Knights of the medieval era were asked to “Protect the weak, defenseless, helpless, and fight for the general welfare of all”. These few guidelines were the main duties of a medieval knight, but they were very hard to accomplish fully. Rarely could even the best of knights achieve these goals. Knights trained, inter alia, in hunting, fighting, and riding. They were also trained to practise courteous, honorable behaviour, which was considered extremely important.
Chivalry (derived from the French word chevalier implying “skills to handle a horse”) was the main principle guiding a knight’s life style. The code of chivalry dealt with three main areas: the military, social life, and religion. The military side of life was very important to knighthood. Along with the fighting elements of war, there were many customs and rules to be followed as well. A way of demonstrating military chivalry was to own expensive, heavy weaponry. Weapons were not the only crucial instruments for a knight: horses were also extremely important, and each knight often owned several horses for distinct purposes.
One of the greatest signs of chivalry was the flying of coloured banners, to display power and to distinguish knights in battle and in tournaments. Warriors were not only required to own all these belongings to prove their allegiance: they were expected to act with military courtesy as well.
In combat when nobles and knights were taken prisoner, their lives were spared and were often held for ransom in somewhat comfortable surroundings. This same code of conduct did not apply to non-knights (archers, peasants, foot-soldiers, etc.) who were often slaughtered after capture, and who were viewed during battle as mere impediments to knights’ getting to other knights to fight them.
Becoming a knight was not a widely attainable goal in the medieval era. Sons of knights were eligible for the ranks of knighthood, but while other young men could indeed become knights, the job was just nearly impossible, especially for those from the lowest class. Those who were destined to become knights w
ere singled out: in boyhood, these future warriors were sent off to a castle as pages, later becoming squires. Commonly around the age of 20, knights would be admitted to their rank in a ceremony called either “dubbing” (from the French adoubement), or the “Accolade”. Although these strong young men had proved their eligibility, their social status would be permanently controlled. They were expected to obey the code of chivalry at all times, and no failure was accepted.
Chivalry and religion were mutually influenced. The early Crusades helped to clarify the moral code of chivalry as it related to religion. As a result, Christian armies began to devote their efforts to sacred purposes. As time passed, clergy instituted religious vows which required knights to use their weapons chiefly for the protection of the weak and defenseless, especially women and orphans, and of churches.
The Code of Chivalry continued to influence social behaviour long after the actual knighthood ceased to exist, influencing for example 19th century Victorian perceptions of how a “gentleman” ought to behave up to today
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