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A knight in gothic plate armour, from a German book illustration published 1483.
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A knight was a "gentleman soldier"[1] or member of the warrior class of the Middle Ages in Europe. In other Indo-European languages, cognates of cavalier or rider are more prevalent (eg French chevalier and German Ritter) suggesting a connection to the knight's mode of transport. Since antiquity a position of honour and prestige has been held by mounted warriors such as the Greek hippeus and the Roman eques, and knighthood in the Middle Ages was inextricably linked with horsemanship.[2]

The Franco-British legend of King Arthur was popularised throughout Europe in the Middle Ages by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain"), written in the 1130s. Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur ("The Death of Arthur"), written in 1485, was important in defining the ideal of chivalry which is essential to the modern concept of the knight as an elite warrior sworn to uphold the values of faith, loyalty, courage, and honour. During the Renaissance, the genre of chivalric romance became popular in literature, growing ever more idealistic and eventually giving rise to a new form of realism in literature popularised by Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. This novel explored the ideals of knighthood and their incongruity with the reality of Cervantes' world. In the late medieval period, new methods of warfare began to render classical knights in armor obsolete, but the titles remained in many nations.

Some orders of knighthood, such as the Knights Templar, have themselves become the stuff of legend; others have disappeared into obscurity. Today, a number of orders of knighthood continue to exist in several countries, such as the English Order of the Garter, the Swedish Royal Order of the Seraphim, and the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav. Each of these orders has its own criteria for eligibility, but knighthood is generally granted by a head of state to selected persons to recognise some meritorious achievement.

Contents

Etymology

The word knight, from Old German cniht ("boy" or "servant"),[3] is a cognate of the German word Knecht ("labourer" or "servant").[4] This meaning, of unknown origin, is common among West Germanic languages (cf: Old Frisian kniucht, Dutch knecht, Danish knægt, Middle High German kneht, all meaning "boy, youth, lad", as well as German Knecht "servant, bondsman, vassal").[3] Old English cnihthād ("knighthood") had the meaning of adolescence (i.e. the period between childhood and manhood) by 1300.[3] The sense of (adult) lieutenant of a king or other superior was in existence at least as early as 1100, although there are signs of it as early as Alfred's translation of Orosius.[citation needed] The connection of the "knight" and horsemanship is a comparatively early one, with a type of royal servant described in Alfred's time as a rādcniht (meaning "riding-knight"). The rādcniht rendered mounted services to the king: delivering messages, patrolling coastlines, and acting as a royal agent; he was probably also involved in military duties. The term cniht, however, had no particular connection to horsemanship and retained a primary meaning of "servant" or "retainer."

In this respect English differs from most other European languages, where the equivalent word emphasizes the status and prosperity of war horse ownership. Linguistically, the association of horse ownership with social status extends back at least as far as ancient Greece, where many aristocratic names incorporated the Greek word for horse, like Hipparchus and Xanthippe; the character Pheidippides in Aristophanes' Clouds has his grandfather's name with hipp- inserted to sound more aristocratic. Similarly, the Greek ἱππεύς (hippeus) is commonly translated "knight"; at least in its sense of the highest of the four Athenian social classes, those who could afford to maintain a warhorse in the state service.[citation needed] Both Greek hippos and Latin equus are derived from the Proto-Indo-European word root ekwo- meaning "horse".[5]

An Equestrian (Latin, from eques "horseman", from equus "horse")[6] was a member of the second highest social class in the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire. This class is often translated as "knight"; the medieval knight, however, was called miles in Latin, (which in classical Latin meant "soldier", normally infantry).[citation needed] In the later Roman Empire the classical Latin word for horse, equus, was replaced in common parlance by vulgar Latin caballus, derived from Gaulish caballos[citation needed]. From caballus arose Old Italian cavaliere, Italian cavallo, French cheval, and (borrowed from French) English cavalier.[7] This pattern continues among the words for knight in the Romance languages: Spanish caballero, French chevalier, Portuguese cavaleiro etc. In German, the meaning of Ritter is rider; and likewise for the Dutch and Scandinavian title ridder. These words are cognates derived from Germanic rīdan "to ride", from Proto-Indo-European reidh-.[8]

Origins of medieval knighthood

Since classical antiquity, heavy cavalry known as cataphracts were involved in various wars, with their arms and role in battle similar to those of the medieval knight. However a cataphract had no fixed political position or social role other than his military function.

