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Knighthood & the Feudal System

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« on: February 19, 2007, 12:14:52 am »

Origins of European knighthood


Knighthood as known in Europe was characterized by two elements, feudalism and service as a mounted combatant. Both arose under the reign of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne, from which the knighthood of the Middle Ages can be seen to have had its genesis.

Some portions of the armies of Germanic tribes (and super-tribes, such as the Suebi) which occupied Europe from the third century had always been mounted, and sometimes such cavalry in fact composed large majorities, such as in the armies of the Ostrogoths. However, it was the Franks who came to dominate Western and Central Europe after the fall of Rome in the West, and they generally fielded armies composed of large masses of infantry, with an infantry elite, the comitatus, which often rode to battle on horseback rather than marching on foot. Riding to battle had two key advantages: it relieved fatigue, particularly when the elite soldiers wore armour (as was increasingly the case in the centuries after the fall of Rome in the West); and it gave the soldiers more mobility to react to the raids of the enemy, particularly the invasions of Muslim armies which started occuring in the seventh century. So it was that the armies of the Frankish ruler and warlord Charles Martel, which defeated the Umayyad Arab invasions at the Battle of Tours in 732, were still largely infantry armies, the elites riding to battle but dismounting to fight in order to provide a hard core for the levy of the infantry warbands.

As the eighth century progressed into the Carolingian Age, however, the Franks were generally on the attack, and larger numbers of warriors took to their horses to ride with the Emperor in his wide-ranging campaigns of conquest. At about this time the Franks increasingly remained on horseback to fight on the battlefield as true cavalry rather than as mounted infantry, and would continue to do for centuries thereafter. Although in some nations the knight returned to foot combat in the fourteenth century, the association of the knight with mounted combat with a spear, and later a lance, remained a strong one.

These mobile mounted warriors made Charlemagne’s far-flung conquests possible, and to secure their service he rewarded them with grants of land called benefices. These were given to the captains directly by the emperor to reward their efforts in the conquests, and they in turn were to grant benefices to their warrior contingents, who were a mix of free and unfree men. In the century or so following Charlemagne’s death, his newly enfeoffed warrior class grew stronger still, and Charles the Bald declared their fiefs to be hereditary. The period of chaos in the ninth and tenth centuries, between the fall of the Carolingian central authority and the rise of separate Western and Eastern Frankish kingdoms (later to become France and Germany, respectively), only entrenched this newly-landed warrior class. This was because governing power, and defense against Viking, Magyar and Saracen attack, became an essentially local affair which revolved around these new hereditary local lords and their demesnes.

The resulting hereditary, landed class of mounted elite warriors, the knights, were increasingly seen as the only true soldiers of Europe, hence the exclusive use of miles for them.

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