Term Paper: Knighthood Medieval Knighthood or Chivalry

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Knighthood

Medieval Knighthood

Knighthood or chivalry has a very interesting and tumultuous history, which begins in feudalism and continues in the Medieval Age. In England, evidences of chivalry appear only after the Norman Conquest. In the beginning, the term "knighthood" was merely used to indicate the investment of arms of a young man after his training was over. For the first two centuries, chivalry continued to denote proficiency in the art of fighting on horseback. It is only later that this merely social role of the knights was rounded with a specific ideology, which soon become a code of honor. With the spread of Christendom, there appeared different orders of knights, each with their characteristic goals and ideals.

Thus, first of all, a knight had to be a consummate soldier on horseback and a skilled warrior. Along with the physical strength and abilities the knight was expected to make proof of a great prowess and loyalty to his lord. Other required virtues were pity and largesse, which put them to the service of the poor and the weak who could not defend themselves. This concept was further extended to include the knights' devotion to the women that needed their help. Generosity, compassion and the ability to courteous were thus major qualities of the knights. As knighthood evolved towards the status of ideology, the knights were expected to be pure of heart and extremely generous, and, as such, to be in a constant fight against the evil. During the Middle Ages, war was regarded as something actually necessary in society and its absence caused sadness rather than relief: "Peace was not regarded in the middle ages as the natural condition of states. Writing to the French king Charles VI in 1387, Honore Bonet observed that it is no great marvel if in this world there arise wars and battles, since they existed first in heaven. Explicit assertions that the coming of peace saddened the knights, that they preferred war, appear throughout chivalric literature."(Kaeuper, 153) However, it can be said that chivalry served to ameliorate the horrors of war, by emphasizing morality along with bravery. In romances, there are countless examples where the adventures are accompanied with tales of exemplary virtue and unflagging selflessness and piety. Thus, Amis for instance sacrifices his two young sons to cure his friend of leprosy, who needed pure blood. Another example is that of Sir Gawain who embarks upon his mission to serve King Arthur, despite the fact that the dare launched by the Green Knight already announced the grim denouement of the knight who accepted his challenge.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is thus undoubtedly one of the most famous Medieval poems concerned with the order of the Knights of the Round Table. The requirements for the ideal knight seem to be extremely great in number and the journey that the hero has to undertake is always a mystical initiation. The character of Sir Gawain is very carefully and symbolically drafted by his poet. First of all, the main plot already suggests a significant emphasis on symbols and Gawain's mission is a very mysterious challenge from a fantastic character. Thus, he has to cut the Green Knight's head and afterwards to begin a quest for this mysterious creature and expect the same recompense in his turn within a year, that is, to be beheaded. The test that Gawain is submitted to has a personal character, as he is not supposed to fight any evil forces, but to face the unknown, the miraculous, symbolized by the strange hue of the knight. Also, the journey is clearly an initiation since the test Gawain has to take does not seem to have any other logic. Moreover, glory is not the purpose, as Gawain himself notes, but initiation itself:

Why shrink back from the quest?

Though fate bring glory or disgrace man must meet the test."("Sir Gawain," 185)

Also, the perfect modesty and purity of the knight is revealed when he offers to take the challenge of the strange character and declares himself to be the most insignificant of all the knights gathered at Camelot. The fact that the main events take place on Christmas day, emphasizes the religious character of Gawain's experience. One very symbolic aspect of Gawain's attire as he sets for his quest offers a perfect representation of the chivalric ideal: his golden shield is marked with the five-pointed star of Solomon, a very symbolic sign which seems to contain the quintessence of all the virtues associated knighthood:

All knew Gawain to be good as purified gold:

Devoid of villainy, his virtues were a court's delight.

Thus he wore the five-point star

On shield and surcoat in plain sight,

His honor without stain or scar,

Gentle, low-voiced knight."("Sir Gawain," 180)

The fact that Sir Gawain wears the shiny, golden attire and Solomon's mark in plain sight is a token of his own purity and flawless character. The attire becomes thus almost a metonymical figure for Gawain's character, as it is a sign of his virtue as well as of his own religious ideals that seem to be thus imprinted on his physical appearance:

First, he was found faultless in his five senses,

And his five fingers never failed him in any deed,

And all his faith in this world was in the five wounds

That Christ carried on the cross, as the Creed informs us..."("Sir Gawain," 180)

The costume of the knight acquired thus a symbolic value during the Middle Ages. First of all, the complex heraldic designs that covered the armor were meant as a means of distinguishing or recognizing a certain knight from another: "During the Middle Ages heraldic devices were so successful in identifying knights, otherwise unrecognisable in their armour, that they actually created problems of their own. A knight had only to swop his armorial surcoat and shield for those of another to be safely taken for that person."(Harper-Bill and Harvey, 3) Since the armor covered the bodies of the knights completely, including their faces, it was almost impossible to recognize a knight if it weren't for the heraldic designs.

All the features and qualities that belong to Sir Gawain are repeated in King Arthur's character, who is himself a perfect knight. For example, after the departure of the Green Knight, Arthur hides his worries and his sense of wonder and declares that the event is a Christmas story so as to be courteous to his wife Guinevere:

Though High King Arthur's heart was heavy with wonder

He let no sign of it be seen, but said aloud

With a king's courtesy to his lovely queen:

Beloved lady, never let this dismay you.

It is good to get such games at Christmas..."("Sir Gawain," 171)

It can be said though that the romances, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are a token of the complex ideology that emerged during the Medieval Ages around the concept of knighthood. The crusades organized by Christendom against paganism also relied on knights and on their extreme devotion and generosity. As Edgar Prestage points out, knighthood soon became a concept that combined the almost antagonist ideals of Christianity and war: "Slight differences in costume were made -- the Knights, for instance, having a red ground placed behind the white cross of the Order. Here, then, at last was the theoretically perfect combination of Christianity and war; the Cross and the sword; Monasticism and Knighthood; Philanthropy and Militancy; God and the Devil."(Prestage, 12) the great Crusading Orders -- the Hospitallers, the Templars, the Teutonic Knights soon developed into very complex organizations which were involved in charitable acts and wars that served a Christian purpose. As Helen Nicholson observes, the order of the Hospitaller knights was actually structured around a hospital that was in charge of charitable activities… [END OF PREVIEW]

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