Friday, October 14, 2011

Knight: The Medieval Warrior's (Unofficial) Manual

By Michael Prestwich, 208 pages,

The medieval knight was more than just a soldier; he was a soldier of Christ. Despite the barbarity of those times, prelates often succeeded in tempering the almost constant violence. In many ways, the medieval Latin Church fostered peace, including by instilling a code of conduct for warriors.

Knight is a fun read for older children and for adults, as it enters into the chivalric world as a kind of guidebook, addressing the aspiring Christian knight in the fourteenth-century.

The rite of initiation into knighthood included a fair amount of religious preparation, even if being knighted was not a sacrament. The culture of chivalry was the culture of Christianity, mixed with Islamic, ancient Greco-Roman, and Germanic warrior cultures.

The author, a contemporary British historian, shows how steeped in Christianity chivalry was. Both knighthood and Christianity were seen as the good fight, where the soldier often could not live up to expectations. Both paths demanded much of the participant, and failure was easy to come by, because of both external and internal causes:

"There is a difficult balance to be struck between the ideals and the practicalities of warfare. The knight is challenged and often defeated on the battlefield by common soldiers armed with bow and pike; he fights on foot more than on horseback, and the guiding principles of chivalry often seem in reality to become those of guile, deceit, profit and cruelty."

Evils such as deceit and cruelty were evils only because Christianity said they were. Knights were, in other words, forced to live up to Christian ideals, even when fighting and killing.

In fact, service to the Church and Christian ideals formed the core of medieval knighthood. The day before the knighting ceremony the man wore a red tunic, symbolizing his willingness "to shed blood in defending the faith." Black socks symbolized the knight's mortality, a white belt his purity and chastity, and a red cloak his humility. After putting all of this on, he went to a church, sometimes all night, for a vigil.

When knights fought for the Church, it may have been as part of evangelizing, as with the Teutonic Knights who were fighting the pagan Lithuanians in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with full crusading privileges granted them by the papacy.

Knights also fought under crusading privileges at this time in Iberia, where Granada and a few other areas were not yet under Christian control. Yet the Muslims there were battle-hardened, having fought the Reconquista for many centuries.

A third area of Christian knightly fighting was against the Turks in the Balkans. Because of the military skills of the Turks, the Hungarian and Serbian rulers, sometimes aided by French, Burgundian, or English knights, often did badly.

Just as a Mass preceded the knighting ceremony, so knights throughout their lives practiced Christian piety, attending Mass and paying for Masses to be said after they died. These men played an integral role in Christendom, and just as they fractured as a Christian fighting class by the fourteenth-century, so Christendom itself would fracture by the early sixteenth-century with the Protestant Reformation, by which time the ideals of knighthood had started to unravel.

Prestwich captures the spirit of the age in an accessible way for all readers.

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