Becoming a Knight – Breaking some myths

The Title of knight transcended rank and nobility. Contrary to popular belief it was not bestowed by kings and queens.  Only a knight could make another man a knight. A knight would only bestow knighthood upon another they saw fit.

Who could become a knight? How was one be deemed fit to be a knight? Who decided this and what actions would they need to take to be seen as suitable for knighthood?

The first people when the term knight is mentioned are lords and kings. The aristocracy were the base of the the warrior caste. Eligible bear arms, the aristocracy were the foremost in honors and numbers in the ranks of knighthood. Trained from youth in the arts of war, chivalry, conduct and etiquette it stands to reason that knights drew from their ranks the highest of the social order.

A knight had to maintain themselves, their equipment, any lands and men that served them, this required wealth.  A poor knight could not maintain their obligations for long.

The social structure of Medieval Europe also favoured the aristocracy as knights, recognition and fame ensured your induction into the ranks of knighthood, far be it for an unknown man with no connections to a knight to be granted the honor of knighthood, but instead, the well known sons and brothers of lords and kings making a name for themselves in the field of valor.

However through marriage, and the donation of large sums of money the merchant classes were able to secure the necessary clout and political favor to have this great title bestowed on their sons.  In the 14th and 15th centuries we see the rise of the merchant nobles families, keen to secure more power, bought and married into nobility.  Often during this time, the exchange of wealth between once rich aristocracy and poor mercantile families can be viewed in just a few generations.

With the rich landowners becoming merchants or worse, poor farmers themselves, and the merchants the richest landlords in the county.  It was not uncommon for an aristocrat to sell off an honor or two to stave off poverty. Nor at times beneath the king when accounting for loans to make for war.

But not all merchants brought their knighthoods, some were able to earn the title in their own right though that was even rarer.

Sir William Walworth, Mayor of London, famed for slaying Wat Tyler and effectively ending the peasants revolt. Was a merchant and a member of the fishmongers guild before being awarded his honors of knighthood.

It was said to become a knight one must be able to be proficient in Foot Lance, Longsword, Dagger and Polehammer, Yet how would above mentioned Sir Walworth have been proficient in all those weapons?  A merchant and politician, and while capable enough with a weapon to end a man’s life.  It’s doubtful that he was renowned for taking to the tourney circuit before or after his honors.

Many a young knight was found fit on the tourney field, the story of Du Guesclin defeating his father at tourney to be made a knight for displaying his skill and valor at tourney.

However you find others who win their honors through skill of war such as Sir John Chandos, who is said to have been knighted for his efforts in the Hundred years war. Like Du Guesclin, Chandos was hailed as one of the true knights of his age.

It is in dispute whether the English mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood was knighted or if he assumed the title himself.  Famed for his skill in battle and his cunning as a general, Hawkwood was far from the chivalric ideal of a knight, but to this day he is still awarded the title.

De Charny, who famously wrote on the subject of knighthood said that a Man at Arms of worth should strive be like Judas Maccabeus

“He was wise in all his deeds, he was a man of worth who led a holy life, he was strong, skillful, and unrelenting in effort and endurance; he was handsome above all others, and without arrogance; he was full of prowess, bold, valiant, and a great fighter, taking part in the finest, greatest, and fiercest battles and the most perilous adventures there ever were, and in the end he died in a holy way in battle, like a saint in paradise.”

Such high standards to live up to, yet De Charny was the Bearer of the Oriflamme and knight and writer of the precepts of the Order of the Star had high standards of what a perfect knight should be, and how they should conduct themselves.

Du Gueslin himself was said to be an ugly and squat man, his valor and skill in combat were without peer.  Not so much the shining example set by Judas Maccabeus,  John Hawkwood, though master tactician and skilled in arts of war was far from any of these virtues, yet he held the mantle of Knighthood and his name is still known to this day.

Many more men would take up arms and not be awarded the title of knight, much like today they would be passed over or their deeds missed by their peers.

De Charny mentions this

“I must now consider yet another category of men-at-arms who deserve praise: that is those who devote a good part of their own financial resources and suffer physical hardship in the search for opportunities for deeds of arms in a number of countries; and they may well find many such opportunities and incur no reproach on many good fields of combat. But it so happens that few learn of their exploits but are only aware of the fact that they have been there, which is in itself a fine thing; for the more one sees great deeds, the more one should learn what is involved and should talk and take advice at the places where feats of arms are performed or where one is engaged in other activities. And because of this they deserve to be praised and honored: although their deeds have been of little account, they have done no ill; for it is very important in such activity to pause and look. Hence so it is that he who does best is most worthy.”

