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Authors: Frances Gies

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As knighthood became hereditary, the upper class grew more and more feudalized. In England following the Norman Conquest a symmetrical pyramid of vassalage was established, with the king at the top, the great barons under him, then the lesser lords, and finally the knights. In central France the feudal system was less neatly organized and showed a weaker sense of hierarchy. Where in Norman England feudal tenure was the dominant form of landholding, in central France it was not. The allod still prevailed, and land in feudal tenure made up only a small part of each knight’s or castellan’s holding.


A crisscrossing network of homages had grown up among the castellans, but as a rule these merely guaranteed friendly relations and mutual security rather than establishing domination and subordination. Sometimes a castellan held a piece of land far from his own castle and therefore hard to defend or exploit. By conceding it as a fief to a lord who lived nearer, he created a bond of friendship while freeing himself from an administrative problem. Vassalage also connected the knights with the castellans, with the great ecclesiastical establishments, and with one another. In the region of Mâcon, by the time of the First Crusade, all the knights in the neighborhood of a castle were vassals of the castellan; those in the neighborhood of a great sanctuary such as the abbey of Cluny were vassals of the abbot. Knights were also often vassals of other knights.

Humbert Le Hongre owned allodial lands near Chapaize and held a fief of Landry Gros, lord of the castle of Uxelles.
Landry’s father had given the Hongres this fief, taken from land that the abbots of Cluny claimed he had illegally seized from them, and which therefore had dubious title.
Humbert, like his father before him, swore fidelity to the castellan; he promised gratitude and friendship and pledged not to do him any injury. In addition Humbert acknowledged the obligations of “aid and counsel” toward the lord of Uxelles. “Aid” included
, or regular military services limited to forty days in a year, and
, mounted service on a shorter expedition or as an escort. Humbert also mounted castle guard in the garrison of Uxelles for specified periods every year. All these forms of service dated back two or three centuries, but where they had once been “public” duties, in the service of the king, they had long since become “private,” in the service of a local lord.

The obligation of “counsel” required Humbert to attend the lord’s court, advise on policy, take part in proceedings of justice, witness legal documents, and on occasion serve as hostage for the lord. In return, the lord undertook to respect Humbert’s rights, to defend them when they were threatened by others, and to lend his influence on Humbert’s behalf when necessary.

Between two castellans, though a technical relation of lord and vassal might exist, it was never one of domination and dependence. Between a castellan and a knight, it was: the knight was legally and socially inferior. Yet his subordination at that time and place was typically moderate. Usually he still owned some land outright and did not depend on land granted by the lord. In frontier zones, lords often competed for knights’ vassalage, offering greater advantages for lighter obligations.
Finally, most knights held fiefs from more than one lord. Besides his principal lord, the castellan of Uxelles, Humbert Le Hongre held a fief of the abbot of Cluny and one of the castellan of Bourbon-Lancy, 100 kilometers distant.
A vassal so situated was not severely subject to a lord; he could not be constrained to obey a command he considered unreasonable.

At the time of the First Crusade, knights’ fiefs were typically a few acres of field or vineyard, or a single
(land sufficient to support a household). Often a fief was not land, but a church, a mill, rents, or a portion of tithes or taxes. These two could be subinfeudated, or regranted to other knights, often at several removes. In 1080 the count of Chalon was the eminent possessor of a church granted in fief to the castellan Lébaud de Digoine, who in turn had granted it to his vassal Hugues Lébaud, who had granted it to Seguin Rongefer, who had granted it to Josseran de Fautrières. Humbert Le Hongre held jointly with a neighboring knight three small parcels of land in fief from the lords of Bourbon-Lancy. Humbert and his neighbor in turn conceded them to two other knights, so that three small pieces of land were responsible for tying together six men in feudal arrangements.

The knight of the eleventh century remained a country gentleman, sharing many of the interests and concerns of the peasants and closely associated with them, but from time to time escaping his agricultural pursuits to hunt, to mount castle guard, to attend the lord’s assemblages, to go on pilgrimage, to accompany the lord on a journey, and above all to exercise the military profession that defined his position in society. He did not work his own lands. He might direct their exploitation if he did not employ a steward, and perhaps on rare occasions he might take part in harvest or haymaking, but he did not work with his hands. He was not a laborer; the drudgery of life he left to household servants, plowmen, herdsmen. His house at the center of the village was no castle, but a larger, better-constructed, and better-furnished version of those of the peasants, surrounded by outbuildings for the animals and storage of grain and wine. His prosperity depended not on his lord but on the weather and the harvest.

The knights of a single castle district formed a sort of extended family, linked to one another by professional solidarity and to the castellan by vassal relationships. Many had lived together for periods in the castle as boys while they underwent preparation for knighthood. During their periodic service of castle guard and when war threatened, they again lived together in the castle. At intervals they assembled for the lord’s council and justice. Furthermore, they were nearly all kin, close or distant. Constrained after the year 1000 to marry within their own class, they usually married in their local neighborhood outside certain degrees of relationship. They also shared an ancestral bond as descendants of the ancient nobility.

