The Knights of the Middle Ages

The Knights of the Middle Ages

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In the Middle Ages, the knight was a fighter on horseback, most often in the service of a king or feudal lord. The term of chivalry evokes in our minds a whole dreamlike and fantastic universe which speaks to us about surpassing oneself, honor, fidelity, gratuity and courtesy which literature, then the cinema have largely echoed. Mounted on a powerful steed, wearing a helmet and caparisoned with steel, the knight, wielding the sword "thrust and cut" proudly displays its colors. Beautiful, loyal, valiant and courageous, chivalry still testifies today to what the Middle Ages really were.

Chivalry, a Germanic origin

The cult of arms asserts itself within Germanic societies which provided a number of recruits to the ending Roman Empire. For the Germans, to be free is to be in arms and the passage from youth to manhood is marked by a ritual described in a famous text by the Latin writer Tacitus: "custom dictates that no one takes arms before the city recognized them capable. So one of the chefs, his father or his relatives decorate the young man with the shield and the "framée": this is their toga, these are the first honors of their youth ".

Marc Bloch identifies the roots of medieval chivalry (initiatory warrior fraternity) in the practices of Germanic societies of the early Middle Ages.

Dungeons and the castle revolution

The words castrum and castellum designate buildings that remain until the end of the Xe century of modest scale. Simple wooden dungeons, they are built on rocky escarpments, river bends, the center of a marshy area ... or in the plain, on a clod of earth. Thanks to the use of stone in 1050, the keep, which has become more resistant, is equipped with square towers pierced with arches. Most of them had three floors: on the ground floor the cellar intended to store provisions; above a large room where the precious possessions of the Lord are piled up, then at the top a covered platform where the men in charge of the watch stand guard.

If the keep serves as a refuge in case of danger, the lord and his family stay in the buildings surrounding it, surrounded by a protective fence and a ditch. Next to the master's house are the stables, workshops, kitchens and huts of the servants. The word dungeon comes from dungio derived from dominus the Lord. The castle is held by a lord lord with the right of ban (power of military command, police and justice) which he enforces thanks to a team of warriors grouped in garrison. These militias are professional permanent fighters, this is the novelty of the XI knighthoode century.

A dense castle network marks the landscapes: Maine having eleven castles in 1050 had sixty two in 1100, Poitou went from three to thirty nine in the XIe century; in Catalonia eight hundred fortresses can be identified in 1050. This is what historians call the “castle revolution”. The number of motte castles in France is estimated at around ten thousand.

These constructions being a challenge to the central power, Charles the Bald tries to ban them in 864, arguing inconveniences for the inhabitants of the neighborhood but these, victims of insecurity, prefer to undergo the constraints of the seigneurial power in place to the benefit of the protections offered. by fortified places and the men-at-arms who occupy them.

The knights, a warrior aristocracy

In medieval society, the knight is the sword-bearer, the one who has the right and the duty to be armed, he is the protector of the men and women of his community so that they go about their business in peace. In Europe the carrying of a weapon has been perceived since Antiquity as the mark of those who claim their dignity by shedding their blood and risking their lives. The prestige of the weapon makes the person who carries it a special being who has specific rights and duties. Among the knights, we find princes, dukes, counts but also men of modest origins: serfs, commoner peasants who have distinguished themselves because of their courage and their loyalty to a valiant in danger. Many songs of gestures relate these facts. These castri militias are maintained and fed by the Lord, they are part of his household.

Others are "hunted", they receive land intended to provide for their maintenance. The ministerial, identifiable knight-serfs, can achieve a social rise (advantageous marriage for example). The cadets of small nobility must seek fortune with the point of the sword, not being able to claim to the paternal inheritance.

The knights have vocation from the XIe century of integrating into the ranks of the nobility except for those already belonging to it. The merger between knights and nobility takes place later, it is necessary to wait for the XIIIe century in Lorraine, the 14the in Alsace to see it, but from the 13the century, chivalry closed in on itself, the aristocracy wishing to reserve the privilege of it for their sons. The chivalry then presents itself as the community of noble warriors opposing the "footman" without faith or law.

