Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall


The Middle Ages was a time of unrestrained lawlessness and greed. Yet out of this time there grew something fine in the ideas of chivalry and the orders of knighthood. We cannot tell when the idea of chivalry began, any more than we can say when feudalism began. It grew up out of the needs of the time.

The word chivalry is of French origin, coming from cheval, a horse, and chevalier, a horseman; and it was in France, perhaps, that chivalry found its truest home. As the nobles and gentlemen were the only horsemen of feudal times, it was with them alone that chivalry had to do. In time it entered into everything connected with the life of the nobles, softening to some extent the brutality of it, casting a glamour of romance over their deeds, and giving them a religious enthusiasm.

Those who entered the orders of chivalry were called knights. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon cniht, and originally meant boy or youth. All knights were made, not born. A man might be born a prince, but he could only become a knight after long years of probation and training.

This training began as a rule when the boy was seven years old. He was then sent to the castle of some friendly lord where he became a page. He waited on his lady in her bower, and stood behind his master's chair in hall, learning the dignity of obedience and the beauty of gentleness. He was also trained in every knightly exercise, learning how to use sword and spear, to ride, and to fly a falcon. Thus every feudal castle became a school where a boy might learn everything which, in those days, it was thought necessary for a gentleman to know.

When about the age of fifteen the page became a squire. As squire he still had to perform many household and personal duties, such as carving at table, presenting the wine-cup to his master or chief guests, or attending upon his lady when she rode abroad. But more and more of his time was taken up with knightly exercises, and he learned to wear armour, to ride a war horse, and take part in tournaments. In time of war, too, he now rode forth with his master in battle, bore his shield, and helped him to don his armour.

Besides all this the knight-aspirant, both as page and squire, was taught to reverence ladies, and to be courteous and gentle in his behaviour towards them. This showed a wonderful advance in civilization. For women were in those days of small account. They were looked upon as little more than possessions. They were weak, and therefore, under the rule of the mailed fist, might be taken advantage of. The laws of chivalry taught men to protect them and to fight for them if need be.

Having for five or six years proved himself faithful in all his duties, and fearless in the face of danger, the squire received the honour of knighthood. This was conferred upon him with solemn ceremony.

First of all a bath was taken with great formality. This was a sort of new baptism, a symbol that past sins were washed away. Then the knight-aspirant was clad in a white robe, the token of purity, over it was placed a red robe to signify the blood which he would have to shed in fulfilment of the vows he was about to take, and lastly, over all, a black cloak was thrown as a reminder that death would come to him as to all men.

Thus purified and clothed anew the squire was led to the Church. It was evening now, and the building was filled with dim, mysterious shadows, and here, before the altar, he was left alone to watch the long night through. This was called the vigil of arms. To sit down was forbidden to the aspirant, so standing or kneeling before the altar he spent the silent, lonely hours of darkness in prayer and thought.

When day dawned the silence was broken by the coming of the priests. Mass was said, the squire confessed, and receiving absolution, partook of the sacrament. Then, in the presence of a joyous company, consisting of all the ladies, knights, squires, and pages which went to make up the household of a great noble, the most solemn part of the ceremony took place.

First the squire was fully clad in armour. The most noble and gentle knights present bound on his spurs and signed his knees with the sign of the cross. Then his sword, after being blessed by the priest, was girded on. At length, fully clad in all the panoply of war, the squire knelt before the priest, vowing faithfully to serve the Church and the king, to shun no adventure of his person in any good cause, to protect widows and orphans, and women distressed or abandoned, to serve his ladylove in faith and honour, to be courteous and truthful, and, above all things else, to die a thousand deaths rather than break his word or deny his religion.

These vows being taken, the squire was next led to the noble about to confer knighthood upon him, and again kneeling, he received on his neck a resounding blow from the flat of his sword. This was the accolade. "Be brave knight," said the noble; or, "May God and St. George make thee good knight," and the ceremony was over.

Then, springing up, the new knight leapt upon his waiting charger without touching the stirrup, and, lance in hand, rode off to demolish before an admiring crowd the dummy foes set up for the purpose. This being done, the rest of the day was spent in feasting and rejoicing.

It was only by degrees that so much ceremony gathered about the making of a knight. At first it was a much simpler matter, consisting of little more than the accolade. It was only by degrees, too, that it took on its religious character, for at first it was purely military.

