Knights and the Traditions of Chivalry

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Knights and the Traditions of Chivalry

Numerous foot soldiers gave their lives to the cause of reclaiming the Holy Land during the Crusades. Carrying the banners of that cause, though, was Europe's warrior class: its knights. Noble, courageous, and skilled, the knights of Europe, from the viewpoint of the Christian nations, carried out God's work in trying to drive the Muslims (followers of the religion of Islam) out of God's holy places. In the twenty-first century the image of these knights is often romanticized. The "knight in shining armor" occupies an honored, permanent place in the cultural heritage of the West and is a fixture in legends, fairy tales, and epic adventure stories (see Chapter 11 on the literature of the Crusades).

While knights are usually thought of in connection with medieval life, the tradition of conferring knighthood has not died, at least in England. In 1997 rock star Paul McCartney, one of the original Beatles of the 1960s, was knighted by England's Queen Elizabeth II during a ceremony in London. Another rock legend, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, received a similar honor in 2004. Like their forebears hundreds of years ago, these modern knights, in a solemn and formal ceremony, knelt before the queen. The queen then tapped them on each shoulder with the flat side of a bared sword as she "invested" them with (gave them) the title "knight." From that time on, as a member of the nobility, each knight became entitled to attach the word "sir" to his name, though it is unlikely that either of these rock-and-roll icons will actually do so.

It is equally unlikely that Sir Paul, Sir Mick, or any of the other prominent artists and citizens of Great Britain who have been knighted in modern times will put on a suit of armor, mount a horse, and set out to conquer new realms for his queen. Knighthood for these and other citizens is granted to recognize cultural achievement or service to Great Britain, typically for charitable work. But the underlying concept of service to the realm has defined knighthood since the Middle Ages.

Closely connected with knighthood is the concept of chivalry. Today, people are likely to use the word chivalry to refer to high standards of good manners, protectiveness, and helpfulness. Most often the word crops up in relationships between men and women. A man who politely holds open a door for a woman or who defends her from danger is still said to be acting "chivalrously." The word reflects, as it did hundreds of years ago, a code of behavior that places value on the protection of others.

"Knighthood" and "chivalry" are not one and the same, but it is impossible to speak of one without addressing the other. And it is impossible to understand either without first looking at the social structure of medieval Europe. It was this social structure that gave rise to the institution of knighthood, including special orders of knighthood such as the Knights Hospitallers and Knights Templars. In turn, knighthood gave rise to the institution and codes of chivalry.


First we must consider the origins of the words. Despite the romantic, adventurous images that surround the words "knighthood" and "chivalry," the origins of the two words are rather homely. "Knight" is an Anglo-Saxon (Germanic-English) word. It comes from the Old English word cniht, which means simply "boy." It evolved into the word "knight" because many early knights were still in their teens when they began to serve as men-at-arms for their lords.

The word "chivalry," on the other hand, originates in the Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, and French). It comes from the Old French word chevalerie, which means something like "skill in handling a horse." In an age before guns, gunpowder, and cannons, warfare with lances and swords required the knight to battle his opponent personally and up close. Only those who could control and direct the strength and speed of a horse were likely to survive armed combat, although peasants and commoners, in contrast to members of the nobility, had to take their chances on foot. In many early texts, "chivalry" refers simply to the actual ranks of a mounted army, that is, to "troops." In time, though, the word came to stand for much more, in particular, a code of behavior and ethics to which all knights were expected to hold.

The structure of medieval society

To understand the institutions of knighthood and chivalry, and the motivations of many of the Crusaders (what drove them in their cause), it is necessary to examine the structure of life during the Middle Ages in Europe. This was the period of time roughly from 500 to 1500, also called the medieval period. Several characteristics of medieval life are important.


First, land was the source of nearly all wealth. The Middle Ages began to see the appearance of a small middle class that earned its income through such activities as trade and finance. But most wealth during this time was the product of the land. Land provided lumber and stone to build houses, fuel, food crops, animal fur and fabrics for clothing—nearly all of the necessities of life. Those who owned large estates of land, in later years called "fiefs," had almost always received them as grants from a king for their service, usually in war. With the land came a noble title, such as duke, earl, or baron.

