The Origins Of The Knight

The medieval knight is generally perceived as an armed and mounted warrior who was bound by the codes of chivalry. The close association of the knight and his horse is clearly shown by the titles by which we was known throughout Europe; in France he was a 'Chevalier', in Italy a 'Cavalier', in Spain a 'Caballero', and in Germany a 'Ritter', from the word meaning 'to ride'. Even the name for the code by which the knight was later bound, 'Chivalry', derives from the French 'Cheval'. It is only in England that the word 'Knight' has no direct association with the horse. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon word 'Cniht', meaning household retainer or servant and it is not until the 12th Century that knighthood and chivalry become inextricably associated with gentle birth.
From the earliest civilized times the mounted warrior, whether in a chariot or upon horseback, had a pre-eminent social position. The effect of the mounted man was so great upon societies which knew nothing of the horse that he gave rise to legendary creatures such as the Centaur of ancient Greece. The very cost of keeping, breeding and training war horses meant that for the most part mounted warriors were drawn from the highest strata of society. In the classical civilizations of both Greece and Rome the 'hippeus' and 'equites' formed a distinct social class which was between highest aristocracy and the citizen body in general, although the military systems of the great Mediterranean civilizations, especially those of Greece and Rome, were based primarily upon the infantryman.
According to Polybius, the 2nd Century BC historian, the Romans adopted the equipment and tactical deployment of armored cavalry from the Hellenistic Greeks, substituting long spears instead of javelins.By the 4th Century AD the Roman army had developed heavily armored cavalry, riding armored horses, known as "Cataphractarii". These costly and elite units did not survive the break-up of the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th Centuries but by that time they had made a distinct impression upon their opponents.
As a rule the Germanic invaders of the Western Empire fought on foot without armor, traditionally each ruler was surrounded by a body of selected warriors, usually about 300 in number. These warriors were bound by kinship, honor and reward. Men gave their loyalty to death and beyond - if their Chieftain was killed in battle, their duty was to avenge him or die in the attempt. This philosophy is best illustrated in the epic "Beowulf" among others. The knight was to evolve from the welding of these two traditions.
In the 7th Century AD the only people in Western Europe to use the horse extensively in battle were the Lombards. These people swept into Eastern Europe and then into Italy where they established the Kingdom of Lombardy. They proved an extremely dangerous enemy as is amply attested by contemporary Byzantine historians. The Frankish army of Charles Martel which defeated the Saracens so convincingly at Poitiers in 733 AD was comprised almost entirely of infantry based around an elite group of armor-clad troops.
The earliest contenders for the title of knight are the Paladins of Charlemagne's Court who held the Latin title 'eques'. These were armored horsemen who served the Emperor in his Frankish realm. Paladins were equipped in what is basically a debased form of late Roman armor. They wore round or conical helmets, popularly known as the "Spangenhelm". On their bodies they wore either mail brinnies or hauberks, scale shirts or more. Charlemagne's accession in 742 AD marked a radical change in warfare in Europe. He concentrated the focus of his financial resevres to producing armor and weapons and introduced a series of laws requiring landowners to supply at least one cavalryman equipped with a sword, shield, lance, dagger and helmet.
The 8th and 9th Centuries saw dramatic changes in weapons, armor and the tactical employment of the mounted horseman. The knight's equipment of the 10th Cenutry was very influenced by the Vikings. The principle weapons became the sword, axe and spear. The Vikings ascribed names and properties to their weapons and the almost religious veneration which with the sword came to be regarded at this time may have been the result of Viking influence. It is possibly the time, labor and money needed to produce a pattern-welded sword that gave it this position.
William of Normandy was the first to meld all of the previous developments of the knight into a solid, tangible fighting force and with it, the knight had evolved into the classical figure we know from history. With his knights, William of Normandy set out in the 10th Century to conquer England.
By the 10th Century the main characteristics of the Medieval knight had evolved. He was a mounted warrior with rank and authority and his position and relationship to others was clearly defined. The duties and service he owed to those of a higher social rank were minutely laid down by the feudal system as were the duties and service owed to him by his inferiors; and by the strength of his arm and his courage he might rise into the ranks of aristocracy. His social prestige was further enhanced by the fact that all noblemen, no matter what their rank, were knights and knightly warfare became the monopoly of the aristocratic caste.
The necessary curbs on the behavior of one knight to another were formalized early into the code of chivalry. This governed the conduct of those of knightly rank to their peers but apart from religious injunctions about mercy to the weak and charity to the poor, it did not extend to other classes.
At first knighthood could be granted by another knight but slowly this became the decision of the monarch alone and became increasingly enshrined in religious ceremony. Without his knights a ruler was unable to enforce his will. The knight's rank, status and wealth depended on the size of his fifedom. As land became gradually scarcer within the kingdoms of Western Europe, the only way a knight could win greater wealth and position was by marriage or by hiring himself out as a mercenary or as part of a freelance. It was by the promise of fifedoms to his own vassals as well as to mercenaries that William of Normandy raised the army with which he conquered England.