So as we can see not all men who took up the path of a Man at Arms eventually achieved their end goal, more often than not, we see it as being in between the extremes, the chivalric ideal and the ugly truth.  The noblest ideals of knighthood meets the common man, greed and poverty.


Urbanisation and the Birth of the Market


Prior to the 14th Century Europe was a predominantly agrarian and self sufficient society. Konzil Von Konstanz ONB 3044 fol. 34v. 1465-1475The so called “Fall of Rome” had seen a decentralisation of the population and government. With landowners and serfs becoming responsible for their own food production. The Feudal system required a bonded system of food production for the social echelons above.  Food and it’s production tended to be more localised.

With the growing Urbanisation of the 14th Century we find that people are less agrarian and no longer need focus on their own food production. Instead they sought to take up trades where they could earn more money.

Due to improvements in food production technologies those that do continue to produce food can do so at a surplus allowing people to move away from the land into the cities and no longer be primary producers.

So where are people getting their food?

However we see a growth in the markets square,and a boom of single purpose professions, such as butchers, bakers, fishmongers, cheese wrights setting up shops or stalls in towns with the sole purpose to supply the growing populace with their services.

Butchers would have cattle brought into town and slaughtered daily which they would sell in great numbers.  Fishmongers would bring in a great number of fish both salted and fresh.  Bakers made bread on an industrial scale to supply to the masses.

That is not to say prior to the 14th century that these professions did not exist, however  in setting up in market squares with associated trades allowed people to have better access to the customer.

This worked well for the city dwelling people, it reduced the need to store fresh food for longer periods, which could be bought daily. A tradition continued until recently. Many houses which had their own gardens in which herbs and vegetables would be grown.

However the influx of immigrants to the cities caused issues, the growing suburbs stressed the infrastructure and bought poverty and crime. Many areas were overcrowded due to poor urban planning and no such luxury existed.

Most people had the capability to cook at home, either in a small hearth or on a coal brazier, inns and taverns provided meals of varying quality to those that could not cook or buy from a street vendor, although this was usually seen to be the resort of the poor and the single male as the food was seen to be of the poorest quality.


The Venetian Monopoly on Spice

By the 14th Century Venice had established itself as the center of the spice trade in Europe, in 1291 the Turkish Mameluke captured Syria and Palestine from the Crusaders and ruled in Egypt until 1517. Ever the savvy businessmen the Venetians were able to secure lucrative trade deals allowing them sole access to these spice routes.

With this Egyptian – Venetian monopoly, Venice was able to exact as high a tariff as they chose on spices they sold to the European Market.

Such was the demand for spices that these high prices did not cause a fall in the importation of goods. Spices were not only used for cooking but preserving foods, medicines and religious purposes.  At its peak spicers were being be imported in the tens of thousands tons yearly.

It has been argued the age of exploration was driven out of an attempt to break the Venetian stranglehold on the spice trade.

Vasco de Gama, On his return from his search for India and the spice Islands, the price of pepper dropped by five times.

If spice was so expensive who could afford it? Was it used only sparingly – was it only a kings ransom?

Contextually today a gram of premium Saffron is still worth more than a gram of gold, yet we still eat this.

Spices were purchased by all levels of society, their availability were more a question of cost and availability due to local stocks. Some more than others were a luxury, Cinnamon, Saffron and Pepper were highly priced, however Mustard and Ginger were not.

We have evidence of spices being used in all levels of society, from confectionary to savory dishes.  Grains of paradise was used as a substitute for pepper by those who could not afford the high price of pepper, yet like us today the culture of conspicuous consumption existed in the medieval society as well.

To use spices in a dish that shows your wealth and affluence is like buying a designer watch or bag, or buying a bottle of expensive wine.  It lets people know you are well off enough to waste money, more importantly rich enough to waste money on food.

Many of the cooking reference materials we have from the 14th and 15th centuries tend to be written for wealthy people, this can skew the appearance of what people may have eaten or the amount of spices that were used when we are recreating recipes.  I feel it is safe to say however that based on the anecdotal evidence of the time, coupled with the sources that we do have is that we say that it was not just the wealthy eating spice, but all those that could afford it, although at lower quantities.



