No discussion of chivalry during the time of the high crusades would be complete without a discussion of the knights who supposedly embodied its principles. Both the development of the concept of the knight and the concept of chivalry are linked to one another and neither would have been possible without the other.
In the early Middle Ages the primary combatants in war were foot soldiers. When horses were used, their value was in mobility, and soldiers dismounted to actually fight. With the development of the stirrup during the seventh and eighth century, soldiers found it much easier to stay in the saddle and maintain their balance while wielding weapons. During the eighth and ninth centuries cavalry gradually became an important part of Frankish warfare, but it wasn't until after AD 1000 that the cavalry charge with lances at rest became common and guaranteed the importance and superiority of the mounted warrior in combat. Mobility had finally combined with effectiveness to create a position where a skilled warrior on horseback was indispensable (Barber, 4-7).
Local magnates originally began hiring these mounted warriors with money for defense against small war bands that were sweeping the countryside toward the end of the sixth century. Eventually an arrangement was formalized through which warriors were paid in land and benefits instead of money, and during the eighth century a new system of homage appeared wherein a vassal would swear an oath of loyalty to his lord in return for protection or other benefits. "By the end of the eighth century the system of vassalage was operating from the highest to the lowest levels of society" (Barber, 11). Between these two levels was a yeoman class of freemen with small holdings and no ties, and the mounted warriors who owed military service to the king for their land holdings.
In about 1130 the concept of Knights as "an elite, selected group, with a formal ceremony of admission" can be seen as emerging. This change from the mounted warrior to the knight was influenced by changes in attitudes among other things. In the late eleventh and twelfth century it was no longer commendable to execute defeated rivals on the battlefield. Castles gave warriors increased status through security and a visible focal point for authority. The church's attempt to regulate warfare through such means as the "Truce of God" shows an increased acceptance of warfare so long as it is well regulated and for the "right" reasons (Barber, 27).
This change in the church's attitude came to fruition in the First Crusade. The vision of a secular militia engaging in the service of the Church brought together the concept of soldiering as part of the ordering of society and the concept of orders in a religious sense. This can be seen most prominently in the various orders of knight which emerged during the crusades. The Knights Templar, Knights Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Knights are all orders which were created by the church during the crusades. These orders blended monastic vows and blessings to go forward and protect the church by the use of arms.
Many knights were the younger sons of fathers who could not afford to pass money on to them who were trying to make their fortune in tournaments. Others ranges all the way down to the mercenaries who robbed and plundered for a living. Wealth and knighthood often did not come together. In the 1100s it was acknowledged that men of low birth, bastards and serfs should not be knighted and laws were established to this affect in Germany and Sicily. By 1187, Knighthood had become hereditary, and the dual nature of knighthood was that of a skilled warrior in war and a landholder in times of peace.
Many ideals came to be associated with Knights during the times of the crusades. "The Idea of knighthood as the bulwark of society against disorder runs right through the manuals on the subject, and is partly a justification of the knight's right to lead, partly a sanctification of the feudal warrior" (Barber, 46). While the church's attempt to regulate warfare through mandates like the Truce of God fell far short, the increased social status of the knight brought with it an increased access to the court and nobility; to clerks and courtliness. Virtues which were praised in this environment included "affability, friendliness, a benign countenance; moderation and measured conduct; gentleness, temperate moods, and reticence about his accomplishments" (Barber, 68). These ideals converged with the increased secular piety during the ages of the crusades to form the mandates of chivalry.
Medieval European society had a great love for ceremony and pageantry. This embodied itself in the grandeur of many of the mass ceremonies, in which hundreds of people were dubbed knight before crusades and other wars sanctified by the church. The knighting ceremony was quite ritualisic. The potential knight was to take a bath and spend the night in a vigil of prayer. He was to wear linen to the actual ceremony. His sword was blessed, and then any other pieces of his armour. A prayer is said and the naked sword is given to the knight. He would gird himself and sheathe the sword, and then takes it back out and brandish it three times. The kiss of peace was exchanged. "Dubbing" was a blow struck with the hand or the sword and was regarded as the one essential act of the knighting ceremony. The nobles standing by then put spurs on the knight. Finally, if entitled, he would be presented with a banner, with a final blessing (Barber, 34). The symbolism of the various parts of the service and things used was also very important to the knights. The bath was a symbol of purification. After the bath, he would wear a white tunic, symbolic of purity; a scarlet mantle, symbolic of nobility; hose and shoes of black, symbolic of death and the earth we must all eventually return to. He wore white cingulum for chastity. "Finally he received four injunctions: he must never traffic with traitors; never give evil counsel to a lady, whether married or not; he must treat her with great respect and defend her against all. He must observe fasts and abstinences, and every day must hear Mass and make an offering in Church" (Oakeshott, 190). The ceremony was quite expensive; a poor knight, who needed to bypass the ceremony, would have to settle for the actual battlefield, where only the dubbing was necessary to make one a knight, often under difficult and hurried circumstances.
