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Knighthood & the Feudal System

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« on: February 19, 2007, 12:16:38 am »

The medieval institution
 
Two late 13th / early 14th century knights, wearing full mail armour and great helms at a joust (Codex Manesse).In the early Middle Ages the term knight designated a professional fighting man in the emerging feudal system. Some were as poor as the peasant class. However, over time, as this class of fighter became more prominent in post-Carolingian France, they became wealthier and began to hold and inherit land. Eventually, on the Continent of Europe, only those men could be knighted whose fathers or grandfathers had been knights; and the knightly families became known as the nobility. (In the British Isles, "nobility" is more restricted, to the Peerage.)

From the 12th century, the concept continued being tied to cavalry, mounted and armoured soldiers. Because of the cost of equipping oneself in the cavalry, the term became associated with wealth and social status, and eventually knighthood became a formal title. Significantly the nobility, who at this time were also expected to be leaders in times of war, responded to this new class by becoming members of it. Nobles had their sons trained as gentlemen and as professional fighters in the household of another noble. When the young man had completed his training he was ready to become a knight, and would be honoured as such in a ceremony known as dubbing (knighting) from the French "adoubement." It was expected that all young men of noble birth be knights and often take oaths swearing allegiance, chastity, protection of other Christians, and respect of the laws laid down by their forebears, though this varied from period to period and on the rank of the individual.

From the time of Henry III of England, a knight bachelor was a member of the lower nobility, preceded by the knight banneret, a commander of ten or more lances who could lead his men under his own banner, but who did not have the rank of baron or earl. The knights bachelor did not wear any insignia until 1926.

The concept, together with the notion of chivalry came to full bloom during the thirteenth century, the apogee in the power and influence of the mounted knight on the battlefield, particularly in France, whose knighthood had the most redoubtable battlefield reputation. However, as the fourteenth century dawned, the importance of heavy cavalry was reduced by improved pikemen and longbow tactics. This was a bitter lesson for the nobility, learned throughout the 14th century at battles like those of Crécy, Bannockburn and Laupen. The English introduced foot service for the knight in the early Hundred Years War, to support their longbowmen and to combat the depleted French knights whose charge managed to reach the English lines through the deadly hail of longbow arrows. This tactic spelled disaster for the formerly unstoppable French cavalry charge, and the French knights soon followed suit in dismounting for combat, fighting primarily on foot from roughly 1350 to 1430. However, as their victories increased in the later Hundred Years War, the French took to increased mounted action -- the Battle of Formigny was finally won with a French cavalry charge. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the chess piece was named in this period of increased mounted service, around 1440.)

 
Knights, now called gendarmes, made a return to mounted combat in the late fifteenth century, after reverses in the Hundred Years War. These are early sixteenth century French gendarmes.The French knight, now known as a man-at-arms (gendarme) would fight mounted through the Italian Wars and beyond, and the knights of other nations would follow his lead. They became increasingly professional, paid warriors (a trend which actually started in the Hundred Years War) and, after suffering setbacks due to the new technology of firearms, progressively evolved, abandoning the lance, then the armour, of the medieval warrior. Eventually mounted service no longer required knighthood, but the cavalry always contained large numbers of aristocrats, even into the twentieth century, carrying on the tradition of mounted service by the knight.

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