The History of Knighthood

History of Knighthood

There have been nine Crusades in history. If I get to Istanbull in 1999 it will have been the 10th Crusade.

There are four distinct periods in the history of chivalry. The period of foundation, i.e. the time when the Truce of God was in force, witnessed the long contest of the Church against the violence of the age, before she succeeded in curbing the savage spirit of the feudal warriors, who prior to this recognized no law but that of brute force.

First Period: The Crusades

The Crusades introduced the golden age of chivalry, and the crusader was the pattern of the perfect knight. The rescue of the holy places of Palestine from Moslem domination and the defense of pilgrims became the new object of his vow. In return, the Church took him under her protection in a special way, and conferred upon him exceptional temporal and spiritual privileges, such as the remission of all penances, dispensation from the jurisdiction of the secular courts, and as a means of defraying the expenses of the journey to the Holy Land, knights were granted the tenth of all the church revenues. The vow of the crusader was limited to a specified period. For the distant expeditions into Asia, the average time was two or three years.

Second Period: The Military Orders

After the conquest of Jerusalem, the necessity of a standing army became peremptory, in order to prevent the loss of the Holy City to surrounding hostile nations. Out of this necessity arose the military orders [note: the reference here is to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the Knights Templar, and, later, the Teutonic Knights} which adopted as a fourth monastic vow that of perpetual warfare against the infidels. In these orders, wherein was realized the perfect fusion of the religious and the military spirit, chivalry reached its apogee. This heroic spirit had also its notable representatives among the secular crusaders, as Godfrey of Bouillon, Tancred of Normandy, Richard Couer de Lion, and above all Louis IX of France, in whom knighthood was crowned by sanctity.

Like the monastic, the knightly vow bound with common ties warriors of every nation and condition, and enrolled them in a vast brotherhood of manners, ideals, and aims. The secular brotherhood had, like the regular its rule imposing on its members fidelity to their; lords and to their word, fair play on the battlefield, and the observance of the maxims of honour and courtesy. Medieval chivalry, moreover, opened a new chapter in the history of literature. It prepared the way and gave ready currency to an epic and romantic movement in literature reflecting the ideal of knighthood and celebrating its accomplishment and achievements. Provence and Normandy were the chief centres of this kind of literature, which was spread throughout all Europe by the trouvares and troubadours.

Third Period: Secular Chivalry

After the Crusades chivalry gradually lost its religious aspect. In this, its third period, honour remains the peculiar worship of knighthood. This spirit is manifested in the many knightly exploits which fill the annals of the long contest between England and France during the Hundred Years War. The chronicles of Froissart give a vivid picture of this age, where bloody battles alternate with tournaments and gorgeous pageants. Each contending nation has its heroes. If England could boast of the victories of the Black Prince, Chandos, and Talbot, France could pride herself on the exploits of Du Guesclin, Boucicaut, and Dunois. But with all the brilliance and glamour of their achievements, the main result was a useless shedding of blood, waste of money, and misery for the lower classes. The amorous character of the new literature had contributed not a little to deflect chivalry from its original ideal. Under the influence of the romances love now became the mainspring of chivalry.

As a consequence there arose a new type of chevalier, vowed to the service of some noble lady, who could even be another man's wife. This idol of his heart was to be worshipped at a distance. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the obligations imposed upon the knightly lover, these extravagant fancies often led to lamentable results.

Fourth Period: Court Chivalry

In its last stages, chivalry became a mere court service. The Order of the Garter, founded in 1348 by Edward III of England, the Order of the Golden Fleece (Toison d'or) of Philip of Burgundy, dating from 1430, formed a brotherhood, not of crusaders, but of courtiers, with no other aim than to contribute to the splendor of the sovereign. Their most serious business was the sport of jousts and tournaments. They made their vows not in chapels, but in banquet halls, not on the cross, but on some emblematic bird. The "vow of the Swan" of 1306, was instituted during the feast of the dubbing of the son of Edward I. It was before God and the swan that the old king swore with his knights to avenge on Scotland the murder of his lieutenant.

More celebrated is the "vow of the Pheasant," made in 1454 at the court of Philip of Burgundy. The motive was weighty indeed, being nothing else than the rescue of Constantinople, which had fallen the past year into the hands of the Turks. But the solemnity of the motive did not lessen the frivolity of the occasion. A solemn vow was taken before God and the pheasant at a gorgeous banquet, the profligate cost of which might better have been devoted to the expedition itself. No less than one hundred and fifty knights, the flower of the nobility, repeated the vow, but the enterprise came to nought. Chivalry had degenerated to a futile pastime and an empty promise.

Literature, which had in the past so greatly contributed to the exaltation of chivalry, now reacted against its extravagances. In the early part of the fourteenth century this turning point becomes evident in the poetry of Chaucer. Although he himself had made many translations from the French romances, he mildly derides their manner in his "Sir Thopas." The final blow was reserved for the immortal work of Cervantes, Don Quixote, which aroused the laughter of all Europe. Infantry, on its revival as an effective force on the battlefield during the fourteenth century began to dispute the supremacy which heavy cavalry had so long enjoyed. Chivalry which rested entirely upon the superiority of the horseman in warfare, rapidly declined. At Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415) the French knighthood was decimated by the arrows of the English archers of Edward III and Henry V. The Austrian nobility at Sempach (1386) and the Burgundian chivalry at Morat (1476) were unable to sustain the overpowering onslaught of the Swiss peasantry. With the advent of gunpowder and the general use of firearms in battle, chivalry rapidly disintegrated and finally disappeared altogether.

However, earlier it was the English longbow that for the first time enabled the peasant to kill a amoured knight. The lowly peasant was now as powerful as a mounted knight, thus his equal and the rise in citizenship.

Michael McTiernan

N40 03' 09.4"
W75 24' 14.1"

Last updated April 25, 1998


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