Friday, 21 January 2011

Some Random Thoughts on Knights

Knights, we've all written them at one time or another. They're the idiots in the tin cans who come in to rescue people from that dragon you've left lying around. Yet how much do we actually think about what we're doing with them? Some thoughts:

  • The word Knight probably comes from an Anglo Saxon word, the closest Latin being of course 'miles'
  • There's a lot of nonsense written about how this sort of heavy cavalry only became possible with the invention of the stirrup after the fall of Rome. However, experimental archeaology based on remains of Roman saddles have shown that these offered plenty of support for a charge, so the fact that you didn't get Roman 'knights' is probably more down to social considerations.
  • Knights are generally posh in stories. This is good if you want to give them that English public school edge (as Tom Holt does in Grailblazers) but you don't have to. Although the higher orders of society in the Middle Ages came to be quite proud of their martial prowess, just being a knight doesn't convey any particularly high social status.
  • The notion of chivalry is a bit hit and miss. For the first few centuries of their existance, the 'chevalerie' were just those blokes who went around fighting on horseback, and it didn't say much about the way they were supposed to behave.
  • Those full plate combinations that they always wear in pictures are generally quite late. This does not have to be a bad thing, because it allows for jokes about knitting chainmail.
  • Medieval writing that features knights tends not to care about them so much as their stuff. The writers were obsessed about naming every sword, telling the reader where they got their armour, and describing what sort of horse they rode. It's a bit like James Bond and assorted gadgets, where they end up taking over the story.
  • Medieval fight scenes. Bloke bashes other bloke repeatedly, while getting bashed in return. Although assorted fight books (notably the Fiore dei Liberi and Talhoffer ones) show that there was a lot of skill in medieval fighting techniques (although very few parries. They seemed to prefer counter cuts) the fiction invariably shows the combatants knocking lumps off one another with sheer strength. Literally. They didn't shy away from things like lost ears.
  • Talking of strength, the modern perception is that all these people from the past must have been tiny. Knights were generally the best fed and most exercised of society though, and some of them were big. William Marshall (the tournament knight, royal household member and occasional regent) was a notable example at 6"4".
  • For some non-Arthurian approaches to the medieval knight see Raoul de Cambrai or The Song of Roland.


Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

Interesting post. I write, among other things, medieval fantasy romance. I like the era, but I don't want to bound by non-stop research and....I like things like special powers, spells and incantations and creatures other than humans. I have the odd sword fight - my princess weilds a pretty good one - I can only hope my descriptions are passable.

Donna Hole said...

Very interesting reading. I never thought of a knight as small though. I always figured they'd have to be pretty big and powerful to wear all the armor.