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Authors: Frances Gies

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The medieval knight can thus be seen emerging from the cavalry of Carolingian times, his status changing with innovations in military technique and the feudalization of Europe. A final element came in the Christian Church’s attempts first to restrain and then to harness his violent behavior.

The knightly title
began to appear in France during the disorders of the tenth century;
whether these knights had their origins as free peasants or as descendants of lesser nobility seems to vary with the region. In status they occupied the lowest echelon of the upper class, and the scholarly consensus is that they were not yet considered noble. Their land holdings were small; as late as the period of the Domesday Book (1086), after the Normans had brought feudalism and knighthood to England, a knight’s normal fief placed him “only just above most well-to-do peasants.”
The very name that the Anglo-Saxons gave the Norman
after the Conquest signaled his minor status:
, a man of modest standing who rendered military service to a lord, heretofore as a foot soldier.

In Germany, where royal authority remained strong and feudalism was slow to develop, the early history of knighthood followed a different course. The place occupied by free men in France, as territorial administrators, household officials, and knights, was filled in Germany by a hereditary group of servile retainers called ministerials. They could not marry without the lord’s consent, were subject to the same taxes as serfs, could not plead their cases in public courts, could not acquire or sell property without the lord’s consent, and could even be bought and sold. This “servile aristocracy,” which German kings and princes employed to counterbalance the power of the nobles, gradually acquired fiefs and vassals of their own and finally freedom, merging into the lower nobility to form the
(knight class). Some of the descendants of ministerials eventually became members of the high nobility, while others distinguished themselves in politics, literature, and intellectual life.

Little is known about the life-style, training, and rituals of the early knights, in either France or Germany. Probably they underwent a term of apprenticeship and on coming of age were presented with sword and spurs. If there was a formal ceremony, the Church took no part in it.

The transitional state of the knight in the tenth century has been illuminated by the researches of French scholar Georges Duby in the region of Mâcon, in central France. There much of the knight’s land was still allodial, that is, free of feudal obligation. He lived on his demesne, in a walled “curia” that consisted of dwelling house, servants’ quarters, barns, storage buildings, dairy, dovecote, bakehouse, pigsty, byre, and sometimes a chapel, often arranged in a square around a central yard where straw and hay were stacked. Nearby were the houses of the peasants, who paid him a small rent and owed him labor services, mainly at planting and harvest times. The activities involved in the agricultural production that provided most of his livelihood were carried on by serfs, who doubled as domestic servants, and who enabled him to be absent for extended periods without loss of income. At intervals the knight served a tour of duty in the local castle, built in the ninth and tenth centuries as part of the public defense system against Viking and Saracen raiders, under the orders of a castellan whose office had become hereditary.
A few castles were of masonry, usually small rectangular stone towers. Most were timber-and-earthwork constructions of the motte-and-bailey pattern, with moats and palisade walls girdling a mound topped with a wooden tower. A neighboring courtyard usually contained the lord’s—castellan’s—residence and barracks for the garrison knights.

The knight’s armor in this early period, and for a long time after, consisted exclusively of a helmet and hauberk or body armor. The helmet was solid iron, conical or round. The hauberk was of chain mail, fabricated principally by a time-consuming hand process in which wire was wound around a rod in a helical coil and then cut entirely down one side of the rod, producing a number of open rings. The two ends of each ring were annealed and hammered flat, and the hauberk, in form a shirt or coat, was fashioned by linking the rings and closing them by overlapping and riveting the flattened ends. The length and style of the hauberk varied. In the Bayeux Tapestry hauberks are long, reaching to the knees, divided front and back for riding, and with wide sleeves. An opening at the throat was laced tight, and close-fitting mail coifs, or hoods, worn under the helmet, helped to protect neck and chin, but the nose and eyes were at first left exposed. The “nasal,” a bar protecting the face, was added to some helmets in the eleventh century and became common in the twelfth. Simultaneously, mail leggings made their appearance: in the Bayeux Tapestry the Norman leaders wear them.

On his left side the tenth-century knight carried a long shield made of wood covered with leather, vertically concave toward his body, rounded at the top and pointed at the bottom. The shield hung from a strap around his neck and was gripped in his left hand by a shorter strap. On his right side, a broad-bladed sword in a scabbard of wood covered with leather was belted to his waist. He might also carry an axe with a fan-shaped blade and a light lance with a leaf-shaped head. His spurs were of goad form, with a single sharp point.





In his person, the real-life knight of the tenth century had little in common with the courtly heroes of the Round Table. Ignorant and unlettered, rough in speech and manners, he earned his living largely by violence, uncontrolled by a public justice that had virtually disappeared. Civil disputes and criminal cases alike had ceased to be adjudicated by the enfeebled royal power and instead were settled by the sword. The unarmed segment of the population, the Church and the peasants, were victims or bystanders. In the words of Georges Duby, “Moral obligations and the persuasion of their peers were all that could impose a limit to [the knights’] violence and greed.”

