Go to The Time Traveller homepage


The Medieval World

Evolution of
Knighthood

Andre Cloete
Rhodes University
Updated: 14 December 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)




It is with great sadness that we have to announce that the creator of Knowledge4Africa, Dr T., has passed away. Helping people through his website gave him no end of pleasure. If you had contact with him and would like to leave a message, please send us an e-mail here.


When the Germanic invaders conquered the crumbling Western Roman Empire in the mid-5th century, they did so as members of a culture that was very strongly warrior-orientated.

The nucleus of this warrior society was the "comitatus" or warband, which comprised a group of warriors each of whom had sworn allegiance to a particular leader or warlord. This bond of loyalty existed separately to clan or family bonds.

However, the sharp distinction between the freeman warrior of Germanic tradition, who exercised his inalienable right and duty to bear weapons regardless of his economic condition (a state of affairs inherited by the Frankish kingdom), and the highly exclusive warrior aristocracy of the later part of the High Middle Ages, is one that demands investigation.

For although the warrior ethos of the Germanic peoples at large would continue to dominate Western European society (at least at its highest levels) up until the Renaissance, it changed significantly during the course of the High Middle Ages.

The development of feudalism played a large part in the development of knighthood. In order to give the Frankish kingdom a firm foundation, Charlemagne devised a system whereby grants of land, or benefices, were made to powerful warlords whose service and loyalty he needed to secure, in return for an oath of fealty.

By this process, he made these warlords his vassals. He then encouraged them to repeat the process with their own dependents, in the desire to link the entire society by a strong chain of oaths of personal loyalty, the apex of which would be the king or emperor.

This proto- feudal structure was accelerated towards being a solid class structure by Charles the Bald, who in order to garner strong support for his planned war in Italy, made the estates of his vassals inheritable by their heirs.

Concurrent with this social process, a major technological development was taking place. Although the stirrup had been known for some decades to the Franks, under Charles Martel and his sons the realisation was made that the stirrup could be used facilitate mounted combat.

This development played a crucial role not only in reshaping military tactics, but in the coming social changes that were to transform Western Europe. With the increased manoeuvrability made possible by cavalry, coupled with the notion that more armour could be worn by horse-born soldiers was born the idea of mounted, armoured shock troops: the forerunner of the knight was born.

However, although the idea was a good one, it was also a very expensive one. Although the miles was initially armoured with chain mail, the violence of this new form of combat brought with it a need for increasingly heavy armour.

The miles needed extra mounts if he was to be effective, since mounts could be killed or injured. Heavier and more complex armour created a need for an assistant, the squire, who incidentally also needed to be mounted.

The horses needed to be fed large amounts of grain, a problem much greater in an age of scant agricultural production than would be the case now. White estimates that the cost of equipping a man in such a way would be exorbitant - the equivalent of supplying ploughing teams to at least ten peasant families.

This meant that the majority of people could only afford to answer a muster on foot and with relatively inexpensive arms and armour.

Money, although not non-existent, had filtered out of the economies of Western Europe to a considerable extent, and the lack of an efficient and extensive bureaucracy made the collection of taxes by the Carolingians virtually impossible.

However the Carolingians were determined to secure for themselves armoured cavalry, and thus had no choice but to turn to the only source of wealth readily available - land. Church lands were seized and awarded to vassals with the condition of the service of knights being supplied to the Frankish host.

Inherent in this was the recognition that if the new tactic of mounted combat was to develop properly and consistently, military service must become a matter a class. Besides which, the very nature of this new style of warfare depended heavily on a fairly high degree of specialisation.

One could no longer be a farmer and a soldier, since the techniques and stresses involved required a long period of technical training, excellent physical condition, and plenty of practise. It therefore became the province of the professional.

However, both political and social changes added to this. With the collapse of the Frankish empire, political power devolved on the feudal lords deliberately created by Charlemagne.

In the face of the new invasions (the Vikings, the Magyars etc), the idea that authority was synonymous with the ability to protect oneself and one's dependents not only became more blatantly obvious than in the days of the Carolingians, but also infinitely more localised.