The king ruled absolutely—that is, with complete authority—over his subjects, just as God ruled absolutely over kings. Noble landowners, in turn, ruled absolutely over their smaller fiefdoms in a social and military system called feudalism. Feudalism began primarily in France, but in time it spread through much of Europe, including England. It emerged in the centuries following the withdrawal of the Romans, when Europe was overrun by marauding (raiding and looting), warlike tribes, many of them sweeping across from western Asia or south from Scandinavia. Without the order that the Roman Empire had imposed, life in much of Europe became a free-for-all. Armed bandits, warlords (military commanders), and bands of outlaws were commonplace. The general population had little protection from them. Feudalism provided some measure of security during an extremely insecure period of history.

To drive off these outlaws, the nobles needed to develop small armies of warriors who could pursue them and engage them in combat. The only way they could do so effectively was on horseback; foot soldiers simply could not keep up with the constant movement of plundering armies. Horses, though, were expensive, and it took years to train both the horse and the warrior who rode it. A man who hoped to become a mounted warrior could not do it on his own, because he lacked the time and means to support himself.

To support their cavalry soldiers, called vassals, nobles made grants of land to them. The vassal, in return, owed a duty of loyalty to his "liege lord." In times of peace he farmed and otherwise managed the land with the help of a large peasant class, but when that land came under threat, he owed service as a warrior. In turn, the lord had to provide his vassals with protection and the means of economic survival. This was the essence of feudalism: It was a system of shared legal obligations that bound together the lord and his vassals, as well as the peasantry beneath them. Its chief feature was a rigid hierarchy, or chain of command, with the king at the top, beneath him his barons, then vassals, then a lower order of knights, and, finally, the peasantry. Each level of the hierarchy owed military service to the level above.

In the early years of this system, during the eighth and ninth centuries, the vassal's grant of land was returned to the noble when the vassal died. By about the year 1000, though, this practice was changing, and the land would pass to the vassal's heir, generally his oldest son. The heir would then assume his father's place in the hierarchy. The fundamental duties of the vassal did not change. While he sat in council to give advice to his lord, heard local court cases as a judge or magistrate (an official in charge of the administration of laws), or guarded garrisons (military posts), his primary role was to fight. In this way the European vassals developed into a warrior class, much like the samurai became the warrior class of Japan. Many vassals themselves employed knights, enabling them to muster, or gather, a small army when the need arose. The key point for the purposes of the Crusades is that it was the nobility, not kings, who had the resources and the manpower to fight in the Holy Land. For this reason, a pope calling a Crusade often had to direct his appeal to the nobles, not the king.


Texts about the European nobility present a potentially confusing array (collection) of titles, including ranks such as baron, earl, marquess (MAR-kwis), and count. Some of these titles were exclusive to the European continent, while others were distinctive of England. Still others were used both in England and on the Continent, but sometimes the ranks they indicated were different.

One source of confusion is that the titles did not always correspond to rule over a particular expanse of territory. Many were originally granted by a king for service and were simply hereditary ranks (those passed on from father to son). Holding the rank would entitle the nobleman to certain privileges, especially the right to collect income from his subjects and obtain a pension, or allowance, for his widow. A further source of confusion is that the same nobleman could have more than one title. Thus, for example, a duke could hold a secondary title as a marquess (or marquis). Similarly, that duke's son could hold a title as a lower-ranking noble.

One of the most common titles that appears in connection with the Crusades is baron. In Europe, a baron was among the highest-ranking members of the nobility. The title is a feudal one and was granted by the king to a tenant who held the position by virtue of military or other honorable service. Thus, it was not necessarily hereditary. The barons frequently functioned as the king's advisers, though they often competed with him for power and occasionally joined together to force the king's hand on issues that affected them. In England, though (and in Japan), barons (or baronets) occupied the lowest rank of nobility. Frequently, the word baron was used to refer to any powerful nobleman, a practice that survived into the twenty-first century in such phrases as "baron of industry."

