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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ideals of Chivalry and Realities of War

This is the third of a six-part series about the Middle Ages with the goal of giving casual readers of medieval romances a better understanding of the time period.  Eventually, we’ll talk about why there were no damsels in distress but today we’ll learn why a knight is shining armor isn’t a good sign.

In First the Fall, Then the Babarians, we discussed the macro trends of the early medieval period and how they set the foundation for the Early Middle Ages. We painted kings and knights with a broad brush and learned the benefits of political stability in Huzzah! Knights, Kings and Living the High Life. Today, we’re taking a closer look at the medieval warfare and those who fought.

Income Inequality

Feudalism is a political and economic system that required a class structure that became hereditary. The word itself is a modern invention to describe the medieval social structure in which all land “belonged” to the king. Nobles held honors (fiefs) in exchange for military service to the crown, and vassals, who worked or managed small pieces of land, were tenants of the nobles and owed them service (military or otherwise). Serfs worked the land for king, church, and knights, giving him labor and a share of the produce in exchange for military protection.

Medieval Man divided their society into three parts: those who work. Those who pray. Those who fight. Many casual students tend to think these three parts of society were roughly equal in numbers, but as historian Dorsey Armstrong points out, approximately 95 percent worked and less than 5 percent fought or prayed. Note: both knights and churchmen came from the same noble class.

There was little movement from one social class to the next until the Black Death (1347). I say little because there was small movement—one rung up or down (most likely down)—over the centuries and not everyone in medieval society fit neatly into the ideal of three social castes. Merchants neither worked nor prayed nor fought. Craftsmen living in cities didn’t owe allegiance to a lord, just their guild, and women have rarely fit the molds society tries to shove them into.

Additionally, the "average" person could and did fight with pikes and bows, but the large, terrorizing warhorses, well-made swords, and protective mail were reserved for the knight. In other words, a very small ruling class maintained control by being better armed and bettered trained to use those arms than the vast majority of people.

This is important to understanding the role warriors played in this society. Many could neither read nor write, were trained in the martial arts from roughy age seven onward, and were fostered in the households of their lords to build ties with others in their class and those above them in the hierarchy.

Knights' deeds were sanitized and exalted in song, which is where we get the idealized Knight in Shining Armor, but their lives were so marked by violence and blood that the church led a campaign to civilize these warriors. Knighthood and chivalry were not synonymous until very, very late in the era. 

Frankly, if we met a typical medieval knight on the street, we'd likely cross the street to avoid him.

Those Who Fight

This is a misericorde, a small dagger designed to slip between
helmet and mail (or armor plates) and kill a wounded knight.
The myth of medieval warfare is that it was a series of one-to-one battles where honor and chivalric principles held firm in the middle of a melee. It’s a pretty picture, but untrue. Warfare in the middle ages was still war. It was the nasty, brutal business of killing people to achieve a goal. Where medieval warfare differs from modern warfare is sometime how the goal could be achieved.

According to historian R.C. Smail in his book Crusading Warfare 1097-1193, the true goal was to capture and keep a castle or other fortified place, not to destroy the enemy forces or bring about an unconditional surrender, which is often the aim of modern military campaigns.

The battles for these fortifications, though, were bloody. Foot soldiers and bowmen were often slaughtered, and knights were "dispatched" on the battlefield as often as they were captured and held for ransom.

The Early Middle Ages were marked by invasions (Franks, Angles, Vikings) and internal battles for power, so the social structure coalesced around military society. Those who fought ruled. Those who worked served those who fought. One repercussion of feudalism was the tendency to concentrate the family’s wealth on one heir, leaving subsequent sons trained as knights but without an inheritance. Even the “heir” was idle until his father died and he could begin running the estate. As you can image, these unmarried, landless, idle young men posed a serious threat to public order.

How serious?

Think about the reckless, testosterone-driven impetuousness of males between the ages of 15 and 25 (give or take a couple of years). Now, give them wealth, celebrity-style status, weapons and training, then turn them loose to rape and pillage the countryside. Got it?

Hence, the clerical efforts to soften and reform knighthood.

A Knight in Shining Armor

In the 11th century, Cluny monks promoted ethical warfare, which inspired the formation of chivalric orders, such as the Knights Templar. However, the immediate goal was to reduce the threat to public order and the predatory impulses of these warriors by giving them a higher purpose. Cluny monks weren’t the first to try to install self-discipline in warriors. As early as the 9the century, Charlemagne attempted to elevate the role and responsibilities of knights above mere killing with his Code of Conduct in the Song of Roland.

