The Dirty Truth of Medieval Knighthood

Being a knight wasn't really about wooing fair maidens or grand quests—it was hard, dirty work.

medieval knight
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There's something romantic about being a knight—and no, we don't mean sweep-a-fair-lady-off-her-feet kind of romantic. Between the tall tales of heroic deeds and depictions of gleaming, glorious suits of armor, the life of a knight has been made into something grander than it actually was.

The desire to take up sword and shield and live the life of a knight immediately goes out the window once you learn a little more about what that life was actually like. While the experience of knighthood varied greatly between kingdoms, no matter which banner you bore, they all shared one common quality: Life flat-out sucked.

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1. Your journey usually began at as young as seven years old.

medieval knight
  • A squire cleaning armour.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It wasn't entirely impossible for a peasant-turned-warrior to be recognized for greatness and rise in status, but that was exceedingly rare (for reasons we'll get into shortly). For the most part, knights were generally are born into the role. If your father was a knight or if you were of noble birth but far from the line of succession, knighthood was for you.

This meant that, for the most part, from the moment of your birth, you'd be expected to become a knight and fight for your lord. The process typically began at age seven. You'd be given off to a noble to learn as much as you could. The quality of this childhood hinged entirely on the whims of said noble. Then, at age 14, you'd become a squire.

Squires were, essentially, interns for proper knights who'd do all of the unpleasant or mundane tasks. Be a knight's errand boy for seven more years, and you'll finally earn your knighthood.

2. You're do far more than just fighting—and none of it was fun.

Being a knight meant far more than just showing up to do battle whenever summoned by your liege. At times of war, or if their number didn't get called to go fight in some battle, they were expected to be local leaders among the large peasant society.

So, take all those years of learning to fight and throw 'em out the window, because you're now the lead farmer until someone decides to raid your village. Occasionally, you'd do police duty and, more often, you'd be the mediator of local disputes, but that's about it until crusading time arrived.

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3. You had to follow a strict code of "chivalry".

medieval knight
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The word "chivalry" derives from the Old French word, "chevalerie" which meant "horseman." Over time, the gallant knights, typically astride horses, took on their own code of ethics. The word "chivalry," over the years, then became synonymous with "gentlemanly," but it meant much more than just treating ladies right (and, in this case, "ladies" refers exclusively to women of noble birth).

This code dictated much of your life. How strict was it? Well, knights were almost always godly men. So, if you were to skip church for one day, you may find yourself stripped of your knighthood entirely—but, of course, it'd all depend on if you come from noble status or not.

4. Your compatriots were usually always snobby nobles who rarely followed the code.

The honorable few that earned their way into knighthood would be held to a much different standard than the knights who got their position from being the king's second cousin's kid.

Knights who got their position from a noble birth could do whatever they felt, facing little-to-no consequences. Even if the kingdom was very religious, noble-born knights could attack members of the clergy and get away with it if they had a good-enough excuse. You? The guy who earned it? There's no way you'd be able to talk yourself out of that.

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5. You had to buy your own gear.

medieval knight
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The biggest barrier to entry for those warriors-turned-knights was the absurdly high cost of equipment. Remember, this was centuries before governments decided to arm their troops for combat. Since being a knight meant that you were paid in land ownership (or sometimes just the "glory of your lord"), you probably didn't even get paid actual money.

So, any armor or weapons you needed had to be purchased on the side—with money you were never given. It was no problem for the knights of noble birth, but other knights would have to work the land and sell goods to earn enough just to fight.

6. Your title meant little after gunpowder was introduced.

From the days of Charlemagne onward, knights were highly respected and highly revered across the lands. Then, this fancy new gadget called the "firearm" showed up and made your skill in battle immediately and entirely pointless.

During the Tudor period, armies learned that firearms and cannons could shred through a knight's heavy plate armor with ease. All of that hard work, dedication, and money put toward becoming a knight was rendered meaningless by whoever had a bullet handy. As everyone focused on using firearms, the need for a literal knight in shining armor quickly dwindled.

That's not to say that the title of knight is entirely worthless. It's just more of an honorary title that's given to great people who bring credit to their homeland—not just skilled fighters.

Published on 4 Jun 2020