The prevailing anarchy stimulated remedial action. This came from the Church in a development that had profound effects on the knights and on the medieval nobility. Two related movements were launched in the tenth and eleventh centuries: the “Peace of God” and the “Truce of God.” These two great innovations presaged the powerful assertion of Church authority summarized by historians as Gregorian reform, paving the way for the mighty movement known as the First Crusade.

The Church’s motivation in initiating the Peace and Truce of God had two aspects. First, there was self-interest, mainly the defense of its own property and personnel and of the peasants and merchants whose tithes, rents, and services provided part of its income. Political self-interest also came into play, as when in 994 and 1025 the bishops of Mâcon, Chalon, and Autun convened peace councils at Anse, on the Saône, to prevent Count Otto-Guillaume of Mâcon from asserting authority in Church territory, particularly that of the great abbey of Cluny. The councils at Anse were instigated by the count’s secular rivals, King Robert the Pious of France and the count of Chalon. The Church lent its support because it hoped to free itself from the count’s power and indeed from lay control in general.

Self-interest, then, was one aspect of the Church’s peace offensive. A second was idealism. The Church believed in peace as an absolute good, one that favored order, justice, and the indivisibility of Christianity. “How fair is the name of the peace and how beautiful is the repute of the unity which Christ left to his disciples when he ascended into heaven,” began the preamble to the canons set forth by one of the councils.

In the Peace of God, the Church’s peacemaking efforts were directed toward protecting certain classes at all times, in the later Truce of God, toward protecting all classes at certain times. Both movements sought only to limit and contain the knights’ violent proclivities.

The Peace of God was first pronounced in 989 at a council of bishops at the abbey of Charroux, in Aquitaine. Spiritual sanctions were threatened against anyone who plundered or violated a church, struck an unarmed member of the clergy, or robbed “a peasant or other poor man.” The prohibition was later extended to attacking other unarmed laymen—specifically merchants—and to destroying mills or vineyards and attacking a man on his way to or from church.

To implement the Peace of God, local councils assembled nobility, knights, and peasants in the open fields. There, in an atmosphere of evangelical enthusiasm, oaths to keep the peace were sworn on saints’ relics. To underline the sacred character of the occasion, miracles of healing were performed.
Chronicler Ralph Glaber describes such a council at which those present “were inflamed with such ardor that…with outspread palms and with one voice [they] cried to God, ‘Peace, peace, peace!’ that this might be a sign of perpetual covenant for that which they had promised between themselves and God.”
Another chronicler, Adhémar of Chabannes, described a Peace Council held at Limoges in 994 at the behest of the abbot of the monastery of St. Martial. After a three-day fast, the assembly met in the open air on a hill outside the city. “The bodies and relics of the saints were solemnly conveyed there from all parts, while the body of St. Martial, the patron of Gaul, was borne from its sepulchre, so that everyone was filled with immeasurable joy. All sickness everywhere ceased, and the duke [of Aquitaine] and the nobles [
] concluded a mutual pact of peace and justice.”
Violators of the peace oath were threatened with excommunication.

Early in the eleventh century the second movement emerged. The Truce of God was less broadly evangelical, more focused on the knights and nobility. With respect to their favorite occupation, fighting, an ascetic discipline was imposed. Like penitents required to fast on certain days, knights were made to forgo the pleasure of war on Sundays and holy days and to refrain from acts of violence at any time in churches and in certain areas around churches. When the list of truce days had gained at least a degree of acceptance, it was slowly lengthened till it included Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, all the saints’ days, and all of Advent and Lent.

In 1041 a Peace Council at Toulouges, in southern France, spelled out rules combining the chief elements of both the Peace and the Truce movements:

No man may commit an act of violence in a church, or in the space which surrounds it and which is covered by its privileges, or in the burying-ground, or in the dwelling-houses which are, or may be, within thirty paces of it…. Furthermore, it is forbidden that anyone attack the clergy, who do not bear arms…or do them any wrong; likewise it is forbidden to despoil or pillage the communities of canons, monks, and religious persons…. Let no one burn or destroy the dwellings of the peasants and the clergy, the dovecotes and the granaries. Let no man dare to kill, to beat, or to wound a peasant or serf, or the wife of either, or to seize them and carry them off…. The bishops…have solemnly confirmed the Truce of God, which has been enjoined upon all Christians, from the setting of the sun of the fourth day of the week, that is to say, Wednesday, until the rising of the sun on Monday, the second day….

BOOK: The Knight in History
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