Chivalry originated in two parallel developments: horse-mounted cavalry, which evolved to combat threats from invaders; and feudalism, the system of political and military relationships among the European nobility.
The first knights were armed warriors who fought on horseback.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, western Europe was under attack by invading forces of Vikings, Magyars, Muslims, and other tribes. These invaders were often expert in waging war on horseback. The armies of the European nobles were composed primarily of foot soldiers and had difficulty combating these fast-moving forces. Consequently, many of the nobles began to use cavalry training and tactics in order to counter this threat. The first knights were armed warriors who fought on horseback.
Knighthood became a mark of social distinction, and the opportunity to become a knight was limited...
However, the maintenance of horses was expensive, and cavalry training was a long process. To support their cavalry, the nobility began to grant land to their mounted warriors for the duration of their service. The land provided the income to support the knight. This system of land holding was part of feudalism. The knights gave military service to their feudal lord or king in return for the right to hold a piece of land or property. Eventually, knighthood became a mark of social distinction, and the opportunity to become a knight was usually limited to men of noble birth.
An unwritten contract governed the relationship between a king or a feudal lord and his knights. Each year a knight was to perform a specific number of days of military service, in exchange for which he received his lands and the lord’s protection. The knight was also expected to fight bravely for his lord, and to be loyal to him. Bravery and loyalty were the precursors of what was to become the code of chivalry.
THE CODE OF CHIVALRY
Chivalry gradually began to soften the harsh edges of feudal warfare.
In the centuries that followed, the influences of Christianity and courtly love expanded the code of chivalry to include religious piety and refined social gracesand manners. Chivalry gradually began to soften the harsh edges of feudal warfare. Knights were expected to treat their fellow knights and social inferiors with respect and benevolence. The new code prohibited knights from attacking the unarmed, and knightly ideals stressed that the good knight fought for glory and Christian purposes and not for mere profit or gain. In practice, though, most knights continued to have a keen eye for the possible financial benefits that could be reaped from an important hostage or a stolen horse.
Christianity and the Crusades
The Peace of God forbade knights from attacking peasants, women, priests, and merchants...
The early Middle Ages had been a chaotic time in Europe. However, the 11th century began a long period of renewed stability. Commerce and trade revived, and new towns and cities sprang up throughout the continent. In this comparatively peaceful climate, the Church tried to curb the warlike spirit of the feudal nobility. In the 11th century, for instance, Church councils met throughout Europe and adopted the programs known as the Peace of God and the Truce of God. The Peace of God forbade knights from attacking peasants, women, priests, and merchants, while the Truce of God prohibited battle on Sundays and holy days. Although the Church lacked the power to enforce them, the Peace of God and the Truce of God reveal the emergence of new values that questioned the wholesale warfare in western Europe typical of the 9th and 10th centuries.
Christianity also influenced chivalry through the Crusades. The Crusades were military expeditions undertaken by Christian knights to recapture from Muslim control the holy places of pilgrimage in Palestine, or the Holy Land. Although many knights enlisted in search of financial gain, military glory, and adventure, many were also moved by genuine religious enthusiasm. This enthusiasm was reflected in the founding of the military religious orders—the Knights Templar, the Teutonic Knights, and the Hospitalers. The members of these orders took religious vows and shared a common vision of recapturing the Holy Land for Christianity. They believed that knighthood could be a holy form of life when used for Christian purposes. These ordershelped infuse chivalry with religious idealism.
To please their ladies, knights labored to master the arts as intently as they did the skills of warfare.
Another major influence on chivalry was courtly love, the system that came to define relationships between knights and ladies in the feudal court. The ideals of courtly love stressed that a knight should devote himself completely to a married or betrothed woman at court. In his lady’s name, he waged war or jousted in tournaments, trying to win her favor. After a period of courtship, the two might consummate their love secretly. Courtly love’s influence among the feudal nobility was undeniable, despite the fact that its ideals ran counter to the Christian ideals of chivalry. Courtly love helped refine relationships between men and women at court. To please their ladies, knights labored to master the artsas intently as they did the skills of warfare. Writing poetry, singing love songs, and playing musical instruments became indispensable to the feudal knight hoping to entertain his lady.
LIFE OF A KNIGHT
The squire was welcomed into the order by being dubbed with a sword or slapped in the face by his lord.
The education of a knight proceeded in a way similar to that of many medieval occupations. At an early age the prospective knight was apprenticed to serve as a page, or attendant, in a knight’s household. In his teens the page graduated to the status of a squire and received more responsibilities. As a squire the boy tended his knight’s horses and armor, but he also gained his first battle experience. Several squires were usually apprenticed to a knight at the same time and on the battlefield they might fight as a small band of infantry around their master. Here they acquired the many skills in arms necessary for their profession. To graduate to the status of a knight, a squire usually performed some heroic deed in battle. The squire was welcomed into the order of knights by being dubbed with a sword or slapped in the face by his lord. Afterwards the new knight would receive his fief, or gift of land. As the cult of chivalry developed in the 12th and 13th centuries, knighting ceremonies became more involved. Often they occurred at court, and a knight’s dubbing might be preceded by a religious vigil in which the knight vowed to uphold Christian and chivalric principles.