In order to survive in the harsh and violent French medieval society, many nobles who had the means and time took up knighthood professionally.
Preliminary notions about knighthood and chivalry and the corresponding life-style started circulating in France as early as the eleventh century (though modern scholarship traces its origins back to the Arabs in the 6th century) with the advent of mounted warriors who proudly called themselves chevaliers, meaning literally the “one who rides a horse”. These ideas were then modified and developed by the subsequent feudal classes over the next four centuries to include the standardized codes of courage, virtue and service.
The Use of Force of the Nobles in a Violent Society
During the 11th century the use of force was predominant in French society. The nobles would wage war on others for various reasons. They would attack their neighbors in order to increase status, profit and power, but they would also sometimes wage war for sheer amusement or from a sense of duty.
The nobles were often raised and bred for war; they underwent rigorous training in early youth and practiced warfare for the rest of their lifetime. It was also a necessary condition for their survival as there was constant and fierce competition where only the fit survived and retained their property, while weaker lords eventually disappeared and had to seek refuge in a monastic life.
The Importance of Money and Economy for Early French Knighthood
Nobles of the time period did not usually possess a lot of riches, as commerce was hardly existent and little money was in circulation. Any surplus that the nobles would have could not be used later; they depended mostly on the fruits of the labor of their serfs, who in their majority were unskilled workers.
But the nobles were the only ones who could take on knighthood, as the arms and equipment of the mounted warrior were too expensive to obtain for most of the other parts of the population. As a result, knighthood became a “profession of arms”, only for the select few who could afford it and who had the means and also time for training. Without economic freedom from work and life’s necessities it was quite impossible to become a miles or knight in the 11th century of France.
Early French knighthood depended on the development of specific fighting skills, which in turn, required wealth and free time to pursue training and to practice for life. It was regarded as a profession and as a sign of honor and over the following centuries other ideas and events, including chivalric literature and the crusades, came to form and shape the current conception of chivalry.
- Painter, Sidney. French Chivalry: Chivalric Ideas and Practices in Medieval France. Cornell University Press: New York, 1957.