The legend would have that the Prince of Wales’s feathers date from the
Battle of Crécy. Once the French army had been routed, the Black Prince came across
the dead body of John the Blind, King of Bohemia. Froissart do actually state
that the Prince of Wales and his father, the King of England, dressed in black
to pay their respect to their honourable foe. Yet another tale reports that the
Black Prince, to pay tribute to the King of Bohemia, took the feathers from the
latter’s helmet for himself then even went on to adopt his motto: ‘Ich
This romantic version of the story is counterbalanced by a more ludicrous
one. The King of Bohemia being blind, it’s believed that he was told when and
where to strike with this sword. ‘To the left, Your Majesty! Now, to the right!’
As the joke goes, Henry the Monk of Basel shouted those words to John the Blind
once they broke into the English ranks.
Both knights heroically charged the English at Crécy, on August 26th,
1346. Following the Duke of Alençon, they pierced through the fleeing Genoese
crossbowmen, maybe trampling a few. A downpour of arrows rained on them. John
the Blind couldn’t see anything but he had been advised of the danger. With no
regard for his life nor his safety, he had charged nonetheless. His horse had
been tethered to those of his companions to help him steer his steed onto the
‘To the left, Your Majesty! Now, to the right!’ Basel sounded as if he was
instructing John the Blind the basic steps of the cha-cha slide. Yet he was
telling him when and where to bash his sword on enemy heads. This alleged quote
is supposed to deride John the Blind’s last moments. He died at Crécy while
charging head on an enemy he couldn’t see. Sure! From a modern point of view,
it makes no sense. Why would anyone do that?
The fact is that the modern rules of warfare don’t apply on a medieval battlefield. It was expected from Kings and their commanding officers to step on the frontline and to lead from the very front row. It was up to them to behave the way superheroes do today in movies and honour a long literary tradition of valour, bravery and gallantry. I mean, they had the suit and everything. Who could be more dashing on the battlefield than a knight in shining armour dressed up with the coat of arms of his family? They craved to become the fabric of legend and to get a tenth spot among the the Nine Worthies, alongside Alexander, David and Arthur. We need to remember that back then, written history was barely anything but tales of war. There was no study of the economical impact of the Cistercian order in eastern Europe. Only tales of Teutonic knights slaying pagans in the name of God. Tales to which John the Blind contributed himself, by the way.
John the Blind’s death reminds us that mankind isn’t the most level-headed of species. We do tend to act on impulse rather than reason. However it would be wrong to assume that as he charged at Crécy, John the Blind drowned himself in some ‘collective dream’ fixated on an outdated and nostalgic idea of chivalry.
More on that in my next post!
Disclaimer. Sources and further readings to be found at the end of the John the Blind’s series
Follow up on “What 100,000 francs”: why writing history requires attention to details and constant self-criticism
recently I answered a
question on the AskHistorian subreddit. You can read it here.
question was about Bertrand du Guesclin’s ransom after the battle of Najéra
(1367), elevated at 100,000 castilian doblas,
which was an insane amount of money for only a captain of the French army. Now
the thing is that I was not the only one who had answered. Darwinfish86
also honoured us with a well-constructed answer that awoke my jealousy, not
only because it was well written but because he answered first and got more
likes because of it. I’ll admit can be very vain that way.
sheer wicked pettiness, I went through his post and saw that he stated that du
Guesclin had been ransomed in 1364 ransom for 100,000 francs. My brains went
like… “Wait a minute buddy!” I clicked on a link he had put in and boom I landed on the Wikipedia page of the
battle of Array, where it is also stated that Bertrand du Guesclin had
been ransomed for 100,000 francs.
within me laughed maniacally.
