrior, defending the widow and the orphan, the reality of the knight was, as always, more complex and more subtle. Richard the Lionheart, seen as and claiming to be a true “knight-king”, contributed a great deal to the spread of chivalric values.

Chevaliers (armée de la bête dans liebanensis, commentarius in apocalypsin, XIIème siècle BNF).

What was a 12th century knight?

Chevalier du XIIème siècle
Chevalier du XIIème siècle (Job avertis du massacre Miniature d’une Bible du XIIème siècle, BNF).

The French word for knight, chevalier, is clearly based on the word for horse, cheval. A knight was, therefore, someone who fought on horseback and who was sufficiently rich to own one, or even several horses. (From chevalier come the English words cavalry and chivalry). It was in the 10th century that the Latin term “miles” - soldier (“milites” - soldiers) began to be used to mean only fighters on horseback and not ordinary soldiers. These new warriors were collectively known as mesnies or households, and consisted of the entourage of the feudal lords. It was in the 12th century that they became an institution in their own right, integrating with the nobility.

A knight was a heavily armed fighter on horseback. The fittings and armament of a knight were very costly. Only by belonging to a noble family or receiving the favours of a lord could they afford this equipment. Furthermore, the knights were the elite warriors, trained from youth to fight with the sword, to ride a horse, to joust and to wear and move about in a heavy coat of mail.

A knight could have no other activities in the 12th century, other than war and training for war. On the other hand, some “peasant-knights” who otherwise worked on the land, existed during the early days of the knights. Not all knights in the 12th century were noble. Some were the servants of a lord or could be of very modest origins. At the end of the 12th century, knighthood was increasingly closed to non-nobles and many of these lesser knights had a lot of trouble in maintaining their status.

Young nobles destined to bear arms served a master, often a close family member, who taught them the arts of warfare. Learning also to recognise coats of arms, sometimes to read and write, the future knight was first a page, then a squire. If he was judged worthy, he was finally dubbed and became a knight in his own right. The dubbing ceremony was a ritual, a genuine rite of passage, during which the new knight was reminded of his duty, Knights were supposed to respect a set of moral principles, founded on defined values: honour, loyalty and the principles of Christianity. This moral side of chivalry, beginning in the 11th century, was largely a result of the influence of the Church, which tried to channel the violence of this new warrior aristocracy. A more profane culture, that of the troubadours, was an added influence and emphasised warlike exploits, pride and glory. A real culture of chivalry thus developed in the 12th century. It reached its peak with the tales of chivalry inspired by ancient Breton and Celtic legends and songs, which gradually evolved into the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

After being made a knight, one’s fate depended enormously on social status and position in the family. Among the nobility, the oldest effectively ended up by inheriting the land and privileges of his father and became a feudal lord. The younger sons and the knights of lower birth could put themselves at the service of a lord, who sometimes eventually found them a small fief. Sometimes, the inheritance was divided among the heirs of a lord. In Limousin and other regions of Aquitaine the lordships were often not divided and the heirs could jointly inherit the same domain. Others became knights errant (wandering knights), taking their chances and travelling the roads, offering their services to those who needed them. They aroused a great deal of fascination and they were often imagined as paragons of chivalry. In reality, hunger and greed very often turned them into bands of robbers that the Church tried to bring under control, particularly by calling them to go on crusade.

The knight was, above all, a fighter, However, battles were not frequent in the Middle Ages, even if wars themselves were. In order to be able to exercise their “talents” and to train, the knights practised a variety of activities which were reserved for them. Hunting, for example, was a privilege of the aristocracy. In the Middle Ages it was a physical and dangerous activity. Effectively, one often hunted with the spear, killing the animal at close quarters.

Some special war games developed at the same time as chivalry: jousts and tournaments. Tournaments were simulations of battles where two camps confronted each other and tried to put their adversaries out of action. The object of the joust was training for the cavalry charge; in it two opposing knights, heavily armed, set off at a gallop and tried to unseat each other by striking their opponent’s shield with a lance.

As a general rule, the life of a knight consisted of duty and fighting. He owed his overlord help and attendance as well as advice, particularly in war. Knights were supposed to follow a very strict ethical code demanding humility and discipline. But the reality was different. Knights were, above all, aristocrats and warriors. Very often, greed, pride and personal ambition took precedence over the theoretical duties that chivalry involved. Nevertheless, it served to channel many of the impulses of the feudal warrior nobility which otherwise would have probably seriously destabilised medieval society.