What had been created to be the backbone of the Carolingian army became not only the military, but also the ruling elite. Having made their entry to the aristocracy ostensibly from the bottom, the proto-knights found their services in demand.

Charlemagne had created a ruling class out of fighting men, men whose authority was based in their ability to command loyalty through their military prowess.

This notion of military prowess grew in importance, as gradually the aristocracy began to feel that involvement with farming, commerce, or indeed anything other than fighting was beneath men of their station.

Thus the two major elements of the early knights were in place: property and skill at arms. And the process whereby the nobility turned their attentions almost exclusively to fighting was not merely a specialisation on their part - the word "miles", which had previously meant soldier in the Roman sense, that is a freeman bearing arms in the service of his lord, to meaning "knight".

Evident also is the notion that knighthood started out as a lower level of aristocracy. However, by the mid-eleventh century, the knights were seen as a part of a distinct class, a hereditary caste, a true nobility.

The precise moment of this change in attitude is difficult to pinpoint: it would seem that almost imperceptibly the status of the knight rose, certainly in the estimation of the nobility, to the point where such powerful feudal lords as counts considered themselves knights first, then rulers almost incidentally.

However, this kind of "knightly fellowship would only manifest itself with the advent of the Crusades. It is clear though that there were two strata of knights, the first consisting of those who were lords of castles and exercised the old public powers over a territory of some size, as distinct from the so-called county knights, who only had a small number of personal dependants.

However, this latter group, with the growing prosperity evident in Western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, also began to build castles and fortifications, and thus levelled the playing fields to some extent.

By the mid-eleventh century, however, the status and nature of knighthood was very nearly that which has come down to us through popular literature and romance. Two important developments remained ahead though.

With the new invasions now something of the past, the destructive power inherent in the knights, indeed the very purpose for which they were created began to pose somewhat of a problem.

Since the aristocracy had turned to fighting as the only proper pastime for members of their class, and since there was now no longer any obvious target for their destructive energies, they began to fight amongst themselves. Western Europe came to be racked by incessant warfare.

At the same time, social classes came to regard themselves as free by reference to the amount and nature of the rules to which oneself and one's peers voluntarily submitted.

It was this expansion of the feudal contract into almost a social contract which was the beginning of the complex code of conduct most closely associated with knighthood - chivalry.

It was at this point that the Catholic Church tried to intervene, by limiting the days on which warfare was permitted, a policy known as the "Peace of God", which was later followed by a doctrine known as the "Truce of God", whereby Christians were forbidden to take the lives of other Christians.

However, these were merely stopgap measures in a papal attempt to curb the now directionless destructive impulses of the warrior aristocracy. What was really needed was a target at which to direct this restlessness.

Having already achieved some kind of monopoly on land possession and political authority, albeit in a highly localised way, as well as having brought to Europe some degree of internal stability, they were now in danger of tearing apart Western Europe's fairly fragile peace.

Furthermore, the loaded cannons of Europe, largely directionless with a lack of powerful monarchy to restrain them, the Catholic Church must have felt that they could provide some guidance.

The first tentative attempt at this was for Pope Gregory VII to suggest a way in which, knighthood could be rescued from the radical defects attaching to its human, and thus sinful origins.

He tried to achieve a situation where knights would dedicate themselves to the service of Saint Peter, and particularly to the defence of Saint Peter's Patrimony, namely the Catholic Church. However, this call never attracted much popular appeal, since it was swept up in the larger concerns of the Crusades which were to occur a mere twenty years later.

It must be borne in mind that even if the office of knighthood had made some inroads into the aristocracy by the time of the Crusades, it was still entrenched in its lower echelons. It was the Crusades that were to start off the process by which knighthood became glorious and respected.

At the same time, though, the Crusades could not have occurred had the warrior aristocracy both defended Europe from the threats of the Dark Ages, and then become splintered and feudal, and subsequently restless over the century leading up to the first Crusade. In fact, the timing of the Crusades could not have happened at a better time for the Catholic Church.

The Byzantine Empire was tottering, and under threat from Islamic armies. Jerusalem, which had recently come into focus in ecclesiastical theory as the "heavenly Jerusalem", a vision of peace for certainly the monastic orders of western Christendom, had fallen into Saracen hands.