Another common title found in connection with the Crusades is duke. In England, a duke was a hereditary noble whose rank was directly below that of the king. On the continent of Europe, a duke was the ruler of a duchy, typically a territory that was part of a loose collection of states. Thus, within the larger Holy Roman Empire, a duke ruled Austria, which was therefore a duchy. "Ruled," though, was a relative term. The amount of actual power a duke or any other nobleman held could vary depending on time and circumstances.

In England members of the hereditary nobility ranked as follows, from highest to lowest: duke, marquess, earl, viscount, and baronet. On the Continent, a count was roughly equivalent to a British earl in rank. All of these titles continue to be used in the 2000s. On the European continent they have little governmental meaning and are primarily social titles, but in England the nobility play a political role in the House of Lords in Parliament. Many women hold these titles, and historically women acquired particular titles not through marriage but "in their own right."


A second important feature of medieval life was that it was violent. Violence could erupt nearly anywhere and was almost a daily fact of life. Capital punishment (execution) of the most brutal kind was commonplace. Again, without the institutions of the Roman Empire, legal arguments frequently were settled not in an organized court system but in battle or through vendettas (feuds) between families that led to murder and bloodshed. In competition for sometimes scarce economic resources—land, crops, livestock, peasants—neighboring estates frequently resorted to the sword. They often had little choice; it was either that or starvation.

The church tried to channel this hostility so that it was not so random. As a guide, it used both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Roman law, and the philosophies of early church fathers such as Saint Augustine. It developed a belief system that justified warfare in some circumstances. In the eyes of the church, violence was acceptable or not based on the morality (virtue) of the goal to be achieved. Also considered was the state of mind of the persons responsible for the violence. The church saw the goal of saving the Holy Land as good, so it also saw the violence that accompanied the Crusades, violence of the worst and most brutal kind, as defensible. Some of this violence took place on the way to the Crusades. Often it was directed at Jewish communities in Germany and elsewhere, where Crusaders slaughtered innocent people in the belief that they were carrying out God's will (see Chapter 8). Often it was directed against Muslims, such as when the Crusaders slaughtered the Muslim inhabitants of Jerusalem at the end of the First Crusade (see "The Massacre" in Chapter 6).


Knights as we know them—horse-mounted, armored soldiers—first appeared on the scene in about the eighth and ninth centuries. While horses had been used in war before then, soldiers usually dismounted in combat because they could fight more effectively on foot. Then the stirrup was developed, allowing the soldier to remain on horseback and keep his balance. The advantage of being mounted was that the knight could brace himself on horseback while he charged his enemy with a lance. At the time, this was a powerful military innovation, or improvement (see Chapter 10 for a discussion of the equipment and weapons of a typical knight).

Violence and the Medieval Church

Even the church accepted violence as a fact of life, as the following story illustrates. A French knight prayed at a local monastery that God would allow him to avenge his brother's murder by capturing the murderer. Later, the knight and his companions ambushed the victim, mutilated his face, cut off his hands and feet, and castrated him. The knight believed that he had been successful because of divine help, so in gratitude he donated the victim's bloodstained armor and weapons to the monastery where he had prayed. It would seem incredible today, but the monks gratefully accepted them.

Training for knighthood began at an early age. Boys as young as seven were sent to serve as pages, or personal attendants, for a wealthy relative or lord. There they would be trained in using weapons and handling a horse. Part of the training might include a period of apprenticeship. As an apprentice, the young knight served as a squire (assistant) for an older knight, helping him with his horse or in putting on his armor.

Once the young man's training was finished, usually between the ages of sixteen and twenty, he would be ceremonially knighted and swear an oath of fealty, or loyalty, to his lord. He also committed himself to a host of rituals and vows that made knighthood a kind of fraternity, or a brotherly group. The knight was now bound to his lord and had to serve for a fixed period of time, typically four years. During peacetime, he was expected to practice his skills as a knight. He did this with other knights through competitive tournaments, but these tournaments frequently turned into disorderly brawls that resulted in senseless injury and death. Later, kings and the church developed more orderly jousting tournaments, with individual events, to minimize this bloodshed. These jousting tournaments, in which a knight would compete against another knight for the honor of his lady love, became a common feature of life late in the medieval period.