The code didn’t change much over time, although it became shorter. By the 14th century, it was reduced to the Twelve Knightly Virtues: faith, charity, justice, sagacity, prudence, temperance, resolution, truth, liberality, diligence, hope and valor.

Within chivalry is the view that proper Christian behavior for a knight is considerate treatment of noncombatants (to use a thoroughly modern word) in the obligation to defend the weak and to be courteous to women. The proper treatment of women, however, was usually restricted to women of the knight’s own class, which meant 95 percent of the women were fair game.

As freemen began to rival (and exceed) the nobility in terms of wealth, chivalry became more class conscious. Prowess was no longer the primary qualification of a knight. Bloodlines were. Proof of noble birth was now required to compete in tournaments and to join one of the chivalric orders, such as the Templars or the Hospitallers.

Chivalry in its ideal form is immortalized in the Arthurian tales, which had been told for centuries but came into their full form during this period. The Arthurian cycle reflects the ideals and society of the High Middle Ages, not post-Roman Britain, which is when most scholars say “Arthur” likely lived, if he lived at all.

Oh, and why is a Knight in Shining Armor not a good thing? Simple. If the armor is shining, it’s new. So either the knight is green or he is more interested in looking the part than being the part.

I am not a medieval military historian. Further reading (if you’re interested): Come back in May when we take a look at damsels in distress.

Keena Kincaid writes historical romances in which passion, magic and treachery collide to create unforgettable stories. Her books are available from Prairie Rose Publications and Amazon. For more information on her stories, visit her Amazon page, her website, or Facebook.

Monty Python skewers the Arthurian legend in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (copyright theirs) and does a good job poking fun at the Middle Ages and medievalists at the same time.


  1. Hi, Keena! An interesting post, as always. I love your characterization of the early knights. They were kind of thugs, weren't they? And then this whole problem of having a group of younger sons who lost out on the inheritance roaming made for some interesting times.Thanks again for putting this complex period of history into consumable chunks! I look forward to the next in the series.

    1. Thanks, Patti. Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade in the 11th century in part to give all those landless, violent second sons an outlet for their training.

  2. Knights and Old West cowboys/outlaws have such colorful and interesting mythology/legend within their actual history that it's not easy to separate fact from fiction. Both are intriguing, though.

    Thanks for sharing this interesting and informative article.

    1. You're welcome, Kaye. I personally think our idealized versions of knights and cowboys come from the same literary tradition. Although I've always heard that the cowboys and the West wasn't nearly as violent as Hollywood paints it.

  3. How we try to fit the past into what we want it to be. As an avid reader of history, your post give me glimpses into what I may want to delve into next. Thank you so much for taking the time to share you knowledge and resources. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris. One of the big arcs of Middle Ages is how the church slowly nudged the Western world toward the chivalric ideals. The idea that noncombatants should be treated well as opposed to being slaughtered or sold into slavery is a pretty radical notion.

  4. I can't help but think about how in despair we often say, "It's all feudal". I can well imagine how, in a feudal system, the people at the bottom of the economic scale would feel there's no way out of their misery.
    I'd love to think a Knight in Shining Armor is a gentleman filled with bravery and kindness, but I get the picture. Disappointing for certain.
    This was quite an interesting and eye-opening article, Keena.

    1. Don't despair, Sarah. It's pretty remarkable that the era could conceive of a "knight in shining armor" and chivalry and hold it up as something to strive for. I believe what a civilization aspires to is as meaningful as what it actually is. For instance, in the U.S. we aspire to equality for all. We're not there yet, but as a nation we have made that our guiding principle. For the Middle Ages, read about William Marshal. He came the closest (as far as we know) to living the ideals.

  5. Keena, thank you for such a great post, but gosh darnit, I must admit I too love to think of those warriors as knights in shing armor. All that bold, manliness and courage and charm. Hey, a girl can dream can't she? So I'll not think of all the stench, filth, blood and guts and barbaric ways and just think of the guys we write about. Oh my. Sorry I was late to this but glad I saw this--very interesting and guess I need to be reminded of what it was really like. Shucks.

    1. Ack! I feel so bad at bursting anyone's romantic bubbles. Personally, I think knowing the reality and writing someone who aspires to better creates fabulous, inherent conflict within the story.