Knighthood and Chivalry in War and Peacetime during the

 Medieval Era.




Joe Granducci and Dr. Carl Edwin Lindgren


Member, Royal Historical Society (London)  and Fellowship of Catholic Scholars


     In the beginning of the medieval era the mounted warrior’s role was initially as a simple soldier.  The development of knighthood and chivalry starting in the 11th century would expand the knight’s roles and responsibilities beyond that of the soldier. The knight’s role in warfare evolved from the mounted warrior who supported infantry forces to become the premier unit in warfare.  Additionally, his peacetime roles evolved from a soldier, miles[1], typically a commoner, to becoming part of the nobility.  With his move to the upper echelon of society he accrued responsibilities of governing and a place of leadership in the feudal system developing in Europe.  The mounted warrior was no longer just a supporting force during battle.  He was now the premier military unit and would also become established as a part of the government. The knight’s increasing preeminence in warfare would begin his rise.

     The role of cavalry in ancient warfare was largely one of support, harassment and scouting.  The use of cavalry by the Germanic tribes, and the kingdoms that rose from them, would begin to transform the role of the mounted warrior.  With the advent of the knight, battles would shift to cavalry as the main combat unit with infantry as support. 

     The cavalry of the Roman Empire and the era from the fall of Rome to the 11th century would require several technological advancements in order to become the effective force in battle that the knight was to become.  For example an important technical advancement for the mounted warrior was the use of stirrups.  Stirrups helped the horseman to remain seated in battle and gave him a considerable amount of leverage for striking power.  The mounted warrior was now able to fight from his horse in close combat.  Staying mounted in battle also allowed for heavier armor to be worn.  Until this time a mounted warrior would typically ride to battle, dismount, and fight on foot.  While this employment helped his mobility and possibly kept the warrior more refreshed he was still a foot soldier.  With the advent of an effective saddle, stirrups and the ability to fight from horseback with heavier armor and weapons the cavalry charge became the most effective technique for attack on the medieval battlefield. 

     In addition to the technological advancements, there were social changes as well which contributed to the knight’s dominance on the battlefield.  The mounted warrior was, in general, until the 11th century a common soldier.  He was either employed by the local government or was a citizen of the local area and was levied in times of war.  While he may have been either a professional soldier or a levy, the cost of his equipment was relatively low.  With the advancements in technology and the increasing capabilities of cavalry the cost of the equipment for a mounted warrior increased.  The early knights required more income to maintain their status as a mounted warrior.  Eventually, the increasing capability of cavalry, the monies required for upkeep of weapons, armor and horses combined with the developing idea of knighthood led to the mounted warrior becoming a part of the nobility.  His entrance into the upper echelon of society helped him maintain his equipment and status as a knight.  It had the additional effect of casting him in the role of leadership on the battlefield.  The development of chivalry as the knight’s central ethos would serve to further his claim to a birthright as a noble and leader of men.

     Certainly there were established nobles who were mounted warriors, but the knightly class did not rise from the nobility alone. Initially any mounted warrior could become a knight and enter into knighthood, usually through prowess on the field.  In some cases, knights could create, or dub[2], other knights as they saw fit.  As knighthood and chivalry developed, these common soldiers were becoming a class of nobility and gained a role of leadership, which began as a result of their capabilities on the field of battle.  These complex social changes led to the mounted warrior’s new role on the battlefield and at the same time changed his role in peacetime. 

     The knight’s role while not campaigning increased as he began to enter the nobility.  Initially the mounted warrior was useful during wartime when defense or conquest required him.  He was a paid soldier or levy defending his home.  He was typically under the control of the local government and had no real peacetime role other than a standing defensive force or possibly limited functions as a constabulary force.  However, as a noble, the knight was now responsible for more than just warfare.  In order to support his place as a knight he was given a means to do so in the form of land holdings.  The knight was granted land, which in addition to providing taxes to his feudal lord, served to raise the money required to equip him.  In this way the feudal lords created knights, granted noble status to the knight and made the knight a vassal in exchange for the knights service in war.[3] 

     Peacetime roles of the knight would naturally evolve with his entrance into the nobility and his role as a landholder.  The areas the knight was responsible for would require governance under such laws as were decreed by the ruling lord.  The knight’s feudal lords began to empower them to maintain the peace and rule of law in their holdings and those of their feudal lord.  No longer was the knight simply a mounted warrior useful only in battle.  He did not simply work for the government as a soldier.  He was a part of the government with peacetime responsibilities.   Barber has this to say about the knight’s move to an increased status in the medieval era. “Fighting men (of the medieval era) are frequently seen as a separate and important order in society, contrasted with churchmen and peasants, yet linked in an interdependent trinity.  Once this concept begins to form, so the knights acquire the social function and moral authority they had hitherto lacked”.[4] 

     The central ethos of chivalry directed the knight’s actions as a leader in peacetime as it did in war.  It is interesting, and telling that the knights rise to prominence was a result of war and violence.  “Belief in the right kind of violence carried out vigorously by the right kind of people is a cornerstone of this (eras) literature”[5].  It follows that his ethos of chivalry is influenced greatly by violence and strife.  The initial development of chivalry was more directed toward the conduct of a warrior and war.  It was not until the knight entered the nobility and became established in that role that chivalry began to transform.  It became less of a “warrior code” and more of a moral code, which could more readily be applied to peacetime.  The increasing importance of courtesy and mitigation of violence and war in the later medieval period are examples of the changing nature of knighthood and chivalry.  Ultimately, the chivalry of today has developed into a mostly peaceful ethos and bears few of the martial overtones it once had.



     The role of knights, knighthood and chivalry in medieval Europe developed from many technological, political and social changes.  The knight became the most important military unit on the battlefield.  His success and prowess on the field led directly to his status as a new class of the nobility.  The knight’s new role as a member of the nobility, required he maintain a land holding for his feudal lord, which in turn gave him the means to maintain his status as a knight.  Additionally, his land holdings required that he take an active role in government and leadership during peace as well as war.  Lastly, the ideas of chivalry developed from a warrior code to the central ethos of the knight and governed his actions both in peace and war. 



[1] Latin for soldier

[2] The origins of ‘Dub’ are obscure but it implies a special ceremony of some kind.  Barber p 25.

[3] In the military we call this system a, ‘Self Licking Ice Cream Cone’.

[4] The Knight and Chivalry, Richard Barber, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, UK, 2000, p. 28.

[5] Chivalry and Violence in Medievel Europe, Richard W. Kaeuper, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, p. 22.