A short while ago we published a list (and a video) about the oft-romanticized samurai of feudal Japan. It turns out, they were actually pretty awful. Today, we’re turning our attention to the samurai of the west: medieval knights. As you can probably guess from the title, once again the common perception of knights isn’t exactly accurate. Pop culture paints them as noble heroes, but the reality is significantly different. For example, did you know that…
10. They Barely Ever Had to Work
For the most part, knights in feudal Europe were expected to swear their loyalty and their sword to a lord or king and become their vassal. In return the lord or king would give the knight several hundred acres of land to call his own. While knights often weren’t paid for their service, per se, this land often included serfs (who were basically slaves) to maintain it. This allowed a knight the opportunity to make himself extremely wealthy if he so desired.
So you’re probably thinking that in return for several hundred acres of land, a giant house, and slaves to do all the dirty work, knights would be expected to work pretty hard, right? As it turns out, knights were expected to work no more than 40 days per year. This “work” could consist of stuff as simple as escorting the lord and his rapidly swelling backside to and from a hunt. Of course, it could also include going to war. Even then, knights had it dramatically easier than 99% of the population, because…
9. During Battle, They Were Highly Unlikely to be Killed
During the heyday of knights, warfare was a much different beast than it is now. The role of knights in battle was vastly different than what you’d probably expect. Though many knights were indeed highly skilled in the art of stabbing people in the kidney, their real value came in the fact that they rode horses. That’s something common foot soldiers were forbidden from doing, even though horses were the real MVPs of feudal battlefields.
The perceived value of knights was such that in battle, conscripted peasants and common foot soldiers could sometimes face severe repercussions for killing one. Even if the knight was fighting for the other side. And yes, even if he was being really mean. This is because captured knights could often be ransomed back to their lords. That became notably more difficult when the knight was dead or had a sword wound in his chest. Accordingly, knights who were captured were often given comfortable cells with ample food and wine while a ransom was being decided. This same courtesy was not granted to the common soldiers mentioned above. Many of those grunts would be slaughtered instantly if they were captured. Individually they had no real value, despite them often being the bulk of a given lord’s army.
It’s also worth noting that during combat, knights were honor bound to show respect to a fellow knight. They were expected to either yield to a superior foe, or give a bested knight a chance to yield before finishing him off (depending on how baller they were in a given confrontation). There was no such expectation for common soldiers, who could be indiscriminately killed or finished off by a knight without it being deemed unchivalrous. Because, as we’re about to explain…
8. Chivalry Only Applied When They Wanted It To
Chivalry, along with being a thing guys in fedoras complain online about being dead, was a basic code of conduct knights were expected to live by. It espoused the tenets of basic respect and honor. Though the chivalric code is a thing that existed, few knights actually followed it. The reason we think that they did has largely been attributed to medieval romantic literature, which often portrayed knights as unwavering sentinels of justice. Over time, this idea became the norm. Today we commonly think of knights as honorable figures worthy of respect and admiration. Like Ned Stark, or Jon Snow’s abs. In reality, knights were more like Ser Gregor Clegane in that they did whatever they wanted, because they could. They only showed respect to those of a higher station.
During war, knights frequently looted, pillaged, and raped. They would raid villages for supplies, indiscriminately killing serfs’ farm animals, because screw them we guess. This practice was so widespread that many knights considered looting to be their right. Accepting the booty (both metaphorical and literal) they took for themselves was something they thought they were owed for their service. Which makes it all the more annoying when you learn that…
7. Only Rich Kids Could Become Knights
The route to becoming a knight was, like a cheap fishing rod, rigid and unyielding. It essentially limited knighthood to kids who today would have names like Quentin or Chet. While poor or common folk could become knights if they did something exceptionally badass during battle, or saved a lord’s life, they were equally likely to be killed for embarrassing someone who had the foresight to be born with money. Meaning, virtually all knights were nobles of some kind.
This kind of makes the fact knights could punch poor people in the head, or take their stuff, all the more jarring. By virtue of their birth, knights were almost always independently wealthy anyway. Like many rich people, knights also engaged in a number of hobbies that revolved around being as obnoxious as possible, like…
6. Gathering in Big Groups, Picking Fights, and Harassing Women
As noted above, knights generally only followed the parts of the chivalric code they wanted. One part of that code states that a knight must always be ready to defend his honor if it’s challenged. To take advantage of this, it was commonplace in the 14th and 15th centuries for large groups of knights to gather at well-travelled areas, like bridges and rivers, just to pick fights with other passing knights trying to go about their business. Basically, they were those guys who go to bars wearing Tap Out shirts with the sole intention of sucker-punching the first person to look at them funny.
As you can imagine, peasants would often avoid these areas like the plague. Keep in mind, these people had the actual plague to worry about, too. Anyway, the risk of being attacked by a bored knight was extremely high. Likewise, any man attempting to pass with his wife would be expected to fight for her honor. Nothing says ‘chivalry’ like harassing a guy’s wife until he gets angry enough to punch you. If a woman had the audacity to attempt to pass by without a man, the knights would accost her until she handed over a piece of clothing. She’d then have to ask a knight to go get it back.