Knighthood as known in Europe was characterized by the combination of two elements, feudalism and service as a mounted combatant. Both arose under the reign of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne, from which the knighthood of the Middle Ages can be seen to have had its genesis.

Some portions of the armies of Germanic tribes (and super-tribes, such as the Suebi) who occupied Europe from the 3rd century AD, had always been mounted, and some armies, such as those of the Ostrogoths, comprised mainly cavalry. However it was the Franks who came to dominate Western and Central Europe after the fall of Rome, and they generally fielded armies composed of large masses of infantry, with an infantry elite, the comitatus, which often rode to battle on horseback rather than marching on foot. Riding to battle had two key advantages: it reduced fatigue, particularly when the elite soldiers wore armor (as was increasingly the case in the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman empire); and it gave the soldiers more mobility to react to the raids of the enemy, particularly the invasions of Muslim armies which started in the 7th century. So it was that the armies of the Frankish ruler and warlord Charles Martel, which defeated the Umayyad Arab invasion at the Battle of Tours in 732, were still largely infantry armies, the elites riding to battle but dismounting to fight, providing a hard core for the levy of the infantry warbands.

As the 8th century progressed into the Carolingian Age, the Franks were generally on the attack, and larger numbers of warriors took to their horses to ride with the Emperor in his wide-ranging campaigns of conquest. At about this time the Franks increasingly remained on horseback to fight on the battlefield as true cavalry rather than as mounted infantry, and would continue to do so for centuries thereafter. Although in some nations the knight returned to foot combat in the 14th century, the association of the knight with mounted combat with a spear, and later a lance, remained a strong one.

These mobile mounted warriors made Charlemagne’s far-flung conquests possible, and to secure their service he rewarded them with grants of land called benefices. These were given to the captains directly by the emperor to reward their efforts in the conquests, and they in turn were to grant benefices to their warrior contingents, who were a mix of free and unfree men. In the century or so following Charlemagne’s death, his newly empowered warrior class grew stronger still, and Charles the Bald declared their fiefs to be hereditary. The period of chaos in the 9th and 10th centuries, between the fall of the Carolingian central authority and the rise of separate Western and Eastern Frankish kingdoms (later to become France and Germany respectively), only entrenched this newly-landed warrior class. This was because governing power, and defense against Viking, Magyar and Saracen attack, became an essentially local affair which revolved around these new hereditary local lords and their demesnes.

The resulting hereditary, landed class of mounted elite warriors, the knights, were increasingly seen as the only true soldiers of Europe, hence the exclusive use of miles for them.

The tradition of the chivalric "knight in shining armor" can be traced back to the Arabs, with notable pre-Islamic figures like the Bedouin knight Antar The Lion (580 AD). He is believed to be the model of this tradition.[9] Charles Reginald Haines noted traits "such as loyalty, courtesy, munificence...are found in eminent degree among the Arabs."[citation needed] Medieval Spain, which he calls the "cradle of chivalry", could bear that pre-modern title, due to the direct impact of Arab civilization in Al-Andalus. "Piety, courtesy, prowess in war, the gift of eloquence, the art of poetry, skill on horseback, dexterity with sword, lance, and bow" was expected of the elite Moorish knight.[10] Richard Francis Burton, when characterizing this strain of thought in the writings of Europe as a whole, maintained "were it not evident that the spiritualising of sexuality by imagination is universal among the highest orders of mankind", he continues, "I should attribute the origins of love to the influences of the Arabs' poetry and chivalry upon European ideas rather than to medieval Christianity."[11]

Chivalric code

Jan van Eyck, "Knights of Christ" (detail of the Ghent Altarpiece).

Knights of the medieval era were asked to "Protect the weak, defenseless, helpless, and fight for the general welfare of all". These few guidelines were the main duties of a medieval knight, but they were very hard to accomplish fully. Rarely could even the best of knights achieve these goals. Knights trained, inter alia, in hunting, fighting, and riding. They were also trained to practise courteous, honorable behaviour, which was considered extremely important. Chivalry (derived from the French word chevalier implying "skills to handle a horse") was the main principle guiding a knight’s life style. The code of chivalry dealt with three main areas: the military, social life, and religion.[12] The military side of life was very important to knighthood. Along with the fighting elements of war, there were many customs and rules to be followed as well. A way of demonstrating military chivalry was to own expensive, heavy weaponry. Weapons were not the only crucial instruments for a knight: horses were also extremely important, and each knight often owned several horses for distinct purposes. One of the greatest signs of chivalry was the flying of coloured banners , to display power and to distinguish knights in battle and in tournaments.[citation needed] Warriors were not only required to own all these belongings to prove their allegiance: they were expected to act with military courtesy as well. In combat when nobles and knights were taken prisoner, their lives were spared and were often held for ransom in somewhat comfortable surroundings. This same code of conduct did not apply to non-knights (archers, peasants, foot-soldiers, etc.) who were often slaughtered after capture, and who were viewed during battle as mere impediments to knights' getting to other knights to fight them.[13]

