This article discusses the key concepts of knighthood, as described by the Lady of the Lake just before boyhood Lancelot is given knighthood at King Arthur’s court. It also briefly touches upon the relevance of such critical values in the 21st century. Sources for this reading are largely derived from Norris J. Lacy’s Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation: Volume 2.
The knight was the very pillar of the medieval world. By mighty deeds of prowess he upheld law, garnered land and protected the people. He was often a liegeman to a Lord and so protected his Lord in diver’s ways. Knight, or chevalier, closely derives from the french word for horse, cheval, which would refer, in a most basic sense, to one who rode astride a horse. Yet, there was so much more involved in being a knight aside from carrying a spear into battle while on horseback. Knight’s had the ability to avert conflict and gain honor by noble deeds. They were the one’s that determined how conflicts would be solved. The most noble of them could avert harm for thousands and save many from oppression.
The millennium old order goes much deeper than those surface characteristics that appear on the outside. A knight held internal qualities that bolstered his status and reputation: key characteristics of a knight included both those of “the heart” and “the body.” He was “tall and strong and handsome and lithe.” Also, he would embody notions of courtesy, graciousness, compassion and generosity. He would be an “upright judge” without “fear of death”. Most importantly, he was charged with the task of defending the defenseless and guarding the Holy Church. It is a lost concept to the modern day reader that the original soldier defended his faith more than anything, for that was the lifeblood of the community. The knight was both a “lord over his people and a soldier of God”. Therefore, he participated in both worldly affairs and worshipped the divine offices, revering those who practiced the faith and being the key defenders of that institution. This principle concept is much overlooked in many modern studies that attempt to portray knights and utterly fail to be accurate: “Above all, knighthood was established to defend Holy Church, for the church cannot take up arms to avenge herself or return harm for harm.” Knighthood was mainly established to protect and uphold the church, which was the center of medieval society.
There were two important partnerships that the knight developed ardently. On the one hand he was bound to the people, for they supported him in all earthly needs. The people cared for the knight and provided him with all things necessary for him to live nobly. On the other hand, he was tied to the Church, which administered to his spiritual needs and the state of his soul. In exchange, the knight protected both of these important areas of society with force of arms. “Just as the people support him materially and secure for him whatever he needs, so the Holy Church is bound to support him spiritually and, through prayer and alms, secure his everlasting life, so that God may be his savior in the life to come just as he is the defender and protector of the church on earth.” The knight was charged with the duty of protection on two important fronts and thereby symbolized the strong arm of both the church and the people. In a very real sense he embodies both the elements of church and state through his just deeds and prowess.
Furthermore, the good knight is said to have “two hearts”, the one “hard and solid as a diamond” and the other “soft and yielding as hot wax.” The former is “set against the disloyal and the ruthless, for, just as the diamond cannot be reshaped by polishing, the knight must remain pitiless and cruel toward the wicked who abuse and trample on justice as much as they can.” Thus, the knight offers a stern resistance to the defilers of decency and actively upholds the law through force of arms. At the same time his second heart “can be molded and shaped as one likes, people who are good and compassionate should be able to bring out all the graciousness and kindness.” Thereby, the knight is soft and warm to those who are kind and good. He is therefore comprised of both soft and hard elements that make him gracious and courteous, just and strong to those that oppose him. The knight is further characterized as the good judge, and, as such, is belabored with a great responsibility of administering justice, for “a judge damns himself when he saves a guilty man from death and lets him go.” In the same way, the knight is taught to do that which is righteous rather than cruel to protect his soul. The morality behind the Knight is bolstered by a strong faith in God, this is a concrete fact surmised from the order of knighthood. A lack of morality and faith in a knight, who had the most important responsibility of choosing who to protect and not to protect, who to kill and not to kill, could have been fatal. Knight’s were key administrators of justice, for the king was only involved in executive decisions of larger matters. Those who hold power have great responsibility. That is why those who hold power need to have a strong moral foundation. That is why all leaders and people put in positions of responsibility and leadership must be elected by both their merits and faith, for without the one the leader would be sufficiently lacking and unable to properly defend those he pledges to so defend. Failure to uphold justice resulted in two forms of loss. In the first way the knight lost his earthly honor, which diminished his position in this world and resulted in much shame. In the second way, he lost his soul and was eternally damned. Therefore, the knight was obliged to do good because he was steered to it by his heart and for the good of his soul. He feared both shame in this world and the next. His heart was soft when it was not threatened by opponents, and it yielded to the sensibilities of emotion and reason.
