Whenever we talk about a medieval knight our reveries cling on to the resplendent image of a chivalrous warrior incredibly armored from head to toe, while being mounted atop a great warhorse. Now while reality is not far from this imagery, there was historically more to the scope of knighthood than just mowing down the ‘lesser’ infantrymen in battlefields of the middle ages. In fact, the very term ‘medieval knight’ is a pretty generic one, and their roles across the realms and fiefs of Europe differed considerably, especially when it came to administrative and land-holding side of affairs. In essence, the role of a knight extended far beyond the battlefield, and ranged into seemingly mundane avenues like petty judges, political advisers to even glorified farmers (at least in the initial years of 11th century). Obviously in this article, we will cover the martial ambit of these warriors/social elites, and thus by ‘medieval knight’ we would denote the European knights of the middle ages who shared overlapping attributes in (mostly) military affairs.
1) Harking back to the Romans
Now the knight of the 12th century was naturally not a unique creation of that particular period, but he was rather a result of centuries of influence and evolution that marked the social and military changes in Europe and even Asia. To that end, the ordo (or order) of knights harks back to a period which was far older than the established clergy of middle ages. In fact, as Robert Jones points out (in his book Knight the Warrior and World of Chivalry) there were many parallels between the so-called knightly class and the Roman ‘equestrian’ class, with their social status being equated to fighting on horses, their hierarchy within the society as political elites, and their capacity to produce leaders and ‘officers’ for the respective contemporary forces.
But of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Roman equestrian plainly evolved into the medieval knight – as such a scope would be oversimplification. So while some nascent aspects of knighthood were possibly influenced (in a latent manner) by the Romans, there were also differences between the two, especially in combat and military affairs. For example, while the equestrians mainly offered leadership roles in battlefields, the medieval knights also bore the brunt of fighting. Simply put, the Roman social elites were militarily supported by disciplined and paid infantry forces – and thus battle results were mostly dictated by such professional legionaries (as opposed to cavalry). In contrast, the medieval knight was the dominant force in the European battlefield roughly from 11th century to 15th century, and thus both battle results and societal changes were dictated by their rising power and martial prowess. In that regard, it is rather interesting to know that the feudal structure of then-contemporary Europe mirrored the Persian empire of the Achaemenids in their later ages.