The Instruments of Knighthood


By the late Middle Ages, the idea of what it meant to be a knight had solidified from its early origins. Once an almost purely military definition, knighthood had become a desirable status among high nobility and royalty as well as an avenue for advancement among lesser nobility and even some commoners. As a representation of high societal ideals, chivalry would capture the imagination of audiences for centuries after its original military function faded. Romantic tales of knights real and imagined are told and retold down the ages and to this day, England awards accomplished citizens with ceremonial knighthoods. Though knighthood came to be defined as much by a code of conduct, on and off the battlefield, as it was by military service, that function remained a vital facet of chivalric life and the tools of a knight’s trade were numerous. The knight’s horse, weapons, heraldic arms and armor were all vital to the success of a knight, not only in martial feats, but in the recognition of his ability and the promise of advancement that went along with it.


From a codex on Florentine heraldry, crafted at the dawn of the nineteenth century. The codex details the contemporary houses of Florence, with some armigerous families dating back to the 1200s (Penn Library Catalog description). Though they were not as obviously practical as a sword and shield on the battlefield, a knight’s heraldic arms were no less important. Whether in the field or on the tourney ground, a knight’s crest served as ready identification to his societal peers. This added to the celebrity of knights, who allowed themselves to be seen and known by their deeds, but it also allowed them to be more easily identified when the fighting did not go their way. After the Battle of Crécy, King Edward III of England sent men out among the French dead to “identify the dead by their arms” (Froissart 95). Beyond the utilitarian, there were also subtler advantages to being easily recognized in such a martial arena. A knight who showed his arms was, in effect, boasting of his lineage and accomplishments and declaring his presence—standing out from the crowd, so to speak. This too had value at either extreme of fortune. Should the knight be on the losing side, his arms made him instantly recognizable as a person of value and he was more likely to be captured and ransomed than killed by the opposing side.


The horse, as seen by its prominence on this Florentine crest, was a vital part of chivalry. From the earliest incarnations of knights in the Roman equestrian class—literally citizens wealthy enough to own a horse—the presence of an elite mounted soldiery was a vital part of European military formation. Soldiers on horseback were able to move more quickly and with less physical exertion than those on foot. In battle, they were capable of maneuvering around the field and striking with force enough to shatter opposing formations. It is little wonder then that horses became a symbol of status and a point of fascination on par with swords and armor for medieval audiences. By 1800, when this manuscript was published, advancements in military technology had long since reduced the effectiveness of heavy cavalry and the advent of the combustion engine would eventually commit the war horse to obsolescence. However, the ideal of the mounted knight engaged in honorable combat would live on the fighter pilots of World War II, riding their winged horses across the sky.


Made in Germany, possibly Brunswick. Well over six feet long, boasting a blade more than 4 1/2 feet in length and weighing more than ten pounds, this sword is some indication as to the physical ability of the men skilled in its use (Philadelphia Museum of Art). The armaments of a knight were not simply for show, though decorative arms for ceremony did exist. The medieval knight, even one holding a position of military command, was expected to fight (Froissart, throughout). Perhaps for that reason, the sword reached such a level of importance that it became a staple of medieval literature. Whereas myths and legends from antiquity were filled with gods and demi-gods, to the Christians of medieval Europe there was only one God. So, rather than deify their heroes, the medieval storytellers deified the swords of those heroes. Most famous are probably the swords of Arthurian legend. While Arthur and Lancelot come from temporal origins, the sword in the stone is bound up in prophecy and divine will. Excalibur, possibly the most famous sword in Western culture, is bestowed upon King Arthur by the mystical Lady of the Lake. In attaching divine or semi-divine provenance to the most important of knightly accoutrements, medieval audiences were able to touch their heroes with some of the divine and, of course, those heroes were knights.


Made in Milan, Italy, possibly for a Spanish noble. Weighing in just less than ten pounds. This decorative helmet was made for tournament use (Philadelphia Museum of Art). If swords, heraldry and horses were the symbols that identified the knight, armor was the tool that allowed him to live long enough to benefit by those symbols. That is not to say that there was no element of fashion involved in armor. Tournament and ceremonial pieces, such as this one, are far more decorative and colorful than field armor. Knights were, after all, members of high society and appearances remain an important measurement in high society. Field pieces were far less embellished, but highly functional. In the epic of El Cid, his knights regularly outlive their Moorish enemies thanks to the quality of their armor. When the Moors lay siege to Valencia, Don Jerome rides out alone to fight them. “A crowd of Moors surrounded him and heaved great blows, but they did not succeed in piercing his armour” (The Poem of the Cid, verse 117, pp. 147.-149). It is easy to dismiss this kind of writing as romantic valorization, but from a purely pragmatic standpoint, it is not unreasonable. Knights trained from childhood and many served late into their lives. Heavy armor was the only way to ensure that these highly skilled military elite maintained their efficacy.


Made in Italy. A two-foot diameter, weighing ten pounds (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Whereas shields in antiquity were used to create tight military formations with the purpose of winning a battle through superior discipline, for the medieval knight they were objects of individual protection. The knightly shield had to accommodate a man on horseback as well as on foot, but always as an individual combatant. For this reason, we see a shift in the shape and size of shields from the Roman period to the Middle Ages. Whereas ancient shields, like this one from Renaissance Italy, were made to form a barrier in concert with other shield-bearers, a knight’s shield benefitted from a triangular shape that would not impede his ability to fight from horseback. Like other heraldic devices, the shield was a prime candidate for displaying ones arms and, eventually, it would serve the knight one final time as a key feature of his tomb effigy.

The Instruments of Knighthood