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knight, in ancient and medieval history, a noble who did military service as a mounted warrior.

The Knight in Ancient History

In ancient history, as in Athens and Rome, the knight was a noble of the second class who in military service had to furnish his own mount and equipment. In Roman society, the knights (Latin equites) ranked below the senatorial class and above ordinary citizens. A knight forfeited his status if the assessed value of his fortune sank below 400,000 sesterces.

The Knight in Medieval History

In medieval history, the knight was an armed and mounted warrior belonging to the nobility. The incessant private warfare that characterized medieval times brought about a permanent military class, and by the 10th cent. the institution of knighthood was well established. The knight was essentially a military officer, although with the growth of feudalism the term tended to denote the holder of not only a position in the ranks of nobility but also in the ranks of landholders. The knight generally held his lands by military tenure; thus knight service was a military service, usually 40 days a year, normally expected by an overlord in exchange for each fief held by a knight. All military service was measured in terms of knight service, and a vassal might owe any number of knight services.

Although all nobles of military age were necessarily knights, knighthood had to be earned through some exploit involving the use of arms. In the late Middle Ages the son of a noble would serve first as page, then as squire, before being made a knight. Knighthood was conferred by the overlord with the accolade (a blow, usually with the flat of the sword, on the neck or shoulder); in the later period of feudalism, the ceremony was preceded by the religious ceremony of a vigil before an altar. A knight fighting under another's banner was called a knight bachelor; a knight fighting under his own banner was a knight banneret. Knights were ordinarily accompanied in battle by personal attendants (squires and pages) and by vassals (see yeoman) and servants.

After c.1100 military tenure was generally subject to the law of primogeniture, which resulted in a class of landless knights; at the time of the Crusades those landless knights formed the great military orders of knighthood, which were religious as well as military bodies. Important among these were the Knights Templars, Knights Hospitalers, Teutonic Knights, Livonian Brothers of the Sword, Knights of Calatrava, and Knights of Aviz.

Secular orders, patterned loosely on the religious ones, but not limited to landless knights, also grew up, principally as honorary establishments by the kings or great nobles. Examples in England were the Order of the Garter and in Burgundy the Order of the Golden Fleece. The most important of these orders have survived and many more have been added (e.g., the orders of the Bath, of Victoria, and of the British Empire in Great Britain and the Legion of Honor in France; see decorations, civil and military).

See also chivalry; courtly love.

Since the Middle Ages

As the feudal system disintegrated, knight service was with growing frequency commuted into cash payments. In England the payment was known as scutage. Many landowners found the duties of knighthood too onerous for their meager resources and contented themselves with the rank of squire. This was particularly true in England, where gentlemen landowners are still termed squires. The military value of a cavalry consisting of heavily armored knights lessened with the rise of the infantry, artillery, and mercenary armies. In Germany, where the institution of knighthood persisted somewhat longer than in Britain and France, knighthood in its feudal meaning may be said to have come to an end in the early 16th cent. with the defeat of Franz von Sickingen.

The title knight (Ger. Ritter, Fr. chevalier) was later used as a noble title in Germany and France. In the French hierarchy of nobles the title chevalier was borne by a younger son of a duke, marquis, or count. In modern Britain, knighthood is not a title of nobility, but is conferred by the royal sovereign (upon recommendation of the government) on commoners and nobles alike for civil or military achievements. A knight is addressed with the title Sir (e.g., Sir John); a woman, if knighted in her own right, is addressed as Dame.


See G. Duby, The Chivalrous Society (1978).

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knights. In continental Europe from the 10th cent. onwards, the term miles (knight) was applied to a mounted warrior usually dependent on a greater lord. Domesday evidence suggests that this definition is appropriate for the knights of Norman England. Few held much land, and many were maintained within their lords' households. Their importance was thus derived from their military function, as had been that of the cnichts of Anglo-Saxon England. Over the next two centuries, knights were enfeoffed with land, becoming more fully involved in landed society and royal administration in the localities. Although the term never lost its military connotation, it had become by the late 14th cent. a social rank below the nobility, but above the squirearchy. It has been estimated that there were 4,000–5,000 knights in mid-12th-cent. England, but that the number declined to about 2,000 by 1250. The escalation of warfare from the reign of Edward I onwards may have helped to keep numbers up and even to revivify the military significance of the knight (680 English knights, for instance, served in the French campaign of 1359), but a major decline is evidenced after the end of the reign of Edward III. By the mid-15th cent., knights numbered only a few hundred. The decline has usually been explained in terms of personal preference: men of the requisite wealth and social standing resisted the crown's attempts to force them, by distraint of knighthood, to take up the rank because they feared the additional expense and burden of responsibility. It seems that the rank of esquire became socially acceptable as an alternative indicator of gentility: it too had developed within a military context from the late 13th cent. onwards, and had adopted many of the trappings of knighthood, such as armorial bearings, military effigies, chivalric concepts, and administrative functions. Most knights were knights bachelor; the title was personal, not hereditary, nor did it give noble status, so that knights were represented in Parliament in the Commons not the Lords. The knight banneret emerged in the early 13th cent. as a senior rank, probably relating, in its initial stages, to special military significance. Some bannerets were summoned to attend the Lords, and their titles were passed on to their sons, so that they became, by the early 15th cent., indistinguishable from barons. The creation of baronetcies, which were hereditary, in the early 17th cent. brought about a further decline in the status of knighthood. Though the link with military service did not totally disappear and successful admirals were often knighted, 18th-cent. knights were just as likely to be diplomats, lord mayors of London, or wealthy merchants.

