When we think knights, we usually think one of the following two things: either the man that shines in the sun and raises his sword as a preferred weapon, or one that just rapes women and burns villages, dirty and stinky. The truth is, it is a bit more complicated. Knighthood is one of the western world’s illusions, a factor that pretty much defines how we see honor and justice.
So, where is the origin of this incredibly overrated strike force? Historians can go back as far as to roman ages, but to make it short, I will just summarize their creation: warriors of germanic tribes that “invaded” Rome took over the role of rulers with some latin elements, justifying their position of leadership with the use of brute strength. Back in the early Middle Ages, people were in dire need of securing their lands and lives from constant outbursts of violence, be it by another religion, another tribe or even a neighbor. The only way to control this was with the use of weapons.
This made the main and leading warrior force, the one with the resources to get a heavy armor, the most important element in an army… at least namely. Although foot soldiers were still the backbone of every well-rounded army, mostly common folk they could force and trick to fight, the chevaliers were the leaders, specialized and highly trained in warfare. Their main tactic was to scare the commoners by charging into them with clanking armors and loudly neighing horses. You can try to imagine it: a ton of meat and flesh running into you while you hold a wooden lance or a small axe you usually use to cut wood.
Obviously this was accompanied by a lot of propaganda. Knights started to extol themselves, first singing and writing poems, then with help of writing clerics they paid they created the grand legends we today read and make movies of: King Arthur, the Round Table and Tristan and Isolde, between many others.
The key word here is also “clerics”. The rules that we know as the ethic code of chivalry comes from the idea of the Holy Christian Church when they tried to give the mounted warriors a direction for the good of Christendom. Honor the ladies, defend the religion and be brave and honorable is the result of a mix of pagan custom and the head of faith in medieval Europe. But then, the reality clashed for hundreds of years against the ideal.
In an effort to educate the perfect moral warriors, the image was enforced as good as possible. But as in any other thing the humans do, there was a mixed picture of the application of the ideal. I recommend to read and watch the story written by George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones to create an idea of the situation. Some knights tried to follow the rules to be stronger through their heightened ethics, while others applied the rules only to their convenience.
Much stronger became the conflict by the end of the Middle Ages. Many historians mark the battle at Courtrai, in the Netherlands, as the end of the Age of Cavalry. There the french knights charged almost blindly into a tightly formed line of burghers and common folk. The rebels who had dared to oppose the french warriors also used a swamp as protection of the flank and hundreds of traps prepared for horsemen. You can imagine the result: the whole battle was won by the line of footmen.
I myself tend to disagree on that. After some investigation I have come to the conclusion that knighthood in itself was mostly an illusion. The best way to employ a formation of chevaliers was to finish off an enemy in a last stampede or to attack a morally weak line of defense. Psychology was its main form offense. Even though the warriors were highly trained, they were mostly only employed when needed or when a certain victory was ahead.
There were hundreds of techniques they could use, mostly charging in circles and throwing lances before the final blow. But the tactics finally ended up being just a charge at full speed at the enemy. Thus the usefulness for the elite force of the knights became limited and gradually unimportant. Instead a new way was found to fill the ranks: common men without jobs that were open to kill for some money. Even though mercenaries were nothing new, in the latter centuries of the Middle Ages they became more and more popular; the Church wrote interdict after interdict against them and never got to something.
Now, mix in the noble’s “love” of death. I think most of the nobles started retiring into government positions as the national states became centralized and replaced the feudal kingdoms. Those who still thought being a knight was the best died in the hands of the soldiers that were hired en masse, armed with guns, the new invention that revolutionized the war. Instead, the heavy cavalry became the focus of sports: the tourney became even more popular by the XVth century for a reason.
This may only be an outline of what the real being of a knight was in the Middle Ages. But it lets us glimpse on a group that weas nothing else but people who tried to better they reputation with help of another power group. But in the end they were nothing else more than humans who tried to keep the power their ancestors had won by force. Also, they influenced and maybe even inspired one of the most important styles of writing: heroic adventures. And are we not happy for that today when we read our favourite fantasy novels?
Hope you liked this little long post, but this is the first one in my historic series of posts. Hope you enjoy it!
May they smile upon your way!