We read so much of knights of the olden times, and hear so much of them even in this day, that it is well for us to know what it meant to be a knight. We do not have knights nowadays such as they had hundreds of years ago, but at one time it was the great ambition of every boy to be a knight, and of every girl to have a knight devoted to her service.
To begin with, one had to be of noble birth to become a knight. No ordinary peasant boy could hope to win such honor. The son of a lord, or of another knight, when he was seven or eight years of age was taken from his father's castle, and put into the castle of some other lord, there to be trained in his duties.
Now, a castle was a gloomy stone building, with strong walls to defend it against its enemies, often surrounded by a moat or a ditch of water over which drawbridges connected the land with the castle. These castles were sometimes placed on high cliffs, or by the side of deep waters, or on an island, or indeed any place where they could be defended easily.
On the top were towers from which the approach of an enemy could be detected, and from which the defenders of the castle could hurl stones or shoot arrows at the attacking party. Inside were many rooms for the lord and his attendants to sleep, eat and live, and places for the soldiers to be cared for. There were also dungeons for prisoners, treasure rooms for the captured booty, wells for water, storerooms for food, and stables for the horses. A castle was not only a home, but was also a fortress.
In such a place the little boy who was to become a knight was brought to live. He was at first called a page. Before he could become a squire there was much for him to learn. Up to the time that he was fourteen or fifteen it was his business to wait upon the ladies of the castle. He had to go on errands for them, and attend them when they went hunting or hawking. He had to learn to be very polite and obedient, for it was one of the rules of knighthood that a knight should be most respectful to women and obey all the laws of his order.
There is an old book which tells how a boy who wished to become a knight must behave. When he entered a room he was expected to kneel before his lord, or the ladies, and to say, "God speed you!" with all modesty. He had to stand up very straight and not lean on any post or touch any chair, and not speak until he was spoken to.
He had to attend the lord at his meals, and bring a basin of water for the hand washing and hold a towel ready for use, for in those days there were no forks or knives, and several persons had to dip into the same trencher.
When the page's time came to eat he must not lean on the table, or drop any food on the cloth, or throw any bones on the floor. If he were eating with an older person, or one of higher rank, he must dip into the trencher first, but must be careful not to take any choice piece of meat or bread.
The boy was not taught to read or write, but he was taught to play the harp and to sing the songs of heroes, and love songs to the ladies. He must play chess and backgammon, for these were accomplishments no gentleman could do without, He learned his catechism, said his prayers, and paid great respect to the Church and to his religion.
Out of doors the page had many things to learn. He accompanied his lord to battle, but was never in danger, for he was not yet allowed to come near the fighting line. He generally waited around the lord's tent, serving him at table and preparing his bed at night.
Of course the page was taught to ride a horse. Riding was a serious business with a knight, and not merely a pleasure. He had to practice leaping over ditches and fences and low walls. He had to spring into the saddle without touching the stirrup, and to stay on his horse at the most furious gallop. In fact, he had to learn to be a part of his horse and to be as safe astride as he was afoot. This knowledge would serve him in after years when he fought in battle or in tournaments.
An important part of the boy's training was in the art of hunting, the use of the bow and arrow, and the tracking and killing of deer, wild boars, and other animals in the forest. Also he was taught the art of hawking. He had to learn the different kinds of falcons, how to train them, and how to throw them upon their prey.
For instance, a falcon had to be carried on the wrist or the forearm, which must be held parallel to the ground and in front of the body, but not touching it. The arm had to be held level and at right angles so as to give the bird a good perch. When the time came for a flight the falcon was unchained and the hood over the eyes was removed, and the quarry designated. The bird was then dexterously thrown into the air, and started upon his pursuit of other birds, or smaller animals in the field.
When the page became old enough he was made a squire. More service was required of him, and his exercises became more severe. He still served his lord at table, but he was now allowed to bear the first cup of wine. He still brought water for the hand-washing and carried all the meat.
He now had to learn to leap farther, run longer distances, and climb steeper cliffs than when he was a page. It was his duty to bear hunger and thirst, heat and cold without complaint, and to keep awake through long nights of watching. It was no simple life he had to live, for often the squires fainted from their over-exertion.
The time soon came for the young squire to put on armor and to wield a sword and to carry a lance. The armor was made of links of steel, and covered his entire body, but was often padded within to keep it from chafing the flesh. Still it was very heavy and burdensome, especially when the weather was hot. It took a strong body to carry it, when engaged in battle or in any contest.
