Some thoughts on medieval knights from a CFA perspective

Sir Wolfram of Eschenbach, Manesse Codex, Zu- rich, c. 1300-1340 (detail). © Universitätsbiblio- thek Heidelberg

Medieval knighthood was a coveted status not easily attained. Fundamentally, being a knight meant having mastered the skill of fighting on horseback whilst wearing chain mail or armour and wielding a lance. This took several years. Indeed, boys aspiring to be knights received their first riding lessons soon after they had learned to walk. And originally, by undergoing the ritual by which they were created knights – the so-called ceremony of dubbing to knighthood – they were simultaneously identified as grown men.

Being knighted thus was a rite of passage: it meant being accepted into the society of adult males. It generally brought with it the rights apper- taining to that status, such as being able to inherit, and take a wife (which could mean taking control of landed estates, if the wife was an heiress or widow). Knighthood also opened up other economic opportunities: knights were allowed to participate in tournaments, where horses, arms and armour could be captured and sold, and vanquished opponents ransomed. Furthermore, tournaments were knightly job fairs: great lords – counts, dukes and kings – also fought in them, and invited the knights who had covered themselves in glory there to join their retinues. Knighthood, then, was among other things a professional qualification, the stepping-stone to a career.

If knighthood brought with it opportunities, it also entailed obligations. Already before the First Crusade got under way in 1096, knights from different parts of Europe thought of themselves as members of a sort of ‘international’ order – not a religious one, but one with its own rite of initiation and standards of conduct. That is to say, there was a widespread notion that knights, wherever they were from and whoever was their lord, should behave in a certain way because they were knights. Status was linked to standards. And squires, when they came to be knighted, were reminded of this because each part of the ritual they underwent, and each of the gifts they received, symbolised one such standard: their new sword, above all, evoked the knight’s duty to protect the defenceless from oppression. For those who failed to live up to the code of chivalry, there were penalties (including having to eat on their own during banquets, or in more serious cases being ritually degraded from their knighthood by having their spurs cleaved from their heels). In short, knights were not necessarily expected to be loyal only to their lord – in preserving and enhancing their reputations, they were expected to aspire to an ideal that went beyond serving the interests of their employer.

D!oes any of this sound at all familiar?

This article by Max Liebermann CFA first appeared in the September 2014 issue of The Charter. Dr Max Lieberman, F. R. Hist. S. completed a research project on the medieval history of knighthood and is now preparing a publication on the perception of risk in the middle ages.

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