What was It Actually Like to Be a Knight in Medieval Times?

Anakin_bagel asks: What was the daily life of a medieval knight like?

There are a variety of myths about what it was like to be a knight during medieval times, not just spread by Hollywood, but even by the contemporary legends during medieval times themselves- in both featuring widespread depictions of the chivalric knight rushing to the aid of damsels in distress and generally spending their time being bastions of all that is good and the very definition of “noble”. But what was it actually like to be a knight in medieval times, and what did they actually get up to in their day to day lives?

First, as a bit of a disclaimer, “Medieval Times” refers to a rather lengthy period from about the 5th to 15th century, with it being impossible to say specifically what life was like for a given knight across such a large expanse of time and various regions where knights were a thing. But that’s not very interesting, so we’re going to give answering the question our best college try while accounting for this.

This brings us to the early days of knighthood. While warriors on horseback had been a thing long before, the position of knight as we might think of it was first developed as an official rank of sorts around the 8th century among Charlemagne’s soldiers as he campaigned around. You’ll no doubt be shocked to learn from this that the knights were, at their core, simply highly trained soldiers on horseback. And, in truth, up until they became obsolete in battle around the tail end of this era, knights mostly remained, first and foremost, elite warriors.

While in the beginning the training wasn’t exactly as formalized as it would become, once it was as the centuries progressed, generally those of rather affluent birth and of the male persuasion (though there are some examples of female knights), upon reaching around the age of 7, give or take, would be sent off to some lord or knight to begin their training as a knight.

This started out with the young boy serving as a page. During this time, they’d begin practicing with fake weapons, learn to master riding a horse, take part in hunts, and otherwise do menial tasks serving the knight they were pledged to and their household in various ways. At the same time, they might also be well educated, but this wasn’t always the case, particularly in the beginning. Either way, once it became a thing, they’d be taught the various legends of supposed knights that had come before and the ideals of chivalry.

Once they reached their early teens, assuming they were still of sound body and otherwise progressing well with their training, they’d eventually graduate to the position of squire, where their training would be intensified a bit, including using real weapons and even taking a more direct role in assisting the knight they were pledged to when campaigning, even potentially in battle itself.

After approximately 5-7 years of this higher training, if they survived and had mastered all the required skills, they’d officially be knighted. While in the beginning, there was little to no pomp and circumstance associated with this, towards the late Medieval period the knighting became more of what we think of it today- with this evolution seemingly partially pushed by the Church as a way to hopefully get knights to take their oaths more seriously, particularly of the chivalric nature.

On that note, if you happen to have read our piece on “Did a Medieval Knight Ever Actually Rescue a Damsel in Distress?“, which I highly recommend as it is fascinating, you’ll no doubt have walked away with the impression that the whole chivalric code was more like loose and varying “guidelines” instituted by the Church to try to reign in the knights going around terrorizing everyone. For more details, go check out that piece.

Going back to what the knighting ceremony had evolved into, the 14th century French knight Geoffroi de Charny states that the day before the knighting, the squire would first go to confession, then take a bath. After that, he would be clothed primarily in white and red, followed by taking part in a prayer vigil. The next day, he’d attend mass and take part in communion, bringing us to the actual ceremony. During this, he would be given spurs and a sword, then pledge his loyalty to his lord and, at least at this point in history, take an oath to uphold various facets of chivalry. Finally, he would be dubbed via a light blow and a kiss.

Of course, as alluded to, particularly in the early days of the position of knight, becoming one was open to most soldiers, with the position acquired via proving themselves as valiant warriors on the battlefield. Later, as the position became more elite and prestigious, some became knights simply by paying their way into it and, either way, in order to become one, you had to be some level of nobility already, even if just the son of a knight.

On that note, contrary to popular belief, not all knights were wealthy, with castles and the like of their own. In fact, some weren’t even landowners at all and the rank of knight was inherently more or less just something that made one a minor noble in some sense, though of course many among the knighted held much higher positions in the nobility separate from their warrior prowess.