Female Workforce Participation After the Black Death

As disastrous as it was for the population of Europe, the Black Death had some interesting social repercussions. One being the redistribution of labour.

Traditional agrarian societies tend to have a much more shared labour between the sexes since they depend on all hands to raise crops and husband animals. When a culture develops  improvements in agriculture and there is less need for intense labour in the fields there is an increase of division of labour.

The decrease in the labour force in the 14th century saw a greater participation of women in the workforce. Prior to this women had functioned as weavers, spinners, cooks and servants. During the 12th and 13th century many statutes were prohibitive to of women making a full time wage.

However in the 14th Century we find women becoming, laborers, seamstresses, tavern owners and merchants of varied kinds. Women also became brewers, being an Alewife was a common occupation which allowed you to brew at home and serve the ale out of your home or at a local Ale house.

This however is not the case in Italy which contradicts the rest of Europe and imports male Labour to supplement its decreased workforce, instead of changing the gender roles in the workforce.

The need for an increased work force changed the social structure, it enabled a change to enfranchise women and allow many of them to work, building an income and change their own lives.

There are many parallels between this and the women entering the workforce during both World Wars.

Sadly this all changed during the mid to late 15th century, with the Papacy being reinstated in Rome, and the reign of the Borgia Popes the church adopted the Italian fashion. This saw a change in the rest of Europe and pushed for less workforce inclusion for women.

Knights of Renown Part 2 – Bertrand du Guesclin

I really like the life of Bertand du Guesclin, from the beginning he was not a person we associate with the ideals of a knight, especially the ideals of French chivalry in fact he is the opposite.  A short, ugly and brutish man, a thug and bully he was the opposite and Contemporary of John Chandos.  However he was able to raise himself from obscurity to Constable of France by his skill and cunning.  What makes this even more interesting if it were not for the time he lived in and the need of France for a man like him I doubt that he would have become as well received as he was. du Gesclin is still treated as a national hero in France and is part of the school curriculum

Bertrand du Guesclin 1320c – 13 July 1380, Nicknamed “The Eagle of Brittany” or “The Black Dog of Broceliande”

The Eldest son of ten children of Robert II of Guesclin, lord of La Motte-Broons, Bertrand was described as “small’ with “short legs” and “”knobbly.”  Having “overly broad shoulders” and long arms”, big round head and ungrateful”, “black skin like that of a wild boar.”  Continue reading

Knights of Renown Part 1 – Sir John Chandos KG

There is always much discussion of knights in general, but not individual knights and their exploits.  To understand the people of the time and the impact they had on society gives us as living historians a greater window into the world we are trying to recreate.

I intend to write a series of posts on famous knights, briefly detailing their exploits and any accounts by their peers and enemies.  This is an attempt to dispel the modern misconceptions of knights in general, but also to improve my own knowledge of this usually glossed and romanticised group.

The first I will be discussing is  Sir John Chandos Knight of the Garter, 1320c – 31 December 1370.

Described by the French chronicler, Froissart, Chandos. ‘Was one of the best knights in England for wisdom, strength, fortune, high enterprise, and good counsel.’

John Chandos was the son and heir of the Lord of the Manor of Radbourne, Derbyshire. He held not inherited title of nobility but was one of the gentry and as such was trained in the arts of war.

His exploits as a knight early on in his life earning him fame, in 1340 he fought with Edward the III at the Battle of Sluys gaining great renown. Six year later he was one of the Kings chief counselors.

He was entrusted with the education of the Prince of Wales, Edward, the Black Prince. He was then later one of the founding members of the Knights of the Garter, Chief of staff to the Black Prince and it is believed mastermind behind the Battle of Crecy, the Battle of Poitiers and the Battle of Auray.

It is believe it was the success of the battle of Poitiers, for example, is to be attributed chiefly to Chandos. Who, on seeing the French cavalry in disorder, cried out, ‘Sire, charge, and the day is yours.

For his deeds Chandos was created the lieutenant of France, made the vice-chamberlain of England and was given the viscounty of Saint-Sauveur in the Cotentin. During the Hundred Years’ War, he became constable of Aquitaine.