See, I had
seen in a book that du Guesclin had only been ransomed for 40,000 florins at the battle of Array. If his source was only
Wikipedia, my source trumped his and I could humiliate him. But nicely. Because
I’m a kind well-educated too-gentle-for-his-own-good I-never-got-into-a-real-fight
what I wrote:
“Brief fact-checking. When Du Guesclin was captured by John Chandos at the battle of Auray (1364) he ‘only’ owed him 40,000 florins. The infamous ‘100,000 francs’ that were in fact 100,000 castilian doubloons were only due by Du Guesclin when he was captured in 1367 at Najera by the Black Prince. Trusting Wikipedia on that one was a little mistake. The first 40,000 florins ransom was almost entirely paid by Charles V. He requested or obtained his brother help though for the 100,000 doubloons ransom (the King’s brother being the Duke of Anjou). Cf. Valérie Toureille (ed.), Guerre et société. 1270-1480. Paris: Atlante, 2013, p. 346-347.”
I was beaming with pride. Glowing, literally. I felt like a grammar nazi who had corrected his first “your/you’re” confusion.
But then my enemy wrote:
“I actually got the 100,000 francs from Ambuhl.” He meant this book: Ambuhl, Remy. Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years’ War: Ransom Culture in the Late Middle Ages, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013.
Then my brain went like “Oh shit!” Because any historian worthy of the grade knows deep in his bones that nothing trumps a Cambridge book but an Oxford book. And the book I was relying on, well, it was travesty. I had spotted mistakes in it in the past. It had been rushed to publication and was crippled with flat out errors. I didn’t hesitate for a second. I shamelessly threw it under the bus. I showed no courage. I even went as far as to insult the French—because after all I’m Belgian.
it be that Tourneille & co mixed up their numbers? I wouldn’t be too
surprised about that. […] As always, apart from Contamine, never trust any
When I blow
low, I blow low.
Under-the-belt-on-your-kneecaps low. With a crowbar. Then I run away because I’m
a skittish little squirrel. Or a cat. Cats do run away when they’ve been mischievous.
happened? Who was right and what are the real numbers for du Guesclin’s ransom
from the battle of Najéra?
As it happens, in Toureille’s book we can read that du Guesclin had been ransomed for 40,000 florins, but that is wrong. Bertrand du Guesclin acknowledged himself in a very official fashion that he owed 100,000 francs to the man who captured him at Najéra, aka John Chandos; see: Letters, Orders and Musters of Bertrand Du Guesclin, 1357-1380. Edited by Michael Jones. Woodbrdge: The Boydell Press, 2004, p. 36-37. However, Kenneth Fowler who never came across that piece of evidence though it had been published twice in the 19th century, wrote in a 1987 article (see page 245, note 8) that du Guesclin “was liberated on September 30th, 1365. We ignore at what price. Chandos received an account of 40,000 florins from Charles V.”
Sweet mother of Jesus, here we find the infamous 40,000 florins that put me my good name to shame. In Toureille’s book, the authors had read that article by Fowler and they had slavishly copied the information without fact-checking it! Oh. My. God.
So we have a historian who doesn’t do his homework back in 1984 and makes a mistake that is unhesitatingly copied in a 2013 publication, and then I pass for a fool!
Never trust your own books.
At Auray (1364), Wikipedia is right on that one, Bertrand du Guesclin was ransomed for 100,000 francs, and Charles V advanced 40,000 florins to help his captain in obtaining an anticipated liberation. Then at Najéra (1367), that same captain not yet constable was ransomed for 100,000 castilian doblas, and according to my calculation (based on a book that I certainly think is more trustworthy than the other), it was worth around 118,404 francs. Du Guesclin value had inflated in three years. We need to point out though that he helped to make it happen by telling everyone how priceless he was.
A famous medieval knight called Bertrand du Guesclin was ransomed for 100,000 Francs. What could you buy in 14th-century France for 100,000 francs? And was it considered to be a large ransom or quite the opposite?
“I’m reading the chronicles by Froissart and there’s this bit about a ransom that confuses me. It’s not immediately clear for me whether or not the ransom was high or rather too low but politically inopportune. Because both the Prince of Wales as well as his counsel regret the decision to ransom the knight for 100,000 Francs (or rather, regret ransoming him at all – since he would raise 2000 men at arms). Also, it took Bertrand a month to raise the money from the King of France and the Duke of Anjou. Would this be a long period or were they amazed at how fast his ransom was paid? The text is kind of ambiguous. So, what could you buy in 14th-century France for 100,000 francs, the ransom of Betrand du Guesclin? Was it considered large for a ransom? If so, how did the French during the Hundred Years’ War pay a large ransom like that?”
