Why you should care
Sometimes your white knight in shining armor is really just a shining white lie.
Mark Twain was a better bullshit detector than most, and when he got a whiff of a particularly foul piece of propaganda or pomposity, the American satirist usually took it upon himself to expose it with his mighty pen. In his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain lays into the glorification of medieval life and courtly chivalry found in popular works of literature and history such as Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus,” observes Twain’s narrator, an engineer from Connecticut accidentally transported back in time to the court of King Arthur. But it’s a sentiment that could also apply more broadly to our own romanticized imaginings of medieval knights — still just as strong, and misplaced, as in Twain’s time, no matter how many violent fantasies like Game of Thrones we may consume. In fact, chivalry, like most norms of behavior, came about gradually and imperfectly; and even when perfected by its gallant practitioners, it was still a bloody business.
The image of the noble knight was much more a courtly ideal than a reality.
The first knights, a class of semiprofessional servant-soldiers mounted on horseback, emerged in the eighth and ninth centuries in continental Europe as the Franks and others began to deploy mounted cavalry to gain an advantage on traditional foot soldiers. Indeed, the French word for knight, chevalier, from which chivalry derives, comes from cheval, or horse. From the outset, as historian Nigel Saul chronicles in For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England, 1066–1500, knights served their lords by taking an oath of loyalty to fight for them in return for sustenance and security. It was a practical, somewhat ad hoc arrangement, one that often ended in blood and barbarism in the frequent disputes between feuding nobles.
At its heart, chivalry was a response to a Hobbesian world, representing a more humane means of waging war, and sometime in the early 11th century, the Norman elite who ruled over France began to embrace the chivalric lifestyle. “The nobility and knights were by this time,” observes Saul, “beginning to appreciate the value of treating one another in such a way as to permit mutual self-preservation.”
By the time the Normans and William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, they brought with them not only a mounted cavalry but also an emerging code of honor, one that preached restraint even to those one had bested on the battlefield — a sort of medieval Geneva Conventions. And with no shortage of conflicts demanding a knight’s employment, their role became more time-consuming and expensive, requiring full-time training and costly equipment and weaponry. Over time members of this warrior class moved up the social ladder, acquiring property and status. Knighthood became a way for men of humble means to make a name for themselves, and in an age where eldest sons inherited all, younger sons (and bastards) took up the calling to seize their chance at fame and fortune.
In the 12th century, fueled by romantic stories of knightly adventure, including early Arthurian tales by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes, the knight was transformed from mere warrior to a noble icon at the center of a growing aristocratic value system that would change the course of medieval society. By the time Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales appeared at the end of the 14th century, it was possible for him to speak of the “verray parfit gentil knyght,” a lover of “trouthe and honour.”
The image of the noble knight, however, was much more a courtly ideal than a reality. Knights formed their own dangerous subclass, prone to plundering and misconduct when unoccupied by official violence, and codes and stories of chivalry were partly a response by the Church and others to tame this bloodthirsty band of troublemakers. And the tales of gallantry, according to historian Richard W. Kaeuper, were more than just a form of entertainment; they were a “form of literary legislation that attempted to shape the behavior of a very powerful group of men.”
Such medieval spin-doctoring was helped along by the rise of the tournament, a convenient outlet for channeling aggression and curbing the lawlessness of idle warriors. Early tournaments were savage mock battles, but the high rates of mortal injury led organizers to reform the popular spectacle into jousting and other nonlethal competitions. But violence remained the sine qua non of the knight’s existence, Kaeuper argues in Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, and whatever their lofty ideals, knights, as “the privileged practitioners of violence in their society,” operated in a world where death and dismemberment were constant companions.
“It was hard to associate them with anything cruel or dreadful,” Mark Twain’s Yankee narrator remarks of the quite civil personages he meets in King Arthur’s court, “and yet they dealt in tales of blood and suffering with a guileless relish that made me almost forget to shudder.”
Romantic notions of chivalry may color our conception of the medieval knight, but a knight’s true color was blood-soaked red. As Kaeuper reminds us: “We must not forget to shudder.”