Chivalric Knight . In addition to “those who worked” (peasants) and “those who prayed” (clergymen), the medieval economy enveloped also “those who fought.” The mental and moral disposition of the medieval knight has become perhaps his most striking characteristic. The rules to guide his behavior formed the code of chivalry, the name of which is derived from the French chevalier, meaning horseman. During the early Middle Ages, chivalry was a simple code that existed between fighting men to govern their relations with one another. In its later guise, however, the knight was expected to be loyal to his lord and devoted to the church, which supported its ideals. The medieval knight was thus expected not only to possess a host of manly and military qualities (to be utterly courageous, to fight fairly, and never to seek victory through trickery and cunning), but also to be true to his word, pure, temperate, courteous, charitable and kind to the poor and defenseless, and respectful to women and ever ready to protect them. He was to be unwaveringly brave before an enemy, yet treat him with gallantry in defeat.
Feudal Fighting . In many respects the chivalry of the later medieval period was unreal. The typical early medieval knight was a rough, illiterate strongman whose main job was to fight. Already by the twelfth century, however, the feudal knight had ceased to be as important as he once was on the battlefield. Feudal fighting became a kind of game, as the nobility tried to display its fighting skills by staging elaborate tournaments. By 1130 the tournament had already undergone a transformation from being a war game designed to keep the knight at the ready and peak of his fighting efficiency to an elaborate, violent pageant. In the later tournaments, nobles worked desperately to impress one another and to amuse their admiring ladies, whose colors they wore. Compared with earlier events where large bands of knights engaged in bloody mock battles, Matthew Paris notes French tournaments, conflictus Gallkus, before 1259 in his Chronica Majora, and English royal accounts record a tournament at Windsor Park in 1278. By 1300 the common tournament format was a series of jousts, contests between two knights encased in heavy armor and using blunted lances, swords, or axes.
Knight as Lord . Throughout much of the Middle Ages, the knight was commonly also a lord, or at least a “resident user” of land, whose agricultural return gave him the means to meet his military obligations to his lord. His livelihood derived directly from having others work the land he owned or received from a noble lord, his fief, or manor. A manor might have one village and the land around it, or two or three villages and their surrounding lands. The whole fief of a knight was made up of two unequal parts: his demesne, or personal landholding, and the holdings of the peasants.
Duties of a Knight . In return for his fief the knight had to perform many duties. The main one was to give military aid to his lord: to serve personally whenever his lord summoned him to war and to provide a certain number of fully
equipped mounted knights. The way of life of the land-exploiting knight was different from that of the merchant, artisan, monk, or peasant. Knights spent much of their time either at war or in training for war. The knight’s military obligations were those for which he was so well trained in horsemanship that the skill, as well as the chivalric mindset that accompanied it, were almost automatically put into action. Nonetheless, if the noble lived to be much over forty, he was fortunate to have enjoyed an exciting short life, even if it was not easy. There was always the hope of victory in battle leading to the booty of plundering and pillaging, but it was no less true, as contemporary Bertrand de Born realized, that there was “no real war without fire and blood.”
Training . At an early age young nobles, called squires, trained to become knights. A noble child might start out as a helper to a lord. By the mid eleventh century he was learning, at fourteen or fifteen years of age, to ride a horse and to use weapons. Once, during his period of apprenticeship or training, a squire had learned the further skills and duties of the knight, he became a soldier for a lord and was given occasion to prove his ability in real battle. When he finished his training and passed the test on the battlefield, he would be knighted in the ceremony of adoubement, in which he received arms and armor. Before being invested, with spurs and a sword, for example, the knight swore to uphold the true Christian faith.
Military Service . The military service a knight supplied was usually limited to one-ninth of the year, but presenting himself and his knights ready to fulfill their warrior responsibilities was by no means a light obligation. The provision of each one knight reflects his characteristic appearance. It included not only the man himself but also his mount, the expensive weapons and armor, and perhaps a change of horses, servants to look after the knight and his equipment, and food to feed both men and animals for forty days. Several aspects of the medieval knight’s attire made it particularly distinctive. During the twelfth century, a coat of arms, or the design that a knight displayed on his shield or sur-coat to identify himself in battle, became the symbol, and property, of a particular family, launching the system known as heraldry. The increasing weight of the armor of the knight and his horse was also legendary: by the sixteenth century a German knight’s armor could weigh as much as fifty-six pounds, while that of his horse was ninety-two pounds.
G. G. Coulton, Medieval Village, Manor, and Monastery (New York: Harper, 1960).
Georges Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968).
Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
Kate Mertes, The English Noble Household 1250–1600 (Oxford & New York: Blackwell, 1988).
M. M. Postan, E. E. Rich, and Edward Miller, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
J. A. Cannon
no·bil·i·ty / nōˈbilitē/ • n. (pl. -ties) 1. the quality of being noble in character, mind, birth, or rank. 2. (usu. the nobility) the group of people belonging to the noble class in a country, esp. those with a hereditary or honorary title: a member of the English nobility.
peer·age / ˈpi(ə)rij/ • n. the title and rank of peer or peeress: on his retirement as cabinet secretary, he was given a peerage. ∎ (the peerage) peers as a class; those holding a hereditary or honorary title: he was elevated to the peerage two years ago. ∎ a book containing a list of peers and peeresses, with their genealogy and history.
the body of persons forming the noble class of a country or state—Wilkes.
Example: nobility of the realm, 1530.