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Knighthood & the Middle Ages Code of Chivalry

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  • 0:01 Why Have Knights?
  • 1:09 A Knight's Training
  • 2:33 Who Needed Chivalry?
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While we may think of knights in shining armor protecting women and the Church through the code of chivalry, the reality was a very different state of affairs. This lesson explains why knights were needed, as well as when the code broke down.

Why Have Knights?

As the Dark Ages commenced across Europe, the proud Roman legionaries that had once provided security were a distant memory. Instead, would-be kings and dukes needed a way to raise an army that did not require large payments of cash. This led to the beginnings of feudalism, by which subunits of land were given to vassals by the land's lord in exchange for a percentage of the land's produce. Vassals also guaranteed that they would raise a small part of the lord's army when needed.

This system was often repeated on small scales, so that a vassal to one lord may be the lord to many others. Towards the bottom of this system were the individual vassals who had only peasants and villagers under them. This layer was often called upon to only provide a handful of men, but more importantly, the vassal was expected to pay for the best equipment available and personally fight for his lord. This vassal was called a knight.

A Knight's Training

While a knight may have been a low man on the feudal pole, his position was still one of considerable honor. After all, the horses, armor, and weapons necessary for his position cost the equivalent of a private jet in today's money. Needless to say, fathers often wanted their sons to inherit their lands, which meant that young boys were started early on the path to becoming a knight.

At age seven, they would be sent to live in the castle of another knight, who would be responsible for the young boy's education. At this point, he was referred to as a page. By the time he was a teenager, the page would become a squire, who would assist his assigned knight in everything from bringing new weapons in the heat of the battle to cutting his meat at the dinner table.

If a squire proved himself worthy, he could expect to become a knight in his own right by age 21. Also, it is important to note that these rules mainly applied to first sons only, since unless the father was particularly wealthy, they were the only ones to inherit the title. Younger sons would enter the priesthood or universities, while daughters would be expected to marry well.

Who Needed Chivalry?

The Church was very eager to assert what power it could over the institution of knighthood. While it had little in the way of political power, the Church did have moral authority. Needless to say, having thousands of amped-up, 20-something men running around with plenty of money and a license to kill was about as bad of a combination then as giving a teenager the keys to a Ferrari is today. To counter this, the Church invented the idea of a code of chivalry, which governed how knights should act not only in battle, but toward civilians, women, and the Church.

Today, we think of chivalry as opening doors or holding umbrellas, but for the Church, it was the most effective way of maintaining control over a rambunctious fragment of society. Stories that told the exploits of the perfect knight, such as King Arthur, grew increasingly common, since the idea of a well-behaved knight was something that most of society could really agree on wanting.

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