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May 072017

I have been reading a book on chivalry and knights recently, and every so often wanted to shout at the historian writing it, but as he isn’t listening to me I guess I’ll just have to shout at you instead.

The main irritating claim was that the equipment of knights put entry out of the reach of ordinary ‘soldiers’. It is true that the need to provide a highly trained and specially bred horse or two, did significantly increase the cost of entry into the ranks.  But this is an overly simplistic analysis.

For a start, if we look at the fighting men of the Anglo-Saxon forces facing the Normans in 1066, many (perhaps even most) would have been equipped with just a spear and shield. But a wealthy core would have been much better equipped with costly mail armour, swords, etc. Many within this core would have quite easily afforded the additional cost of a destrier or two.

In addition, many of those ‘core’ soldiers would have been members of the royal household guards, or similar groups for other magnates. And it is likely that some or all of their equipment would have been provided by their lord. For example, look at William Marshall who whilst he was born into a privileged family certainly did not have the resources to pay for his own equipment; whilst his climb to become regent was exceptional and he was undoubtedly both exceptionally talented and exceptionally lucky, he would have almost certainly had to rely on being gifted his first destrier.

Yes this is after the Anglo-Saxon era (although right at the beginning of the chivalric era), although there is no reason to suppose that similar arrangements could not also take place in the Anglo-Saxon period. It is simply common-sense – an earl would want to impress his king with the number of followers he could provide, and a well-equipped follower is better than a poorly equipped one.

Onto chivalry itself: It’s a bit of a myth. Knights were generally expected to behave in a certain way with other knights and others of similar or higher rank, but lower ranks? The ordinary people? They were not so lucky; the standard way of making war consisted of sieges of fortified towns (resistance would usually result in extensive looting, killing, and raping of the inhabitants), open battles, and ravaging the landscape – burning crops, buildings, and generally making a nuisance – this later was intended to have an effect on the wealth of the lords of the territory, but the effect on the common people is predictable – death, rape, and impoverishment.

And impoverishment generally led to famine. As an example, during the Thirty Years War, overall 25-40% of the population of German fell victim to famine.  Whilst other wars and battles may not have caused such widespread famines, there was undoubtedly a huge death toll in payment for the entertainment of kings and knights.

And knights did not always act “knightly” towards their high-born prisoners either. Once a king (or other leader in battle) raised the dragon banner, no prisoners were taken including prisoners who would otherwise be worth a considerable amount in ransom.

So the much vaunted “chivalry” was a conditional code of honour that could be discarded according to circumstances.

On the other hand, the myth of chivalry did have some use – it fed the inclination leading to the laws of war and conventions on warfare such as the Geneva Convention(s). If anything the myth was more real than the reality of chivalry.

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