From this, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that what specific knights got up to in their day to day lives varied considerably depending on who you’re talking about. That said, most knights were pledged to a lord of some sort, promising to serve them for a given amount of time each year in battle or policing their lands if called upon to do so.

From there, the lowest class of these individuals might even live in their lord’s home, serving more or less as bodyguards, security, occasionally law enforcement, and even sometimes judges, mediating local disputes among the peasants, etc. In essence, their day to day life was a bit of a mashup of soldier and law enforcement.

For others, as estate owners, their day to day lives could be filled with some of that, but also tended to involve more broadly managing their estates and peasants under their control, both freemen pledged to them and their serfs. That said, given they might be called away for lengthy periods, they also tended to have someone on hand to help manage things for them. Thus, most knights on the whole seem to have had an awful lot of free time on their hands. So what did they do with it?

Run amok it would seem.

As alluded to, knights in Medieval Times were rather well known for their penchant to cause a bit of anarchy wherever they went. In fact, on top of things like recapturing Jerusalem from the Muslims, one of the many goals of the first Crusade, according to history professor Norman Cohn, “was also a matter of giving the largely unemployed and over-aggressive nobility of France something to do, get them out of Europe and stop them devastating the … lands.”

That said, it should be noted that while Medieval lords weren’t exactly known for treating the peasants they depended on well, they at least were well aware that going around slaughtering, raping, and pillaging them was counterproductive to maximizing the yield from one’s own lands and labor. And, if this behavior was particularly egregious, this could result in an outright revolt, which happened from time to time. That’s not to say such abuses didn’t happen even within one’s own lands, as evidenced by those occasional revolts- just doing that to too much of an extreme wasn’t a great idea.

As noted by Professor of Medieval History at the University of Akron, Constance Brittain Bouchard, in her book Strong of Body, Brave and Noble: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France, “In most cases, landlords would have been too sensible to harm their peasants tenants actively; after all, their own livelhoods depended on the peasants’ energy and success…”

However, trampling through a wheat field of someone else’s lands and abusing their peasants could actually be a good thing, especially if far afield where immediate retaliation against your own peasants and lands might be non-existent. In these times, pillaging another lord’s lands for your own profit could be quite a boon to yourself, with little direct risk- a mob of peasants with pitchforks wasn’t necessarily inherently dangerous to you. This was also a much safer way to hurt your enemy than directly going to battle with their own knights.

As an example of this sort of thing, we have one 12th century chronicler Orderic Vitalis extolling the virtues of a knight for choosing NOT to slaughter a large group of peasants. As outlined in historian Catherine Hanley’s book War and Combat, 1150-1270:  “he describes a raiding expedition undertaken by a young knight, during which his men destroy the homes of a group of peasants and kill their livestock. The peasants themselves flee to huddle around a cross; the knight spares their lives, and this charitable deed, according to [Vitalis] deserves to be remembered forever.”

Indeed, so brave; so noble.

In contrast, a 12th century knight and lord, Waleran Count of Mellent, was noted as simply cutting off one of the feet of any peasants he encountered while in his enemies’ lands. The idea presumably being that lord now had just lost a useful worker and had an extra crippled and unhappy individual on his hands to manage, assuming the individual survived the de-feeting encounter with this particular lord.

As for what the knights got up to when they weren’t raping and pillaging, parties were common among the nobles, as illustrated in great detail in our article How Did the Practice of Women Jumping Out of Cakes Get Started?

When not partying, they got up to pretty mundane things like attending mass, playing backgammon and chess, and the like. For those who could read, this was a potential activity, though books were rather scarce and expensive for much of this period. (And, note here, while many of the more wealthy knights were well educated, there were also many who weren’t, and couldn’t even read or write.)

This finally brings us to the other common activity to fill a bored knight’s idle hours- training. This was largely done via activities like frequently going hunting, as well as attending various tournaments.

On the latter, the games at these were initially little more than massive melees, including using real, sharpened weapons. Rules were few, with the competitions not that different from actual battles, including capturing other knights and the like. They’d even often group knights by nation, which made the whole thing all the more heated.