Despite their long-standing rivalry, even enmity, with Byzantium, it was a Christian empire. However, although the mainstream of the Catholic Church, under the extremely charismatic Pope Urban II, at the Council of Clermont in 1095, managed to coax the restlessness of the warrior aristocracy into action with the notion of Holy Jerusalem in the hands of the Saracens, it was the monastic orders that realised the very real dangers of any proposed military operation in the Holy Land.

"I advise you . . . I council you, I pray and beseech you as one who is dear to me, to abandon that Jerusalem which is now not a vision of peace but of tribulation, to leave aside the treasures of Constantinople and Babylon . . . and to set out on the road to the heavenly Jerusalem which is a vision of peace, where you will find treasures which only those who despise these (earthly) ones can receive."

It was with these very heavenly treasures that Urban enticed the Crusaders. Not only were they rescuing the Holy Land, the birthplace of Jesus, from the ravages of Islam, carving out new territories and earthly wealth for themselves and the Church, protecting the endangered Christian Empire of Byzantium, but they were also storing up treasures in Heaven by destroying the Turks and the Saracens.

This marks not only a change in the outlook of the warrior aristocracy but of an entire society. The cornerstones of twelfth century Europe were Piety, Feudalism and Greed.

The goal of the Church was twofold: to rid Europe from the incessant bickering that was threatening to cause major problems at home, and secondly to do so in such a way that some profit the Church might arise.

A side issue was that by harnessing the military might of Western Europe to the desires of the Church might give them some hold or influence on the aristocracy. To some extent, the Church was successful in this attempt: although they might not have foreseen the effect the Crusades would have on the status of knighthood, they were quick to add something of an ecclesiastical element to the knighting ceremony.

Previously, the process of becoming a knight had been strictly secular. Now, the knight-to-be spent an evening in vigil, usually at some holy place (such as a chapel that housed some holy relic), or on the eve of some religious festival.

During the dubbing ceremony he took his arms from the alter, with the implication that although no specific religious vow was sworn, one took one's armour from the alter of God, and therefore one implied an acceptance of the office as a soldier in the defence of Christendom, with the corresponding duties of fighting the enemies of Christ and fraternity with one's fellow Christians.

Furthermore, the new status of knighthood as the defender of Christendom attracted a great deal of notice from the higher levels of the aristocracy. Indeed, the Crusades were all led by great feudal lords.

The wider attraction that knighthood came to enjoy from the mid-twelfth century until the Renaissance was born in the notion of a sort of equality between men fighting for Christ, almost realising a situation where the fellowship between knights became a bond that existed outside of the normal feudal contract.

The obvious next step were the knightly orders, where knights banded together with a specific intention, most usually in the form of a Crusade against a particular group or region.

By this stage it is evident that a substantial ecclesiastical, if not religious, aspect had insinuated itself into knighthood. If the primary intention of the Church had been to create a situation whereby the warrior aristocracy was lured from its petty warfare in Western Europe, and into some activity which would both ensure some peace in Western Europe, as well as profit Western Christendom through either the acquisition of land or new inroads to the very rich and economically active regions of Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, the Church's efforts met with some degree of success.

It also managed to achieve the injection of some degree of Christian ideology and values into the fighting elite of Europe. However, if the Church had planned to subvert this group to its own desires, it met with little, if some initial, success.

What it did provide that was of more significance than anything, was the final element in the knight of romance - that of "Piety". Piety was to have a large impact on the development and crystallisation of the ideals of chivalry.

No longer was a knight (which by now had come to include the ruling as well as intermediate echelons of the aristocracy) merely a landholder and a warrior, but he was committed to a set of ideals that clearly defined him as a member of distinct class, which overrode the considerations of the amount of land held or the extent of political influence of the individual.

Thus the office of knighthood became important in that it came to provide a far greater degree of unity and fraternity amongst the warrior aristocracy, that had assumed control of Western Europe in response to the splintering of that society that had followed the collapse of the Carolingian dynasty and central government towards the end of the so-called Dark Ages.

See also:


Contact: The Project Coordinator