As the ceremony and splendour of the occasion increased so did the cost. The fitting out of a new knight alone was costly, including as it did robes, armour, arms, horses, falcons, and many other things which were deemed necessary for the equipment of a noble. Besides this, money was distributed among the poor, rich presents were given to the minstrels who attended at the ceremony, new robes and furs were provided for the ladies of the household and often for the guests.

Knights Errant

For this reason, as you remember, the knighting of his eldest son was one of the occasions upon which an overlord had the right to call for an "aid" in money from his vassals. For this reason, too, many a poor gentleman in spite of great and valiant deeds, which would have entitled him to become a knight, remained a squire all his life, not having the wherewithal to pay the expenses of being knighted.

There was, however, another mode in which knighthood was conferred. This was on the battle-field. Here there was no expense and no ceremony save the accolade. Any knight of renown could make a knight, and the squire had but to kneel before him and receive the accolade. Knighthood was thus conferred after a battle as a reward for bravery. But it was just as frequently conferred before a battle as an incitement to brave deeds. Indeed, there was hardly a battle in the Middle Ages when no new knights were made either before or after.

In this way many poor gentlemen who had no other fortune but their swords became knights. Having neither home nor land they wandered about the world seeking occasions upon which to show their prowess, and so win fame and at the same time wealth. These became known as knights errant, and they figure largely in the Romances of the time.

An errant knight

Well horsed, and large of limb, Sir Gaudwin hight,

He, nor of castle nor of land was lord,

Houseless he reaped the harvest of his sword.

And now, not more on fame than profit bent,

Rode with blithe heart unto the tournament.

The knight errant was ready to fight for any cause however mad, so long as honour and loyalty did not forbid. For with the coming of chivalry there arose ideas of honour, faith, and courtesy, and any knight who transgressed against these ideas was liable to degradation—many did, as a matter of fact so transgress, and go unpunished—but retribution sometimes overtook him.

Then he was put to shame, and cast out of the brotherhood of arms, with ceremony as solemn as that of his initiation.

By the most noble knights of the district the recreant was clad in full armour, as if about to take the field. Then he was led to the church, where a high stage had been erected upon which he was made to mount. There thirteen priests said the prayers and psalms used for the dead, and at the end of each prayer one piece of his armour was taken from him and cast upon the ground.

As each piece was so cast down the heralds cried aloud the reason for its removal. "This is the helmet of a disloyal and miscreant knight!" they cried; "we cast it away, for it has sheltered traitorous eyes." Or again, "We take thy gauntlet, for it has covered a corrupt hand," and so with each piece. Then the knight's sword was broken over his head, his spurs were hacked from his heels, and at last he stood before the eyes of the whole congregation, bare of all arms and armour.

After this a basin of gold or silver full of water was brought, and the heralds cried aloud, "What is this knight's name?"

The pursuivants answered, giving his real name, whereupon the king-at-arms replied, "That is not true. For he is a miscreant and false traitor and one who has broken the ordinance of knighthood."

The priests then spoke. "Let us give him his right name," they said. And the heralds sounded their trumpets and cried aloud, "What shall be done with him?"

Then the king replied. "Let him be with dishonour and shame banished from my kingdom as a vile and infamous man that hath done offence against the honour of knighthood." When the king had spoken the heralds cast the water on the degraded knight's face, as though he were baptized anew, and cried, "Henceforth thou shalt be called by thy right name—Traitor."

Then the king, with twelve knights, put on mourning garments in token of sorrow, and coming to the degraded knight they put a rope round his neck, and threw him from the stage, not by the steps by which he had honourably climbed up but over the edge. Finally, with every imaginable insult and ignominy he was led to the altar. There, while he lay groveling on the ground a Psalm full of curses was read over him. Then all men turned from him, and left him for ever alone with his misery and degradation.

Thus were the unworthy thrust out from the great and noble brotherhood of knights.

In days when books were few, when few gentlemen even outside the monasteries could read or write, when therefore they had little occupation for their minds, and when occupation for their hands was denied them, the effects of the training of chivalry on the manhood of the times was great. It taught them, if fight they must, to fight for something more than mere lust of blood and plunder. It held before them great ideals, and if few attained to them, many were at least lifted above the brutal slough of utter selfishness.

With the Truce of God the Church tried to curb the fighting instinct of the feudal lords: with chivalry it tried to consecrate it. The latter was less difficult and more successful. Under the influence of the chivalric ideals western Europe became flooded with a soldier aristocracy, embued with a passionate devotion for the Church, overflowing with a romantic and sublime enthusiasm seeking some adequate outlet. This outlet the Church also was to supply.