Learning this, it kind of makes sense that angry misogynists online really idealize the idea of chivalry. It gives you free reign to be a huge tool. Plus, there’s that smug, unearned air of satisfaction that you’re better than everyone else. Speaking of being better than everyone else…
5. Jousting Was Pay to Win
Few aspects of being a knight have been romanticized as much as the idea of jousting. You know, the sport involving two men in plate armor attempting to poke each other in the face with sticks from horseback. Initially it served as a way for two knights to test their skills against one another. Ultimately, it evolved into its own sport so far removed from actual combat that the armor worn by jousters was literally too heavy to wear normally.
Jousting armor, as it was known, often weighed in excess of 100 pounds. It was so heavy that the wearer could barely move. He was usually only being held in jousting position by the armor itself. While skill undeniably played a role in determining the winner of a joust, rich enough knights could simply buy armor so ridiculously heavy that it was nearly impossible to unhorse him. That made winning vastly easier. Poorer knights, meanwhile, had to make do with the same armor they used for battle, which was designed for movement as opposed to dominating face-poking tournaments.
4. Women Couldn’t Become Knights, but Were Expected to Do the Job of Their Dead Husbands
Like so many of the coolest jobs in history, being a knight was exclusively reserved for owners of a penis. Their wives were expected to sit at home, not learning to kill people with a broadsword, their bloodlust going offensively unsated. Unless their husband died like a moron, that is. In that case, women were expected to fulfil all of their husband’s knightly duties. This included protecting their lord and making sure his land didn’t fall into disrepair. Only women didn’t get any of the cool stuff that came with it, like respect or acknowledgement by history.
Unsurprisingly, the wives seldom waited for their husbands to get gored by a lance before getting all up in the business of running the show. This resulted in them being significantly more skilled and diplomatically inclined than their husbands. The duties generally expected of a knight’s wife included everything from organizing the defenses of their estate, to arranging marriages for their servants. This was on top of being at the beck and call of their husband 24 hours a day. Which probably explains why…
3. Knights Could Nearly be Killed Trying to Woo a Woman
Women, as throughout most of recorded history, got a rough deal in the era of knights and chivalry. However, ladies of high enough standing did have some say when it came to being wooed. And boy, did they take advantage of that.
The most notable example of this is likely Ulrich von Lichtenstein (yes, the character from A Knight’s Tale was based on a real guy). He tried to woo a noblewoman in the 13th century, and nearly died in the process. The lady being wooed took particular exception to being courted by Lichtenstein, both due to his appearance (he had a harelip) and the fact he already had a wife. So, like her movie counterpart, she made Ulrich do a whole host of activities to prove his love. Totally innocent and sane things. You know, like cutting off his finger, competing in jousts wearing a dress instead of armor, and sleeping amongst a group of leprosy infected peasants. All things we’d be tempted to say he didn’t deserve, if it wasn’t for the fact that…
2. Knights Treated Serfs Just Terribly
In feudal Europe, serfs were considered to be the lowest dregs of society. They were lower even than farm animals, because at least you could eat those. Essentially slaves, serfs had few rights and fewer reasons to smile. Though serfs were technically protected by the lords of the land they worked, lords and knights could freely beat them or demand their property. Serfs had to pay for anything they took from the land, since it belonged to their lord or his vassal. Taking it without his permission or due payment was a crime that often resulted in a severe beating. Though not severe enough that the serf couldn’t keep working, of course.
Serfs couldn’t marry or even travel without a lord or knight’s permission, meaning many serfs died without ever having travelled more than five miles from the place they were born. Since they were integral to the upkeep of a lord’s land, serfs were often the first target for knights. Some knights would intentionally not kill serfs, but instead severely wound them by hacking off a limb. That way, they’d be a drain on the landowner’s resources.
That fact made us unbelievably happy to learn that…
1. Becoming a Knight Used to Mean Being Slapped Across the Face
As seen in movies, the process of knighting a person today usually involves lightly tapping the person being knighted on the shoulder with a sword. The exact origins of this tradition are unclear. It’s believed to originate from the idea that a young squire wasn’t ready to be a knight until he’d had a weapon buckled against his armor during battle. A squire couldn’t readily rely on this happening, so a symbolic gesture was created. One that involved hitting the squire across the face, and then on the shoulder with a sword.
How hard the squire was hit generally depended on how big a jerk the person knighting him was. You can probably imagine that many squires started their first day as a knight with a handprint on his face. Though it was customary to only “lightly” hit the squire, since it was the only hit in his entire life the squire was required not to return, some knights took advantage of the opportunity to be a tool without consequence. They’d give the squire a punishing, jaw bone shattering backhand to the face for absolutely no reason. Something we, for some mysterious reasons, feel absolutely fine about learning happened.