Roots of the Medieval Knight

Few subjects have created such a strong image in our culture and in our imagination as the knight. Knights have taken a lot of different forms over the centuries; some of them are very real and some of them are just fantastic creations. But no matter what the the type of knight or organization they almost all have a few things in common.

The popular image today of the medieval knight is incomplete without his shining armour and heraldic shield. To these one may add his crest towering high upon his helmet, his emblazoned banner, and, covering his faithful war horse, a richly embroidered caparison. It is a striking image, one that has to a great extent been created and moulded by fictional literature beginning with the earliest Old French epics and courtly romances of the twelfth century. It reached its apogee in Sir Walter Scott's masterpiece, Ivanhoe, and in this century Hollywood has perhaps completed the picture by actually recreating the image in the flesh. For much of the Middle Ages and for many of the more wealthy knights this rather romantic portrait in terms of arms and armour was in fact not all that far from the truth, at least not for those special occasions such as tournaments. When armed for battle or tourney knights were usually covered cap a pied in armour.

Ceremony of Knighthood

Becoming a knight was much more than a tap on the shoulder with the flat edge of a sword. The first requirement for a boy to become a knight was that of his heritage. Generally, only boys born to certain men were allowed the opportunity to become a knight. These requirements were usually that the boy be the son of a knight, Lord, a wealthy merchant, or someone who held title and position in the court of the king or a lord. The ceremony of knighthood was the final stage in a process that a man followed since he was a boy. It was the symbolic culmination of his pursuit of proficiency on the battlefield and in the courts of nobility. It marked his transition from boy to man and from commoner to royalty. This ceremony was very important and had a lot of symbolic significance to him and to the people around him. It focused on three important aspects of knighthood: religion, allegiance to the King, and the code of chivalry. And in the evening before the ceremony the knight would retire alone to the chapel and spend the entire night in prayer and fasting to purify him and prepare him for knighthood. He would wear a white tunic, which symbolized his purity, and over it he would wear a red cloak which symbolized royalty. On the morning of the ceremony he would bathe as a symbol of his new purity. During the actual ceremony he would say an oath and swear fealty to god and to his king and he would affirm his devotion to the code of chivalry. The ritual part of the ceremony would end with the sponsor tapping the knight on both shoulders with a sword then introducing him as “sir” to the nobility.

Training for knighthood during medieval times usually began at an early age. Often the prospective knight was sent to live with a relative or lord who had the resources to train the young boy in use of weapons and, most importantly, the skills to handle a horse in combat. Your training began as a Page and around the age of six or seven, you would report to the local lord’s castle or manor to begin training as a knight. There you would learn a host of basic skills to make you a well-rounded and educated knight. You would learn the fundamentals of court life such as table manners, care and maintenance of armor and weapons, and how to care for a horse. You would also learn how to read and how to appreciate music or even play the lute. At around the age of thirteen, when you are starting to develop the body, mentality, strength and abilities of manhood you would be promoted to squire. Then be assigned as the personal assistant to a knight and this is the time that you focuses on the combat arms of knighthood. You would get intensive training in weapons, armor, tactics and mounted combat. Often times being allowed to carry a small sword and shield with you as a symbol of your status as a squire or a “knight in training”. Once your training was completed and you reached "fighting age" {usually around 16-20 years old}, you would ceremoniously become a full-fledged knight. The ceremony became more elaborate as the Middle Ages progressed, until only the richest nobles or a king could afford to "knight" someone which would then bound the knight to offer military service up to 40 days a year in times of peace and more, as needed, in war.

Oath of the Knight

I, {Enter Name}, creation of the Almighty, do hereby pledge to honor the strictures of this sacred heritage and promise by my faith to be loyal unto my Sovereignty, maintaining my devotion against all persons without deception or forethought. Further, I vow to promote and uphold the principles of Valor, Honor, Honesty, and Humlity; and to solemnly and faithfully follow the edicts of my Faith and my Deity. I take this pledge freely, without coercion or expectation of reward, sworn in blessed memory of those who have given their lives to this noble cause.

