Book Review, Castle Anthrax, Chivalry, Chivalry is NOT a thing, Crusades, Edgar Allen Poe, Feudalism, Feudalism is also NOT a thing, Frances Gies, Gauntlets, Heinrich Brunner, history, Illuminated Manuscripts, Knight Armor, Knights, Literature, Medieval Europe, Medieval Knights, Origins of Knighthood, Peace of God, Rome, Stronghold Crusader, T.H. White, The Knight in History, The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, Women are like OBSESSED with Edgar Allen Poe...Yo
A young teenage boy receiving a copy of The Once and Future King that his mom picked up at a garage sale feels more like the start of a really underrated and under-appreciated straight-to-VHS movie that came out during the 1980s rather than the impetus which eventually helped me write my second novel. I can only assume that this means the next time I go to Half Price books I’ll stumble on a film with that exact premise and discover that it’s been established as a “cult classic” and also discover that I lost out on millions in rerun revenues.
But, such is life.
While I detest Disney as a corporation, as well as a force which is steadily deteriorating the movie industry, I will never apologize for loving The Sword in the Stone. It was a film I watched endlessly as a kid, largely because I loved that it had knights, dragons, a talking owl, and a funny old man who frequently lost his temper and yelled at squirrels. I didn’t appreciate at the time that the film was actually based upon T.H. White’s book The Once and Future King until I was well in High school, and even then it took me until age 19 to actually sit down and read the book. I’ll admit freely that I actually started on The Book of Merlyn, the “sequel/alternative ending” before the actual book. And I’ll also admit, I only read it to impress a girl. On a side note, I’ve discovered because of this that few women are actually impressed by a boy reading a book of re-imagined Arthurian Romances and so I would advise the next generation of young men to read the collected works of Poe instead. If there’s one thing women love, it’s Edgar Allen Poe.
The Once and Future King, while largely re-imagined for a 20th century audience, is a wonderful addition to the great body of Arthurian romances (romances FYI, being the fancy-pants term for stories about knights) and inspired to pick up other books about Knights and the Medieval Period in Europe which eventually led me to discovering The Knight in History by Frances Gies in the Medieval Europe section of Half Price Books.
It was a quick read, with dozens of images scattered throughout the work and a careful historical analysis which, at the time, often went over my head. And I admit, there were plenty of facts I simply passed over in favor of learning more about the romantic image of knights. It might have been because I was young, or because I was playing hour after hour of Stronghold Crusader at the time, but I wanted to dig into the idea of Knights, rather than the complicated reality of them.
Gies book sat on my shelf for close to an actual decade before I picked it up again, and having recently finished the book now for the second time as I begin auditing a graduate-level history course about Medieval European Aristocracy, it seemed it warranted a second look.
The Knight in History is everything that the title suggests it is, simply a history of the Knight, specifically the armor-clad military unit specific to the Medieval European period. This would seem at first glance to be a simple project, but as Gies explains to her reader, this figure is one which has been buried beneath mountains of speculation, discourse, and confusion largely due to popular media and also because what we know about the Knight is often either incorrect or else not well founded. She notes this in the first chapter:
Scholarly controversy still could the emergence of the Medieval knight. Records before the critical period are scarce, and semantic problems—the relationship between late-Roman terms for certain kinds of soldiers and Latin terms used in the Early Middle Ages—compound the difficulty. Terms used for social classes in the time of Charlemagne and those of the eleventh century are equally ambiguous. The prejudices of early modern historians also inhibited understanding. In the nineteenth century, when feudal society was regarded as backward, barbaric, and chaotic, a school of German scholars headed by Heinrich Brunner attempted to prove that feudalism had originated not in Ancient German tribal custom but in eighth-century France. (8).
Gies goes on the next page noting:
Recent scholarship has favored a more complex picture of the origins of Knights, medieval nobility, and feudalism. Most historians now do not believe the knights originated in the eighth century, or that they were the founders of either the nobility of feudalism. The consensus is rather that there was a genuine nobility of blood and birth in the time of Charlemagne and his successors, but that its origins lay not in a class of mounted warriors recently raised from obscurity but in the old Frankish aristocracy. (9).
The history of the knight, as Gies demonstrates here, is complex narrative due mostly to the fact that perceptions have clouded by bias and romanticism. Having already begun to read more books about the Medieval period it’s become clear to me that numerous Victorian and Enlightenment-era thinkers are largely to blame for the perception of the Medieval period as a “Dark Age.” And along with this, there is the complicated affair of the implosion of the Roman Empire.
Like many I was educated about the “Fall of Rome,” and the language of this event reveals everything. My understanding, and my education were that Rome as an institution “fell” rather than steadily crumbled, and that once the barbarian tribes sacked Rome twice, the empire virtually fell apart and Europe was nothing but a dark and chaotic mess of violence, rape, murder, and mayhem where dogs and cats got married and fleas traveled to Mars. Shit was crazy yo, and out of this slough of despond and mania emerged the figure of the Knight, the King, and the landed gentry. But, as so often is the case, this image was ultimately incorrect. Rome did “fall,” but it largely fell inward as the expansion of the Empire waned, bureaucracy began to decline creating power vacuums, and centralized authority began to disappear leaving many territories to run themselves which helped establish local leaders and the system that many know as feudalism.
