Unless you hung out with a bunch of medieval scholars or writers as a child, there’s a good chance that your first exposure to knights was followed quickly by the words “of the Round Table” or “who say Ni.” Love of shrubberies aside, while these stories are entertaining, they are not especially accurate representations of what was once a dominant military and social evolution in Europe.
The image many people have of knights involves the Crusades, or romantic portrayals of grand jousting tournaments. While these things did happen, and certainly were part of the knight’s life at different times in history, first and foremost a knight was a professional soldier.
Or a servant. Or a messenger. Or a young person travelling from a child to adulthood. There are as many theories as to the origins of medieval knighthood as there were knights during that period. The word itself is of uncertain origin, arising in various forms in many Germanic languages. The one most commonly cited is the Old English cniht (meaning “boy” or “servant”) itself an evolution of a German word (Knecht) with the same general meaning.
A humble word for a proud warrior, and one applied quite late in our modern concept of knighthood. Today, we think of mounted warriors with a highly evolved code of conduct. (For the word happy, Chivalry itself is an evolved word, coming to us from the Medieval Latin caballarius, or “horseman”).
Myself, I think there is only one modern profession that even approaches the complexity and dedication of the Medieval Knight, and it’s even harder to get into.
I’m speaking, of course, about being an Astronaut.
The Medieval Knight was a highly skilled professional who in his (or her) prime had decades of training with the most advanced technology available. They were well educated, performed their duties at a level few others could even approximate, and were such a valuable commodity it some lords found it preferable to expend dozens of “lesser” lives on the battlefield rather than risk losing their valued servants.
In the latter half of the 20th century, we all wanted to be Astronauts. I certainly did (with baseball player and science-fiction writer as backup plans), and it was a fantastic dream. To sail among the stars, seeing and doing things that nobody else could, and then coming home to have an ice cream cone.
Replace starships with horses, and it’s more or less a straight swap. More accurately, the stirrup is the technology that really made the institution of knighthood possible, and its proper introduction to Europe comes right around the same time the role of horses in war was no longer a suggestion, but a requirement.
Our records of the ancient world contain many stories of brave fighting men and their noble steeds, but very few have the two together in a fight. Pulling a chariot, sure. Coming to the rescue of a downed warrior? Romantic, but certainly within the realm of possibility. But riding your horse was what you did to get to the battle, and if you were lucky, back to camp afterward.
Stirrups were part of a number of martial improvements that let the Jin Dynasty unify China, and by the 5th century AD were in common use throughout that region. Less than 200 years later they are found in tombs in Hungary, and 200 years after that stirrups were an indispensable part of medieval warfare. Mounted warriors using stirrups had a greater range of motion in the saddle, and allowed the use of more and different weapons and tactics during a fight.
Charlemagne rewarded his deadly mounted warriors with grants of land, transforming a band of skilled mercenaries into landed and hereditary lords. If you were a knight and lived long enough to have sons of your own, they trained to be like you, and to secure your wealth for their own sons. Weapons and armor weren’t the most important thing a knight could pass on to the next generation, it was the knowledge of how and when to fight.
Whether the stirrup was a proximate cause for the rise of feudalism is something best left to far smarter men than myself (much like piloting the Space Shuttle), but the men (and women) we think of as knights often learned to ride before they could write their own names.
So what exactly is a knight, then? Is it a word, an ethos, a social status, or a job description? Is it a romantic notion of purity, a merciless warrior, or a fan of arranged greenery?
I’ll tell you. Knights are magic. They fire our imaginations with tales of daring-do, and give us a standard worth living by. No one talks about the Fry Cooks of the Round Table (except, of course, science fiction writers). King Arthur may or may not have been real, but either way, of course he was a knight! Bruce Wayne (reality also hotly debated) took his fear and buried it away behind the mask of the Dark Knight.
And a thousand years from now, when we are all Astronauts, we’ll still be talking about Medieval Knights.
In my admittedly biased opinion, that’s pretty Awesome. So, who wants ice cream?