Anne Curry

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knight in the Middle Ages, a man who served his sovereign or lord as a mounted soldier in armour; a man raised by a sovereign to honourable military rank after service as a page or a squire.

In the UK, a knight is a man awarded a non-hereditary title by the sovereign in recognition of merit or service and entitled to use the honorific ‘Sir’ in front of his name.

Knight is also a dated term for a member of the class of equites in ancient Rome, or a citizen of the second class in ancient Athens (called hippeus in Greek), seen in comparison with medieval knights.

In chess, a knight is a piece, typically with its top shaped like a horse's head, that moves by jumping to the opposite corner of a rectangle two squares by three. Each player starts the game with two knights.

The word is recorded from Old English (in the form cniht, denoting ‘boy, youth, servant’) and is of West Germanic origin.
knight errant a medieval knight wandering in search of chivalrous adventures.
Knight of Columbus a member of a society of Roman Catholic men founded at New Haven, Connecticut, in 1882.
Knight of the Round Table a member of the brotherhood of knights who were followers of King Arthur.
Knight of the Rueful Countenance another name for Don Quixote.
knight of the shire a gentleman representing a shire or county in Parliament, originally, a parliamentary member chosen from those holding the rank of knight.
knight service in the Middle Ages, the tenure of land by a knight on condition of performing military service.

See also knights, white knight.

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knight / nīt/ • n. 1. (in the Middle Ages) a man who served his sovereign or lord as a mounted soldier in armor. ∎  (in the Middle Ages) a man raised by a sovereign to honorable military rank after service as a page and squire. 2. (in the UK) a man awarded a nonhereditary title by the sovereign in recognition of merit or service and entitled to use the honorific “Sir” in front of his name. 3. a chess piece, typically with its top shaped like a horse's head, that moves by jumping to the opposite corner of a rectangle two squares by three. • v. [tr.] (usu. be knighted) invest (someone) with the title of knight. DERIVATIVES: knight·li·ness n.knight·ly adj. & ( poetic/lit. ) adv.

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knights Knights Hospitallers a military and religious order founded as the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in the 11th century.

Originally protectors of pilgrims, they also undertook the care of the sick. During the Middle Ages they became a powerful and wealthy military force, with foundations in various European countries; their military power ended when Malta was surrendered to Napoleon (1798). In England, the order was revived in 1831 and was responsible for the foundation of the St John Ambulance Brigade in 1888.
Knights Templars a religious and military order for the protection of pilgrims to the Holy Land, founded as the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon in 1118.

The order became powerful and wealthy, but its members' arrogance towards rulers, together with their wealth and their rivalry with the Knights Hospitallers, led to their downfall; the order was suppressed in 1312, many of its possessions being given to the Hospitallers. The Inner and Middle Temple in London are on the site of the Templars' English headquarters.

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knight In medieval Europe, a mounted warrior of intermediate rank. The knight began as a squire and was knighted with a sword touch on the shoulder after a period of trial. Knights were often landholders, owing military service to their overlord. Honorary orders of knighthood, such as the Knights of the Garter (1349), were founded towards the end of the Middle Ages, a tradition that continued into the modern era.

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Knights ★½ 1993 (R)

In a futuristic wasteland a young martial-arts warrior (Long) and a cyborg (Kristofferson) team up to battle rebel cyborgs that have discovered a new source of fuel—human blood. 89m/C VHS . Kathy Long, Kris Kristofferson, Lance Henriksen, Scott Paulin, Gary Daniels; D: Albert Pyun; W: Albert Pyun.

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knight †boy, youth OE.; military follower; name of a rank, orig. in military service XI; knight of the shire XIV. OE. cniht boy, youth, man of arms, hero = OS. knecht, OHG. kneht (Du., G. knecht) :- WGmc. * kneξta, of unkn. orig.
Hence knight-errant XIV. knighthood XIII (OE. cnihthād boyhood). knightly XIV (OE. cnihtliċ boyish).