by Wanderer Werewolf
©2007 Wanderer Werewolf

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   Next in our study of the fantasy tropes (and their errors), we come to that best-loved of all: The knight in shining armor. Armed with lance and sword, astride his glorious charger, he gallops forth into the fray, a noble and inspiring presence to friend and foe alike. Beloved of the peasantry, champion of his lord, and a kind and noble gentleman in every way. Right?
   Well, as with the peasantry, there’s a little truth mixed in with a lot of, er, ‘adjustments’ from the Renaissance and Victorian eras. Let’s start from the top.


   To begin with, the most common method of becoming a knight was to be trained for it. Typically, a vassal (lesser nobleman) would send his son to become a knight for his liege (greater nobleman) at or around the age of seven years. After roughly seven years of pagehood, the page becomes a squire, helping a knight on the battlefield; the squire ascends to knighthood either through performing a great deed on the field of battle, or more commonly through completing his training; in this, knighthood bears a strong resemblance to the medieval guilds. (Appropriately, the Old English precursor word for knighthood means ‘adolescence’.)
   Notice I said ‘most common’. There were numerous exceptions, particularly in the early days, when a knight could knight anyone he chose. Since this rather nastily upset the feudal system, laws were swiftly passed against knighting serfs; then against knighting by knights; then, finally, against knightings by anyone but the king. After all, it’s hard to keep someone down if they can raise an army of knights on their own authority. (Prohibitions against stockpiling weapons also date to this time.) Even then, if a sufficiently grand service was rendered to the king, the laws against knighting the lower classes didn’t apply to him; he could knight anyone he pleased. (My ancestor, Sir Holbroke, being a classic case. He was knighted by Edward I for services during the First Scottish Border War.)
   Sadly, it was the restriction of knighting privileges that spelled the beginning of the end for knighthood; as knighthood is non-inheritable, and carries with it duty to the crown, the nobility had precious little reason to want that ‘Sir’ in front of their names. (Worse, once knighthoods became fashionable, the price of the ceremony skyrocketed: Once you’ve got the place servings for all the noble guests (gold service, silver utensils), hired the additional kitchen help, ordered the linen clothing and ceremonial sword, the white belt and golden spurs (which came in the Fourteenth Century) and sent appropriate bribes—er, I mean ‘gifts’—to the more important guests, your coffers tend to be rather shallow indeed. My ancestor is a case in point, once again. While his barony, granted shortly after his knighthood, was confirmed and declared inheritable, none of his descendants ever claimed knighthood after him.)
   As you can gather from that last parenthetical, knighthood tended to be rather an expensive affair. Just how expensive, we’ll see shortly. But overall, knights had little or no connection to the peasantry, for reasons that we shall later examine.


   A knight, being something of an elite unit, was quite expensive to produce and maintain. As of the 14th Century, a knight needed to have two horses, a palfrey (for pack use) and a charger (for battle). (The squire didn’t ride; he walked, leading the palfrey.) The horses cost 10 pounds sterling. He also needed armor for battle, to the tune of 16 pounds sterling, 6 shillings, and 8 silver pennies. Finally, his sword would cost about 12 silver pennies—twice as much as a peasant’s. (This is pre-decimalization: 1 pound sterling = 20 shillings=240 pennies.)
   To get a real sense of how expensive this was then, consider: A knight earned two shillings a day (plus earnings from his granted land), while a master mason earned just four silver pennies. Moreover, this is without taking into account a squire’s wages (half that of the knight), room, board, stabling. Knights were an expensive affair, indeed! Yet no nobleman, no matter how poor, could afford to be without them.
   Because of this obvious need, a market sprang up for mercenary ‘lordless’ knights. Whether they’d left their lord’s service voluntarily or not, they were much cheaper to maintain. This was, at least in part, because their armor wasn’t shining.
   The ‘shining armor’ so beloved of writers, after all, was the product of a lot of hard work with a polishing cloth. If you didn’t have a squire or other servant to do it for you, you (as a knight) wouldn’t have time to do it yourself. Instead, mercenary knights, and those serving less well-paid lords, painted their armor in whatever color they could afford. This ran the gamut from gold (an expensive color) all the way down to black; as black paint was typically made with soot, it was the cheapest color imaginable, to the point where you could make it yourself. Thus, any knight not currently in service to a lord tended to have black armor. (This, by the way, is why there are so many black-armored knights demanding money in the Arthurian legends. Unemployed knights tended to set themselves up as road wardens, caring for a stretch of road that became their own personal tollway. It didn’t pay much, but unemployed professional soldiers didn’t get a lot of job training in the Middle Ages.)
   (Ironically, King Arthur’s plate mail was an invention of the Middle Ages; in his first literary appearance, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, he wears a leather jerkin. In each succeeding generation, he wears that year’s armor, until it finally becomes plate mail shortly before the Renaissance. The real Artos dux bellorum would probably have worn Roman-style armor, given the age in which he’s believed to have lived.)


   In theory, at least, knights’ behavior was governed by a code called Chivalry. But the modern idea of Chivalry is rather different from its beginnings.
   At first, Chivalry (a word descended from the French cheval, meaning ‘horse’) was just the art of horsemanship. Later, after it had come to mean knighthood itself, it also began to accumulate the Code of Chivalry, which (though it varied from author to author, much less age to age) would influence the imagery of knighthood ever after.
   The central tenets of the various interpretations of chivalry remained relatively constant:

  1. Honor your fellow-man and your superiors.
  2. Honor God.
  3. Honor women.

   Like most such idealized codes, however, it was hardly uniform in application or universal in meaning. The first tenet was widely held not to apply to peasants and serfs; after all, they weren’t a knight’s ‘fellow-men’. Moreover, if you beat a peasant, you didn’t get any good equipment off of him, and you couldn’t even ransom him back (unless he happened to belong to one of the rare communes of the age). Therefore, peasants tended to die in large numbers, where knights just got humiliated and ransomed back. (I’m not saying knights were as bad as classic hack-and-slash D&D gamers, but there is a certain degree of resemblance.)
   The second tenet: As the Middle Ages was a hotbed of religious reforms, ideas and persecution, I needn’t go into much detail. After all, knights of differing religions could battle freely, and often did, when they met.
   The third tenet, of course, ran into the same classic (and classist) snag as the first, as soon as it was redefined to ‘Honor Ladies’. A Lady, after all, was a woman of noble birth; peasant women, good or bad, needn’t apply (and tended to get dishonored).
   Because of these interpretations of the tenets (as well as the behavior of the occasional knight who couldn’t even keep the modified form), knights were respected by the peasants, even feared in the manner of their Eastern cousin the samurai. However, ‘loved’ would be going a bit far.
   Likewise, it wasn’t all sweet on the noble end of the equation, either. When you’re one of the few, the proud, and the indispensable, it’s only human to ask for some perks. Better pay, more land, special concessions on trade… In the end, it became cheaper for the nobility to maintain standing armies, rather than elite units of knights.


   Now: How can we use this in a fantasy game or story?

  1. Knights can be both good guys and bad guys. After all, they’re just following orders—oops, wrong era.
  2. Knighthoods can be a tempting prize for adventurers, with the pay and land and servants. Of course, some of the other knights may not measure up to their standards…
  3. Unemployed knights manning their tollways can be a fun random encounter, or even a convenient battle, depending on how you play them.
  4. Knights’ demands on their lord can be a convenient reason for involving the adventurers. Contract negotiations are such fun, when you have visibly-available replacements.

   Next time, we’ll move on to the nobility, and why being born noble wasn’t so much an advantage as a pain.

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