Military Customs

The modern-day military has customs that began during the Middle Ages. One is the salute. After full suits of metal armor came into use, knights could not easily identify one another as friend or enemy because visors (the fronts of helmets) covered their faces. The visor, though, could be raised and lowered. One knight would commonly greet another by raising his hand, holding it flat, and using the tips of his fingers to lift the visor so that the other could recognize him. Today's salute mirrors this gesture.

The other custom is that an enlisted soldier is expected to walk on the left side of an officer, just as a squire did hundreds of years ago. As a knight's shield bearer, the medieval squire walked to his left so that the knight, who typically bore his sword or lance in his right hand (most people are right-handed), would be better able to quickly take his shield from the squire in his left hand.

Knights, the Crusades, and chivalry

Until the time of the First Crusade, knights fought entirely for their lords. The Crusades changed that, however. To conduct the war to reclaim the Holy Land, Pope Urban II and his successors needed the support of nobles and their knights. In fact, Urban always intended that primarily knights, rather than commoners and peasants, would "take up the cross" (referring to the cross on which Christ died) to invade the Middle East and reclaim its holy sites for Christianity. With the support of bishops, priests, and monks across Europe, the "Christianization" of knights began, and thousands of young men embraced the cause. The sword was now also a symbolic cross of Christ.

Joining a Crusade was a way for these men to reconcile, or bring together, two conflicting demands made by two different "lords." On the one hand, their earthly lords required them to fight, kill, and plunder. That was their job. Their lord in heaven, though, the lord of the New Testament, required them to "turn the other cheek" and lead a life of meekness, or humbleness. By becoming a Crusader, the church said, a knight could satisfy the demands of his earthly master while also serving his lord in heaven. More than ever, war was thought of as a glorious adventure, a way to acquire wealth, honor, and prestige (status) while fighting in the name of God and the church against those who did not accept God's word.

The code of chivalry

As the pope's warriors, knights were bound by a code of honor, the code of chivalry. Each knight had to swear that he would defend the weak, the poor, widows, orphans, and the oppressed. He was to be courteous, especially to women; brave; loyal to his leaders; and concerned about the welfare of his subordinates, or those of lesser rank and position. Quoted by Grant Uden, in A Dictionary of Chivalry, the knight's code of conduct was fixed in a knightly prayer carved in stone at the cathedral of Chartres in France, one that expresses the chivalric ideal:

Most Holy Lord, Almighty Father … thou who hast permitted on earth the use of the sword to repress the malice [evil] of the wicked and defend justice … cause thy servant here before thee, by disposing [turning] his heart to goodness, never to use this sword or another to injure anyone unjustly; but let him use it always to defend the just and right.

Similarly, in the late nineteenth century, French scholar Léon Gautier listed, in his book Chivalry, what he called the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) that governed the conduct of a knight under the code of chivalry:

  1. Unswerving belief in the church and obedience to her teachings
  2. Willingness to defend the church
  3. Respect and pity for the weak and steadfastness in defending them
  4. Love of country
  5. Refusal to retreat before the enemy
  6. Unceasing and merciless war against the infidel
  7. Strict obedience to the feudal overlord, so long as those duties did not conflict with duty to God
  8. Loyalty to truth and to the pledged word
  9. Generosity in giving
  10. Championship of the right and the good, in every place and at all times, against the forces of evil

To generations of readers, knighthood and chivalry became almost synonymous with, or identical to, respect for and devotion to women, through epic poems and novels such as Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman (1825). The following passage from Scott's novel, in which a Scottish Crusader named Kenneth is addressing a Saracen (Muslim), is typical of the chivalric attitude toward women:

Saracen, replied the Crusader, thou speakest like one who never saw a woman worthy the affection of a soldier. Believe me, couldst thou look upon those of Europe, to whom, after Heaven, we of the order of knighthood vow fealty [faithfulness] and devotion, thou wouldst loathe for ever the poor sensual slaves who form thy harem [the women of a Muslim household]. The beauty of our fair ones gives point to our spears, and edge to our swords; their words are our law; and as soon will a lamp shed luster [a glow of light] when unkindled [the fire is put out], as a knight distinguish himself by feats of arms, having no mistress of his affection.

