Key Takeaways
  • A knight in the Middle Ages was a warrior horseman, usually of noble or genteel family, who earned knighthood through years of training.
  • Training for knighthood involved serving as a page and then a squire, learning skills in combat, etiquette and chivalry.
  • Knights participated in tournaments to showcase their battle skills, adhered to a code of conduct called chivalry and inspired literature and legends of chivalrous adventures.

A knight in the Middle Ages was a warrior horseman. A knight was called Sir, and was usually of a noble or a genteel family. Knighthood, however, was not inherited; it had to be earned by many years of training. Besides a sword and a shield, a knight in combat might carry a battle-ax, mace or lance. Early in the Middle Ages his armor consisted of a chain mail tunic and a helmet, but by the end of the Middle Ages the knight was encased in sheet-metal armor from head to foot.

The present-day title of knight is an honor given to persons who have achieved distinction in their work.


Training For Knighthood

When a boy who had been selected to be trained as a knight was seven or eight, his father sent him to live in a castle of a lord, usually a noble to whom the father owned fealty, or allegiance. For seven or eight years, the boy served in a castle as a page. He learned to ride and hunt, and was taught reading, writing and arithmetic. The ladies in the castle instructed him in music and dancing. From the chaplain he took lessons in religion. To learn humility and obedience, he ran errands for the ladies and served at meals.

A page recieves his education.

At the age of 15 or 16 the boy became a squire (from Old French escuier, meaning shield bearer). For five or six years he acted as valet to his lord or knight, whom he called Master. The squire would wait on and serve his master and fight alongside him in battle. The master would train the squire in the arts of warfare. A squire might also learn to train falcons for falconry, a favorite medieval sport, and on winter days might learn the popular court games of chess, checkers and backgammon.


A squire serves his master before becoming a knight.

If a squire was deemed qualified by his master, at the age of 20 or 21 he became a knight in a ceremony of investiture. The ceremony was preceded by a series of solemn rituals, beginning with the bath of purification, symbolic of bathing away sin and worldly pleasures. The squire then fasted for 24 hours, followed by an all-night vigil in which he prayed before an altar. In the morning he dressed in his armor and, in the ceremony, received a symbolic blow from his master, who would strike him lightly on the neck or shoulder with the flat of a sword. At the stroke, the master would declare, "In the name of God I dub thee knight."

A worthy squire becomes a knight.

Knighthood could also be conferred on the battlefield. When a squire showed unusual valor on the field, his lord could hit him lightly with his sword or the palm of his hand and dub him knight.



A tournament, or tourney, was a competition in the use of battle skills. The earliest ones were arranged by knights during times of peace as a means of keeping war-ready and fending off boredom. Tournaments at first differed little from actual battles. The knights would form into two groups and charge each other in a free-for-all combat. Competitors used blunted weapons, and safety zones were roped off where knights could put on or repair their armor. Captured knights had to pay ransom to secure their freedom.

Despite the safety measures, men were often killed in tournaments. Church officials, who looked at the tournaments as homicides being committed for sport, forced the knights to modify the tournaments. By the 12th century the mass battle of the knights, which came to be called the melee, was preceded by a series of more controlled single combats called jousts, or tilts. In a joust, two armored knights spurred their horses into a headlong charge, trying to knock each other from the saddle with their heavy lances. The knight who fell was hors de combat (out of combat).


In time the melee was eliminated. The tourney became an elaborate festival filled with pageantry, where nobles and their ladies would come from great distances to share in the spectacle. Trumpets sounded by heralds opened the tournament, which was held in the lists (exhibition field). Each knight brought his retinue of servants, who set up his pavilion, or tent, hoisted his banner, and displayed his shield. The shield bore the heraldic symbols that identified the knight.


By the 11th century, a code of conduct for knights called chivalry had evolved. It was based on a combination of military ideals, Christian values and etiquette. (The word comes from the French cheval, meaning horse.) Chivalry required a knight to be bold, gallant, loyal, generous to a fallen foe and reverent to God. A knight was supposed to protect the weak and respect women.

In practice, few knights lived up to the ideals of chivalry. Most knights paid little heed to the code when dealing with serfs and other persons not of noble birth, who were often victims of theft, brutality, and rape by knights. When dealing with noblemen and other knights, however, a knight generally abided by the standards required of chivalry.


The lives of the knights inspired a whole body of literature relating to chivalry. The literature included poems of courtly love written in France by minstrels (known as troubadours in southern France and trouvres in northern France). The literature also included many chansons de geste (songs of heroic actions), such as Chanson de Roland.

Minstrels would often tell romantic and heroic stories of the knight errant (from Old French errer, to travel), who rode through the land seeking chivalrous adventure, defending merchants from robbers, rescuing fair ladies, and helping the oppressed. Tales of the legendary or semilegendary past were popular, especially those relating to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Chivalry reached its height in the 12th and 13th centuries. It became so elaborate and artificial that it was open to ridicule. Cervantes satirized its exaggerations in "Don Quixote."


History of Knights

The knight emerged in Europe in the 9th century, when central governments were weak and there was little protection from bandits, sea raiders and neighboring lords set on plunder. Each village, city or monastery required protection by armed men. The most effective warriors in that period were armored cavalrymen. The introduction of the stirrup into Western Europe in the 8th century had made it possible for cavalrymen to use their weapons with tremendous striking force. The armor of the period — a chain mail tunic and conical helmet with nose guard — made the cavalryman even more formidable.

Nobles vied for the service of these warriors and provided them with grants of land. By the 11th century the English were using the term knight for the armored cavalryman. In France a knight was a chevalier; in Spain, a caballero, from the Spanish caballo, horse; in Germany and Austria, ritter, from German ritt, ride.


In the 12th century the adoption of the longbow in England and the crossbow in the rest of Europe — both powerful weapons that shot missiles that easily penetrated chain mail — threatened the supremacy of the knight. In the 13th century knights began wearing plate armor in combination with chain mail. The amount and thickness of the armor was gradually increased as crossbows and longbows increased in effectiveness; by the 15th century a knight was completely encased. The knight was helpless on foot and when mounted could only move ponderously.

The Battle of Crcy (1346), during the Hundred Years' War fought between France and England, was a turning point in the use of knights in warfare. The English infantry, armed with longbows, easily defeated a French cavalry force three times its size, massacring 1,500 knights and nobles.

In the 14th century the use of infantrymen armed with pikes and fighting in close formation doomed the knight. Swiss pikemen spectacularly demonstrated their effectiveness when, in a series of battles during against Charles the Rash of Burgundy, they destroyed every heavy cavalry force sent against them. Shoulder-fired guns by the middle of the 15th century added to the effectiveness of the infantry.

By the end of the 15th century, countries established professional armies of infantrymen, rendering the knight obsolete.


Frequently Asked Questions

What was the role of women in the training and support of knights?
Women in noble households often played key roles in educating young pages in etiquette, music and sometimes basic academics, contributing to their overall training.
How did knights contribute to the cultural and political landscape beyond their military duties?
Knights often held significant political power, served as local leaders and were patrons of arts and literature, influencing cultural and societal norms of their time.