He had been trained for this moment from the tender young age of seven, serving as a page to the local armorer until he turned fourteen years old, at which point he was given the title of ‘squire.’ He had served his master, learning the ways of weaponry and the skill needed to wear heavy armor, until, when he turned twenty-one, he had been declared a knight (Hull). He glanced again at the golden knight, knowing that he had been through the same rigorous training, perhaps more, to be competing at this level in the competition.
Bedecked in heavy armor and waiting under the hot sun was becoming too much for his warhorse who knew her task was to charge at any moment. Lowering heavily armored free hand enough to rub her neck, he felt the same anxiety wash over him. So much was at stake here, he knew. As a knight, if he won, he was guaranteed the prosperous marriage to a wealthy and beautiful heiress and the reward of a nice plot of land, served of course, under the rule of a more powerful noble or official (Hull).
If he won this match, he expected he would be taken to serve in the king’s garrison for a few days out of the year, or taken on various expeditions where he would undoubtedly find wealth and glory beyond his wildest dreams.
But he also knew that the life of a knight could be dangerous, other than competitions and tournaments, a knight could expect to protect the life of the king, and even, die on the field of battle.
A lance so heavy that his heavily clad arm started to tremble was shoved into his hands and a thick wooden shield with a red rose painted on the front was strapped to his right arm. His silver armor shinned blindingly in the heat of the sun, and he blinked rapidly, almost unable to see through the thin eye slit granted by his heavy helmet.
A horn sounded and hundreds of people, royalty and commoner, began to roar with enthusiasm. His horse lurched forward, and he almost dropped the lance. Grasping the reins as best he could, the awkward shield making such a task difficult, he aimed the wooden lance for the charging golden knight.
The greatest difficulty of the joust was not to just be able to carry the lance and handle the horse. In fact, he knew that his greatest difficulty “was to hold the line of the charge and not to veer away from the impact—not to give in to the panic that swept over nearly every rider as he galloped toward his opponent” (Crichton 258). The knight hoped suddenly that he wouldn’t die.
As the horses charged forward, he thought that the knight looked more “like a moving castle” (Ayton 26) than a man in armor. He couldn’t see the knight’s face, and he knew that the golden knight couldn’t see his either. He realized that one would die today, but neither would know their killer.
Raucous roars boomed from all around him as he charged, suddenly intent on the kill, knowing that he must kill the knight with the first strike of his lance, or risk a more intense battle with swords on the ground.
He felt as if the world were in slow motion as the horses charged closer. For an instant, he thought that could see through the golden knight’s eye slits, and knew, viscerally, that he looked familiar. He could hear with precise definition, each hoof beat on the packed dirt, and each clink of armor as he bounced in the saddle.
Suddenly terrified, he closed his eyes at the moment of impact, and with a splitting crack, the lances met, his sliding wildly upward, bashing the golden knight in the jaw. He felt the knight’s lance burst through his rose-painted shield. He felt it strike his breastplate, and he gasped at the pressure that ripped him from his saddle and sent him flying into the air.
That gallant silver knight is still in the air, flying to some unknown destination, or perhaps, his death. I am, however, unconcerned with his fate, because what worries me more is his identity. He is the knight in my imagination, probably plucked straight from some movie, and indisputably sprinkled with what I’ve read in novels. In fact, the “mounted, armored knight is one of the most potent symbols of medieval civilization, a persistent, ubiquitous image which springs from the folios of illuminated manuscripts and the texts of the chronicles of chivalry” (Ayton 26). But how real are the knights found in modern culture and literature? How much fact has managed to remain in the ideals contemporary society has afforded them?
Moreover, how do the medieval heroes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight compare to the pop-culture heroes of Michael Crichton’s more contemporary knight’s tale Timeline? And how much knightly fact is found in each? Do knights as we think of them have any basis in fact, and how much fact has been lost in the literally unquestioned pop-culture versions of knights and courtly behavior? Additionally, this is an attempt to define the nature of the knight, his beliefs, his motivations, and even his actions as compared to the knights that are written about in medieval and modern literature.
To begin with, mounted knights, like the knight in my little story, probably didn’t exist as most people are led to believe by both medieval and modern literature. It is entirely possible that the large majority of men in battle never even rode horses, let alone carried the title of a knight. In fact, “fewer than 10% of serving men-at-arms were knights” (Ayton 6). Actual knights, meaning they went through the training of the page, and later that of the squire until they are finally bestowed the honor of a knight.
This is disturbing information to digest after believing in the (standard) legion of knights, mounted on horseback, protecting their beloved king’s castle. Perhaps the valiant knight in my imagination should have been a brave little foot soldier, standing beside hundreds of men just like him, none more rich than a commoner, and none less brave than the knights of tales. Knights, do however, make better tales, so perhaps the foot soldier wasn’t lost in time, but lost for a more significant reason, that of telling stories that sell.