Though the decline in the knightly population had been arrested, their numbers remained small. Duby was able to identify at the time of the First Crusade only 98 knightly families in the Mâconnais region, unevenly distributed in 150 parishes. Some villages counted several knights; others had none. They were sparse in areas under Church domain, and more numerous in forest regions where land had been reclaimed for cultivation.
The contemporary chronicles of the great eleventh-century expeditions vastly exaggerate the numbers of knights, claiming 100,000 for the First Crusade and 50,000 in William the Conqueror’s army. In fact, these two armies, including both knights and foot soldiers, probably numbered about 30,000 and 7,000 respectively.
On the eleventh-or twelfth-century battlefield, a few hundred knights represented a very considerable force.

The apprentice knight typically underwent training in the company of other boys in the household of his father’s lord. Evidence of the existence of a dubbing ceremony is manifested in France in the last quarter of the century. In the German Empire dubbing did not appear until a century later, and then it was limited to the sons of royalty. In France it seems to have been practiced at all social levels, from the sons of kings and counts to the sons of castellans and of ordinary knights. Basically it consisted of the arming of the new knight, particularly of girding on the sword, which was done by his lord or by a powerful relative, though not necessarily by a person of superior rank. (A count might dub a future king.) The sword was usually a gift to the new knight from his sponsor. Several references indicate that the ceremony had taken on a religious character even at this early date; it was usually held on a religious holiday and in the presence of a priest.

With respect to his armor and weapons, the knight made only very gradual progress. Helmet, shield, and mail armor remained his defensive equipment, lance and sword his weapons. Missile weapons were left to the foot soldiers. The knight scorned the bow as beneath his dignity, probably more because of its low cost than for the sometimes stated reason that fighting at a distance was cowardly (foot soldiers also fought hand to hand). In any case, the bow would have been awkward if not impossible for the mounted armored knight to use.

The cost of warhorse and armor continued to rise. The warhorse—“
” or “charger”—bred for size and strength, might cost as much as fifty sous (shillings), five times the price of a good cow. The knight typically required several for himself and his squires. Armor was still more expensive; in 1080 the Le Hongre brothers’ lord, Landry Gros, gave the abbey of Cluny a
in return for mail armor worth 100 sous. Armor and weapons were an important part of a family’s patrimony.

The revenues of a knight’s lands were supplemented by booty. In the incessant petty wars of western Europe, prizes were horses and cattle, forage and food. In a great expedition such as the First Crusade, to this booty were added, in the words of the chroniclers, “gold and silver, and many ornaments,”
“houses filled with goods of all kinds,”
and “great riches.”
The chronicler Raymond d’Aguilers wrote of the capture of Antioch, “How great were the spoils…it is impossible for us to say, except that you may believe as much as you wish and then add to it.”
The valuables went to the knights; the foot soldiers shared the provisions.

A more uniquely medieval source of knightly income was ransom. A prisoner taken in battle or siege was held until his relatives raised the required sum, whose size depended on his rank and soon became a source of pride. A captor had no need to haggle over the ransom of a noble captive whose vanity was gratified by the high price exacted from his dependents.

Traditionally, the fief was regarded as payment for the knight’s services, or conversely the service as rent paid for the land.
But already in the eleventh century knights received money payments for service, usually in times of crisis or special need. As early as 991 Fulk Nerra of Anjou, at war with the count of Brittany, had knightly mercenaries among his troops.
Although eleventh-century Normandy was far more feudalized than central France, William the Conqueror in his English expedition had not only a large number of Flemish and other mercenary knights but compensated his own Norman knights, his vassals, with “generous provision.” After the Conquest he settled his knights on lands held in feudal tenure, but on later occasions he again hired large numbers of knights for cash.
William’s son William Rufus “energetically emptied his father’s treasuries,” partly in paying mercenaries. “Knights fixed their own rate of pay,” complained chronicler William of Malmesbury.
William Rufus was described as “a wonderful merchant and paymaster of knights.”
In the twelfth century knight hire became increasingly common.

Irrespective of the form of his compensation, the medieval knight relished war for its own sake. In company with his peers, with the promise of booty to be won, he rode to battle exactly as to a tournament, which in the eleventh century, at least for the knights, it much resembled.

War was both profession and sport. The small private wars seldom involved anything that amounted to political significance. They were fought over a right that had been violated or a piece of land that had been usurped, or in order to violate a right or to usurp a piece of land. The national state did not exist. Patriotism had not yet been invented. In its absence the only large, transcendent cause for which Europeans could fight was the Christian religion. The idea of fighting in the name of God was introduced by a number of eleventh-century wars against the Muslims, especially the wars of the Reconquest in Spain. A powerful and radical pope, Gregory VII, gave the idea of holy war the impetus that made possible the Crusades.

BOOK: The Knight in History
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