Episode 80: Knight Life

Much of the devastation of the Anarchy was carried out by knights who acted as thugs and bullies. For several generations, knights had served as the strongmen of western Europe. By the 12th century, the nature of knighthood was starting to change. The Church was taking a more active role in knightly affairs, and the mounted knights were gradually becoming lesser nobles. In this episode, we explore the evolution of the Medieval knight from mounted warrior to the eve of chivalry. We also explore the etymology of words related to knighthood.

20 thoughts on “Episode 80: Knight Life

  1. Regarding the word ‘cniht’ I believe the ‘ch’ was pronounced in the front of the mouth, not the back. Much like the modern German ‘nicht’ vs ‘nacht.’ Two versions of the ‘ch’ sound

    • You’re right. The ‘h’ sound in “cniht” was the palatal version of the sound, not the more guttural sound. Context usually determined the proper pronunciation. Anyway, I have amended the episode to make that clearer. Thanks for the feedback.

  2. I have really enjoyed your podcasts, but have to admit I was unhappy with your section on John FitzGilbert and the siege at Newbury Castle. Altho there was indeed a siege at Newbury, the only 12th century chronicler to mention it, Henry of Huntingdon (1), makes no mention of a hostage. Thus there is no actual proof of William Marshal as a hostage. J. C. Holt, eminent historian, says “it is impossible to say whether the tale is anything more than a tall story” (2). L’Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, a long poetic saga of the life of William Marshal which was done in the early 13th century, and is based on the memories of the Marshal family and supporters (3), is the only source of the tale and thus the ‘Anvils and Hammers’ speech, for which there is no proof that it was actually said. Not many have actually read L’Histoire, so most people don’t know what it actually says about John Fitz Gilbert, who is praised and obviously highly thought of by the Marshal family based on their memories given to the poet author. John is described as a ‘brave, trustworthy knight, and a courtly, wise, and worthy man. I’m a Marshal family researcher, so am familiar with the lives and history of the Marshals, esp. John and William. I have been doing a survey of current historians regarding John, and can assure you that most don’t include the hostage situation at Newbury regarding John in their books, altho including other historical documented data about him.
    L’Histoire makes virtually no mention of what is going on elsewhere with John, his fellow Angevin supporters, and Henry Fitz Empress in 1152-1153, so it’s up to those interested to dig deeper and search the history books.
    (1) The History of the English People 1000-1154, pgs. 88, 140. Oxford World’s Classics.
    (2) Colonial England 1066-1215, page 161. The Hambledon Press, 1997
    (2) L’Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal,
    pgs 3-39; Anglo-Norman Text Society, ed. A. J. Holden, translation by S. Gregory, Hist Notes by David Crouch.

    • Hi Marilyn. Thanks for the feedback. You have obviously researched John FitzGilbert much more than I have. In preparing this episode, I repeatedly came across this particular story of William being taken hostage at the siege of Newbury Castle. It was mentioned in several different books, including “The Knight in History” by Frances Gies and “Knights” by Andrea Hopkins. I can’t confirm the historical accuracy of the account, but it is apparently a well-told story. Anyway, thanks again for the feedback. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of William Marshal in future episodes.

      • Kevin, yes it’s one of those stories based on a small bit out of a literary poem that didn’t include the whole story, and once it got started kept going. Since the translation of the only source – L’Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal – is very expensive to get, most readers aren’t aware of what it really says and how highly John is regarded by the Marshal family (incl. William), via the author poet. As I said, the poem doesn’t really go into what John was involved in elsewhere at the time (he wasn’t actually at the castle, but not a long ways away at one of his other castles). At that point in the long civil war, the Angevin supporters were getting desperate, but knew Henry fitz Empress was trying to come to their aid. John knew he was the only man standing between Wallingford Castle (the Angevin’s main castle) and King Stephen who was on his way to capture it at all costs, but first had to remove the threat of John and his men coming after them. The Histoire, while it gives a brief tale of King Stephen and William, but obviously also highly regards John, says to me that whatever John did or didn’t do, the Marshals via the author/poet understood and approved of. Henry arrived in time to prevent the loss of Wallingford, and the war soon ended in late 1153. John made sure William got the best in knightly training with William de Tancarville, the best available at the time. Once William could afford it, he paid for an expensive remembrance mass in memory of his father (per a charter). Read Elizabeth Chadwick’s book A Place Beyond Courage for the other side of the story of John Fitz Gilbert.

  3. You’ve been hinting at this for quite some time, but in this episode you do a splendid job of making clear that the feudal system, and the chivalry that eventually attended it, did not spring full-blown after the fall of the Roman Empire, but were a relatively late development. In particular, your discussion of the way that knights moved from the ruffian henchmen of the nobles to household retainers to vassals with their own place in the nobility was admirably clear and enlightening. You are bringing to life this history and culture through language in a way that is greater than the sum of its parts. Nice job, Kevin!

    • Thanks! This episode is really the first part of a two-part series on the evolution of knighthood. The next episode will take us into the era of chivalry and the romantic knights found in much of the popular literature of the Middle English period. I knew I wanted to discuss knighthood in detail at some point in the Middle English period, and this just happens to be the time. Thanks again for the feedback, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast!

  4. Kevin, here is a long article by Elizabeth Chadwick called Anvils and Hammers: Why John Fitz Gilbert’s speech at Newbury should not be taken at face value. She is an expert regarding William Marshal and probably knows more than just about anyone. Her best selling book on Wm written in 2004 had the original title of Greatest Knight.
    http://elizabethchadwick.com/blog/anvils-and-hammers/

  5. Interesting. In swedish Knekt is an old word for soldier. The word for knight is “riddare”, probably from rider. But the word for a regular rider is “ryttare”. The verb is more or less the same as the english verb, “to ride”, “att rida”.

      • Thanks! I added “ridere” at the last minute. I thought it was an interesting addition. Glad you enjoyed the episode.

        • German Ritter and Knecht as in Landsknecht parallel the Swedish forms.

          There is a special term for non-chivalrous knights in German, too – Raubritter (robber knight), usually a petty castle owner preying on passing merchants and plundering targets of opportunity (often in a mercenary role as part of a grudge between two other nobles).

          I notice that the French king held (nominal) power over regions where Frankish or Alemannic dialects of German were spoken (part of the former lands of Lothar, the heir of Louis the pious – mostly Flanders, Burgundy) in addition to any Romance vernacular, probably miminizing the effect that the use of a written vernacular would have had communicating with the peasantry.

          I wonder whether the Norman dialect of French left a significant imprint in the duchy (later kingdom) of Robert Guiscard, whose establishment appears to have been a minor but constant drain on Norman manpower and knighthood during this period.

  6. What an interesting word is “knight”! I have long been fascinated by our words beginning KN with the silent K, and with words with a silent GH before the T. It never dawned on me that this word has both. My phone is not a smart phone yet it has no problem with this word when using predictive text. Amazing

  7. Thanks for a very interesting episode. One very minor point – you say that ‘mare’ is a male horse. I’m sure that’s a simple mistake and that you know a mare is a female horse.

    • Hi Chris. I actually corrected that reference the day after I posted the original episode. You must have downloaded the episode before I made that change. Thanks for the feedback.

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