Knightly Orders: The Hospitallers and the Templars

Modern military organizations have small, elite fighting forces that are often called on to carry out the most dangerous and difficult missions. Their long and intense training turns them into finely honed fighting machines. More important, membership in one of these organizations is worn as a badge of honor. Those who earn the honor are thought of as a kind of nobility among a nation's men-at-arms and women-at-arms.

In this respect, little has changed since the Middle Ages. Most knights were born into the nobility. Many of these nobles tended to be drawn to special orders of knighthood, including such organizations as the Knights Hospitallers and the Knights Templars. The nobles who served in these organizations did so for a variety of motives: personal pride, a longing for adventure, and a desire to serve their church. But many also served for economic reasons.

The Crusades were expensive, and the nobles of Europe were the ones who largely paid the bill. This put many of them, particularly minor nobles, under great financial strain. Many lost their estates, either because they spent all of their money helping to fund a Crusade or because they were no longer in Europe to defend their land, or both. Faced with the possibility of financial ruin, many chose to serve in elite units. The chief advantage of doing so was the possibility of financial gain, for these units were funded by kings; the church; and wealthier, higher-ranking nobles. While individual knights in these orders received no payment and, in fact, took priestly vows of poverty, the orders themselves attracted a great deal of money. This gave them power, and that power opened doors for their members and provided ways for them to recover financial losses from taking part in the Crusades.

These medieval knightly orders played an important role in the Crusades. They also featured prominently in the history of the European church in the centuries that followed. The two most famous were the Knights Hospitallers and the Knights Templars.

Knights Hospitallers

The first of these knightly orders was the Knights Hospitallers. The Hospitallers began as a monastic order (monks living in monasteries) known mostly for charitable work, but over time they became more of a military order. They were first formed in the 1070s, before the Crusades, when Jerusalem was under the rule of the Muslims. At the time, pilgrims were arriving daily at the holy city. Many were ill and exhausted from their long journey. With the financial backing of a number of Italian merchants, a knight named Gerard Tenque from the Italian city of Amalfi obtained permission from the Muslims to establish a hospital in connection with the Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saint John the Baptist in Jerusalem. This monastery not only would tend to the sick but also would offer "hospitality" to visitors.

During the turmoil surrounding the First Crusade (1095–99), the Knights Hospitallers left the city. After the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in 1099, they returned and reopened the hospital to tend to the even greater number of pilgrims who were making the trip. At the organization's height in the early twelfth century, the Hospitallers could take in up to two thousand visitors per day. Although the order continued to be known as the Knights Hospitallers, the official name of the organization changed after the First Crusade. The monastery had always been dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, so the order became known as the Sovereign Military Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, or simply the Knights of Saint John, a name it kept until 1314.

After the fall of Jerusalem, pilgrims to the holy city needed military protection along the route. Although the holy city was in the hands of the Crusaders, the route leading to the city, particularly the vast stretches between Christian strongholds, remained full of danger. The Crusader kings lacked enough manpower to patrol these routes and keep them open. So the new master of the hospital, Raymond du Puy, turned the Knights of Saint John into more of a military force, able to drive off or discourage those who would do harm to pilgrims.

The Hospitallers also became a vital source of information to the Crusaders. Many stayed in the region for long periods of time. They formed relationships with Arabs and often learned to speak the language. Their freedom of movement and ties to the local culture made them familiar not only with Christian customs but with local customs and troop movements as well. As they gained power and provided valuable service, their fame spread, and in 1113 they were officially recognized by Pope Paschal II. Then in 1118 they ended their connection with the Benedictine order of monks. Now they gave their allegiance only to the pope and not to kings or other civil rulers.

The Hospitallers consisted of three classes of members. One, the military class, was called the knights of justice; its members had to be of noble birth. These were the warrior-monks, the policemen who kept open the route to the holy city and dreamed of the destruction of Islam. They became part of the West's standing army in the Holy Land and came to regard future Crusaders as mere migrants to the region.

