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What Makes a Knight?

posted Oct 29, 2014, 6:40 AM by Ben Kreucher
"Chivalry is dead" is a common enough phrase to hear.  It is because we live in a world that no longer has knights or no longer needs them?  Well, we do have them, the Queen of England knights famous British citizens...though not often.

In modern fantasy, authors differentiate between landed knights and hedge knights; where hedge knights are usually poor, country knights who sleep under hedges alongside the road while traveling from tournament to tournament, battle to battle, or quest to quest; they only have their horse, armor, weapons, and the clothes on their backs.  In the Middle Ages, however, a knight was something different than an actor; though he could still be poor, he wasn't without a home.  A knight was the lowest level land owner.  

A lord (let's say a baron in this case) gave a knight a fief--a parcel of land considered large enough to support one knight, his horse, and his training--and in return the vassal owed the overlord his loyalty.  Feudalism.  The vassal's fealty could be repaid in a number of ways.  If the baron's lands were under attack by a rival lord or invaders, the baron would call his vassals to aid their liege lord.  Part of the knight's stores would go to the baron, just as part of the baron's coffers would go to his liege, all the way up to the king.  So, you can see how critical it was to have loyal vassals.

A knight owed fealty to a baron, a baron to a viscount, a viscount to a duke, and a duke to the king.  By himself, a knight was a formidable opponent; but not without weakness. Let's say that a baron had ten vassal knights, that meant a viscount would be able to call twenty vassal knights plus two barons who were also armored warriors on horseback.  Twenty three knights might just change the course of a battle.

But a knight wouldn't come alone.  He'd bring his retinue.  Usually a squire and a few men-at-arms.  Therefore without loyal vassals, a kingdom had no army.  Which is why the code of chivalry was so important.

Chivalry developed first as a series of professional ethics to guide the knight: service to his liege lord and bravery in battle.  Later, it became a social code of conduct: treat others respectfully (though this usually only applied to other knights and lords, not peasants or men-at-arms).  During the Crusades, chivalry became entwined with the Church and Christian ideals, especially defense of the weak.

That still leaves us with the question, does the modern world have room for chivalry.  Cervantes and Machiavelli argued that it was an outdated practice better suited to lovable, delusional imbeciles and that modern leaders should exercise the principle of "the end justifies the means".

Should we fight duels with those that besmirch our honor or the honor of our lady?

Gentlemen of the 19th century practiced gallantry instead of chivalry.

We no longer wear dress swords, a symbol of the freeman since the Bronze Age.

After World War I, nobility/aristocracy began to decline.  20th century suffragettes attacked the pronounced masculine virtues of chivalry in their campaign for gender equality.

Yet, gentlemen are still needed.  A gentleman was, originally, the lowest rank of the English gentry--minor aristocracy--below the esquire and above the yeoman.  However, gentleman has a loose definition.  Even at the height of its use, gentleman was both a title and a way of conducting oneself.  Confucius implored all people to strive toward the ideal of gentlemanly conduct.

Indeed, many might say chivalry and gentlemanly conduct survive in the Southern code of honor.  And, the Unites States Uniform Code of Military Justice has a provision referring to "conduct becoming an officer and a gentleman".

So, does that mean we should all wear small swords on our hips, suits with tails, and fight duels of honor?  Or should we simply strive to better ourselves and treat each other with respect, taking the Golden Rule as our guide?

Is chivalry dead?  That's a question only you can answer for yourself.
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