Becoming a knight was not a widely attainable goal in the medieval era. Sons of knights were eligible for the ranks of knighthood, but while other young men could indeed become knights, the job was just nearly impossible, especially for those from the lowest class.[citation needed] Those who were destined to become knights were singled out: in boyhood, these future warriors were sent off to a castle as pages, later becoming squires. Commonly around the age of 20, knights would be admitted to their rank in a ceremony called either "dubbing" (from the French adoubement), or the "Accolade". Although these strong young men had proved their eligibility, their social status would be permanently controlled. They were expected to obey the code of chivalry at all times, and no failure was accepted.[citation needed]

Chivalry and religion were mutually influenced. The early Crusades helped to clarify the moral code of chivalry as it related to religion. As a result, Christian armies began to devote their efforts to sacred purposes. As time passed, clergy instituted religious vows which required knights to use their weapons chiefly for the protection of the weak and defenseless, especially women and orphans, and of churches.[citation needed]

The Code of Chivalry continued to influence social behaviour long after the actual knighthood ceased to exist, influencing for example 19th century Victorian perceptions of how a "gentleman" ought to behave up to today.[citation needed]

Knights in literature

Knights and the ideals of knighthood featured largely in medieval and Renaissance literature, and have secured a permanent place in literary romance. While chivalric romances abound, particularly notable literary portrayals of knighthood include Geoffrey Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, and Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, as well as Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and other Arthurian tales (Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, the Pearl Poet's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc.).

The ideal courtier—the chivalrous knight—of Baldassarre Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier became a model of the ideal virtues of nobility.[14] Castiglione's tale took the form of a discussion among the nobility of the court of the Duke of Urbino, in which the characters determine that the ideal knight should be renowned not only for his bravery and prowess in battle, but also as a skilled dancer, athlete, singer and orator, and he should also be well-read in the Humanities and classical Greek and Latin literature.[15]

Regalia

Knights are generally armigerous (bearing a coat of arms), and indeed they played an essential role in the development of heraldry. As heavier armour, including enlarged shields and enclosed helmets, developed in the Middle Ages, the need for marks of identification arose, and with coloured shields and surcoats, coat armory was born. Armorial rolls were created to record the knights of various regions or those who participated in various tournaments. Additionally, knights adopted certain forms of regalia which became closely associated with the status of knighthood. At the Battle of Crécy (1346), Edward III of England sent his son, Edward, the Black Prince, to lead the charge into battle and when pressed to send reinforcements, the king replied, "say to them that they suffer him this day to win his spurs." Clearly, by this time, spurs had already become emblematic of knighthood. The livery collar is another part of the knight's regalia specifically associated with knighthood.

Orders of knighthood

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Military–monastic orders

The Seal of the Knights Templar

Other orders were established in the Iberian peninsula, under the influence of the orders in the Holy Land and the Crusader movement of the Reconquista:

Chivalric orders

After the Crusades, the military orders became idealized and romanticized, resulting in the late medieval notion of chivalry, as reflected in the Arthurian romances of the time. The creation of chivalric orders was fashionable among the nobility in the 14th and 15th centuries, and this is still reflected in contemporary honours systems, including the term order itself. Examples of notable orders of chivalry are:

From roughly 1560, purely honorific orders were established, as a way to confer prestige and distinction, unrelated to military service and chivalry in the more narrow sense. Such orders were particularly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, and knighthood continues to be conferred in various countries:

There are other monarchies and also republics that also follow this practice. Modern knighthoods are typically awarded in recognition for services rendered to society: services which are not necessarily martial in nature. The British musician Elton John, for example, is a Knight Bachelor, thus entitled to be called Sir Elton. The female equivalent is a Dame.

In the British honours system the knightly style of Sir is accompanied by the given name, and optionally the surname. So, Elton John may be called Sir Elton or Sir Elton John, but never Sir John. Similarly, actress Judi Dench DBE may be addressed as Dame Judi or Dame Judi Dench, but never Dame Dench.

