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Knighthood & the Feudal System

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Sun Goddess
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« on: February 19, 2007, 12:21:55 am »

Knighthood and the feudal system

Death of Bertrand du Guesclin; C15th miniature by Jean FouquetOriginally, any knight could make a knight; although there was greater honor in being knighted by more prestigious knights. There was an instance of three knights of Beauvais who needed a fourth knight to witness their contract; so they knighted a passing peasant and made him witness. Unfortunately, knighting serfs was already illegal there, and they were mulcted of a heavy fine.[1]

Once eligibility for knighthood became a monopoly of the nobles, or knightly class, they actually assumed knighthood less and less often. It added little to the honour they already had; dubbing had become a fashionable and expensive ceremony; and knighthood required much equipment, and burdensome duties.

The king, however, could order his subjects to become knights, and dispense with the laws against knighting the ignoble. So knights were most often made by the king, or his deputies; in the late Middle Ages, sovereigns began to forbid their subjects to make knights, as they forbade them other military preparations.

By about the late 13th century, partly in conjunction with the focus on courtly behavior, a code of conduct and uniformity of dress for knights began to evolve. Knights were eligible to wear a white belt and golden spurs as signs of their status. Moreover, knights were also required to swear allegiance to a superior in the feudal pyramid — either to a liege lord or to a military order.

In theory, knights were the warrior class defending the people of feudal Christianity and bound by a code of chivalry. Chivalry (like the samurai’s bushido) was a set of customs that governed the knights' behavior, but was perhaps less scrupulously observed. Knights served mightier lords, usually as vassals, or were hired by them. Some had their own castles, while others joined a military order or a crusade. In reality, rules were often bent or blatantly broken by knights as well as their masters, for power, goods or honor. So-called robber knights or robber barons even turned to organized crime, some based in a castle.

Knights of Christ, detail from Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van EyckIn times of war or national disorder the monarch would typically call all the knights together to do their annual service of fighting. This could be against threats to the nation or in defensive and offensive wars against other nations. Sometimes the knights responding to the call were the nobles themselves, and sometimes these men were hired by nobles to fight in their stead; some noblemen were disinclined or unable to fight.

As time went by, monarchs began to prefer standing (permanent) armies led by officers rather than knights, because they could be used for longer periods of time, were more professional and were generally more loyal. This was partly because those noblemen who were themselves knights, or who sent knights to fight, were prone to use the monarch's dependency on their resources to manipulate him. This move from knights to standing armies had two important outcomes: the implementation of a regular payment of "scutage" to monarchs by noblemen (a money payment instead of active military service) which would strengthen the concept and practice of taxation; and a general decrease in military discipline in knights, who became more interested in their country estates and chivalric pursuits, including their roles as courtiers.

The Knights of Malta also dropped their traditional role of heavy cavalry as they moved from one island fortress to another across the Mediterranean Sea. Instead they became skilled in Naval warfare and engaged in frequent sea battles with the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary Pirates until nearly the end of the 18th century.

In some countries, knighthood was merged into the nobility, remaining only as a low or genetic noble title; thus the aristocratic estate's chambers in the diets of the realms of Sweden and Finland were each called House of knights.

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