Review: The Knight in History

Gies, Frances. The Knight in HistoryTitle: The Knight in History
Author: Frances Gies
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2011
Language: English

Any one with an interest in the middle ages should read this book. It’s definitely not a masterpiece of literature but it clearly outline the development of the concept of knighthood from its origins in the eighth and ninth centuries until its slow, sad decline around the sixteenth century. The unstated aim of the work appears to be to counter the dreadful notions of knighthood we’ve inherited from the the Victorian era.

Professor Gies covers history of knighthood predominantly in England, France and German with the occasional reference to Spain and Eastern Europe. The focus of the book is on the social development of the knightly class and looks closes at what the knights themselves thought of their class as much as the historical actions of the class. She uses the careers of three knights in particular to prove her points: William Marshal (1144-1219), Bertrand du Guesclin (1320-80), and John Falstof, the model for Shakespeare’s character (1378-1459). The lack of primary documents precludes previding such in-depth sketches of the careers of knights of earlier centuries although she attempts to trace the lives of the du Hongres brothers in the First Crusade with some success.

Contrary to popular belief, the book posits, knights were not a survival of the _equites_ class from the Roman Empire. The class first appeared after Charlemagne in the ninth century as little more than rich thugs terrorising the countryside on horseback. This lead to the tenth century church intervening and forcing the nobility of Europe to agree to the “Truce of God” and the “Peace of God” which basically said that such brigandry and killing each other are not the acts of good Christians. Only with the development of the crusading ideal in the eleventh century did the concept of piety become tied to the idea of knighthood. The addition of the culture of the troubadours of southern France and their later equivalents in norther France, Germany and Italy completed the picture and gave us something like the concept of knighthood we have today.

After this high point in the thirteenth century, Professor Gies says, economics took its toll and the class began a slow decline into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries only to be revived by Victorian writers (such as Walter Scott) as the hopeless joke of romantic idealism that we know today. The Hundred Years War is cited as an example of the turning point for the class. Professor Gies suggests that the English victories early in the war were not the result of the longbow as such but of the English king hiring bodies of professional soldiers rather than relying, as did the French, on the old system of feudal levy. This, she says, is the result of the lack of knights in England – some counties unable to produce a knight whereas there were a couple of dozen in the previous century – and their unwillingness to provide their nominated forty days annual service in an overseas campaign.

This trend continued into the fourteenth and later centuries when the knight lost even his status as a local administrator, the job having become the province of merchants and non-knightly nobility.

The book is a good, non-technical read which will open many eyes to the reality of the knight in history.