Gallant, brave, loyal and honorable. All characteristics that came to be associated with an idealized conception of the knight in the Middle Ages.
The average knight may not have lived up to such flawless standards, but the heroic archetype was popularized by medieval literature and folklore, with a code of proper knightly conduct known as “chivalry” developed towards the end of the 12th century. Here are six facts about medieval knights and chivalry.
1. Chivalry was an informal code
In other words, there was no set list of chivalrous rules recognized by all knights. However, according to the Song of Roland, an epic poem dating back to the 12th century, chivalry included the following vows:
- Fear God and His Church
- Serve the liege Lord in valor and faith
- Protect the weak and defenseless
- Live by honor and for glory
- Respect the honor of women
2. According to French literary historian Léon Gautier, there were “Ten Commandments of Chivalry”
In his 1882 book La Chevalerie, Gautier outlines these commandments as follows:
- Believe the Church’s teachings and observe all the Church’s directions
- Defend the Church
- Respect and defend the weak
- Love your country
- Do not fear your enemy
- Show no mercy and do not hesitate to make war with the infidel
- Perform all your feudal duties as long as they do not conflict with the laws of God
- Never lie or go back on one’s word
- Be generous
- Always and everywhere be right and good against evil and injustice
3. The Song of Roland was the first “chanson de geste”
Meaning “songs of great deeds”, chansons de geste were French heroic poems written in the Middle Ages. The Song of Roland tells the story of Charlemagne’s victory over the final Saracen army in Spain (a campaign that began in 778).
The titular Roland is leading the rear guard when his men are ambushed while crossing the Pyrenees Mountains. Rather than alert Charlemagne to the ambush by blowing a horn, Roland and his men face the ambush alone, so as not to risk the lives of the king and his troops.
Roland dies in battle a martyr and his act of valor is seen as exemplifying the courage and selflessness of a true knight and vassal to the king.
4. William Marshal was one of England’s greatest knights
The biggest hero of his day, William Marshal’s name sits alongside King Arthur and Richard the Lionheart as one of England’s most famous knights. He was considered the greatest tournament knight of his age and also spent some years fighting in the Holy Land.
In 1189, William even unseated Richard, soon to be Richard I, in battle when Richard was leading a rebellion against his father, King Henry II. Despite this, when Richard ascended the English throne later that year, William became one of his most dependable generals and was left to govern England when Richard departed for the Holy Land.
Nearly thirty years later in 1217, a 70-year-old William Marshall defeated an invading French army at Lincoln.
William Marshal’s incredible story is chronicled in the Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, the only known written biography of a non-royal to survive from the Middle Ages. In it Marshal is described as ‘the best knight in the world’.
5. The chivalric code was strongly influenced by Christianity
This was in large part thanks to the Crusades, a series of military expeditions beginning in the late 11th century that were organised by western European Christians in an effort to counter the spread of Islam.
Those taking part in the Crusades were seen as epitomizing the image of a noble and righteous warrior and a knight’s servitude to God and church became a central part of the concept of chivalry.
The Catholic Church had traditionally had an uneasy relationship with war and so this religious aspect of chivalry can be seen as an attempt at reconciling the warring tendencies of the noble class with the ethical requirements of the church.
6. This influence led to the emergence of a concept known as “knightly piety”
This term refers to the religious motivations held by some knights in the Middle Ages – motivations that were so strong that their plunder was often donated to churches and monasteries.
This sense of religious duty inspired knights to fight in wars deemed “holy”, such as the Crusades, but their piety was characterized as distinct from that of the clergy.
7. A Roman Catholic order of chivalry was founded in 1430
Known as the Order of the Golden Fleece, this order was founded in Bruges by the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, to celebrate his marriage to the Portuguese princess Isabella. The order still exists today and current members include Queen Elizabeth II.
The Duke of Burgundy defined 12 chivalric virtues for the Order to follow:
8. Agincourt proved that, by 1415, chivalry no longer had a place in hard war
During the Battle of Agincourt, King Henry V had more than 3,000 French prisoners executed, among which were many knights. This act went completely against the chivalric code that stated a knight must be taken hostage and ransomed.
One source claims Henry killed the prisoners because he was worried they would escape and rejoin the fighting. However, in doing this he made the rules of war – usually rigorously upheld – entirely obsolete and brought an end to the centuries-old practice of chivalry on the battlefield.