Wives of knights, however, are entitled to the honorific "Lady" before their husband's surname. Thus Sir Paul McCartney's ex-wife was formally styled Lady McCartney (rather than Lady Paul McCartney or Lady Heather McCartney). The style Dame Heather McCartney could be used for the wife of a knight; however, this style is largely archaic and is only used in the most formal of documents, or where the wife is a Dame in her own right (such as Dame Norma Major, who gained her title six years before her husband Sir John Major was knighted). The husbands of Dames have no honorific, so Dame Norma's husband remained The Rt Hon John Major until he received his own knighthood.

Since the reign of Edward VII a clerk in holy orders in the Church of England or in another Anglican Church has not normally received the accolade on being appointed to a degree of knighthood. He receives the insignia of his honour and may place the appropriate letters after his name or title but he may not be called Sir and his wife may not be called Lady. The Rt Revd the Hon Sir Paul Reeves did receive the accolade and is correctly called Sir but it is not clear how this situation arose. Ministers of other Christian Churches are entitled to receive the accolade. For example, His Eminence Sir Norman Cardinal Gilroy did receive the accolade on his appointment as Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1969. A knight who is subsequently ordained does not lose his title. A famous example of this situation was The Revd Sir Derek Pattinson, who was ordained just a year after he was appointed Knight Bachelor, apparently somewhat to the consternation of officials at Buckingham Palace.[16] A woman clerk in holy orders may be appointed a Dame in exactly the same way as any other woman since there are no military connotations attached to the honour. A clerk in holy orders who is a baronet is entitled to use the title Sir.

Outside the British honours system it is usually considered improper to address a knighted person as 'Sir' or 'Dame'. Some countries, however, historically did have equivalent honorifics for knights, such as Cavaliere in Italy (e.g. Cavaliere Benito Mussolini), and Ritter in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (e.g. Georg Ritter von Trapp).

State Knighthoods in the Netherlands are issued in three orders, the Order of William, the Order of the Netherlands Lion, and the Order of Orange Nassau. Additionally there remain a few hereditary knights in the Netherlands.

In France, among other orders are the Légion d'Honneur, the Ordre National du Mérite, the Ordre des Palmes académiques and the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The lowest of the ranks conferred by these orders is Chevalier, meaning Knight.

In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the monarchs tried to establish chivalric orders but the hereditary lords who controlled the Union did not agree and managed to ban such assemblies. They feared the King would use Orders to gain support for absolutist goals and to make formal distinctions among the peerage which could lead to its legal breakup into two separate classes, and that the King would later play one against the other and eventually limit the legal privileges of hereditary nobility. But finally in 1705 King August II managed to establish the Order of the White Eagle which remains Poland's most prestigious order of that kind. The head of state (now the President as the acting Grand Master) confers knighthoods of the Order to distinguished citizens, foreign monarchs and other heads of state. The Order has its Chapter. There were no particular honorifics that would accompany a knight's name as historically all (or at least by far most) its members would be royals or hereditary lords anyway. So today, a knight is simply referred to as "Name Surname, knight of the White Eagle (Order)".

Hereditary knighthoods in Great Britain and Ireland

There are traces of the Continental system of hereditary knighthood on the British Isles, however[citation needed]. Notably all three of the following belong to the Welsh-Norman FitzGerald dynasty, created by the Earls of Desmond, acting as Earls Palatine, for their kinsmen.

Another Irish family were the O'Shaughnessys, created knights by Henry VIII of England in 1553 under his policy of Surrender and regrant.[17]

Since 1611, the British Crown has awarded an hereditary title in the form of the Baronetcy. Like knights, baronets are accorded the title Sir. Baronets are not peers of the realm, and did not sit in the House of Lords when it was a hereditary house, therefore like Knights they remain commoners in the view of the British nobility system. However, unlike Knights, the title is hereditary and the recipient does not receive an accolade. The position is therefore more comparable with hereditary knighthoods in continental European orders of nobility, such as ritter, than with knighthoods under the British orders of chivalry.

