31 January 2014

A Day in the Life of an Early Medieval Knight

By Lisa J. Yarde

The image of the chivalrous, medieval knight in shining plate armor with he and his horse outfitted in heraldic symbols is typically what many envision when they think of knights throughout history. But that ideal evolved from the 13th to 15th centuries, after such warriors had been in existence from at least 300-500 years before. The legends of King Arthur and his knights begun in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, and the romantic concepts of chivalry and courtly love inspired by writers like Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe, also heavily influenced commonly held opinions about the role of knights. The Roman Catholic church too played an essential role in the development of knightly orders. The Knights Templar, and the Hospitallers or Knights of Saint John in the Holy Land, and the Spanish military orders of Alcantara, Calatrava, and Santiago who fought against the Moors, performed their duties guided by monastic principles, but this did not prevent excesses or barbarism. The reality of knighthood was very different for those who lived during the early periods where the practice became instituted.

Crusaders of the Knights Templar  
In terms of their place in society of the Middle Ages, knights were the lowest rung of the European warrior aristocrats. In Latin, the term miles developed for reference to a free man, a soldier who fought distinctly on horse and wore some form of armor in France's 10th century. In Germany, knights held the same rank, but they had greater restrictions, unable to wed or own property without the lord's consent. Knights began as the servants and soldiers of a military overlord. As castles developed in strategic locations, nobles needed the services of men-at-arms who could defend them from incursions like Viking raids. As payment for their fighting skills and oaths of loyalty and protection, the lord might give money or more importantly, grants of land called fiefs, as an element of feudalism. The land grant technically reverted to the lord once the knight died, but his eldest son could receive it. The concept of hereditary birthright came into being, leading to the adoption of heraldic symbols. Once the type of helmet changed to cover a knight's face, heraldic devices allowed easy identification.  

Battle of Hastings reenactment
During the early years of knighthood, anyone who could afford the training and equipment, including specially bred warhorses such as the Norman French destrier, might obtain an apprenticeship as a warrior. The cost of the warhorse alone, eight times that of a regular riding horse such as a rouncy or palfrey, would have been prohibitive so few below the rank of minor lord might have tried for a knighthood. Knights rode their destriers into battle because the stallions were naturally aggressive, but another, calmer mount would have been required for everyday use. Training started in boyhood, where the future knight lived as a page. The famed knight and statesman, William Marshal began life as a younger son of a minor nobleman named John fitz Gilbert and trained as a page for his uncle William of Tancarville starting in 1155. There's little information on actual training steps. Study would have included use of swords and spears, as well as time at the quintain, a pole with a cross beam, weighted on either side by a heavy sack of sand at one end of the cross beam and shield on the other. The rider had to strike the shield and get out of the way before the sack walloped him. After some years and a show of aptitude, the page might become a squire, a young man who served his lord in every capacity from dress and meals to aiding with his armor and horse. He cared for the horse and his lord's weapons. Recognition as a knight came from the top down. It became common to knight a man on the eve of a battle or for his prowess in a fight, such as the knighting by the Norman Duke William of a sixteen year-old Robert de Beaumont when the Battle of Hastings took place. 

Geoffrey of Anjou's heraldic device
By the 12th and 13th centuries, a man entered service as a knight through a formal dubbing ceremony, first evidenced by King Henry I of England's knighting of his new son in-law, Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou in 1128 at Rouen. Henry also granted Geoffrey a hereditary symbol, a shield described as "azure with lioncels"; the lions in which continued to be used by Geoffrey's descendants among the kings and queens of England. One mainstay of the early knighthood ceremony was the blow to the head of a newly knighted man. As the Church influenced the ritual, the knight became expected to spend the evening prior to the ceremony in prayer and reflection on his future duties. The film Kingdom of Heaven shows such a scene with Orlando Bloom being knighted by his father, portrayed by Liam Neeson, but the purpose of the buffet to the head and the customary words accompanying it aren't clear in history. During later centuries, a new knight might receive a light tap on each shoulder with a sword. He gained his spurs and sword, and might perform feats at a tournament given in his honor.
The tournament, which began as military games meant to hone battle skills in the 12th century, became pageantry by the 14th century. These events derived from earlier displays such as the free-for-all melee into combat with formal rules, allowing a knight to demonstrate his skills and earn prizes. Blunted weapons and lighter armor with padding were used. Sometimes, tournaments substituted for actual warfare, as in 1172 during a conflict between the counts of Burgundy and Nevers. The largely anachronistic A Knight's Tale starring the late Heath Ledger does accurately depict some of the ritual fighting involved in tournaments. Knights who rose to prominence during such events, like William Marshal who competed in 16 tournaments from 1167 to 1183 and became counselor to four successive English kings as well as the first earl of Pembroke, were not commonplace.

