Origins of Medieval KnighthoodFurther information: Bucellarius
In Ancient Rome there was a knightly class Ordo Equestris (order of mounted nobles) from which European knighthood may have been derived.
Knighthood as known in Europe was characterized by the combination of two elements, feudalism and service as a mounted warrior. Both arose under the reign of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne, from which the knighthood of the Middle Ages can be seen to have had its genesis.
Some portions of the armies of Germanic peoples who occupied Europe from the 3rd century CE, had always been mounted, and some armies, such as those of the Ostrogoths, comprised mainly cavalry. However it was the Franks who came to dominate Western and Central Europe after the fall of Rome, and they generally fielded armies composed of large masses of infantry, with an infantry elite, the comitatus, which often rode to battle on horseback rather than marching on foot. Riding to battle had two key advantages: it reduced fatigue, particularly when the elite soldiers wore armour (as was increasingly the case in the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman empire); and it gave the soldiers more mobility to react to the raids of the enemy, particularly the Muslim invasions which reached Europe in 711. So it was that the armies of the Frankish ruler and warlord Charles Martel, which defeated the Umayyad Arab invasion at the Battle of Tours in 732, were still largely infantry armies, the elites riding to battle but dismounting to fight, providing a hard core for the levy of the infantry warbands.
As the 8th century progressed into the Carolingian Age, the Franks were generally on the attack, and larger numbers of warriors took to their horses to ride with the Emperor in his wide-ranging campaigns of conquest. At about this time the Franks increasingly remained on horseback to fight on the battlefield as true cavalry rather than as mounted infantry, and would continue to do so for centuries thereafter. Although in some nations the knight returned to foot combat in the 14th century, the association of the knight with mounted combat with a spear, and later a lance, remained a strong one.
These mobile mounted warriors made Charlemagne’s far-flung conquests possible, and to secure their service he rewarded them with grants of land called benefices. These were given to the captains directly by the Emperor to reward their efforts in the conquests, and they in turn were to grant benefices to their warrior contingents, who were a mix of free and unfree men. In the century or so following Charlemagne’s death, his newly empowered warrior class grew stronger still, and Charles the Bald declared their fiefs to be hereditary. The period of chaos in the 9th and 10th centuries, between the fall of the Carolingian central authority and the rise of separate Western and Eastern Frankish kingdoms (later to become France and Germany respectively), only entrenched this newly landed warrior class. This was because governing power, and defence against Viking, Magyar and Saracen attack, became an essentially local affair which revolved around these new hereditary local lords and their demesnes.
In the Early Medieval period any well-equipped horseman could be described as a 'knight,' or miles in Latin. In the course of the 12th century knighthood became a social rank with a distinction being made between 'milites gregarii' (non-noble cavalrymen) and milites nobiles (true knights). As the term 'knight' became increasingly confined to denoting a social rank the military role of fully armoured cavalryman gained a separate term, 'man-at-arms'. Although any Medieval knight going to war would automatically serve as a man-at-arms, not all men-at-arms were knights.
The first military orders of knighthood were the Knights Hospitaller founded at the First Crusade of 1099, followed by the Knights Templar (1119). At the time of their foundation, these were intended as monastic orders, whose members would act as simple soldiers protecting pilgrims. It was only over the following century, with the successful conquest of the Holy Land and the rise of the crusader states, that these orders became powerful and prestigious.
The ideal of chivalry as the ethos of the Christian warrior, and the transmutation of the term knight from the meaning "servant, soldier", and of chevalier "mounted soldier", to refer to a member of this ideal class, is significantly influenced by the Crusades, on one hand inspired by the military orders of monastic warriors, as seen retrospectively from the point of view of the beginning Late Middle Ages, and on the other hand influenced by Islamic (Saracen) ideals of furusiyya.
Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor (1459–1519) is often referred to as the last true knight. He was the last emperor to lead his troops onto the battlefield.
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