See also

Analogous concepts:

  • Bogatyr, or vityaz, the Kievan Rus' knight-errant
  • Cataphract, an ancient heavy cavalry
  • Hwarang, a similar class in Korean history
  • Janissary, a similar class in Turkish history
  • Kshatriya, a similar class in Indian history
  • Mamluk, a similar class in Middle Eastern history
  • Noker, a similar class in Mongol history
  • Samurai, a similar class in Japanese history
  • Youxia, a similar class in Chinese history

Notes

  1. ^ "Knight". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company). 2000. 
  2. ^ Edge (1988), p. 6.
  3. ^ a b c "Knight". Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=k&p=3. Retrieved 2009-04-07. 
  4. ^ "Knecht". LEO German-English dictionary. http://dict.leo.org/ende?lp=ende&p=KO6ek.&search=Knecht. Retrieved 2009-04-07. 
  5. ^ "ekwo-". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed.. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000. http://www.bartleby.com/61/roots/IE124.html. Retrieved 2009-04-07. 
  6. ^ "Equestrian". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed.. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000. http://www.bartleby.com/61/89/E0188900.html. Retrieved 2009-04-07. 
  7. ^ "Cavalier". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed.. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000. http://www.bartleby.com/61/44/C0174400.html. Retrieved 2009-04-07. 
  8. ^ See reidh- from American Heritage Dictionary's Index of Indo-European Roots.
  9. ^ Gutenberg.org, pg.587
  10. ^ Archive.org, pg.152
  11. ^ Burton, Richard Francis (2007). Charles Anderson Read. ed. The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Vol. IV. p. 94. ISBN 1406780014. http://books.google.com/books?id=93XtaGIOPhMC&dq=antar+2007+chivalry&source=gbs_summary_s&cad=0. 
  12. ^ Chivalry - New Advent
  13. ^ See Marcia L. Colish, The Mirror of Language: A Study in the Medieval Theory of Knowledge; University of Nebraska Press, 1983. p. 105.
  14. ^ Hare (1908), p. 201.
  15. ^ Hare (1908), pp. 211-218.
  16. ^ "Michael De-La-Noy, obituary in ''The Independent''". News.independent.co.uk. http://news.independent.co.uk/people/obituaries/article1879386.ece. Retrieved 2009-11-19. 
  17. ^ John O'Donovan, "The Descendants of the Last Earls of Desmond", Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Volume 6. 1858.

References

  • Arnold, Benjamin. German Knighthood, 1050-1300. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. ISBN 0198219601 LCCN 85-235009
  • Bloch, Marc. Feudal Society, 2nd ed. Translated by Manyon. London: Routledge & Keagn Paul, 1965.
  • Bluth, B. J. Marching with Sharpe. London: Collins, 2001. ISBN 0004145372
  • Boulton, D'Arcy Jonathan Dacre. The Knights of the Crown: The Monarchical Orders of Knighthood in Later Medieval Europe, 1325-1520. 2d revised ed. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2000. ISBN 0851154714
  • Bull, Stephen. An Historical Guide to Arms and Armour. London: Studio Editions, 1991. ISBN 1851707239
  • Carey, Brian Todd; Allfree, Joshua B; Cairns, John. Warfare in the Medieval World, UK: Pen & Sword Military, June 2006. ISBN 1844153398
  • Edge, David; John Miles Paddock (1988) Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight. Greenwich, CT: Bison Books Corp. ISBN 0517103192
  • Edwards, J. C. "What Earthly Reason? The replacement of the longbow by handguns." Medieval History Magazine, Is. 7, March 2004.
  • Ellul, Max J. The Green Eight Pointed Cross. Watermelon, 2004.
  • Embleton, Gerry. Medieval Military Costume. UK: Crowood Press, 2001. ISBN 1861263716
  • Forey, Alan John. The Military Orders: From the Twelfth to the Early Fourteenth Centuries. Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Macmillan Education, 1992. ISBN 0333462343
  • Hare, Christopher. Courts & camps of the Italian renaissance. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1908. LCCN 08-031670
  • Laing, Lloyd and Jennifer Laing. Medieval Britain: The Age of Chivalry. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. ISBN 0312162782
  • Oakeshott, Ewart. A Knight and his Horse, 2nd ed. Chester Springs, PA: Dufour Editions, 1998. ISBN 0802312977 LCCN 98-032049
  • Robards, Brooks. The Medieval Knight at War. London: Tiger Books, 1997. ISBN 1855019191
  • Shaw, William A. The Knights of England: A Complete Record from the Earliest Time. London: Central Chancery, 1906. (Republished Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1970). ISBN 080630443X LCCN 74-129966
  • Williams, Alan. "The Metallurgy of Medieval Arms and Armour", in Companion to Medieval Arms and Armour. Nicolle, David, ed. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2002. ISBN 0851158722 LCCN 20-02003680

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