A warrior in his hauberk with shield and sword
What did the average early medieval knight, not a landowner, do? Likely, his lord assigned him to a garrison for the protection of a castle or important manor from raids. Early castles started as timber and earthworks set on a mound, often with a moat and palisade walls, but they could still be breached or set afire. A knight defending the territory might have risen early in the morning, had some bread and ale or beer. He might not look any different from any other man within his lord's hall, wearing his linen shirt and a tunic, long breeches called braies, knee-length stockings or chausses; that is, until he donned his armor. He wore an iron helmet, usually conical among the Norman French worn over a bowl-shaped hairstyle severely cropped at the sides and back. The knight also put on a chain-mail hauberk with hammered rings fashioned like a shirt or coat, which fell to the knees. Sometimes a mail coif or hood went under the helmet. By the 12th century, the Normans commonly added a vertical nasal bar protecting the face. Knights also carried shields. When knights were not at their duties they might often be at training with the quintain or practicing with swords against each other. Most people in the Middle Ages were illiterate and the average knight would have been as well. Hunting also provided a means to pass the time and helped improve horsemanship. 

An idealized knight
A knight earned his living in violent combat and defense of his lord. Some took their powers too far and harassed local communities, such that the Church invoked the "Peace of God" and the "Truce of God" starting in the 10th century, for the protection of innocents. Regardless of his daily activities, the measure of a knight lay in his prowess in battle on horseback, to control one's mount and effective use of weapons. The 12th-century noble-troubadour Bertran de Born extolls the virtues of brutal knightly warfare best in one of his poems,

"Great is my joy when I see knights and armored horses ranged on the battlefield.

And I like to see the foragers  send the people and the cattle fleeing before them 
and it pleases me when I see many soldiers come running after them; and it warms my heart to see strong castles besieged, the palisades smashed and broken down, and to see the army on the river-bank protected on all sides by ditches, and strong, tight-made palisades.

And I am well pleased by a lord when he is the first to attack, on horseback, armored, fearless: thus does he inspire his men with boldness, and worthy courage. And when the battle is joined each man must be ready to follow him with joy: for no man is held to be worthy until he has taken and given many blows.

Maces and swords, colorful helms, shields riven and cast aside: these shall we see at the start of the battle, and also many vassals struck down, the horses of the dead and wounded running wild. And when he enters the combat, let every man of good lineage think of nothing but splitting heads and hacking arms; for it is better to die than to live in defeat. 

I tell you, I find no such savor in eating or drinking or sleeping as when I hear the cries of “attack!” from both sides, and the noise of riderless horses in the shadows; and I hear screams of “Help! Help!” and I see great and small alike falling into the grassy ditches and the dead with splintered lances, bedecked with pennons through their sides."        


Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Jeffrey L. Singman

Everyday Life in the Middle Ages, Sherrilyn Kenyon

Norman Knight - AD 950-1204, Christopher Gravett

The Knight in History, Frances Gies

William Marshal: Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147-1219, David Crouch 

Betran de Born's verses from the United States Naval Academy website at http://www.usna.edu/Users/history/abels/hh205/bertrandeborn.html 

All images derived from Wikimedia Commons or licensed from Fotolia 

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the medieval period. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written four novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana,  Sultana’s LegacySultana: Two Sisters, and Sultana: The Bride Price where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.