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Knighthood

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The concept of a Knight is fundamental to Western European feudal societies and is thoroughly intertwined in many of our other concepts. Many remarks about Knighthood have been made in some of the other sections of this handbook and will not be repeated here except as necessary to make this section completely self-explanatory.

The popular conception of a knight is that of a gallant, brave, trustworthy (etc., etc.) individual (usually also young and handsome) who travels about in shining armor (full plate, of course) judiciously applying his lance or sword to some noble cause involving beautiful damsels, orphaned royal heirs, deposed rightful kings, etc. The only fatalities are evil scoundrels or unfortunate dragons. For sustenance, our popular knight merely rides into any castle, where he is welcomed with open arms and treated to a lavish feast. Occasionally, due to bad planning, bad weather, or extra foes to vanquish, our knight is forced to stop in as a guest of some poor peasant family, who joyfully welcome him and feed him with their simpler fare of cheese, bread, stew, ale, etc. In gratitude our knight applies lance and sword on their behalf, and all are satisfied! In short, our popular conception of a knight is a "Best of the Best" one, based largely on childhood fairy tales.

The actual reality in, say, the 13th Century is quite a bit different. Back then knights had to actually work for a living. Their "work" consisted of applying armed force against other knights and men-at-arms at the bidding of their overlord, in order to get the other side to yield to this overlord's will or desire on some matter. Historically, knights did tend to be young, but only because so many of them got killed before they could get older. If lucky' enough to be wounded or maimed instead of killed, they would usually lose their fief (because now they can no longer fight) and be forced into outlawry, the monastery, or to depend on the charity of better off relatives. As nobles, they were conscious of being better' than the peasants and freemen around them, yet at the same -time, they had no real security except through their lord. Their fortune rose and fell with his. During military actions they might be fed by their lord's provisions, but more commonly, they just helped themselves to the enemy peasants' food and supplies. Do not believe that those peasants joyfully handed over all their own food and then quietly starved, happy in the knowledge that they were feeding their betters!

During peacetime, our knight had to live off the produce of his fief. Since the size of a fief was only supposed to be large enough to supply food and 'means' for one knight and his horse, and since his overlord wanted to retain as much of his 'enfiefable' lands for himself as he could, 'food and means' was subject to some "interpretation". Practically speaking, our knight was forced to extort his peasants. This was probably not a happy situation on either side. If the knight had a wife and children, then the situation was only made worse.

To complete the real picture, a 13th Cent. Knight wore mostly chainmail instead of shining plate. As is well known, "chainmail rusts", and this stained both him and his few clothes (q.v. Chaucer). A knight was usually lacking in education and the social graces, although the rudiments were not uncommon. A rigorous life kept the knight in good physical condition (not counting injuries), but prowess-wise, one half of all knights were worse than average at fighting and everything else. (Curiously, one half of anything is below average in quality, but people seem to be preoccupied with the better half and act as if the lesser half didn't exist. Many knights used their noble status and/or connections to drift out of fighting and vassalage into more lucrative commercial enterprises. Although they were a motley group with various equipment, dispositions, abilities, etc.; then, as now, soldiers with greater abilities probably led a higher quality life. In the 13th Century, knights were not cookie cutouts of each other like today's modern soldiers are. Just like in the 13th Century, some of the American Medievalist's Association's knights are really good fighters, others are not. Some are extremely well equipped, others less so. The association encourages any member who wants to see what being a knight was really like to do so. It is relatively easy, but can be a bit expensive. Notice that knighthood is in no way 'merely honorific'. Association knights are working knights. So, who can be, and how does one become a knight?

There are some restrictions to knighthood:

Knights must be 18 yrs. of age. This is for legal purposes, since legally, persons under the age of 18 are not 'responsible' enough to understand the risk for injury during fighting.

 Severely handicapped or disabled persons cannot be knights if such condition makes it impossible, or nearly so, to fight. Again, this is based on historical reality, and is also because knights have to actually fight when required.

