A knight in medieval times is normally recognized as an equipped combatant at the service of the lord or king. Knight was considered a symbol of chivalry and an epitome of bravery in the medieval times. He was regarded as the most skilled person in the art of fighting who worked under the lord and was subjected to his orders and instructions in every affair of life. His leisure time activities were also chivalrous in nature and he remained involved in chivalrous games like duels. He used to possess best Arabian breed of horses that had no match in Europe.
“The close association of the knight and his horse is clearly shown by the titles by which we was known throughout Europe; in France he was a Chevalier, in Italy a Cavalier, in Spain a Caballero, and in Germany a Ritter, from the word meaning to ride. Even the name for the code by which the knight was later bound, Chivalry, derives from the French Cheval. ” (The Origins of The Knight) Knight was the production of a practical necessity of keeping men of valor and strength to keep the territories and states safe against internal and external threats.
That armed knights later became a part of nobility due to the growth and extension of military power and their importance in the affairs of the states. Over a period of five hundreds years, in addition to knights’ military duties and obligations, their socio-political importance led to three other important changes regarding their status in the socio-cultural set-up. This was the steady advancement of knights as a fortunate and advantaged, inherited group.
Secondly, a code of chivalry developed naturally that customized and legitimized their code of conducts and elaborated and elevated them to an exclusive social position as a martial privileged class that developed itself into an nobility. The Knights was bound by socio-cultural convention to follow a code of chivalry. This chivalrous was a counter-effective to manifestation of his violent nature during battles and wars. Code of chivalry used to be no document system of conduct but it was customary set of rules based on morality and cultural compulsions.
Chivalric qualities of an ideal knight during the middle ages under this code are best described in Song of Roland. It reflects that a Knight should be God fearing who could serve his lord in every thick and thin. He must defend the feeble and frail and must abstain himself from giving unnecessary offense to others. He must not fight for his own financial or social gains but for the wellbeing of all.
Song of Roland says in this regard: “A knight should have such valour,/ Who bears arms and sits astride a good horse./ In battle he should be strong and fierce,/ Or else he is not worth four pence. / He ought rather to be a monk in one of those monasteries/ And pray all day long for our sins! ” (Song of Roland, laisse 141)
Duke of Burgundy recognizes some important characteristics and personality traits of a chivalrous knight. “The words he chose to use to describe the virtues that should be exhibited in the Knights Code of Chivalry were as follows: Faith, Charity, Justice, Sagacity, Prudence, Temperance, Resolution, Truth, Liberality, Diligence, Hope, Valour”.
(The Middle Ages Website) So these characteristics of knight were manifestations societal expectations about the code of conduct of knight. Beside all these chivalrous qualities, he was expected to be brave and skillful enough to shows his valor and strength at the battlefield. Another manifestation of chivalrous characteristics was brotherhood at arms. “Among the gentler features of chivalry may be reckoned the beautiful institution of brotherhood in arms, by which two knights vowed faith to each other.
The brothers in arms wore the same arms and clothes, mingled their blood in one vessel, and received the Sacrament together. They engaged to support each other in battle and in all quarrels, and to have the same friends and enemies. ” (Knights in Middle Ages) This not only unified the knights of one state but their vows to each other used to augment their strength and confidence. Courtly love was another important development that was directly associated with knight and knighthood. It was one of the most celebrated activities of Knights that is romanticized to a great extent by the medieval literature.
Courtly love was eulogized and was considered a noble passion. This form of romantic passion is depicted differently by Chaucer. In his era, the medieval era, relationship between lady and a knight took the form of ‘courtly love’ and was labeled as a noble passion coupled with chivalry and gallantry. In renaissance, love was also considered an ennobling phenomenon but we see concept of romantic and exalted love that has nothing to do with knightly and chivalrous qualities. Chaucer writes about one of the most important activities for a Knight was;
To love my lady, whom I love and serve/ d evere shal, til that myn herte sterve. (The Knight’s Tale) Courtly love is not depicted an immodest and lustful phenomenon by Chaucer but it is praised occasionally. Chaucer further shows certain other fine qualities of the contemporary culture pertaining to courtly love. For example, in Knight’s Tale male lover were never usurpers. Following the tradition of courtly love, both knights, Palamon and Arcite disclosed their love for the lady and requested her hand.
Both are “broken al day for love in ech degree. ” (The Knight’s Tale)This clearly manifests that culture and value of time pertaining to courtly love strongly prohibited forced love. Furthermore, it shows the individual integrity and honesty within the community. It was knights’ integrity and honesty that did not let them to deceive their lady-love and adopt a proper way to court the lady. This indirectly depicts the rationality level of the people in general and nobility in particular.
Loyalty and equality were other ingredients of the courtly love that portrays the values and traditions of the society as a whole. Although Middle Ages’ literature highly romanticize the characteristics of a knight and elevated their characters but many knights were unable to live upto these standards. Chaucer depicts in Canterbury Tales (Wife of Bath’s) the story of knight who raped a lady. This was highly against chivalrous code. As Chaucer’s tales are considered as the mirror image of his contemporary era, so this story was a reflection of the prevailing socio-cultural situations.
In another medieval story, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, we also find some knights who are coward and are not as good as knight Gawain. So it is obvious that not all knights were chivalrous. Above-mentioned arguments and supported evidence clearly manifest that medieval knight were well-mannered, gracious and towering personalities. Their indulgence in courtly love was not a lustful affair but it was a based on mutual attraction and admiration was purely a refined and passionate activity that was accepted and sanctioned by social norms.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Penguin Classics. 1996.
Goldin, Frederick. The Song of Roland. New York: Norton, 1978.
Gravett, Christopher. The World of the Medieval Knight. Peter Bedrick Books. New York. 1996.
Medieval Spell. Knights in Middle Ages. 12 November 2008 <http://www. medieval-spell. com/Knights-In-Middle-Ages. html>.
The Middle Ages Website. Knights Code of Chivalry. 12 November 2008 <http://www. middle-ages. org. uk/knights-code-of-chivalry. htm>.
The Origins of The Knight. 12 November 2008 <http://members. tripod. com/~hkcarms/knights. html>.
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