Additionally, there was a class of chaplains, who ministered spiritually to visitors, and a class of brothers, who did the day-to-day work. Honorary members of the order, called donates (related to the word "donation"), funded the operation with gifts. The Hospitallers remained heavily dependent on gifts and donations of money and land, leading to the formation of what were called "preceptories" all across Europe. The preceptories were communities that sought members and raised funds for the organization.

Each of the Hospitallers took a monastic vow and lived a hard life. They could be recognized easily by their black robes emblazoned, or decorated, with a large white cross. For this reason they were frequently referred to as the Knights of the White Cross. While continuing to care for the sick, they also built rest houses, homes for sick and aging knights, and castles used to strengthen the Crusader states. The best known of these castles was called the Krak (sometimes spelled Crac) des Chevaliers, located high on solid rock northeast of the city of Tripoli (in modern-day Lebanon). At around the time of the Third Crusade, the Muslim general Saladin tried to capture the castle, but it was so impenetrable that he failed, and the castle remained in Christian hands until 1271. One of the Hospitallers' chief military contributions during the Crusades was to aid in the capture of the Egyptian-controlled seacoast city of Ascalon, southwest of Jerusalem, in 1153, the last major victory the Crusaders would ever enjoy. Forces of Hospitallers, though, were present at nearly every military engagement, and the order turned into one of the Crusaders' most potent weapons.

After the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslims in 1187, the order moved first to the castle at Margat, east of Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon), and then settled in Acre, a seacoast city north of Jerusalem, in 1189. When Acre fell in 1291, the order moved out of the Holy Land. First it settled on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, but later it moved to the island of Rhodes and then to the island of Malta in 1530. At this point the order changed its name to the Knights of Malta, the name by which it continues to be known.

In the centuries immediately following the Crusades, the Hospitallers maintained their reputation as warriors. They fought Muslim Turks in the Mediterranean and acted as escorts for pilgrims traveling by sea. But as time went on, their work became entirely charitable rather than military. Perhaps the high point of the Hospitallers came not during the Crusades but in 1783, when a major earthquake hit Sicily. When news reached Malta, the Hospitallers immediately boarded their ships and ferried food and supplies to the ravaged island. Still wearing the black robes emblazoned with the white cross, they sat at the bedsides of the wounded and dying. In modern times the Knights of Malta continue to be known for their charitable and hospital work. In 1926 an association of the Knights of Malta was formed in the United States.

Knights Templars

The Hospitallers won a good deal of fame during the Crusades and survived into the twenty-first century. While they were an important knightly order, they were overshadowed by another more famous and more powerful order, the Knights Templars. To some historians, the history of the Crusades is almost identical with the history of the Templars. Without their help, the Christian communities in the Holy Land probably would not have survived as long as they did. In the early years of the Crusades, the Templars and the Hospitallers acted together. Over time, though, they became rivals, and in the later years of the Crusades, the tension between the two orders even erupted into open conflict. This conflict between the elite guards of the Crusaders weakened the Crusader states and contributed significantly to the ultimate failure of the Crusades.

The Templars were formed in Jerusalem in 1119 by two knights, Hugh des Payens and Godfrey of Saint Omer. Originally, they took the name Poor Knights of Christ. But when King Baldwin of Jerusalem gave the knights a home on the site of the Temple of Solomon (which had been built by the Jews) in Jerusalem, also the site of al-Aqsa Mosque, they took the name Knights of the Temple of Solomon, or Templars ("of the Temple") for short.

The role of the Templars in many respects was similar to that of the Hospitallers. But while the Hospitallers retained somewhat more of a reputation for charitable work, the Templars were fierce, passionate fighters. Like the Hospitallers, their chief role originally was to protect pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land. In time, though, the Templars served a much broader role. When hostilities with Muslim forces erupted, the Crusader kings simply did not have enough regular troops under their command. The Templars became the special forces that supplemented the regular troops and, in fact, did much of the actual fighting. Their numbers were never huge; typically, they put up to about three hundred knights in the field. But their ferocity and skill and, especially, experience—in contrast to newly arriving Crusaders—more than made up for any lack of numbers. They were not afraid to die, either. In the final battle of the Seventh and last Crusade, they lost nearly three hundred knights to the Egyptians, and an equal number were slaughtered at the fall of Acre in 1291.