Now, this is not an attempt to summarize Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (my translation is from http://alliteration.net/Pearl.htm), but there are a few events near the beginning of the tale that specifically illuminate the ways and mannerisms, that I’m attempting to define, of the knights. As the tale begins, Arthur is described as a noble king, beloved by everyone in his court, and who “would not eat till all were served. / He bubbled to the brim with boyish spirits: /…as a point of honor never to eat” (Alliteration, stanza 5). Arthur is not just a king who rules over his country, he is instead a man adored by his court, and who takes great honor in not eating until all are served with the food that he so generously provides. One can assume then, that a good king / knight should feel honor in pleasing and taking care of others, and that honor is important for more than just the riches it provides.
The story progresses with the appearance of the somewhat magical green knight, literally dressed (and possibly skin tone too, at least his eyebrows) in green. He is described as “a horrible horseman [who] hurtled through the doors, / his body as brawny as any can be, /…I can hardly tell if he were half troll, / or merely as large as living man can be” (Alliteration, 7). Many stanzas are specifically dedicated to the discussion of his appearance, which leads a reader to believe that it is important to know who this knight is, and the affect his appearance had on the people having dinner in the hall.
He is, in fact, intimidating as expected, “they say: he seemed so bright; / and who would dare to clash / in melee with such might?” (Alliteration 9). His first words demand that he meets the king and everyone is stunned by his booming presence, thinking that he must be some sort of magical being, and that he is too frightening to answer downright.
It is soon revealed that the green knight has come to Camelot for the glory of training as a true knight, with the best that Arthur has to offer, claiming that “I have been told that your reputation towers to heaven: /…your knights and their steeds as the sturdiest in steel, /…True knighthood is known here, or so the tale runs” (Alliteration 12). When none of Arthur’s knights are brave enough to answer the challenge, the green knight furiously says, “they call this King Arthur’s house, / a living legend in land after land? / Where have your pride and your power gone, /…The glories and triumphs of the Round Table / have toppled at the touch of one man’s words!” (14). His words here, to Arthur, his knights, and the people innocently eating dinner are more than rude and demonstrate the darker side of knighthood, one that is rarely revealed except in characters specifically meant to be evil.
Knights, or professional soldiers as my research has come to suggest, traveled the realms for work, to do battle. Only later, as the article “Castle Learning Center: Medieval Knights,” by Marvin Hull depicts, did the knights become like nobility. After fighting in wars, getting paid exceptionally well, and generally protecting the kingdom as they led other similarly conscripted soldiers, knights became surrounded by the ideals of honor and chivalry. Not that they fought for honor or chivalry, but that they were looked upon as the most honorable and chivalrous of the soldiers, because of their rank and status. In fact, “when not engaged in combat the knight would participate in tournaments to win favors, power, and money” (Hull para 3). Knights essentially lived for battle (not honor) as it led to their ultimate prestige and status.
The fact is, much research reveals that knights, however well esteemed and honored, were often more likely to turn to evil tendencies and misconduct than expected. Moreover, “most knights, plundered, slaughtered, and looted often when given the chance” (Knights and Armor, Chivalry). There is even a story about Edward II of England who was “imprisoned and killed. His captors didn’t want any sign of foul play, so they stuck a tube up his rectum and inserted a red-hot poker into his bowels until he died” (Crichton 239). Treachery and betrayal surround his story, though it is suspected that his own knights rebelled and preformed the gruesome murder.
And it has come to light that “our modern notion of knights are very much based on the ideas of chivalry, and it is the survival of medieval romantic writings that tend to show knights as the chivalrous ideal, that sways our view of medieval knighthood” (Knights and Armor, Chivalry). It is clear that the “richest [would be able to] buy themselves off for ten or twelve shillings, whilst the poor are conscripted” (Ayton 15).
Moreover, “typically, over 75% of an army’s men-at-arms were of sub-knightly status…consisting of men awaiting inheritances, younger sons who were never likely to inherit…richer peasantry…men from the yeoman or below, whose status has been enhanced by a career in arms” (Ayton 5). Clearly, it is easier to believe, even in medieval literature, that knights filled the ranks of the king’s armies and that all are well mannered and chivalrous than the evil and conniving, ready for battle monsters that most actually were.
Knights were later classified as filling the ranks of the esteemed Knights Templar. And, according to the Templar History website, the Knights Templar were once a dominant world power, and the most powerful force in the entire medieval world. It would be easy to assume, from this information, that knights were more likely to turn evil than fight for honor and righteousness.
However, when Arthur, since none of his knights have the courage to step in and beat the intruder, gets ready for battle, Gawain is suddenly overcome with the courage and honor to defend his king. This scene in the tale is specifically important in understanding knightly behavior. Usually, “the combat scenes included in countless illuminated manuscripts almost invariably present the aristocratic warrior fighting in time-honored fashion” (Ayton 28), for honor because he is duty bound to his king. Gawain would be the exception.
But not all knights fought for honor or because they had nice chunks of land under their name. The military service in “Western Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was feudal; that is, it was based on the holding of land in return for military service given to an overlord” (Norman viii). The landowner was supported by the growth of their land, “in return for defending them against raiders, for defending the realm in time of war, and for administering justice to them in his courts” (Norman viii). Such bestowments by the king were likely to create a duty bound warrior, though not necessarily one who fights for honor.
