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History of Knights
Attention: This page contains brief information about Knights. For a more detailed description of Knights click on the links below in the references section of this page
In order to get a better understanding of Knights I think we should start with terminology.
Basically, a knight was a professional soldier. The old "citizens' armies" of Antiquity had been replaced by professional armies. This trend was reinforced by the appearance in the 8th century of the stirrup, which made mounted men much more powerful and turned cavalry into the most important element of medieval armies. But being a mounted soldier was expensive, since it required enough income to buy and sustain a horse and the equipment (armor, weapons) to go with it. Thus, those who were too poor to provide this service became mere peasants, attached to the land.
In the 10th century a feudal society emerged where everyone who held land from someone else held it in exchange for goods or services of some kind. The men who were free provided military service for either personal or for others' services (proving they were rich enough). However, the men who were not free provided a portion of their crops and labor services. Also, if a man held his estate in knight's fee he would owe his service as a knight to his lord. When a liege would call a more sizeable vassal he would summon his knights and form a contingent in his liege's army.
Knight is the English term for a social position originating in the Middle Ages. The Latin term in the Middle Ages was miles, since a knight was by definition a professional soldier. In modern times, the Classical Latin term eques was preferred. In the Commonwealth of Nations, knighthood is a non-heritable form of gentry. Elsewhere, the Spanish Caballero (related to "chivalry"), the Italian Cavaliere, the German translation for "knight" is Ritter (related to the English word "Rider" and the Swedish word Riddare), or the Polish Kawaler (for Modern Era knighthoods or Rycerz for medieval knighthoods) are commonly used in Continental Europe. However, outside the British Commonwealth, the title of knighthood is respected but may not be as significant. Consequently, for example, this could effect if the title may or may not appear in mass media or other publications
The terms "knighthood" and "chivalry" are often confused, and often needlessly distinguished. The term knighthood comes from the English word knight (from Old English cniht, boy, servant, cf. German Knecht) while the term chivalry comes from the French chevalerie, from chevalier or knight (Low Latin caballus for horse). In modern English, chivalry means the ideals, virtues, or characteristics of knights. The phrases "orders of knighthood" and "orders of chivalry" are essentially synonymous.
The Development of Knighthood
Originally, knighthood was a professional association which included those men who could afford to make and maintain the heavy capital investment (horse & armor) required by mounted warfare. Knighthood emerged in the 11th century. Its members were of the great land-owning families (nobles) as well as small land-holders, craftmen, free men, etc (in Spain, caballeros villanos were common until the 14th c.). The boundaries of knighthood were quite fluid in the feudal era, and it is a must that you understand that anyone who, by their luck or by their efforts, able to obtain the training and equipment necessary to be a knight could eventually enter that class.
During the course of the 12th century a social and ethical dimension was added to the knighthood professional aspect . The strong influence of Cluny monks, who even tried to give an ethos to savage warfare, lead to the definition of the true Milites Christi. The true Milites Christi is a soldier who follows a certain code of behavior, which we now call chivalric. In the second half of the 12th century literature provided a model for the knightly community. This included jousting and Arthurian romances, which was also a means of glorifying it).
Orders of Knighthood
Orders of knighthood origins are in the Crusades. In the Latin Orient, a new institution emerged in which professional soldiers (knights) associated themselves under a strict quasi-monastic rule of life. The purpose of this strict rule of life was for protecting pilgrims and defending Christian conquests in the Holy Land. The lost of the Holy Land left the original military-monastic orders searching for a new mission in the 14th century. Kings began creating orders of their own. These orders were modelled in part on these original orders, but with a different purpose. The different purpose was to bind their nobility to themselves. In the late 16th century, these monarchical orders were imitated in form by the new orders of merit. The new orders became common throughout Europe.
The term "order of knighthood" has been passed on and is now used for modern awards and decorations because each institution tried to use the prestige of the previous one by imitating it. These modern awards and decorations are neither orders nor composed of knights. Only a very few orders survive from the times of the Crusades in modern society, and most "orders of knighthood" that are awarded by sovereigns or governments (such as the English Garter or the Spanish Golden Fleece), despite their historical connection, are awards of merit.