We have the romantic story that comes down through history about a fair lady being swept by a knight in shining armor (who of course is tall and handsome like Prince Charming). The chivalrous, armor-covered knight on his charger doing good always. Who wouldn’t love the idea of having swords and shields that you could use to defend your people, at the same time, be respected by your kingdom? The bad news is, an actual knighthood in the medieval period could be less exciting, and in many ways downright awful.

If you fancy unpaid child labor, then knighthood is for you.

Not everyone is allowed to be a knight. Most of them were born into being one. Say your father is a knight or of noble status, then you will be one. The first step would be becoming a Page. So an aspiring knight as young as seven years old would live in a knight’s household and, quite frankly, be a servant. He would help with the household chores, preparing meals, doing the laundry, and the likes. The purpose of this is for the Page to learn good manners and proper behavior. Horse-riding and basic fighting techniques would also be taught using wooden shields and swords.

If you love being uncomfortable with your outfit all day, then knighthood is still for you.

Horse and knight armor. Dezidor / Wikimedia Commons

Do you fancy wearing metal plate armor or tough leather? How about a chain-mail shirt? Apart from those, other accessories include a metal helmet; a gauntlet made of fabric, leather, chain mail, or plate; a metal, fabric, or leather leg armor called greaves. If you want to be fancy, there’s a plate armor that could completely cover the knight.  It was all custom made and like famous brands of clothing, certain armorsmiths were famous and high sought after.  After you were done fitting yourself out, you still needed to get armor for your horse.

You should be willing to buy your own gear.

According to librarypoint.org, “Charlemagne’s knights were given grants of conquered land which quickly put them on the road to wealth. They might also receive gifts of money or other precious things. However, some knights weren’t paid at all.” You can’t just hope for the best, so one must also be prepared to shell out the money (or lands) to pursue being a knight. The gear mentioned above and more, for sure, could cost you an arm and a leg to buy, or an arm and a leg on the battlefield if you didn’t buy it. 

You don’t always get into the battlefield.

So, you trained for 14 years, and you’re finally a full-fledged knight. It doesn’t mean that you would be sent to a battlefield to showcase and use your newly-acquired skills. Some knights were tasked to look after villages and be local leaders. It’s still an essential role, though. You were also obligated to lay down your life for your King, without hesitation.  At the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, as many as six-thousands French knights perished in a single battle. This represented the bulk of French nobility at the time.  Hundreds of noble families lost their patriarchs, heirs, cousins and uncles as well.

You are always expected to act chivalrously

The Knight at the Crossroads, 1878.

By that, I meant always. Based on the epic poem called “Song of Roland,” Knights Codes of Chivalry are as follows:

  • To fear God and maintain His Church
  • To serve the liege lord in valor and faith
  • To protect the weak and defenseless
  • To give succor to widows and orphans
  • To refrain from the wanton giving of offense
  • To live by honor and for glory
  • To despise pecuniary reward
  • To fight for the welfare of all
  • To obey those placed in authority
  • To guard the honor of fellow knights
  • To eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit
  • To keep faith
  • At all times to speak the truth
  • To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun
  • To respect the honor of women
  • Never refuse a challenge from an equal
  • Never to turn the back upon a foe

Again, depending on where the knight was and the severity of the offense, punishment for not abiding by the rules could go from being stripped of your knighthood to death by hanging.  It was interesting to be ar part of this warrior/religious order of knights but it came with great expense and the burden of considerable responsible to duty as well as the other knights of your caste.

Today, you can still see much of this Code of Chivalry alive in our own military in values we look for in officers and senior non-comms.