That said, the general point, unlike real battle, was not to intentionally kill your opponent, but just knock them off their horse and take them prisoner. Once unhorsed, in the early going, many knights would also hire people whose job it was to rush any knight they had knocked off their horse and beat the crap out of them before taking them prisoner- the point of this being to make it easier to extract the knight’s armor and a bit easier to hang on to while they were in captivity. The knight being stripped of all their valuables and horse would later be offered back to the other side for a price, as well as potentially have their armor and horse offered back, also for a price.

Much like a real battle, any nearby peasants were not necessarily safe during these matches. For example, a given knight might flee from enemy knights and take refuge in a peasant’s home, which was likely then to be ransacked or even burned to the ground to get the knight to come out. Even if they didn’t do this, nearby farm fields were likely to get trampled and crops lost.

As you might imagine, while the knights, particularly the lower ranked and poorer of this class, loved these tournaments for a chance to gain prestige, practice their skills, and the chance to acquire additional wealth via prizes and ransoms and the like, the peasants and the church really weren’t big fans of all the death and destruction that surrounded the tournaments.

Towards the end of calming things down for everyone, including the knights who sometimes died during these mock battles, over the centuries more and more rules were added to the various games, as well as a trend towards blunted weapons. By the late Medieval period, this saw the tournaments start to resemble what is often depicted in film today, albeit with less We Will Rock You.

For example, as the tournaments matured, jousting became extremely popular and, instead of knights rampaging about in people’s fields trying to unhorse one another, an area would be setup, including eventually adding a railing in between the knights to minimize the chance of a head on collision. Further, the lances were blunted and specialized armor was made to further minimize the chances of a knight dying.

Of course, two powerful men on war horses charging at each other at full gallop with giant sticks aimed at each other, followed by one or both potentially being whacked off their mount at those speeds, wasn’t exactly a recipe for not getting hurt or killed, so deaths still happened. But on the whole, as the tournaments matured, they became much more organized and safer, as well as more fun for the peasants.

It should also be noted that as a further measure of control upon knight’s behavior as these tournaments became more and more popular, by the late Medieval period those who had been particularly egregious in violating their oaths of chivalry could be banned from competing in tournaments.

In any event, going back to their day jobs as elite warriors, in times of conflict, knights were of course also always on call to serve their lords for a given period each year. During these times, while they did typically have their own servants along to attend them and their needs, it still wasn’t exactly pleasant. In the best case, it could be a lucrative ordeal, if off raping and pillaging neighboring lands, bringing home booty for you and your lord. But it could also be terrifying and extremely deadly. Consider this account from the aforementioned 14th century knight Geoffroi de Charny:

In this profession one has to endure heat, hunger and hard work, to sleep little and often to keep watch. And to be exhausted and to sleep uncomfortably on the ground only to be abruptly awakened. And you will be powerless to change the situation. You will often be afraid when you see your enemies coming towards you with lowered lances to run you through and with drawn swords to cut you down. Bolts and arrows come at you and you do not know how best to protect yourself. You see people killing each other, fleeing, dying and being taken prisoner and you see the bodies of your dead friends lying before you. But your horse is not dead, and by its vigorous speed you can escape in dishonour. But if you stay, you will win eternal honour…

As you can imagine, from Geoffroi’s and other knights of the era’s accounts, among other indicators, many modern scholars think post traumatic stress disorder was not exactly uncommon among knights, similar to soldiers today.

In any event, to sum up, the life of a given Medieval Knight could vary considerably based on era and wealth of the knight in question. But in the general case, most were trained for many years as elite warriors, were at minimum a step above peasants, and had many more freedoms and opportunities for advancement because of it. As for their day to day lives, they appear to have mostly spent their time doing things like keeping the peace (when they weren’t ruining it), managing their estates and workers on their lands (if they had them), hunting, partying, competing, training, and, of course, occasionally off campaigning for God and/or lord.

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  • Small technical mistake: “instituted by the Church to try to reign in the knights going around terrorizing everyone” should be “rein in” – metaphor relates to controlling horses, not kingdoms.

  • And in the sixth paragraph, “roll” should be “role,” assuming you were not talking about pastries…