Which is technically no longer in use, but I’ll save that for a later essay.
This is a simple history of the “Fall of Rome,” which from here on out I’m going to try to avoid using, but it’s a necessary one because hopefully the reader is able to observe that Gies is trying to create a real history of the Knight rather than just repeating his “greatest hits.” Granted I loved “Getting Jiggy with it in Jerusalem” as much as the next 90s kid, but the fact of the matter is the Knight did not just appear. And one of the ways Gies demonstrates this is describing the early armor of Knights. She notes:
The knight’s armor in this early period, and for a long time after, consisted exclusively of a helmet and hauberk or body armor. The helmet was solid iron, canonical or round. The hauberk was of chain mail, fabricated principally by a time-consuming hand process in which wire was wound around a Tod in a helical coil and then cut entirely down one side of the rod, producing a number of open rings. The two ends of each ring were annealed and hammered flat, and the hauberk, in for of a shirt or coat, was fashioned by linking the rings and closing them by overlapping and riveting the flattened ends. (15).
Most readers probably had this image in their mind already (though some might be wondering where the iconic cross was, be patient damn it…I’m sorry for yelling), but what I like about Gies’s book is how she balances historical perspective of the Knight alongside actual historical reality. This description of the Knight’s armaments and armor demonstrates a change took place over time because while most of these elements are now part of the standard physical description of the knights, it is also an early uniform that would change as the knight became a more notable military unit.
Gies actually notes the change in a Knight’s uniform in several passages throughout the book giving the reader an idea of how armor changed and how a Knight’s assemblage altered as his role and function in society changed:
Arming either four tournament or battle, a well-equipped knight of the 1340s would have first donned a close-fitting shirt, short breeches, and hose. Over these would go mail leggings, heavy quilted thigh protectors (gamboised cuisses) with knee plates attached, greaves for the shins, and iron shoes (sabatons). Next he put on the heavy fabric acton, over which went his hauberk with shoulder and elbow plates attached, and his coat of plates. The surcoat went over everything. A narrow belt circling the waist; the broader sword belt hung more loosely around the hips. Gauntlets of iron plates riveted to layers of fabric, thinned to coppered against rusting, were drawn over the hands. A new rounded or conical helmet (basinet) had a visor to protect the face. Its crown was lined with leather pulled together at the top by a cord; when it was placed on his head, the knight was ready for combat. The shield had diminished in size, becoming a downward-pointing triangle with curved sides, but it was still considered indispensable. (143-4).
Gies’s book begins with this early vision of the Knight, follows him through the Crusades, establishes the tradition of Troubadour poetry which turn establishes Knights in literature, she discusses the Templar order and other similar orders of knights, and then spends several chapters discussing individual knights like William Marshall or Bertrand Du Guesclin in order to contextualize how these men helped establish the figure of the Knight before the figure eventually faded away into the symbolic title rather than a functioning military unit. Gies’s book is not a transitionary history in the sense that she’s following a period of change, but rather she’s trying to demonstrate to her reader how change affected one aspect of the Medieval period and how it has impacted the larger society. Such a history is important and relevant because, as I explained before with my own experience, Knights continue to inspire artists and readers the world over.
A knight has become a sort of ideal to many readers, an example of nobility or virtue when in fact this was anything but the case.
Gies explains this on just another page:
In his person, the real-life knight of the tenth century had little in common with the courtly heroes of the Round Table. Ignorant and unlettered, rough in speech and manners, he earned his living largely by violence, uncontrolled by a public justice that had virtually disappeared. Civil disputes and criminal cases alike had ceased to be adjudicated by the enfeebled royal power and instead were settled by the sword. (17)
For the reason, an early ideology and a pseudo-precursor to chivalry was established titled The “Peace of God” which helped curb the violent liberty-taking of Knights.
At this point however my contester emerges with an ever poignant question. So what? Why should I care about a Medieval military unit that involved armor and swords and shields and shit? I barely have time to catch a few minutes of Netflix before I have to put the kids to bed before I have to do the dishes, do my taxes, change the oil in my car, and before I have to load the car up to recycle after work tomorrow. Why should I give three fucks about knights?
As always my contester has a fair argument. From afar The Knight in History doesn’t appear to have much “real-world relevance” to the casual reader. Unless one has an interest in Knights and castles and history period, Gies’s book probably isn’t going to offer much to the reader who is simply looking to be entertained. As I wrote before though, in my essay about 1453, I’ve become more aware of the fact that I want to enjoy reading and writing and podcasting about history because I like it. Gies’s book is a chance to nerd-out and learn more about a topic that I’ve always been aware of but never truly dug too much into despite the near-constant presence of knights in my life.
