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Knighthood & the Feudal System

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« on: February 19, 2007, 12:14:09 am »

Etymology

The word knight derives from Old English cniht, meaning page boy, or servant (as is still the case in the cognate Dutch knecht, German Knecht, Norwegian and Swedish knekt and Danish knægt for servant), or simply boy. (In a parallel development, the word "Samurai" in Japanese also comes from the verb "to serve".)

Knighthood, as Old English cnihthād, had the meaning of adolescence, i.e. the period between childhood and manhood. The sense of (adult) lieutenant of a king or other superior was in existence at least as early as 1100, although there are signs of it as early as Alfred's Orosius.

In this respect English differs from most other European languages, where the equivalent word emphasizes the status and prosperity of war horse ownership. Linguistically, the association of horse ownership with social status extends at least as far as ancient Greece, where many aristocratic names incorporated the Greek word for horse, like Hipparchus and Xanthippe; the character Pheidippides in Aristophanes' Clouds has his grandfather's name with hipp- inserted to sound more aristocratic. Similarly, the Greek ἱππεύς (hippeus) is commonly translated knight; at least in its sense of the highest of the four Athenian social classes, the ones who could afford to maintain a warhorse in the state service. A survival is the modern given name Philip, whose etymology means lover of horses.

An Equestrian (Latin eques, plural equites) was a member of the second highest social class in the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire. This class is often translated as knight; the medieval knight, however, was called miles in Latin, (which in classical Latin meant "soldier", normally infantry), until the Renaissance revival of eques. In the later Roman Empire the classical Latin word for horse, equus, was replaced in common parlance by vulgar Latin caballus, derived from Gaulish caballos (Delamare 2003 p.96), thus giving French cheval (keval), Italian cavallo, and (borrowed from French) English cavalry. This formed the basis for the word knight among the Romance languages: Spanish caballero, French chevalier, Portuguese cavaleiro etc. In German, the literal meaning of Ritter is rider; and likewise for the Dutch and Danish title Ridder.

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