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Chivalry Was Established to Keep Thuggish, Medieval Knights in Check

January 23, 2019 in History

By Livia Gershon

Knights in the Middle Ages were heavily-armed and prone to violence.

In the 21st century, the word chivalry evokes a kind of old-fashioned male respect for women. But during the Middle Ages, the code was established for much grittier reasons.

At a time of routine military violence with massive civilian casualties, chivalry was an effort to set ground rules for knightly behavior. While these rules sometimes dictated generous treatment of the less-fortunate and less-powerful, they were focused mainly on protecting the interests of elites.

The development of chivalry went hand-in-hand with the rise of knights—heavily armored, mounted warriors from elite backgrounds—starting around the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The world chivalry itself comes from the Medieval Latin caballarius, meaning horseman.

In the middle of the 11th century, the knight was not a particularly honorable figure.

“He’s a hired thug,” says Jennifer Goodman Wollock, a professor of medieval studies at Texas A&M University who has written two books about chivalry. “He’s got horses. He’s got armor. He’s like a heavy tank.”

READ MORE: Weapons of the Middle Ages

Watch a preview of the new series Knight Fight, premiering Wednesday, January 23 at 10/9c.

Knights Were Heavily Armed and Prone to Violence

These warriors were commanded by warlords and rewarded with land, or with license to plunder the villages where they did battle, looting, raping and burning as they went.

“In the early Middle Ages, church councils were praying to be delivered from knights,” Wollock says. “What develops as you get into the late 11th, 12th century is a sense that knights have to have a professional code if they’re going to be respected and respectable.”

There was never a firm consensus on what it meant to be a good knight. The most common values found in rules that commanders created for knights revolved around the practical needs of a military force: bravery in battle and loyalty to one’s lord and companions.

“You’ve got all these people who are very prone to violence, heavily armed,” says Kelly Gibson, a medieval historian at the University of Dallas and editor of Vengeance in Medieval Europe. “You’ve got to find some way to get them to get along.”

A maiden leads a knight in a suit of armor to a castle.

The Chivalrous Knight Appears in Romantic Fiction

Still, Wollock argues that chivalry did go well beyond the simple need for a disciplined military. Particularly in romantic …read more


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