Appears a professionalization of the combatant, the change of the techniques of combat requiring a specialization. In heavy cavalry, the tactics are based on the sinking of the opposing front by rupture effect. The charge is done at a gallop, the lance wedged under the arm lowered horizontally unlike the lance throw which can only be used once.

The weapons of the knights

If javelins and pikes continue to be used by the infantry, the knights' lance is very often cited in literature (songs of lais gestures, novels) exalting the chivalrous life. This lance with a wooden shaft gradually lengthens to reach four meters and weighs nearly twenty kilos. A lock washer prevents slipping of the hand upon impact. In the XVe century a hook is fixed on the armor to secure the lance and the breastplate in order to relieve the spear bearer (named knight-banneret) the weight of the latter being able to be increased by the pennon and the sign or even the banner which allows identify the fighter, to be a rallying point at the heart of the fray. The broken spear, we must draw the sword!

The most widely used offensive weapons are the spear and the sword but follow axes, maces, flails and daggers. Among the latter, "mercy" has an eloquent name: its short and thin blade can be inserted between the metal parts of the hauberk and the helm. The crossbow is such a formidable weapon (its bolt pierces through armor) that the Council of 1139 forbids its use between Christians, in vain. The great Welsh bow, whose rate of fire is even faster, wreaked havoc against the French armies during the Hundred Years War.

Melee weapon (we fight eye to eye) the XI sworde and XIIe centuries is massive, a meter long and weighing more than a kilo, it is said to be thrust and size because it strikes as well with the point as with the double edge of the blade. The grip is of wood or horn covered with leather, the round pommel intended to improve the balance is more or less worked, according to the richness of the one who controls it.

It takes up to 200 hours of work to make a good and beautiful elastic and strong sword. We understand better the prestige enjoyed by the blacksmith.

Until the middle of the XIe century, the most widespread protection is provided by brogne, a solid leather tunic reinforced with metal scales. Then the chain mail or hauberk becomes very popular. This one, made of more or less fine and tight intertwined iron rings (depending on the cost) protects the body up to the knees, the limbs being covered with breeches and mesh sleeves. Under the hauberk is a padded "gamboison" to absorb knocks and friction. A cloth weapon rating is worn over it with the combatant's coat of arms.

Appearance of Armored Warriors

From the 13the century we reinforce the protection of the body by applying on the chest the arms, the back of the metal plates intended to make more difficult the penetration of the weapons (a blow of ax, a crossbow bolt can pierce a hauberk). This assembly acquires more rigidity to end with the XVe century in the large white harness, full armor made of articulated parts more efficient, heavier and more expensive!

The knight's head is protected by a helmet, the "helm" (from the Germanic helm), simple hemispherical cap reinforced with a nasal from the XIe century then a fan or visagière pierced with blinders. In the 12the century the helm is closed, cylindrical with two narrow horizontal openings for the sights, plus ventilation holes below. With the articulated visor we orient ourselves towards the '' bassinet ''. On the helm, a crest bears the heraldic symbol of the knight, weighing down the helmet which is only put on at the time of combat.

The shield completes the protective equipment. The Norman almond-shaped model is made of wood covered in leather but bulky, it is replaced by the targe of various shapes on which the knight's arms are painted.

The role of the horse

The war horse, the steed (held by the dexter squire's right hand) must be strong and resistant, capable of galloping charge and supporting the scrum press. It is located above the palfrey, used for traveling and the roncin, pack horse wearing the barda of the warriors. A knight must have several steeds because it is not uncommon to see his mount killed in battle, despite the mail covers supposed to protect him. The full equipment of the knight costing considerable sums many knights do not have the means to meet these expenses and seek the help of a powerful by putting themselves at his service.

Hunting is experienced in the Middle Ages as training for war, both psychologically and physically, because the wild fauna of medieval forests is capable of putting a strain on the most determined hunters, giving the opportunity to test their hunting skills. mastery and endurance. Warrior training begins with hunting along with riding and horse care.