Now, honor, or chivalry, is defined as “the code, which governed the life of the medieval aristocracy from the king himself down to the humblest knight, [and] blended the concepts of honor and manhood…with the gentler ideals of Christianity” (Norman ix). In this way, Gawain is defined as chivalrous, and in so being called, is expected to do (and obey) certain things, such as “the protection of the poor, women and children, and defense of the church” (Knights and Armor, Chivalry) and, obviously, the king.
Then there’s the question of what knights are like in more modern tales. A great example would be Michael Crichton’s Timeline, as he is known for his ability to tell sizzling hold-on-to-your-seat thrillers based on an idea or scientific fact. Commonly at the back of his books a reader will find an extensive bibliography of perhaps fifty to a hundred sources. It is unquestionable, then, that he did his research on any given novel. Though his writing is fiction, one can generally assume that the details are closer to fact than other such works on the era. So to avoid painstaking and annoying plot summary, the characters in Timeline basically travel back to the thirteen hundreds using quantum technology in an attempt to study the past. They are chased and captured by an evil knight, where the characters from the 1990’s realize that they had fallen into a medieval world and that “this was a medieval warlord, sitting with his soldiers and their prostitutes in the castle he had captured” (Crichton 238), join an epic battle, and accidentally change history while fighting for their lives.
Crichton’s novel is crammed with medieval lore and inspired storylines based on actual people from the era. Near the middle of the novel he writes:
it was a peculiarity of medieval scholarship in the twentieth century that there was not a single contemporary picture showed what the interior of a fourteenth-century castle looked like…The earliest images of fourteenth century life had actually been made in the fifteenth century, and the interiors, and food, and costumes they portrayed were correct for the fifteenth century, not the fourteenth. As a result, no modern scholar knew what furniture was used, how walls were decorated, or how people dressed and behaved. The absence of information was so complete that when the apartments of King Edward I were excavated in the Tower of London, the reconstructed walls had to be left as exposed plaster, because no one could say what decorations might have been there (Crichton 236).
Unfortunately, the use of an excessively enormous block quote was needed here, because Crichton’s information is helpful in understanding how modern culture views the medieval world. I remember, in a middle-English class by Professor Whitaker, the discussion of King Edward I and the erroneous plaster that reconstructionists left on the walls in the Tower of London. It was difficult to understand how the most valuable details were lost, or simply not known about the era.
In an era where knights saved maidens and supposedly fought dragons, how could the medieval community, the archeologists, or even the public, lose such valuable insight (what they liked, valued, believed) into the lives of the heroes that we persistently fill our books and movies with? How is it possible that the intricacies of their lives were irretrievably lost when so much information is available about the paintings and statues found in temples constructed over three thousand years ago?
Now, getting back to Crichton, the knight in Timeline, Lord Oliver, was based on actual accounts of Sir Oliver de Vannes and his capture of Castelgard and La Roque and is illustrated as wearing “clothes as ornate as the room…the impression he conveyed was of a dangerous petulance…he was edgy and quick to strike…and three or four women, young, pretty and bawdy, in tight-fitting dresses and with loose, wanton hair, giggled as their hands groped beneath the table, completed the scene” (Crichton 237-238). Oliver’s story is significant in understanding the king’s relationship with his subjects.
Basically, “Oliver lost his impregnable castle when a spy opened an inside passage allowing the Archpriest’s soldiers to enter. Such betrayals were typical of the complex intrigues of that time” (Crichton xiii). It seems that treachery and betrayal were common factors in war and sieges. Crichton, then, is fairly accurate in his portrayal of the struggles with feudalism and kings, meaning that there is more treachery and betrayal than honor and chivalry in war.
It would be fair to conclude that the knights of medieval times were not necessarily the knights found even in medieval literature, let alone modern knightly versions. Surely few soldiers actually became knights due to the strict requirements of the Order, and the lifestyle of training that it required. Those that made it into the fold, though, would be the knights of medieval and modern stories, with full armor, mounted on a warhorse, and probably prepared to enter a tournament or battle for their king, and who may or may not be fighting for honor instead of glory. Overall, the real heroes of the medieval era were not knights as we have been led to believe by literature, the real heroes, were in fact, most likely to be commoners with pick axes, and who had no actual skill in defending the land.
Ayton, Andrew. Knights and Warhorses: Military Service and the English Aristocracy
Under Edward III. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1994.
“Chivalry.” http://www.knightsandarmor.com/chivalry.htm. October 2005.
Crichton, Michael. Timeline. New York: Ballantine, 1999.
Deane, Paul. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. http://alliteration.net/Pearl.htm 1999.
Dunn, Charles and Edward T. Byrnes, ed. Middle English Literature. New York:
Garland Publishing, 1990.
“History and Mythos of the Knights Templar.” http://www.templarhistory.com/ . 2005.
“History of Knights.” http://www.knightsandarmor.com/history.htm. October 2005.
Hull, Marvin. “Castle Learning Center: Medieval Knights.”
“Life of a Knight.” http://www.knightsandarmor.com/life.htm. October 2005.
Norman, A.V.B. The Medieval Soldier. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1993.