The Knight is a romantic character that we all grew up with. As little boys, we aspired to be him. We wanted to don his shining armor and swing his sword, and rescue our fair maidens in distress. I remember one Christmas Eve, my mom gave my brother and I one of our presents early – it was a set of plastic armor, a helmet, and a sword (for each of us). We fought each other until bedtime.
But how accurate is this aspirational character? Was he just a clever marketing ploy created by the people who had an interest in doing so, or was he what they actually aspired to be but inevitably fell short? The answer is…both, to a large extent, and the answers are explored in depth by Knights in History and Legend.
First of all, I have to say that the book is gorgeous. It’s huge and heavy, so you won’t be carrying it outside with you, but it’s a great table piece. Inside this huge and heavy book are pages upon pages of detailed pictures stretching from Medieval manuscripts and illuminations, to Renaissance artwork, to modern photographs. Each picture illustrates the section being described and brings knighthood into brilliant color. When reading, you almost get a sense that you’re witnessing the Middle Ages because of the vivid illustrations.
And yet, the pictures, as you can see, don’t take away from any of the writing or shorten the informational content. If Knights in History and Legend was smaller and lacked the pictures, the writing alone would probably fill 400 or so pages.
The book is well-organized. There are four main parts – an overview, a detailed expose on what knights would have encountered in their lives, the knight’s role in history, and once that role was over, the cultural legacy left by the knight. Each section has appropriate chapters that are short (about 2-4 large pages) and detailed. I personally found some of the cultural legacy section lacking, but the life of the knight and the knight in history sections were very good.
What we learn from these pages is that the knight was both thug and champion of women and the weak. On the one hand, there were episodes of knights questing for ladies, as seen most prominently in the case of Ulrich von Liechtenstein (1200-78) who wore a life-sized mannequin of his lady atop his helmet. On the other, there were roaming bands of thugs in the Hundred Years War holding entire swaths of towns and villages hostage, forcing them to pay protection money.
Chivalry was never a set-in-stone code. It was always contradictory and often conflicted with the teachings of the Church, much as the aristocrats who comprised the knightly class wished it were otherwise. Knighthood often sought to resolve these contradictions as best it could.
What Can Knights Teach the Modern Man?
The Knight was the medieval European version of a near-universal staple of pre-industrial societies, the warrior elite whose chief part in the natural order was to fight, rather than to farm or to be part of the clergy. Knighthood came to be a position of prestige, evolving from earlier household warriors that acted as full time protectors for landed lords. These were the “service knights” who would eventually merge with an aristocracy that admired their warrior skills. Yet, the prestige of knighthood stood hand in hand with the responsibility it meant to uphold, otherwise it wouldn’t be prestigious.
Because knights were expected not only to fight, but also to uphold the social order of which they were a part, their education was extensive. They learned their combat skills from the age of 6 or so until adulthood, but they also learned and immersed themselves in the social order. They were taught humility and obedience by serving as pages to their father’s lords. They forged camaraderie and teamwork by training with the other young aristocrats around them, which built an incredibly cohesive espirit de corps. Like the Spartans before them, these young upcoming knights would enter the battlefield with tried and true friends by their side, forged in their training and the devotion to each other that it encouraged. The young men would also learn how to act like aristocrats – proper table manners, how to interact with women without awkwardness or piggishness, and in later centuries, literacy and learning in religion, philosophy, and the Classics.
This educational program resembles the program seen in Quintus Curtius’ Thirty Seven (review here). Unlike modern programs of education, which emphasize “facts” and “facts” only, the knightly program of education emphasized learning, action, and character along with raw knowledge.
Likewise, while the modern educational system reinforces the wider social ethos, dominated by notions of “what can I get” and “what is owed to me,” the knightly program not only emphasized what you would get and aristocratic prestige, but what the knight-to-be was expected to do in his social role.
Our own programs don’t ask us how we’re connected to any order or what duties we may have to uphold. To put it more simply, we aren’t ever encouraged to get outside of ourselves.
Knights in History and Legend shows us historical examples of how men in past eras took a different approach, and how that approach reflected in history, for good and ill. Medieval times were undoubtedly unsanitary (though not quite as much as you might think) and violent (though again, the Early Modern Period was even more so), and we may sneer at them in our own time, but one wonders whether we, and not our predecessors, are in some ways mistaken. Our own social experiments are barely half a century old, and they may well be crumbling before our eyes. The institutions and order around which knights built their lives lasted for centuries, even thousands of years, despite all the wars and proscriptions.
We would do well to learn from our medieval predecessors.
In our own time, the knights teach us that you need friends to rely on when things go bad. Men need a motivating force outside of themselves to keep themselves grounded. A code to live by is important for your mindset and to keep you accountable to yourself. It is also important for social cohesion for that code to recognize a balance and mutual interdependence between individual and civilization. However imperfectly, the code of knighthood recognized the existence of these things, if it did not always uphold it in practice.
Knights in History and Legend will teach you much about the past you romanticized, and get you thinking about how you may be able to use it to forge lasting friendships and a better attitude.