As they gained power and influence, the Templars also frequently acted as advisers. They sat at council tables and took part in the process of deciding on the best course of action. During the Third Crusade, for example, they counseled against marching on Jerusalem, arguing that it would serve no strategic purpose because of the truce between Richard of England and Saladin. None of the rulers in the Holy Land could afford to offend the Templars. Although the Templars owed no allegiance (loyalty) to those rulers, they went to war for them as conditions dictated. The rulers knew that without the Templars, they would find it impossible to hold at bay the Muslims who surrounded them. The Templars dreamed of the day when they could achieve glory by driving the infidel (unbeliever, that is, anyone who was not a Christian) out of the Holy Land. Many secretly also dreamed of the day when perhaps they could even take over as rulers of the Crusader states.

Some Europeans opposed the formation of military orders within the church. The question of the morality of "warrior-monks" was widely debated, especially in church circles. Those who were against the formation of such orders as the Templars believed that a religious order should emphasize prayer or charitable work. Some even thought that fighting, especially by someone who had taken a monastic vow, was sinful. For these reasons, Bernard of Clairvaux, the same Bernard who preached the Second Crusade, wrote a book in support of the Templars whose Latin title is De laude novae militiae, or In Praise of the New Knighthood.

Bernard also developed rules for the order, and these orders were severe. The Templars took monastic vows. They were to eat simple meals and sleep together in a single room, fully clothed and ready for action, with candles burning. They were never to gaze at women; if necessary, they were to look at a woman only long enough to identify her. They were allowed no personal property except for three horses, their weapons, and plain dress, notably a white tunic with a red cross. (While the Hospitallers were the Knights of the White Cross, the Templars were the Knights of the Red Cross.) All amusement, including activities such as chess and hunting, was forbidden.

The Templars were given official recognition by Pope Honorius at the church Council of Troyes in 1128. From that point on, they, like the Hospitallers, gave their allegiance only to the pope. Again like the Hospitallers, they received gifts of money and estates, but they attracted more donations, making the order in time immensely powerful and wealthy. The Templars supplemented this wealth by becoming, in effect, bankers in the Holy Land. They made loans and funded merchant activity, often charging very high rates of interest. Many of them learned to speak Arabic, so they not only managed a system of spies but also carried on profitable business activities with the Muslims. The Templars had little trouble recruiting knights from Europe. As the fame of the Templars spread, many knights, especially those who lived on bankrupt estates, were eager to join an order that was growing yearly in power and wealth.

The Templars were composed of three orders. At the top of the hierarchy were the knights themselves, under the control of a grand master. They were usually recruited from the nobility, and only they could wear the white tunic with a red cross. These, of course, were the organization's warriors. Beneath the knights were the sergeants. These men, about five thousand of them, tended to be from the middle classes. Wearing a black tunic with a red cross, they typically served as grooms, or servants, to the knights and often functioned as sergeants at arms. The third class consisted of the clerics, or chaplains. These men carried out religious, medical, and other nonmilitary functions.

The later history of the Templars is as rich as that during the Crusades. After the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, they moved to Acre. With Acre's fall in 1291, they moved to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. In short order, they abandoned warfare and became the leading money handlers in Europe. Their holdings of land grew, and as they became richer, they served as bankers for such kings as Louis IX of France. Because of their power and because, by papal decree, they were not subject to any rulers, they also became hated and feared.

The organization began to come apart in the early fourteenth century. In 1307 King Philip IV of France needed money to go to war against the Flemish. The only place the spendthrift king could get that money was from the Templars. He hated being dependent on an organization that seemed to have as much power as he did (or more), so he launched a persecution of the order. Aided by the pope he had used his power to install, Clement V, he ordered the arrest of all the members of the order. Their property was confiscated (seized by the government), and they were put on trial. Many were tortured to make them confess to charges such as sacrilege (disrespect of holy things), denial of Christ, homosexuality, and satanic worship. In Paris forty-five Templars were burned at the stake in one day.