The dubbing ceremony

After a long and severe apprenticeship lived in the company of postulants of his age, the young squire was welcomed into the community of knights. It is the greatest day of his life: that of “the dubbing” (which in medieval French means equip)

During this ceremony the young boy, thanks to the weapons he receives, crosses the threshold which separates the status of child from that of man. This ritual is described in the songs of gestures:

"So they dressed him in a very beautiful brogne

And a green helm laces his head

Guillaume girds him the sword on the sinister side

Took a big shield by the hilt

Cheval had good, of the best of the earth "

Before handing over his arms, he will go through a gesture of sacralization: the colée, it is a blow given from the right palm of the doubter to the dubbed, symbolic test intended to verify that the young person is capable of 'take a hit without flinching. Thus enthroned, the new knight must demonstrate jumping on horseback then launched at a gallop, slaughter with a lance in the center of the mannequin mounted on a pivot supposed to represent the enemy. Then comes the banquet where father uncle or lord show the largesse which is a sign of chivalrous spirit by treating his guests, without forgetting the poor, jugglers and buffoons who will praise the merits of their benefactor.

Knights tournaments

The newly knighted knight must travel the world to gain experience and demonstrate his valor. He will find in practice tournaments the possibility of standing out and making a name for themselves (a vital thing for knights of modest origins) in order to find a protector to rise up within feudal society. These tournaments are high points in chivalrous life, they serve as great maneuvers during which we train for war. Two camps are formed according to affinities, family ties, provincial origins. At the signal, the two troops launch themselves against each other for a fight whose laws are those of a real battle, wounded and dead are picked up at the end of the confrontation, while the prisoners are ransomed.

In these tournaments, beautiful ladies and gentes young ladies, dressed in their finery to watch the fights, throng. If one of them entrusts its colors to a fighter, this one will have to win or die. Life is hard for the knight!

Christianization of chivalry

Originally, the Church relies unambiguously on the scriptures (Matthew 26, 52, "all those who draw the sword shall perish by the sword" and "if a catechumen or a faithful wishes to become a soldier that he is sent away because he has despised God ”, this condemnation continues over the centuries, imposing severe penalties on any man who has killed one of his fellows.

But the Church must take into account the necessities implied by an increasingly intimate coexistence with the State. The clergy must disavow the militant incivism that constitutes a declared anti-militarism when the Germanic invasions call into question the fate of the Empire. Then appears, through the mouth of Saint Augustine, the theory of the "just war".

"The soldier who kills the enemy is like the executioner who executes a criminal, it is not a sin to obey the law, he must in order to defend his fellow citizens oppose force by force."

Just war (and the mission of leading it) becomes a justified reason because the duty of the Christian prince is to impose by terror and discipline what the priests are powerless to make prevail by the word. In fact, the demands of Christian doctrine become, against the pagan or the infidel, a holy war.

At the end of XIe century a formula will be set up involving the adhesion of the men of war: the crusade. His ideology was already present in Spain and Italy in the IXe and Xe centuries in the struggle between Islam and Christendom but it takes on its full extent when the Holy See announces a new objective: Jerusalem and the deliverance from the tomb of Christ. The Christianization of chivalry is a phenomenon that has affected all of Christendom from the East to northern Europe.

The end of chivalry

The fortified castle linked to the history of chivalry disappears, powerless to withstand repeated battery fire for a long time and all military architecture evolves, the proud walls must be abandoned in favor of grazing defenses “à la Vauban”.

The setbacks of the French knighthood during the great defeats of the Hundred Years War (Crécy, Poitier, Azincourt) show the rise in power of artillery and infantry.

Time and history have done their work, chivalry disappears as an institution, but its ideals and model are still present. If chivalry is absent from society, is it so far absent from men's hearts?

For further

- Knights and Chivalry in the Middle Ages: Daily life, by Jean Flori. Fayard, 2013.

- La Chevalerie, by Dominique Barthélémy. Tempus, 2012.

- History of chivalry, by Maurice Meuleau. Ouest-France Editions, 2014.