Tempation of Sir Percival by Arthur Hacker

Chivalry and the Church

In the days of the Roman Empire, the Christian Church had adopted a pacifist stance in face of aggression, but during the centuries which followed, Christendom was increasingly compelled to defend itself with the very weapons used against it. The rise of Islam in the East during the seventh century, a religion which ruled by the sword, marked the first real turning point in the Church's attitude to war. As the city of Jerusalem fell and Christians suffered the most appalling persecution, churchmen began to re-examine their views. In Europe, ecclesiastical authority was at an all-time low and the Church was spared none of the violence of secular warfare. Monasteries and churches suffered repeated looting and destruction, monks were put to death and nuns were burned in their convents. By the end of the eleventh century, the Byzantine Empire was seriously weakened and much of its former domains in Asia Minor was in the hands of the aggressive and intolerant Seljuk Turks. Christianity had entirely reversed its attitude to force, and sought to mobilize itself militarily as fast as possible.

Mindful of her interests both at home and abroad, the Church saw that she could use the feudal 'knight' to her advantage: these undisciplined, hot-tempered military men could satisfy their great thirst for war and adventure while saving Christiandom from extinction. A Crusade to the Holy Land would join them together in meaningful enterprise. They would serve as the champions of a new Christian chivalry, they would 'ride together redressing human wrongs', they would sacrifice themselves to a noble ideal of service for the glory of God.

The Crusades

The first Crusade was proclaimed in 1095 by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in France. 'A people without God,' he exclaimed, 'the son of the Egyptian slave, occupies by force the cradle of our salvation, the country of our Lord.' Every person of noble birth, it was urged, should take a solemn oath before a bishop that he would 'defend to the uttermost the oppressed, the widow and the orphan.'

Although it remained a sin to kill Christians, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land involving the slaughter of the 'Saracen infidels' who attacked Christ's sacred tomb would be quite acceptable in the sight of God. As a reward for this great work, knights would receive plenary indulgence upon their return to Europe. Peter the Hermit's passionate preaching boosted the cause. His fiery enthusiasm urged hordes of followers, not just the nobility, to unite in a common bond of knighthood against the foe, and to recover from the hands of disbeleivers so many object dear to the souls of the faithful.

The People's Crusade

The First Crusade, which became known as the People's Crusade, was not quite what the Pope had forseen. The call to arms was taken up by a far greater portion of the peasantry than the Church would have liked. Full of savage passion and ignorant faith, the undisciplined rabble marched eastwards, massacring Jews in the Rhineland, attacking and pillaging Hungary and Bulgaria until, finally, they were ambushed and slaughtered themselves by the Turks in Asia Minor.

Christian chivalry was yet in its infancy, but slowly, through the Church's refusal to abandon its crusading ideal, it began to assume a more definite aspect, and by the time the official army of the First Crusade travelled to Constantinople the following year, the nobility rather than the peasantry dominated the ranks. For now, as the century drew to a close, it was the custom for every noble father to educate his son in the orders of knighthood. The Crusades continued and the great Crusading Orders were established, the Hospitallers, the Templars and the Teutonic Knights. By the early twelfth century, the Church had begun to take control of the ceremony of knightly investiture. Religion had succeeded in consecrating knighthood to that most lordly vocation every young man of gentle birth longed to follow.

The Knight's Education

A boy with ambitions to be a knight had to undergo a thorough training which usually began at the age of seven. Parental tenderness was judged an obstacle to his education, and so the child was taken from his home and placed in the service of a neighboring lord, himself a fully-fledged knight. Here, in the pursuit of chivalric honors, the boy took up his office as page. He was taught implicit obedience to the wishes of his lord and lady. He served them at table, he learned to ride, and he accompanied his lord on various excursions. It was left to the lady of the manor to develope the gentler aspects of the boy's character. She schooled him in the basic rules of chivalry, discussed love and religion with him and supervised his musical training.

At the age of fourteen, the page was usually promoted to the higher grade of squire. During a religious ceremony, he exchanged his dagger for a manly sword and received moral instruction on its correct usage. His duties were far more varied and challenging. He became proficient in the use of sword, lance and battle axe.

He took care of his lord's armor, followed him to war, supplied him with fresh arms, dragged his body from the battlefield if he fell, and buried him if he were killed.

At the age of twenty-one, if he had served his lord well, the squire was judged eligible to receive the honor of knighthood. Many squires, however, remained devoted to their lords an entire lifetime.

Ceremony of Knighthood

That a knight's sword should uphold the dignity of the Church was central to the notion of Christian chivalry and it was considered only proper that the ceremony which elevated him from the position of squire should be rich in religious symbolism. The young man was expected to fast the day before his initiation and to spend the night in prayer. On the following morning, he was stripped of his clothing and taken to a bath which was representative of his purification. He was then dressed in a red robe (emblematic of the blood to be shed in the course of duty), and over this robe was placed a black doublet, symbol of his mortality and that of all mankind.

After the high mass had been chanted the young aspirant approached the altar and handed his sword to the bishop or priest. It was laid upon the altar and blessed with the clergyman's prayer: 'Hear, God, we beseech thee, our prayer, and, with the right hand of thy majesty, deign to bless this sword, wherewith thy servant desires to be girded, that it may be the defence and protection of churches, of widows, orphans, and all who serve God, against the cruelty of Pagans; and that it may be powerful, and a fear and terror to all deceivers, through Jesus Christ.'

The religious part of the ceremony having been completed, the candidate was led before the lord who intended to knight him. Once he had given a satifactory response to the questions which challenged his motives in demanding the honor of chivalry, he was granted his knighthood.


From the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries tournaments were held regularly and played an important part in the training of young men. Every nobleman was expected to take part and, in spite of resolute opposition from the Church, due to the high death toll of participants, the popularity of tournaments was overwhelming. Etiquette was rigid and many rules were modelled on romantic fiction of the day: a knight would joust for the love of his lady, often to the death. Winners gained great honor, as well as riches, and before long regular rounds of tournaments began to take place throughout Europe, with reigning stars who competed habitually.

Obstensibly a form of entertainment, tournaments were very useful training for battle strategies, resulting in highly skilled warriors for the crusades.

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Aaron Neilson
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