Knight Organizations that Still Exist Today-

Knights Hospitaller - also known as Knights of Malta - An orgainzation that was founded as a religious and military order in 1099 and it still exists today. Their primary purpose was the care and defense of the Holy Land. One of the notable things about the Knights Hospitaller is their uniform composed of a black surcoat with a white cross. The order has endured many changes over the centuries and their headquarters has moved many times around Europe then to Malta and Russia. It now is in Rome.

The Knights of Columbus - A Catholic fraternal organizaiton that was founded in 1882 and named in honor of Christopher Columbus. They are dedicated to the principles of Charity, Unity, Fraternity, and Patriotism. Their charitable contributions are significant and in 2007 they gave almost 145 million dollars to charity. Their total contributions over the past ten years exceeds 1 billion dollars.

Teutonic Knights - This is a German Roman Catholic religious order that was founded at the end of the 12th century. They were a crusading order and they wore a white surcoat with a black cross which is the opposite of the Knights Hospitaller. The order has undergone many changes over the centuries and today they are predominantly a charitable organization with an estimated 1,000 members.

The Order of the Garter - This is a very exclusive order of knighthood that was founded somewhere between 1344 and 1351. It is the highest of all the honour systems that exist in the United Kingdom. Its numbers are very severely limited to the sovereign, the Prince of Wales and 24 members. But there are a number of supernumerary knights and ladies. Prince William, the son of Diana and Charles, is the 1,000 knight inducted into the order.

The Order of the Golden Fleece - A fraternal organization founded in 1430 by Duke Philip III of Burgundy to celebrate his marriage to Princess Isable of Aviz. It has both a Spanish and an Austrian branch.

Knight Organizations of the Past -

The Knights Templar - The most famous of all the knights organizations. They were a western christian organization and they existed for about two hundred years in the Middle Ages. They were founded after the first crusade and their purpose was the ensure the safety of Christians traveling on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They built many fortifications along the pilgrimage route and they instituted new and progressive methods of financing which are considered to be early forms of banking. This is partly the reason why there still remains a mystique about the Knights Templar Treasure.

Knights of Labor (also known as Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor) - This was an organization that was founded in 1869 and it lasted until about 1949. It the early twentieth century it strongly declined and was pretty much disbanded by about 1949. It was a labor organizations in America and it was an important organization that fought for equality and fairness for all in the realm of labor/employer relations. Over time it functioned more as a labor union rather than a fraternal order.

Knights of the Annunciation 1362-1788 (The Supreme Order of the Most Holy Annunciation) It was a religious order of chivalry that was instituted by Amadeus VI Count of Savoy in Italy. It was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Order of the Knights of the Holy Spirit (Chevaliers du Saint-Esprit ) A French order that had the King as GrandMaster, 8 ecclesiastic members, 4 officers and 100 Knights. The order was founded in 1578 and was abolished in 1830.

The Order of the Dragon - A European knight order that was sworn to defend the Cross and fight the enemies of Christianity. It was founded by the King of Hungary in 1408 and was found primarily in Germany and Italy. Its members were known as Draconists and the order is claimed to be an inspiration to Bram Stoker in his writing of Dracula.

- Chivalry -

The word, chivalry, comes from the French word, 'chevalerie', which means 'skills to handle a horse' which was of utmost importance to a medieval knight. Though as the Middle Ages progressed, the term 'chivalry' began to take on new meaning and has come to be very watered down in modern day. For the most part we think of chivalry as the way a man behaves toward, and around, women and while this does characterize chivalry it is actually a very small component of what chivalry was. What we think of today was infact only the 'chivalric code' an all encompassing guide for living the aspect of a knight’s life and it was not until 1095 C.E that this code of conduct was even created and the christianization of knights began in earnest.

- Heraldry -

Heraldry is the profession, study, or art of devising, granting, and blazoning arms and ruling on questions of rank or protocol, as exercised by an officer of arms. Heraldry itself originated as a way to identify knights in battle or in tournaments. With the advent of the "great" or "barrel" helm of the early 13th century, an individual's face became concealed and it therefore became necessary to create a method to distinguish ally from enemy.

Heraldic symbols ranged from simple geometric shapes such as chevrons, to more elaborate drawings of real or mythological animals. As with the honor of becoming a knight, heraldic insignia became hereditary, being passed on from father to son, or with the family name. Eventually heraldic symbols also came to signify kingdoms, duchies, or provinces as a medieval forerunner to our modern national flags.