When the American Medievalist's Association was developing it's medieval structure, they decided to re-create knighthood as it actually was, instead of some fairy-tale ideal. Since half of all knights would lose in single eliminations combat, they eliminated the idea that only the "best of the best" fighters would be knights. If this bothers your sensitivities, consider the case of a real 13th Century Baron who is on campaign with his King, and who loses 2 knights in battle. This Baron has sworn an oath in return for lands (his fief) to support his King with a certain number of knights under his banner. He is short 2 knights. What does he do? Looking around, he sees that one of his remaining knights has an older squire (a son or nephew, perhaps). The squire is ready to advance. The Baron consults the knight, they agree the squire is ready for knighthood, so they do it, then and there. Now the Baron is only 1 knight short of his pledge. A man-at-arms, of humble birth has been on campaigns with the Baron for 4 years now. The Baron has known the man for years, this man is strong, has proven his courage several times already, maybe even rendered the Baron a service above and beyond his station in life. Another quick consult with 1 or 2 of his most trusted knights and then the man-at-arms is knighted then and there as a reward for his service and as an incentive to the other lowly fighters that, although unlikely, could possibly be so rewarded. Now our Baron is no longer short of knights for his pledge, his fief is safe, the King is none the wiser, etc. If the former man-at-arms is not really worthy to be a knight, he will probably be killed in an upcoming action and the Baron will be short on his pledge again, but maybe not. Meanwhile his problem is solved, and the rest is in God's Hands. What else was our Baron supposed to do? Take a time-out and advertise for an unemployed knight? There are no classifieds, employment agencies, knight's resumes on file, etc. There are not even many surplus knights, because their numbers are limited by the number of positions (fiefs) available for them. As vacancies occur, replacement knights are created to fill the voids. A process similar to the above scenario must be what allowed for such fast recoveries in numbers by the chivalry despite sometimes horrendous losses (e.g. Crecy, Agincourt, etc.) Waiting for the next generation to mature takes too long.

A knight of the American Medievalist's Association is required to own a complete set of armor and weapons in addition to clothes, tableware, etc. (Reality Clause). This knightly paraphernalia must be reasonably authentic (Authenticity Clause), i.e., standard to the 13th Century. To settle the standard, the College of Knights stipulated that a knight had to own multiple hand weapons, a long sleeved, knee length, suit of chainmail or period metal armor. Additionally, a knight in the association is required to be "ready, willing and able" to fight when required. "Ready" means that he has to be armed at all times, or at least have ready access to his armor and weapons, to avoid hostile capture, avenge injuries or slights, defend or render service to his lord, etc. "Willing" means that the knight agrees to actually fight when required, not merely be ready to at some other time. "Able" means that the knight has some familiarity with fighting techniques and is physically able to fight. Having all the stuff and being willing to go out and being hopelessly clobbered each time is not "able".

Once a candidate for knighthood feels he is ready, and just in case no one noticed the training, fighting practice, armor making, weapon construction, etc. the candidate should announce his intentions to one or more knights. If one of them feels the candidate is ready, then he is knighted at the next event, in public. Private knightings have been ruled unlawful and void, and such persons would never be acceepted as a Knight.

At the Knighting Ceremony, the candidate may be questioned, he may be challenged, or he may be toasted; there is no set ceremony other than the accolade or drubbing, where a knight strikes him with a sword (or fist) and declares him a knight. This is as authentically 13th Century as possible, without specifying actual dates, places, and practices. The minor details vary considerably, but they all contain the above elements. The conventional ceremony of vigil, feast, mass & communion, accolade, tournament & feast did not become standardized until much later after the Church had succeeded in thoroughly "Christianizing" the concept of knighthood. Although well under way in the 13th Century, the practice was by no means universal. Additionally, the grand ceremony was probably only for grand folks as it was expensive and required a lot of advanced planning. Lesser persons (the majority) probably had simple ceremonies.