"It has been said that the distinctive qualities of a knight were at their best honor, piety and love; at their worst ferocity, superstition and lust. The virtues of chivalry were courage, faith and devotion; its vices murder, intolerance and adultery" (Oakeshott, 188).
As warriors, knights were expected to be brave and loyal to their leaders. This is seen in some of the literature of the time such as the Chanson de Roland, wherein Roland goes willingly to his death with courage and loyalty to his commander Charlemagne, and without calling for help which might be seen as dishonorable (Barber, 52).
Knights functioned as the secular arm of the Church during the Crusades, and as such they were bound by the code of honor given to the crusaders by Pope Urban II in 1095. This gave rise to the idea of the "Code of Chivalry." Every crusader had to "swear to defend to his uttermost the weak, the orphan, the widow and the oppressed; he should be courteous, and women should receive his especial care. Thus to his bravery and love of adventure, the knight was enjoined to add gentler qualities" (Swettenham, 26).
Gradually the songs and poetry of the court combined with the urging of the church to defend women, led the idea of romance to dominate chivalry, taking a priority above religion and feudal loyalty. "Only war, a glorious and exciting pastime and a stimulating way of winning wealth, kept its high place as a gentleman's most cherished occupation; but the influence of love as the mainspring of warlike aspiration gave a much lighter rhythm to it, and to literature and life itself" (Oakeshott, 187). It is the idea of romance and the large influence that it began to have over chivalry that led to such orders of knights as the Order of the Garter (Barnie, 66).
In spite of all of this, chivalry remained centered on an idea of courtesy and courtly behavior that was found in the courts of kings and nobles of the times (Barnie, 66).
If war remained the most glorious pastime for these knights, the reality of war was far from their idea of chivalry. Religion also seems to have played a part in this separation from reason. During the first crusade, a small group of knights who may have started out with sincere piety came to believe that they were the instruments of God's wrath here on earth. In 1096 after taking the town of Marat, Radulph of Caen says that they engaged in cannibalism and ate those who were killed in battle, both men, women and children. They then decided to go directly on to Jerusalem with the rest of the army or not. In the town of Antioch they killed people regardless of Christian, Muslim, or Jew with no bias to age, sex or religion. With the firm belief that they were under the direct leadership of God almighty, no atrocity was too terrible for these fanatics to commit. After every engagement they would return to camp with the heads of the Muslim dead on top of poles, and sometimes making the captured carry the heads of their fellow soldiers.
NOTE: The strength of this self-righteous pious fanaticism cannot be underestimated. Some books that I have come across written as late as the 1850s attempt to validate and excuse the acts of the Christians during the crusades. That such attitudes have been prevalent in the field up to modern times is a testament to the strength of such ideas and the self-righteousness that people embody when they believe that they are justified by God no matter what their actions are. As in the study of anything else, the reader should be skeptical of books that try to justify every atrocity that occurs, and which negate the very identity of those people whose actions cannot be justified even in the extremes of war.
There were, however, many notable exceptions to the knights who went on crusade for more admirable reasons. One example might be Louis IX, King of France from 1226 - 1270. A deeply pious man, Louis embodied many of the concepts of chivalry and was canonized as a saint less than twenty years after his death. His belief that a King should be loved by his subjects led him to personify many of the ideals of chivalry (Hallam, 93). The Memoirs of The Lord of Joinville is a primary source dealing with the life of King Louis IX. In these memoirs, Jean de Joinville speaks of Louis as reasonable, just, and caring of others. His generosity is also highlighted: "and truly I thought that he was angry with me, because I had said, that he had not yet spent any of his own money, whereas he spent it generously" (Joinville, 221). Louis showed concern for others and often sought their advice in making decisions. He sought to combine some of the most important aspects of chivalry into his own personal life. He was a knight and warrior, pious, reasonable, honorable, courageous, kind, and generous to his subjects. Regarding Louis IX's treatment in his book, Joinville writes, "The first part tells how he ordered his time according to God and the Church and to the profit of his realm. The second part of the book treats of his knightly prowess and great feats of arms.... it may be plainly seen that never a layman of our times lived so holily as he did all his days, from the beginning of his reign unto the end of his life" (Joinville, 2).
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Last modified November 20, 1997