Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300

By John France | Go to book overview

Chapter Five

Men of war: cavalry

Medieval warfare was dominated by the great proprietors. In the Chansons de Geste the king and his followers, the great lords and their honourable companions, ride out into battle. They are collectively the “chivalry”; a complex word whose meaning encompasses the notion of an armed elite, a style of war and a code of military behaviour in which personal honour is paramount. Within the chivalrous society there were evident differences of status, and the lesser did honourable service to the greater, yet there was a community of shared values. All members of this community rejoiced in the title of “knight”, as a kind of token of membership. To understand medieval warfare, it is vital to understand what the knight was.

The Latin word miles (plural milites) originally meant nothing more than a soldier of any sort; in the words of Justinian's Code, “Quantos autem milites, sive pedites sive equites”. 1 This meaning continued to be attached to it throughout the Middle Ages. However, from the late tenth century contemporary writers began to use miles in a much more specific way. In describing groups of armed men they refer to milites et pedites, with the implication that the former have usurped the meaning of the word in some special sense: it is clear from the context that the word miles usually meant a soldier on horseback, a cavalryman. Often, the word eques is used instead, sometimes by the same writer, and this underlines the point that there was a functional difference between two kinds of soldier, either or both of whom, however, could still simply be described by the term miles. But the fact that horses were expensive meant that there was a social overtone to any word applied to a cavalryman; this is evident even from early source material.

The act by which arms were bestowed on a young man for the first time had long been an important “rite of passage”. In the eleventh century, it became a distinct Christian ritual for the making of a knight. In the first third

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