Origins of Knighthood

The concept of the medieval knight is prevalent in fiction and other media across many different societies. When we think of a knight, it is common for images of an armored warrior covered in steel plate with a longsword to come to mind. What are the origins of this iconic class of warrior, however? When and where did they come from? This is something I have not really thought about before, so I decided to do some research on their origins. I was surprised to learn some new things which I had certainly never been aware of or thought of.

The origins of the knight as we know the concept today can be traced back as far as ancient Rome, well before the medieval European period. The “equestrian class” of warriors in ancient Rome consisted of armored nobles who were mounted on horseback and served as both political and military leaders. Owning a horse was rare and something only the wealthy could afford, making the mounted warriors almost entirely exclusive to ranks of nobility. It is believed that warriors mounted on horses also contributed to the myth of the Centaur in ancient times, as not everyone unfortunate enough to encounter a mounted warrior was familiar with horses during those times. The one difference that has been observed between the equestrian class of warriors in ancient Roman times and the knights of medieval Europe is that the ancient Roman warriors were said to serve more as leaders coordinating battles, whereas the medieval European knights were noted to have been more heavily involved in combat during battles.

Equestrian Warrior
An ancient Roman “equestrian” warrior.

There were many warriors who loosely fit the description of the medieval knight throughout history, many of which existed before the times of medieval Europe. As such, it can be difficult to say definitively when the first “knights” existed. One of the earliest instances of these particular warriors appearing in literature was with the Paladins of Charlemagne. These were a group of 12 fictional knights loyal to the Frankish king who founded the Holy Roman Empire. However, they are said to be merely legend, and not actual knights. Still, for them to have existed as knights in fiction, the idea of knights would had to have preceded them.

Another historical figure who established one of the earliest groups of named knights was William of Normandy. He led a large group of knights who some say were the first to encompass all of the classic features of a medieval knight as we know them today. Armored warriors of noble birth mounted on horseback who followed the doctrine of Christianity. Many of these features were innate to certain warriors throughout history, but it is difficult to say when the first “medieval knight” emerged. Knights often served as the enforcers of their leader who they were loyal to. They may have simply been the wealthy landlords who could afford armor, a horse, and some of the best training at the time. Alongside “William the Conqueror,” a large group of knights sailed to England in 1066 and managed to take control of the land. The names of all the knights who accompanied William I were recorded and have been preserved.

Battle of Hastings
A tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings in which William the Conqueror and his knights fought.

From delving into the history of the concept of European knights and attempting to trace an origin, it is clear that knights did not have a definitive starting point at any one identifiable day or year. Rather, they were more of a phenomenon which emerged and took shape over time in response to the social and political needs of the day, more so than out of military developments. Different groups of knights were formally established to meet specific needs, whereas other knights appear to have emerged incidentally. By some accounts, the first knights appear to have been valiant warriors who were risen to nobility because of their military prowess. Eventually, however, the procedure of becoming a knight became a uniform process whereby the son of a knight was often trained from a young age and inherited the armor and weapons of their forebear.

One of the defining features of the medieval knight today which I find the most inspiring is not their iconic weapons and armor, or even their horse they rode into battle. Rather, it is their honor code of chivalry which guided a knight on how to behave and interact with others. There were problems with knights abusing their status and misbehaving around others at times. Some knights sought to rectify this by describing how a proper knight should act at all times in order to maintain a respectable status. Geoffroi de Charny was one such knight who wrote A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry in which he described the moral code of chivalry by which a knight should live their life.

The Knights Templar
An artistic depiction of members of the Knights Templar. which Geoffroi de Charny was a part of.

The moral code of chivalry, or the “Chivalric Code” guided a knight to live a good life as a Christian warrior. It taught them to fear God and maintain certain values. Knights were to serve loyally to their Lord and liege. They were to be faithful to their superiors; respectful to their equals; and charitable to those less fortunate. Knights were to defend the church, their country, and the weak who could not defend themselves. They were never to lie or go back on their word; be kind and generous to everyone they met; as well as follow the word of God. The code also demanded that knights show no mercy in battle with their enemies; show no fear or hesitation in the face of danger; and be prepared to die in defense of their God and country.

Knights were important militarily, socially, and politically in many societies throughout history. They were essentially warrior-diplomats and scholars who were employed to solve a variety of problems, defend their fellow countrymen, and embody the word of God as faithful servants to their Savior and their sovereign. Of course, those were ideals which may not have been embodied by all knights. However, it could be argued that knights which did not embody said values were not true knights. All in all, they were a fascinating and inspiring group of warrior-poets from who we can draw much inspiration for our own lives today.

Knight praying
The longsword commonly wielded by European knights had a cruciform hilt which can be seen as symbolic of the cross that Jesus Christ was crucified on.

What do you think of the medieval European knights? What do you think of their code of chivalry? I find it interesting how the Chivalric Code of the knights and Bushido Code of the samurai code are so similar, and that similarity in my mind conveys that there must be some universal wisdom behind these two codes which I can draw from in my own life.


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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer from the United States.

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