Heraldic symbols were often worn on the knight's surcoat thus the term "coat of arms", shield, helmet, or on a banner {standard} that could serve as a rallying point for knights and others scattered in the chaos of battle. The standard was always to be elevated as long as the battle continued, and therefore was guarded well. A standard taken down would signal the allied combatants that the cause was lost and it was time to flee the field of combat.

- Weapons of the Knight -

A great portion of a knight’s life was devoted to the mastery of a variety of weapons. Here we will look at some of the more common weapons that were wielded throughout the Middle Ages.

The sword was a standard fighting weapon long before the evolution of the medieval knight. Nevertheless, the medieval knight found the sword to be an effective weapon. Medieval swords usually were made from a mild steel (low carbon steel). Most swords were double-edged, and featured a crossguard, hilt, and pommel. Many surviving examples of medieval swords feature some form of engraving, such as a prayer, or the sword owner's name. They were central part of a knight’s armory and even as hand weapons became obsolete swords remained part of a knights arsenal as a symbol of power and chivalry.

Another common one-handed weapon of knights was the mace, which was a short handled striking weapon with a ball on the far end. The ball often had spikes or flanges on it, which would penetrate a foes armor. The flail was another standard weapon and it was short handled with a length of chain then a ball or flail head. This ball on a chain, when swung could generate enormous force, and just as importantly, it could be used to swing up and over an enemy’s shield. The warhammer was another common weapon and it was a direct modification of the blacksmith’s hammer. It was a very common weapon particularly in the early centuries of medieval warfare and was very similar to today’s modern claw hammer having one end that was flat and used for striking, and the other end having a piercing beak that could penetrate armor.

Polearms were long handled weapons that knights often used in combat -particularly when mounted on horses. They ranged in length from six feet to as much as twelve or sixteen feet. The basic advantage of a polearm was its reach from atop a horse. It could be used to attack an enemy before he could get close enough to use his own weapon. They came in many variations and the most common type of polearm is the lance, which is still used today in jousting competitions. The lance was also a capable, and feared, weapon used for breaking up the foot ranks of enemy formations. Other types of polearms were often variations of hand-held weapons mounted on the end of a long pole. And two good examples of this are the poleaxe and the halberd, which were forms of axes, often with a hammer, or axe blade along one side and a point at the very tip for penetrating armor.

While there were many weapons that knights used there also were a few weapons that they refused to use for various reasons. The three most popular weapons that they didn't use were the bow, the crossbow, and the dagger. The bow and crossbow were considered to be unknightly because you did not face your foe when fighting. And the dagger was considered to be a dishonorable weapon because it was used stealthily and hidden.

The weapons of a knight still hold fascination for many people today. Weapons catalogs, Medieval and Renaissance Faires, and museums continue to draw attention to the brutal and deadly weapons of the medieval knight.

- Armor -

Protecting oneself in battle has always been a concern for any soldier, and medieval knights were no exception. In fact, it was their protective armor that helped define them as a military unit and social class. Armoring oneself during the Middle Ages was a great expense that only the wealthy could afford.

Among the earliest metallic armor to be worn by medieval knights was chainmail armor, consisting of tens of thousands of interlocking rings woven painstakingly by hand to form a shirt, coif, or leggings. Because of the mild steel produced in medieval times each ring had to be riveted to keep all the rings from spreading and opening under the weight of the piece. Underneath the metal armor the knight would wear a padded garment known variously as an "aketon," or "gambeson." To this defensive equipment he added a shield, usually made of leather-covered wood, and a helmet. As the medieval arms race progressed and new, more powerful weapons were developed (such as the longbow and crossbow), chainmail became ineffective on its own.

Late in the Middle Ages plate armor began to appear (ca. late 13th/early 14th century), first as reinforcements to vital areas such as the chest and shoulders, and finally as a complete suit (ca. early 15th century). The medieval "knight in shining armor" that most people think of is the fully plate-armored knight. Chainmail armor was now relegated to protecting smaller vital areas that could not be covered with plate armor, such as the groin and under the arms. The shield became smaller, or disappeared altogether as it became unnecessary and redundant.

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