With the Templars severely weakened, Pope Clement dissolved the order at the church Council of Vienna in 1312. In 1314 the last grand master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake. In England, where the Templars operated out of headquarters on Fleet Street, Templar property was seized without violence and handed over to the Hospitallers.

Friday the Thirteenth

The superstition of Friday the thirteenth may have begun during this purge (elimination) of the Templars. The pope did not want the arrest of the Templars throughout Europe to occur in a piecemeal (fragmented) way. He wanted as many of them as possible rounded up and arrested at the same time, so that they did not have a chance to flee or organize opposition. To that end, he sent out sealed orders to authorities and military commanders throughout Europe, ordering the arrests. The orders were all to be opened and executed on the same date, on Friday, October thirteenth. The ill fortune of the Templars on that day may have given rise to the widely held superstition that Friday the thirteenth is an unlucky day.

An intriguing question is whether the Templars, in some form, continue to exist as a kind of shadowy, secret cult that pulls hidden levers of financial and political power throughout the world. Many people believe that they do, that their traditions and rituals have been handed down to various secret organizations or societies through the centuries. These organizations are generally referred to under the umbrella name of the Masons or Freemasons. Others believe that the Templars excavated, or dug, under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and discovered secret, mystical knowledge that was the source of their power.

Teutonic Knights

The Teutonic Knights was another knightly order, one that was variously called the Knights of the Virgin Mary or the Teutonic Knights of the Hospital of Saint Mary the Virgin. The order was formed at Acre during the siege of that city in 1190. Like the other orders, the members, who wore a white mantle (robe) with a black cross, took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Their major function was to offer aid to German pilgrims in the Holy Land.

After the Crusades, the Teutonic Knights continued to act as warriors. They turned their attention to fighting the Prussians and other "heathens" in eastern Europe. For many years they held extensive territory under the authority of the pope in such countries as Poland, Russia, and Sweden. In 1809 French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte disbanded the Teutonic Knights, but the order was revived in 1834. The Teutonic Knights, now fully a religious and charitable organization, has its headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

By the end of the Middle Ages, as the technology of war evolved and gunpowder came into use, knights as true warriors were beginning to outlive their usefulness. In the centuries that followed, and still today, knighthood became an honorary institution, granted either by royal decree for service to a nation or to members of civic, fraternal, or charitable organizations.

Other Chivalric Orders

The history of chivalry through the late Middle Ages continued to witness the formation of knightly orders. These orders were formed for various purposes, and many had colorful names: the Palm and Alligator, the Bee, the Scarf and the Broom Flowers (a reference to the royal family to which Richard I of England belonged, the Plantagenets, a name that means "broom plant"), the Golden Shield, the White Falcon, and even the Fools. Several of these orders consisted of women; the first female knights, according to tradition, fought the Moors (the name given to Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula) in defense of Tortosa, Spain, in 1149.

One historical view of the Crusades emphasizes their brutality, ineffectiveness, religious prejudice, plunder, and mindless bloodshed. Another view emphasizes the Crusades as a stage. On this stage the virtues of piety (devoutness), devotion to a cause, and bravery were enacted by sincere Christians who genuinely believed that their cause was just, as well as by Muslims who were equally committed to their beliefs.

As is frequently the case, the truth lies somewhere between these two views. Although many knights failed to live up to the ideals of the chivalric code, many others did. Like the image of the cowboy in the American Old West, that of the chivalric knight, while often exaggerated, continues to provide a standard of conduct to which many aspire.

For More Information


Finucane, Ronald C. Soldiers of the Faith: Crusaders and Moslems at War. London: J. M. Dent, 1983.

Gautier, Léon. Chivalry. Edited by Jacques Levron and translated by D. C. Dunning. London: Phoenix House, 1965.

Treece, Henry. The Crusades. New York: Random House, 1962.

Uden, Grant. A Dictionary of Chivalry. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968.

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Knights and the Traditions of Chivalry

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