The Truth Behind Knights in Shining Armor

by Dana D’Angelo

What is it about knights that capture our imagination? Is it that they’re true heroes, intent on protecting the less fortunate, fighting bravely and fiercely for their home and country? Is it their admiration for and love of women? This is what Hollywood wants us to believe.

But if you look closely, there are actually grains of truth in this portrayal.

You see, a seven year old boy, usually from a well off family, would be sent to foster at another home and be trained as a knight. At first he would act as a page, essentially becoming a servant, and heeding his master’s every beck and call. He would start at this humble beginning until he reached the age of about 14 years. At this point, he would graduate to become a squire. He would gain enough confidence from his master to accompany him into battle, although he didn’t exactly participate in the fighting.

In his long years of training to become a knight, the squire would learn all sorts of things including battle readiness and the finer arts of socialization. Geoffrey Chaucer, a well known writer in the middle ages, illustrated in one of his characters a squire that had the ability to compose songs, dance, draw, and write. On top of everything, this character had horse riding expertise and proficiency in jousting.

Although Chaucer’s character is obviously fictional, we can assume that these abilities were quite common at the time. Scholars believe that during the early medieval period, warriors acted upon an unspoken rule where they behaved in a courteous and civil manner when dealing with their enemies. As time went on, this behavior gained favor with many people and a knightly code of conduct was formed.

Poems of courtly love were recited throughout the land by troubadours, and the ideals of chivalry were spread. It was around the 13th century that romance stories such as the legendary tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table became extremely popular. It’s debatable whether King Arthur really existed, however these stories further influenced the way a knight behaved toward their enemies and those of a more gentle birth.

What resulted from this commitment to chivalry was a strict code of courtly love. A knight, for example, would single out a woman — usually one that was already married. He would admire her from a distance, and write long love poems, professing his undying love and loyalty toward her. And to prove his devotion, he would do dangerous and courageous feats in order to impress her.

A squire would observe all this from his betters, and would try to incorporate the knightly ideals into his own life. When he reached his 20th year or so, he finally had the opportunity to earn his knightly spurs. He would then participate in a religious ceremony, attending a church vigil and taking a purifying bath. And only after these were performed would he then be officially dubbed and declared as “Sir.”

Although we can imagine that it would be near impossible to uphold the chivalric code during the heat of a brutal war, there is still enough evidence to support that many knights followed the ideals of chivalry.

Men — fierce fighters, bold, brave in facing death, yet often displaying a gentle nature… Perhaps, the real reason why we admire these knights in shining armor is because they share many of the same qualities as the heroes of our own time.