Thursday, 13 November 2014

Earliest depiction of knighthood

Contrary to popular perception, the Middle Ages were not always filled with knights. In fact, about
half the period we consider the Middle Ages (6-15th century CE) had no knights in it, nor had a distinguished concept of knighthood. In fact, the Western Germanic culture which dominated the first centuries of the Middle Ages was noticeable for its lack of mounted warriors. It was not untill Charles Martel (ca. 688-741) that horses became an important characteristic of the warrior aristocracy, although actual mounted combat was rare and horses were mostly used as a form of rapid transportation, whereafter the warriors dismounted to engage in their martial activities.
The use of horses in actual combat only gradually increased in the subsequent centuries and especially the tenth and eleventh centuries were pivotal in developping a new style of combat, centrered on the use of horses. Traditionally, historians such as Maurice Keen in his Chivalry have assumed that this new development only came in itself by the end of the eleventh century. An important piece of evidence for this claim was the Bayeux Tapestry, finished around 1077, which portrays the Battle of Hastings (1066). This tapestry depicts almost solely mounted warriors on the Norman side, even demonstrating some of them using the so-called couched lance technique (see image below). This iconographic source has been considered the first piece of evidence clearly depicting knights.

Norman knights at the Battle of Hastings performing different types of attack. The knight most right performs the couched lance technique (Bayeux Tapestry)  

Notwithstanding the importance of the Bayeux Tapestry, my research has found an earlier source already clearly indicating knights. It concerns an illumination of the 'Great Bible of Arras' (Arras, Bibliothèque Municipale, Ms. 559 (435), f. 144v), composed in the first half of the eleventh century (see image below). Although the couched lance technique is not demonstrated, it depicts two groups of mounted warriors in chainmail with sword, shield and lance, opposing one another. What is remarkable about this image is not only that it predates the Bayeux Tapestry by many decades, but also that it illustrates knights fighting together as well-ordered coherent groups. Compared to the Bayeux Tapestry, the degree of cooperation between these men is significantly higher, indicating a well-established knightly culture by the beginning of the eleventh century.

First iconographic evidence of knights in the 'Great bible of Arras'.
It is remarkable that we find this evidence in the same region (the so-called Flemish Region) where tournament practices also emerged for the first time (for more information see Crouch D., Tournaments (2005)).  Nonetheless, this evidence allows us to date the beginnings of knightly practices at least by the beginning of the eleventh century and other evidence even seems to indicate that they were developped in the Flemish region during the second half of the tenth century.

1 comment:

  1. I think that East Roman/Byzantine military practices were not unknown in the West, including their use of cavalry. The tournament in its earlier form, for example, is not dissimilar to Byzantine military games and exercises. As an aside, I wonder sometimes if the term knight can lead us astray given its derivation. Ridder, chavelier etc. are much less problematic in this regard. Delighted to find your blog, by the way :-)