History of Chivalry

Different authors place the beginning of chivalry in different eras, ranging from 300- to 800’s. According to Harrison (1996, 2002) in the beginning the chivalry (milites) was not a part of the nobility (Nobile). Phillips (2008) argues that chivalry was developed in parallel with the feudalism of the great European empires during the early Middle Ages. Although in the beginning one did not come into the knighthood by inheritance, the feudalism was well-developed during the early Middle Ages.

In the beginning, knights were simply warriors on horses that arose at the time when several innovations were introduced in the equipment for warfare. Among others, modernized saddles with stirrups that made the warrior remain in the saddle even if the saddle was exposed to heavier loads. Knights were also equipped with lances. A new type of helmets was also introduced, a helmet which gave good protection for the head and withstood heavy impact and also against swords and arrows. The force of the horsemen was demonstrated in the Battle of Hastings October 14, 1066 (Delouche 1993). The new technology gave the horsemen fast and strong advantage in battles, of course, provided that a horseman was physically fit and that he has mastered the technique well.

In European languages, the word knight is developed from the word riders (German Ritter, Swedish riddare, etc.) or from the word horse (Lat. Eques, Spanish caballero, ital. cavaliere, fr. chevalier, etc.). In Latin, the word miles (Lat. Soldier) was still the name of a knight. All these words describe knight well: warriors on horses. Thanks to their skills, knights were often hired to solve various conflicts, which quickly gave them honor, respect, and material prosperity.

In the Middle Ages the services were paid with land and serfs rather than with money. This circumstance converted the knights soon from mercenaries to local rulers (Delouche 1993, Harrison 2002, Phillips 2008, and others). In the late 1100s and early 1200s the chivalry was finally merged with the nobility (Harrison 1996, 2002 and others). Aristocratic men loved to call themselves “knight”. One could say that this was the end of chivalry’s establishment phase and that chivalry got the form that we know today. Knight’s rank became a part of the nobility and a social group into which one enters mainly through inheritance.

In some realms in the XIIIth century, the possibility to get into the knighthood was open only for the heirs of knights. For example, Frederick II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, decided in 1231, that only individuals of knightly descent could be dubbed as knights (Phillips 2008). Squires served knights and they are the part of the nobility that we today call for the lower nobility (Harrison 1996 and others). In Sweden the “Alsnöstadgan” (a Law from 1280)divided nobility into knights and squires.

Knighthood began to be acquired by birth already during the Xth century. Sons of knights were sent to other aristocratic homes, where they served as pages. They were trained in fine manners and knightly virtues. As young men these boys became squires. Knight’s education became progressively harder and a squire was trained to use his sword (see also Helle 2000, Gravett 2004, Phillips 2008, and others). When the training was completed the young squire was dubbed a knight at the appropriate occasion. In this ceremony the squire’s shoulders were touched with a sword. One can say that the word knights designated a ripe feudal lord, capable to fulfill their duties of a vassal in a battle, when necessary (Delouche 1993, Helle 2000, Phillips 2008, and others.). This maturation was acquired through many years of education and training.

It is known that the title “knight” through history rwas mainly earned on a battlefield. The majority of Europe’s nobility comes from the chivalry.


Figure 1. In order to use their offensive weapons with success, a knight had to train hardly and regularily. Knightly tournaments were occasions  when the knight’s skill was further developed but also measured. In the beginning, the tournaments had no rules. Tragedies occurred often since sharp weapons were used. For this reason the tournaments were prohibited in England for example, until the year 1194, when Richard The Lionheart lifted the prohibition provided that the participants followed some rules (Wasling 1997). Knight in the picture wears the Arms of Danish ancient noble family von Manderup (se also Zovko 2009). Painting Ronny Andersen.

More about this in my new book ”Chivalry today”, published in Croatia by Naklada Sv. Antuna.

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