Though reflecting that way might offer a more satisfying answer. Knights are figures who embody a special place in the culture. For many they’re paragons, examples of virtue and nobility in a world that is often defined as a “dark age,” and as society has continued and developed the Knight’s heraldry and armor has persisting becoming whatever we need it to be. Whether it’s fantasy games like Skyrim, novels like The Once and Future King, or films like The Sword in the Stone or that god-awful Clive Owen King Arthur movie readers and viewers have continually gravitated to the imagery of Knights because it provided some idea that inspired. A book like The Knight in History is relevant then because it takes an honest look at the way knights lived and existed.
Gies’s closing passage gives the reader a good summation of her closing argument:
Of the three elements of chivalry, the military, the courtly, and the religious, the medieval knight found the first the easiest to practice. Many successfully imitated the heroes of the chansons de geste in their loyalty and courage, and too many in their rashness and vainglory. The second element, the courtesy, and liberality of the troubadour tradition, also fitted broadly into knightly life-style, though real-life behavior toward women often fell short of the prescribed ideal. It was the third set of virtues, set forth in the codes of chivalry and celebrated in the Arthurian romances, that was the most neglected. Knights fought for profit and killed without mercy, robbed those whom they should have defended, and violated those whom they should have respected.
Many Medieval knights were Rolands, few were Galahads. (207).
I feel like I’ve done a disservice to Gies’s book because this review has discussed more the perception of knights than some of the actual history itself. Gies’s book isn’t perfect and in fact, I do have some issues with the way the book is written and the language that it employs. It’s difficult to really find a thesis in this text at times, and apart from the fact that the knight changed over time I’m not really sure that she has one. The Knight in History feels very much like an observational book; it’s an opportunity to just observe the changes that took place in the Knight over the course of the centuries. But, in fairness, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Assassin’s Creed franchise offered many beautiful moments of reflection, but one of the best moments of the franchise was in Brotherhood when Desmond is talking with Shawn about the Italian village of Monteriggioni and how it hadn’t changed much. To this Shawn had a beautiful response, “That’s the point, history is the study of change. If things don’t change it means they’re static, it means they’re dead.” While there are some exceptions in this life, change is natural because the state of nature and human culture follows this structure. The Knights began as cavalry units of the remnant of the Roman military structure, and over the course of several centuries they eventually became part of the nobility after becoming vassals of the previous nobility.
The Knight in History is an important book because it’s one that observes how such a change took place, and what forces in the culture allowed this change to take place. It may not have any sort of immediate “real-world-relevance,” but upon a closer examination, Gies’s book has an important message about how structures in society can be altered by culture, economics, and shifting political structures. Gies’s book isn’t perfect, but it is still a fascinating observation nonetheless.
I suppose all that’s really left to observe is her final statement is true. Not many knights were Galahads when all is said and done, but that might just have been because they didn’t have any Lancelots saving them from the endless spankings and oral sex of the Castle Anthrax. Such is life I suppose.
All quotes cited from The Knight in History were provided care of the paperback Perennial Library edition.
Almost the entirety of the YouTube Channel Shadiversity is dedicated to Knights, castles, dragons, swords, and armor, and so honestly the reader could go to ANY video in Shad’s entire video series (I’m partial to his series about the forging process of the Katana). But looking through them specifically about Knights I found this gem which is about the inaccuracies about the perceptions of Knights and the realities of who knights were and what Chivalry actually was. I would definitely check this dude out and not just because I’m a patron of his on Patreon. Seriously, check him out he’s awesome.
And because I am a shameless fanboy, Shad and Blue did a video together about the Normans which explored briefly knights and their early use in combat. I’d highly recommend it:
If the reader would be interested in Frances Gies’s books I’ve found her author page on Harper Collins’s webpage. You can follow the link below:
I just wanted to add one more link, or two, about the “fall of Rome” narrative, because it really is worth talking about. Narratives drive our culture and society and it bothers me when a mass rhetoric founded on nothing but bullshit is allowed to proliferate. So, I wanted to post two links here as a starting point for future discussions about how Rome did not “Fall,” or at least not over-night. Like any complex entity, Rome was a vast network and what many people consider to be Rome was only the Western Empire, the East Empire, which began after the Great Schism of the Catholic Church in 1095 considered themselves and continued to do so until Mehmet II sacked Constantinople in 1453. That was the last “Fall” of Rome, but that isn’t a convent narrative. History is complicated and so it’s important that, when we talk about it we understand how complicated it is.
So, yeah, Rome fell, but not in the way many people believe. Below are two small pieces about the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Hope they inspire you to dig a little deeper than some shitty “history” book “written” by Bill O’Reilly.
This Reddit feed actually provides a far, FAR MORE NUANCED perspective. Definitely check this one out:
Let the record reflect that I wrote and published an entire essay about Knights without making a single Kingdom of Heaven reference. Not one. And this one doesn’t count…it doesn’t…aw crap it does.