An example of a knight who upheld the ideals of the order to the letter was Judas Maccabeus, who staved off the large forces of Syrians and the Seleucid Empire with a small armed force. In a time when the gentiles were destroying Judaism and killing those who practiced it Judas took a confrontational stance, and rose to power after the death of his father. He ardently refused to allow anyone to defile his religion or tell him what he should believe. Indeed, it is to great shame for every knight to be forced to do something against his heart’s intent. He was “ferocious like a lion roaring as it attacks” and he “hunted down those who broke the law.” Eventually he killed Apollonius, the cruel king who tried to destroy the law. Then he killed Seron of Syria, his close ally, even though he was heavily outnumbered. These mighty hosts were swept up by Judas who was a honorable and true knight. Judas fervently believed that he could win even against impossible odds because “victory does not depend on who has the larger army; it is the lords power that determines the outcome.” In this way he destroyed the enemies of God and restored the city of Jerusalem, uniting his people once again. Countless times instances have been recorded where Knight’s, like Judas, fight against un-defeatable odds but do so bravely and boldly, letting the outcome be determined by God. There are a great many instances that it would be too laborious to recount them all, the basis is that a knight found it more agreeable to die than to experience shame and dishonor. King Arthur put it this way (pardon my broken middle english): “I promysed by the feythe of my body to do this batayle to the uttermoste whyle my lyff lastith. And therefore I had levir dye with honour than to lyve with shame; and if hit were possible for me to dye an hondred tymes, I had levir to dye so oufte than yelde me to the.” What would be more to a knight’s shame to be forced out of his land, his faith and his practices? What would be more to a knight’s shame than to be enslaved, oppressed or culturally disinherited? In this way Judas fought against those who attacked him and won, because God was on his side.
Now that we know a little about knighthood, what does a knight do? He carries the helm of protection, the hauberk of guardianship, the shield of righteousness, the sword of obedience, the spear of boldness and the horse of the common will. In this way he spurs off into battle, destroying his foes with mighty blows without fear of death. In his heart he knows that he “has the task of taking vengeance on those who try to shatter human fellowship”. There are those who attack the Holy Church with persecution and derision. These are the foremost enemies of the knight. Secondly, there are those that treat their neighbors with contempt, lie, steal, murder or use deceit and trickery to get what they want. These are also, in the most literal sense, defilers of the Holy Church just the same for they do not abide by the law or the covenant that was written plainly for all to read. Why would a knight- or any modern military force for that matter- be needed if everyone followed the doctrine? It is because people do not follow the law that there is violence and oppression in the world. It is because people do not do what is right and they sin that the world suffers so grievously for it. Thus, in an imperfect world where there is sin, knights will always be needed to protect those who cannot defend themselves against the wicked.
Why were knights created? There was a time in the world when “envy and covetousness began to grow in the world.” As such, this led to a time where “the peaceable could no longer withstand or hold out against the strong, so they established over themselves champions and defenders who would protect them and and uphold justice and drive back the strong who were wronging and oppressing them.” Why does this story, recounted in the 13th century, sound so familiar today? When have the rich disinherited the poor? When have the unjust wronged the just? It seems to be a reoccurring concept, which is precisely why traditional values of knighthood are still relevant today. It was in the absence of law and the derision of inequality that the people realized they needed someone who could protect them from injustice. Sin created a disease in our society that plagued it harshly, for people could no longer live in accord with one another. That disease is still prevalent in todays world. Harsh treatment created anger, envy and rebellion. Governance was essentially fragmented and dissolute. When the great Roman empire lost control the lamp of governance and civility went out and law became absent which thus turned the western world upside down, forcing many to redefine meaning. People had to reinstitute law in a new way, thus the order of knighthood emerged. The knight embodied those ideals of governance and justice that were seemingly lost in the midst of the dark ages.
The most literal form of knighthood seemed to disappear around the time military weapons were developed that made his shining armor pointless. When the cannon and blackpowder was introduced the value of a single protecter was greatly diminished. Yet, just because guns replaced knives, must we also do away with the important ideals which the knight upheld? Faith in God, morality, benevolence and good grace were all exhibited by the knight. Now, more than ever, this is needed in a society where there are nuclear missiles and drone strikes, for the stakes are higher. Today’s soldier is holding even more responsibility in his hands, for he has the power to commit grave catastrophes. Furthermore, today’s soldier is far more disassociated from the violence he does. Pressing a button is not nearly as visual as cutting a man’s head off. Knight’s knew well the violence they caused, making them aware of the importance of peace and accord. That is why they worked so hard to develop a sense of chivalry, so they could prevent death, something they saw so frequently. The wise Arthur says: “had ony of us known othir, here had bene no batayle nether no stroke stryken.” The frailty of the body was a concept they were constantly reminded of when many were killed gruesomely before them. Some modern soldier’s may not even go to a battlefield; he might just press a button to drop a bomb. Of course there are many who take the field today and they should be honored for their service. Yet that man who dropped the bomb never saw the face of the man he killed. He may have even killed a child or woman by accident because he didn’t see them. That is a type of violence I do not condone because it is not controlled and set up for resolution. Violence that is uncontrolled permeates more violence and is not a good problem solving tool. Resolving a social or political issue is more rightly done by force of arms where two willing opponents match up and do it in a controlled way, leaving out civilians.