The squire was taught to wield the great battle-axe, how to fence with his broadsword, and how to ride with his lance in position for striking his adversary's helmet or shield. His own face was covered with a steel helmet, with a visor in front that could be lifted whenever he wished to expose his face.
When his master went to the field of battle, it was the duty of the squire to attend him, and to carry his shield and take care of his armor. The squire was now admitted to the very field of battle and stood by the side of his lord and lent him aid.
If the lord was unhorsed the squire must see that his horse was caught or that the knight was remounted; if the horse was killed the squire must provide another; if the lord lost his sword or lance the squire must have other weapons ready at hand.
If the knight took a prisoner it was the squire's duty to take him back to camp and give him to the attendants for safe holding. If the knight was getting the worst of the combat, the squire had to come to his aid, especially if he was attacked by several at one time. In this way, the squires often fought with one another.
If the knight were taken prisoner, it was the duty of the squire to rescue him, if possible; if he were killed, the squire took his body from the field of battle, and saw that his lord was given an honorable burial.
Within a few years the squire was ready to be made a real knight. After a night of vigil at the tomb of some saint or of a departed knight, the squire said his prayers and bathed himself in purifying waters. He then put on his full armor and presented himself before the king, or his lord, to be dubbed a knight.
Kneeling before the king, or his lord, he received a light blow with a sword on his shoulders, or the back of his neck, with these words:
"In the name of God, of Saint Michael, and of Saint George, I dub thee knight. Be brave, ready, and loyal. Arise, Sir Knight."
The newly-made knight arose and was ready for all the duties of his order. Mounting his horse, taking his shield and sword in hand, he rode about the castle receiving the congratulations of his friends, and bestowing gratuities upon the priests and the servants of the castle.
It was the sworn duty of all knights to protect the weak and helpless, to see that justice was done to the poor and oppressed, to be loyal to their castle lords and kings, to defend women and children from insult and injury, and to be faithful to the lady of their choice.
There were plenty of adventures for the knights in those rough days of war and violence. Any knight in quest of adventure need only to ride forth to find all the adventure he wanted. He might discover that some fair maiden had been carried away from her friends, and he could rescue her; or that some poor peasant had had his cattle stolen and he could seize the robbers and punish them; or that some castle was attacked by an enemy and he could join one party or the other, as his fancy took him.
If all were peaceful he might still find amusement in tilting at some castle where he called for entertainment. Appearing at the gate he would call to the porter, "A knight awaits without and would joust with any knightly inmate."
The word was passed through the castle that a joust was to take place. Ladies, knights, squires, pages and servants then repaired to the tilting-ground, which was a green, level spot within the courtyard, surrounded by grassy banks for the ladies and spectators.
The knights took their places, one at each end of the green lawn, the ladies and spectators waiting with eagerness the contest. The contestants mounted their horses, closed their visors, couched their lances, and spurred their steeds forward.
They came together in the center with terrific shock, lance striking shield or helmet, each trying to unhorse and disarm his antagonist. The joust was repeated until one of the knights was thrown from his horse and declared defeated by the judges, or owned himself overcome.
Sometimes in the towns, or at the castles, there were great gatherings in which tournaments were held for prizes, and at which many knights gathered from far and near. There were days of feasting and revelry, the tournament grounds were decorated with great magnificence, while the knights vied with one another in feats of arms.
When all was ready for the lists the heralds cried, "Come forth, knights, and do battle for your lady loves," and the splendid cavalcade moved into the grounds. The horses were in superb trappings, their harness blazing with color and jewels. The armor shone in the bright sun, while from helmets and lances fluttered the glove or ribbons of some fair lady in whose name the knight was to do battle.
The knights were in two groups, one at each end of the lists. The trumpet sounded, the ropes were lowered, and the knights bounded forward, with heads bent low and lances aimed at their antagonists. The minstrels played, the ladies shouted and waved their hands, and called out to their champions. The earth shook with the tramp of many feet, there was the din of arms and the crashing of spears as the horses and men came together. Then the ground was strewed with unhorsed men, and often blood mingled with the dust, and there were groans of wounded men.
But all this made good warriors of the knights and trained them to be fearless in real battle, and in defence of any cause they espoused. Their principles were noble, though their practices were at times cruel and bloody. We can well at this day remember the worthiness of their vows, and forgive the warlike lives they led.