It was during the Black Princes reign of the Guyennois and his excessive taxation that put him in to conflict with the Prince of Wales, Chandos is said to have admonished Edward for his excesses. But when Edward would not listen to Chandos he retired to his estates in Normandy.

It was when the Gascon became outraged at the over zealousness of the English taxes and treatment they pleaded to the French crown to intercede from foreign tyranny Edward realised his error.

In 1369, the French had launched a successful counter attack against the English. John Chandos was appointed Seneschal of Piotou and choosing to settle in Poitiers as he was charged with dealing with the french counter attack by the Black Prince.

Chandos decided to attempt to retake the Abbey of Saint – Savin under the cover of night, but the attack had failed and the French had taken the field near Poitiers. Chandos and his Knights decided to make haste to meet them.

The forces met at a bridge a Lussac, where Chandos slipped on either his long robes or frost and as he fell, James de Saint-Martin, a squire in the house of Sir Bagnac, charged with his lance taking him in the face just below the eye.

The English while fewer in number managed to win the day and upon finding their leader fallen bore him to the Morthemer, the nearest English fortress on a shield.

It is said the Knights and Barons of Piotou are to have said of his death ‘Flower of knighthood and of bravery,’ they cried; Sir John Chandos, cursed was the forging of the lance that wounded thee, and which has cost us thy life.’

On hearing the news of the Death of John Chandos, Charles the V is reported to have said “Had Chandos lived, he would have found a way of making a lasting peace.”

While Frossart wrote “I have heard him at the time regretted by renowned knights in France; for they said it was a great pity he was slain, and that, if he could have been taken prisoner, he was so wise and full of devices, he would have found some means of establishing a peace between France and England”. He also stated of Chandos that “never since a hundred years did there exist among the English one more courteous, nor fuller of every virtue and good quality than him

The Death of Sir John Chandos
The Death of Sir John Chandos
Arms of Sir John Chandos KG
Arms of Sir John Chandos KG
Sir John Chandos KG
Sir John Chandos KG

Sword Ownership and Myths

You may hear the term that a noble can “Bear Arms” this has often led to the misconception that only knights could own or wear swords.  What this means is that a person has the right to display a Cote of Arms, which would be their own personal, family or positional heraldry.

While it is true that the sword is the synonymous with the knight, and holds much in the way of symbolism with knightly virtues and practices, ownership was not banned for lower classes.

In an age where individuals were relied on to participate in both a military capacity and self defence, prohibition of sword ownership to a select few is counter productive.

It was expected that not only were common men expected to take up arms in times of war but also act as militia to defend their towns, and to keep the peace in a time when a organised police force did not exist.

In certain cities and countries there were laws prohibiting the wearing of swords within city limits, it was expected that all men wore a dagger for defence.  Although generally this too could not be over a certain length.

In times of war men were called up to serve, they were able to do this either by taking arms or buying a waiver.  There are instances such as in England where it was legislated that each man was to buy and own weapons.

One such Act was the Statute of Winchester, enacted during the reign of Edward I in 1285 to combat the lawlessness of the times.

5)             It is likewise commanded that every man have in his house arms for keeping the peace in accordance with the ancient assize; namely that every man between fifteen years and sixty be assessed and sworn to arms according to the amount of his lands and, of his chattels; that is to say,

  • for fifteen pounds of land, and, forty marks worth of chattels, a hauberk, a helmet of iron, a sword, a knife and a horse;
  • for ten pounds worth of land and, twenty marks worth of chattels, a haubergeon, a helmet, a sword and a knife; for a hundred shillings worth of land, a doublet,4 a helmet of iron, a sword and a knife;
  • for forty shillings worth of land and over, up to a hundred shillings worth, a sword, a bow, arrows and a knife;
  • and he who has less than forty shillings worth of land shall be sworn to have scythes. gisarrnes, knives and other small weapons;
  • he who has less than twenty marks in chattels, swords, knives and other small weapons.
  • And all others who can do so shall have bows and arrows outside the forests and within them bows and bolts.

As you can see, it was expected that most people were to have bought and owned a sword for defence to take up arms and keep the peace.  This is not the same as any laws being enacted that call for men to own weapons for war, but instead as militia to enforce the law and keep banditry at bay.

It’s easy to make a sweeping statement based on this one act in this one part of Europe, in one part of history. However it does illustrate that swords were not just owned by Knights.