Let us consider a historical scenario. Japan during World War two refused to surrender to the Allied forces. So, in our grave frustration, we dropped nukes on their major cities, wiping out civilians, women, children, infrastructure and economy. We decimated the people and the nation. This was a blow they could not recover from. Those that proclaim advancement in the 20th and 21st centuries should be scorned, for humanity has greatly digressed when such actions are condoned by a governing body, a body not directed by God’s love nor discerning the important precepts that attest to peace. How many people were killed that day that were entirely innocent? If we are to uphold the value that we ought to treat others the way we would like to be treated, how would sending a nuclear missile upon a population be reflected in that motto?
I do not deny that combat is required to govern the world. Land disputes, internal feuds and for many other countless reasons war must continue. Yet, if battle must happen, let it happen in a controlled way. Get rid of the bombs and nukes. A typical medieval battle would be decided in a pitched battle, where willing combatants were set to jousting and duels to discern who was the more powerful. Many conflicts were averted and thousands were saved because important leaders would choose to fight one on one to resolve the conflict. There are countless examples of this so I will not belabor the point. The major take away is that one on one fights often resolved conflicts and settled suits via a pledge or gauge with terms that were given before hand. Wouldn’t it be a better alternative for one king to fight another to resolve a war? Why should innocent people die? That is why technologic advancement will be our ruin, for people fail to recognize the importance of simple problem solving. The medieval world may have even been better at it.
Traditional values of knighthood are still essential to human society. The soldier, if he bears a weapon, needs to have spiritual edification and proper moral instruction, for that will teach him how to rightly wield his weapon. It is understood that the man who is given great power is also given great responsibility; the morally inept kills innocent people while the conscious one strives to problem solve. As for the regular soldier, you cannot give people weapons without instructing their heart. For if you only tell them to shoot without teaching them why you are only causing more chaos, evil and violence in the world. The one who is given a weapon without proper edification will surely use it to his disadvantage and shame. Knights could not escape the consequences of a misplaced blow or the death of an innocent. Knights were required to uphold ideals of chivalry, and in doing so were able to take on the responsibility of knighthood. They were given a sword and knew why they should use and when they should use it. A knight was devout and the state of his soul was important to him. My challenge to the modern reader is to discern why this is relevant: Is the 21st century soldier concerned with the state of his soul? Is the 21st century soldier taught to uphold justice, protect the dispossessed, and the oppressed?
Meanwhile 21st century weapons present cataclysmic consequences and their introduction into the world, in the name of advancement, will lead only to destruction. Technology has largely disassociated people from their actions and the related consequences. What we do is now further away from conscience and the memory. After all, aren’t we only touching a screen, clicking a mouse, or pressing a button? I would refer you to the book Ender’s Game, where Ender, a young boy genius, is trained in a military-style institute to play a video game. Ender quickly masters the game and “beats all the hardest levels”. Only at the very end does he realize that while he thought he was only playing a harmless video game he was really committing widespread genocide to an entire alien civilization. That is a type of ignorance that’s on a different level, but with technology it is more than possible. Again, the Knight’s were constantly reminded of the effects of the weapon’s they used. They only used them if they had to, and did so in a way that was courteous and just. The knight was far more closely associated with his violent actions. He saw every wound he dealt, and looked every man he killed in the eye. Killing a person in a hand-to-hand combat with a sword is a lot more graphic than pressing a button thousands of miles away.
What kind of weapons are we using in today’s world? Are they truly to humanities benefit and more able to resolve conflict than knightly arms? It seems to me that the dark ages was more the light ages, for they governed more discreetly and guaranteed protection for their people while our own society is in a state of constant fear and threat form chemical attacks and nuclear missiles. Retaining the core values of knighthood is an indispensable start to establishing the most important values of law and order in society, for these values transcend all time and look towards the eternal truths that have always upheld the foundation of mankind. God bless the honorable, just and righteous. Help mankind find solutions to conflict and keep from war. Amen per Dominum- benedicamus Domino!