Similarly with squires and pages, A Knight is not required to be one first. While the sons of wealthy and powerful families did become pages and then squires, most knights at the lower levels did not. Neither did the sons of the very top people, did you ever hear of a king sending off his son (and heir) to be a page at some count or duke's court? I think not! In addition to the aspect of sending off a son to be a page or squire at an important court for the purpose of acquiring extra social graces beyond those of mere fighting, there is the additional aim of providing contacts or connections that might later become important to the son's career. Also, what is even less appreciated, is that these sons became, in effect, hostages for their father's good behavior and friendly intentions toward the lord they were now serving. Since the purpose of pages and squires seems to involve aspects not necessary to their role in training for arms, the American Medievalist's Association does not have any formal requirement of squiring or page-hood as a prerequisite of knighthood. However, Squiring is a good way to get a knight to provide arms and armor and training without actually having to fight for it. Squires are also allowed inside the lists with the marshals and combatants.

The question is sometimes asked: if only a knight can make a knight, then where did the first knight come from? The answer is both simple and creative. When we decided to create a medieval society and then did so, you might say that such an establishment actualized our intentions. If a person intended, say, to make a sword, then the ability to make a sword must necessarily exist, otherwise, how could it be made? We intended to develop a complete medieval society, complete with swords, nobles, knights, etc., within which their characters would reside. Once the society was developed, there had to be the ability to create one. If the maker of a sword has the power to make one, then the maker of a society that could have had knights, must similarly have the power to create a knight. We therefore abrogated the "power to knight" and created a "Knight Patent" as the first knight. As soon as he was created, the "power to knight" naturally inhered in him. The person chosen to be the Knight Patent had all the wherewithal (and then some!) to be a knight and had some familiarity with fighting. At the next event, a tournament was held and the Knight Patent dubbed the winner a regular knight.

In the American Medievalist's Association, Knighthood is a really big deal. Feudal society must have knights to keep order, so some members have to be knights to fill that role. The basic requirement therefore is that the applicant must own real arms and armor of a Knight such that he would not be considered ill equipped or outlandish by 13th Century standards. In addition, he must be ready, willing, and able to fight, as defined above. These standards are deliberately a bit vague so as to allow some organic diversity and to reflect the reality that knighthood was slightly different in form, at different times and places in the 13th Century.

All matters pertaining to chivalry are under the jurisdiction of the College of Knights and are not under the administrative control of the American Medievalist's Association. This means that knighthood is completely self-contained, and any problems must be treated within that college as stated elsewhere, mistakes can be made, and knighthoods can be revoked. If’ you' are a knight because 'we' all (or most) say that you are, then it follows that if’ we' say that you are not, then you are no longer a knight No greater disgrace can be imagined. Being a knight is not a free license to become a jerk. The question bas also been asked as to whether or not association knights are "really" knights? Like all such essentially philosophical questions, the answer depends on the definitions. Is a Knight of the Garter in Great Britain really a knight? Is Queen Elizabeth II really a knight? If not, how can she bestow the accolade? Are Templars of Freemasonry really knights? Can they show a knight-to-knight lineage that is unbroken from medieval times? Documented, on actual parchments, seals and all? The American Medievalist's Association's answer is "yes" to all of the above. The College of Knights therefore directs all association knights to refer to all known knights of our organization as "Sir" in token of courtesy to their rank.

 The common thread to the whole controversy of knighthoods is that it is not only a question of how knights are made, but also a question of how they are recognized. Essentially, a knight does not so much as make another knight as he 'recognizes' him. Thus, knight 'A' may give arms, armor, training, etc. to an individual, but none of this 'makes' that individual a knight, even if that individual works at the training and becomes truly proficient at arms. Even if the individual becomes identical to knight 'A', it still does not 'make' him a knight. It is only when knight 'A' (or knight ~B' for that matter) recognizes the individual as a knight (with the accolade) that he really becomes a knight. It is the acceptance by other knights that makes it so.

 

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Last modified: April 01, 2002