When we think of chivalry, the most likely image to spring to mind is one of the perfect gentleman – an impeccably mannered individual who displays gentle and courteous behaviour, especially towards women.
The word ‘chivalry’ has its earliest roots in the French word for horse, cheval, and a knight in that same languare is called a chevalier, the ambassador of la chevalerie (chivalry). The chevalier was a horseman equipped with lance and sword for battle. As time progressed, the knight’s image grew in sophistication, and by the end of the eleventh century knighthood had come to denote a person of noble birth, often possessing property, whose responsibility it was to uphold certain religious, moral and social systems.
No one can put a precise date to the birth of chivalry, but it is generally agreed that it was at its height between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, falling into decadence and decline during the fourteenth, ultimately to disappear in the fifteenth century.
The first Crusade was proclaimed in 1095 by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in France. “A people without God,” he exlaimed, “the son of the Egyptian slave, occupies by force the cradle of our salvation – the country of our Lord.” Every person of nable birth, it was urged, should take a solemn oath before a bishop that he would “defend to the uttermost the oppressed, the widow and the orphan”.
Although it remained a sin to kill Christians, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land involving the slaughter of the “Saracen infidels” who attacked Christ’s sacred tomb would be quite acceptable in the sight of God. As a reward for this great work, knights would receive plenary indulgence upon their return to Europe.
The People’s Crusade
The First Crusade, which became known as the People’s Crusade, was not quite what the Pope had foreseen, however. The call to arms was taken up by a far greater portion of the peasantry than the Church would have liked. Full of savage passion and ignorant faith, the undisciplined rabble marched eastwards, massacring Jews in the Rhineland, attacking and pillaging Hungary and Bularia until, finally, they were ambushed and slaughtered themselves by the Turks in Asia Minor.
Christian chivalry was yet in its infacy, but slowly, through the Church’s refusal to abandon its crusading ideal, it began to assume a more definite aspect, and by the time the official army of the First Crusade travelled to Constantinople the following year, the nobility rather than the persantry dominated the ranks. For now, as the century drew to a close, it was the custom for every noble father to educate his son in the orders of knighthood. The Crusades continued and the great Crusading Orders were established. By the early twelfth century, the Church had begun to take control of the ceremony of knightly investiture. Religion had succeeded in consecrating knighthood to that most lordly vocation every young man of gentle birth longed to follow.
The Knight’s Education
At the age of seven, a boy with ambitions to be a knight usually had to begin their training. The boy was taken from his home and placed in the service of a neighbouring lord (who was a fully-fledged knight). Here, the boy took up his office as page. He was taught implicit obedience to the wishes of his lord and lady. He served them at table, he learned to ride, and he accompanied his lord on various excursions. It was left to the lady of the manor to develop the gentler aspects of the boy’s character. She schooled him in the basic rules of chivalry, discussed love and religion with him and supervised his musical training.
At the age of fourteen, the page was usually promoted to the higher grade of squire. During a religious ceremony, he exchanged his dagger for a manly sword and received moral instruction on its correct usage. His duties now were far more varied and challenging. He became proficient in the use of sword, lance and battle-axe. He took care of his lord’s armour, followed him to war, supplied him with fresh arms, dragged his body from the battlefield if he fell, and buried him if he were killed.
At the age of twenty-one, if he had served his lord well, the squire was judged eligible to receive the honour of knighthood. Many squires, however, remained devoted to their lords an entire lifetime.
Ceremony of Knighthood
That a knight’s sword should uphold the dignity of the Church as central to the notion of Christian chivalry and it was considered only proper that the ceremony which elevated him from the position of squire should be rich in religious symbolism.
The young man was expected to fast the day before his initiation and to spend the night in prayer. On the following morning, he was stripped of his clothing and taken to bathe for purification. He was then dressed in a red robe (symbolising the blood to be shed in the course of duty), and over this robe was placed a black doublet (symbolising the mortality of mankind).
After the high mass had been chanted the young man approached the alter and handed his sword to the bishop or priest. It was laid upon the alter and blessed.
The religious part of the ceremony completed, the candidate was led before the lord who intended to knight him. Once he had given a satisfactory response to the questions which challenged his motives in demanding the honour of chivalry, he was granted his knighthood.
The Code of Ethics
- Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and shalt obey all her commandments.
- Thou shalt defend the Church.
- Thou shalt respect all weaknesses and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
- Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.
- Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
- Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.
- Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
- Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to they pledged word. Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
- Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and Good against Injustice and Evil.