knight, in ancient and medieval history, a noble who did military service as a mounted warrior.
The Knight in Ancient History
In ancient history, as in Athens and Rome, the knight was a noble of the second class who in military service had to furnish his own mount and equipment. In Roman society, the knights (Latin equites) ranked below the senatorial class and above ordinary citizens. A knight forfeited his status if the assessed value of his fortune sank below 400,000 sesterces.
The Knight in Medieval History
In medieval history, the knight was an armed and mounted warrior belonging to the nobility. The incessant private warfare that characterized medieval times brought about a permanent military class, and by the 10th cent. the institution of knighthood was well established. The knight was essentially a military officer, although with the growth of feudalism the term tended to denote the holder of not only a position in the ranks of nobility but also in the ranks of landholders. The knight generally held his lands by military tenure; thus knight service was a military service, usually 40 days a year, normally expected by an overlord in exchange for each fief held by a knight. All military service was measured in terms of knight service, and a vassal might owe any number of knight services.
Although all nobles of military age were necessarily knights, knighthood had to be earned through some exploit involving the use of arms. In the late Middle Ages the son of a noble would serve first as page, then as squire, before being made a knight. Knighthood was conferred by the overlord with the accolade (a blow, usually with the flat of the sword, on the neck or shoulder); in the later period of feudalism, the ceremony was preceded by the religious ceremony of a vigil before an altar. A knight fighting under another's banner was called a knight bachelor; a knight fighting under his own banner was a knight banneret. Knights were ordinarily accompanied in battle by personal attendants (squires and pages) and by vassals (see yeoman) and servants.
After c.1100 military tenure was generally subject to the law of primogeniture, which resulted in a class of landless knights; at the time of the Crusades those landless knights formed the great military orders of knighthood, which were religious as well as military bodies. Important among these were the Knights Templars, Knights Hospitalers, Teutonic Knights, Livonian Brothers of the Sword, Knights of Calatrava, and Knights of Aviz.
Secular orders, patterned loosely on the religious ones, but not limited to landless knights, also grew up, principally as honorary establishments by the kings or great nobles. Examples in England were the Order of the Garter and in Burgundy the Order of the Golden Fleece. The most important of these orders have survived and many more have been added (e.g., the orders of the Bath, of Victoria, and of the British Empire in Great Britain and the Legion of Honor in France; see decorations, civil and military).
See also chivalry; courtly love.
Since the Middle Ages
As the feudal system disintegrated, knight service was with growing frequency commuted into cash payments. In England the payment was known as scutage. Many landowners found the duties of knighthood too onerous for their meager resources and contented themselves with the rank of squire. This was particularly true in England, where gentlemen landowners are still termed squires. The military value of a cavalry consisting of heavily armored knights lessened with the rise of the infantry, artillery, and mercenary armies. In Germany, where the institution of knighthood persisted somewhat longer than in Britain and France, knighthood in its feudal meaning may be said to have come to an end in the early 16th cent. with the defeat of Franz von Sickingen.
The title knight (Ger. Ritter, Fr. chevalier) was later used as a noble title in Germany and France. In the French hierarchy of nobles the title chevalier was borne by a younger son of a duke, marquis, or count. In modern Britain, knighthood is not a title of nobility, but is conferred by the royal sovereign (upon recommendation of the government) on commoners and nobles alike for civil or military achievements. A knight is addressed with the title Sir (e.g., Sir John); a woman, if knighted in her own right, is addressed as Dame.
See G. Duby, The Chivalrous Society (1978).