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One of the most interesting and significant legacies of the Middle Ages is its concept of CHIVALRY, a code which governed the behavior of knights.

 EARLY CHIVALRY, which emerged during the heyday of feudalism in the eleventh century, was rough and masculine.

It stressed the WARRIOR VIRTUES that were essential in a feudal society:

prowess m combat, courage, and loyalty to one's lord and fellow warriors. The virtues of early chivalry are best expressed in early MEDIEVAL EPICS, such as the eleventh century Song of Roland, where they are summed up in the words of the hero who, surrounded by foes, cries: "Better be dead than a coward be called."

 The LATER CHIVALRY of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries contained new virtues which the Church and the ladies sought to impose upon the generally violent and un­couth behavior of feudal warriors.

The chivalric romances that began to be written in the twelfth century mirror these new influences. In Chrehen de Troyes' Peceeval, for example, the hero's mother sends him off to be dubbed a knight with these words of advice:

 Serve ladies and maidens if you would be honored by all. If you capture a lady, do not annoy her. Do nothing to displease her. He has much from a maiden who kisses her if she agrees to give a kiss. You will avoid greater intimacy if you wish to be guided by me.... Above all I wish to beg you to go to churches and abbeys and pray to our Lord so that the world may do you honor and you may come to a good end.

In sum, fully developed chivalry was a combination of three elements:

It required the knight to fight faithfully for his lord, champion the Church and aid the humble, and honor womankind.

Unfortunately, practice often differed from theory. The average knight was more superstitious fl~ religious and he continued to fight, plunder, and abuse women, especially those of the lower class.

The ideals of chivalry, however, have affected manners in later eras, and even today they color our concept of a gentleman.

Women in general shared the characteristics of the menfolk:.

They lived in a crude and often brutal age devoid of many of our modem refinements.

Like their husbands, medieval women were heavy drinkers and eaters.

It is said that a common compliment to a member of the fair sex was that she was "the fairest woman who ever drained a bottle."


From the time they were boys, men of the nobility underwent a RIGD TRARING for knighthood.

At the age of seven, a boy was sent to the household of a relative, a friend, or the father's lord. There he became a PAGE, learning the rudiments of religion, manners, hawking, and hunting.

When about fifteen or sixteen, he became a SQUIRE and prepared himself se­riously for the art of war.

He learned to ride a war horse with dexterity and to handle the sword, the shield, and the lance correctly.

The squire also waited on his lord and lady at die table and learned music, poetry, and games.

If not already knighted on the battlefield for valor, the squire was usually considered eligible for KNIGHTHOOD at twenty One.

By the twelfth century the Church claimed a role in the ceremony, investing it with impressive symbolism.

The candidate took a bath to symbolize purity and watched his weapons before the altar in an ALL NIGHT VIGIL, confessing and making resolutions to be a worthy knight.

During the solemn Mass that followed, his sword was blessed on the altar by a priest.

The climax of the ceremony came when the candidate, kneeling before his lord, received a light blow on the neck or shoulder (the ACCOLADE), as the lord pronounced these words: "In the name of God, Saint Michael, and Saint George, I dub thee knight Be valiant"

The ceremony was designed to impress upon the knight that he must be virtuous and valiant, loyal to his lord and to God.


With its unique decorative designs, worn proudly by each noble family on its armor, HERALDRY was one of the more colorful aspects of chivalry.

The popularity of heraldry began to sweep through Europe in the twelfth century.

The use of the closed helmet, which hid the face, required that some means of identification be developed.

Ingenious feudal artists devised 285 variations of the cross and decorated the nobles' shields with such real and fictitious animals as the lion, leopard, griffin, dragon, unicorn, and a host of others in fanciful postures.

A man's social position was evident in his coat of arms, for its quarterings, or divisions, showed to which noble families its owner was related.

The life of the nobles centered about the CASTLE.

The earliest of these structures, mere wooden BLOCKHOUSES, were built in the ninth century.

Not until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were massive castles constructed entirely of stone.

The DONJON, or central tower, was the focal point of the castle. It was surrounded by an OPEN SPACE that contained storerooms, workshops, and a chapel.

The outside walls of the castle were surmounted by TURETS from which arrows, boiling oil, and various missles might be showered upon the attackers. Beyond the wall was the MOAT, a steep-sided ditch filled with water to deter the enemy.

The only entrance to the castle lay across the DRAWBRIDGE.

The PORTCULLIS, a heavy iron grating which could be lowered rapidly to protect the gate, was a further barrier against unwanted intrusion.

 Life in the castle was anything but comfortable or romantic.

The lord at first dwelt in the donjon, but by the thirteenth century he had built more spacious quarters.

Because the castle was DESIGNED FOR DEFENSE, it possessed no large windows; and the rooms were dark and gloomy.

The stone WALLS WERE BARE except for occasional tapestries to keep out the draft and dampness.

A huge FIREPLACE provided the only warmth.

The average noble derived his pleasures primarily from outdoor sports, among which he included warfare.

In peacetime the joust and tournament substituted for actual battle.

The JOUST was a conflict between two armed knights, each equipped with a blunted lance with which he attempted to unseat the other.

The TOURNAMENT was a general skirmish in which groups of knights attacked each other. Often fierce fighting ensued, with frequent casualties.

The nobles were very fond of HUNTING.

The constant demand for fresh meat afforded a legitimate excuse for galloping over the countryside.

Most hunting was done in the nearby forests, but at times an unlucky pasant's crops might be ruined during the chase.

A similar outdoor pastime, which lords, ladies, and even high church dignitary delighted in, was FALCONRY, a method of hunting with predatory birds.

The hawks were reared with the utmost care, and large companies of lords and ladies spent many afternoons eagerly wagering with one another as to  whose falcon would bring down the first victim.

Nobles often attended Mass with hooded falcons on their wrists.

Indoor amusements included the universally popular GAMES of backgammon, dice, and chess.

The long, monotonous nights were sometimes enlivened by JESTERS. At other times a WANDERING MINSTREL entertained his noble hosts in exchange for a bed and a place at the table.


The development of national governments under strong kings who enforced tranquility and order changed the whole basis of feudal society.

Knights were no longer needed to fight for their lords, to rush to the aid of helpless maidens, or to take the law into their own hands in defense of personal honor.

Yet chivalry continued on as an ideal, reaching its culmination in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

By the sixteenth century its code had become fantastic and even ridiculous, as is pointed out so cleverly in Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Some knights continued to live in the past and obtained their excitement by becoming robbers, picking needless quarrels with their neighbors, or inventing imaginary females who had to be rescued from a fate worse than death.


Was chivalry more of an ideal than a real code of behavior? What purposes did it serve?

How did training for knighthood prepare a members of the nobility to fulfill his  responsibilities?

Describe the daily life of a member of the nobility. How did it differ from the life of a peasant?




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Last modified: October 31, 1999