This ransom was quite high. Du Guesclin had made quite a name for himself and the more he was captured the higher his ransoms became. Those 100,000 doubloons (not francs!) weighted around 460kg of gold (roughly 1,014 pounds), which was a massive fortune.
We also need to keep in mind that on one hand a substantial amount of gold and silver mines were discovered in the 16th century, meaning that the value of those precious metals went down after that point in time. More gold is needed today than it was in the 13th and 14th century to buy—let’s say—a horse or a cow, because gold was much scarcer. Therefore it is almost impossible to really evaluate the value of 100 000 doubloons only by its gold value.
On another hand the 14th century saw several monetary crisis because of the Hundred Years War. From 1337 to 1360, the value of gold sunk compared to the value of silver. It is a fact that there was a shortage of silver in France. This shortage resulted in hoarding. Therefore we observe a drastic slowdown in monetary circulation which didn’t help the situation. The Kingdom of France yet regained some economical health during the next period (1360-1385) under the rule of Charles V. However, the value of coins had still a lot diminished compared to what it was in 1330. Nonetheless we can still state that a franc in 1364 weighted 3.885g at 24K. In conclusion, Du Guesclin ransom was worth 118,404 francs.
Now, we can find a precise account on JStor (links below) of how much Charles V invested in renovating the Louvre between 1364-1368—let’s not forget that Du Guesclin was captured at the battle of Najera, in 1367. To give a very rough idea of how elevated Du Guesclin’s ransom was, Charles V paid the binding of a single book 20 ‘sous parisis’. That was barely more than a franc, yet that was already a lot of money since it was for a very precious book! Also, as one of the construction worker died during the renovations of the Louvre, he’d left behind him a poor widow with paralysed limbs. She received only 6 francs as compensation. 6 francs were also the price for 5 sculptures that were put in a new staircase.
On a side note, we know that Charles V had amassed around 400 000 francs by 1368. It took him a lot of time to hoard it but most of it would be spent by the end of the next year. In that time frame, in a single year, 248,630 francs were used to finance the war and defend the kingdom. Therefore, yes indeed, Du Guesclin’s ransom was astronomic. He was only lucky that his king had quite a fortune precisely when he was captured.
Sources: ~ Valérie Toureille (ed.), Guerre et société. 1270-1480. Paris: Atlante, 2013, p. 347. ~ Raymond Cazelles, “Les Trésors de Charles V”, in Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1980), 124/1, p. 214-226; in particular p. 218; online. ~ E. Fournial, Histoire monétaire de l’occident médiéval. Paris: Nathan, 1970, p. 8, 103, 113-114, 117-119. ~ Marc Bompaire, “Compter au XIIIe siècle avec la diversité des monnaies : livres, sous et deniers”, in Comptabilité(S) (2015), 7, online. ~ M. Le Roux de Lincy, “Comptes des dépenses faites par Charles V dans le Château du Louvre, des années 1364 à 1368”, in Revue archéologique (1851-1852), 8/2, p. 670-691, 770-772; in particular p. 690, §57; p. 766, §113, §115; online link 1, link 2.
Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, had quite a string of bastards, but only one legitimate son, who would later be known as Charles the Bold. The latter’s mother, Isabel of Portugal, cherished him. He was the only son she had who survived beyond infancy.
Charles would later on prove to be a very skilled tactician and fighter. Yet, at the prime age of seventeen, he still pretty much had everything to prove. No surprise there, young noble lads were only supposed to start their proper military training between fourteen and sixteen years old. They usually didn’t launch their chivalrous career before they reached eighteen.
Nevertheless, as Charles was in Brussels with his father and mother, it was decided he would engage in his very first official jousting event. That was well beyond what was expected from someone his age.
One question was on every lips. Who would face the heir apparent to Philip the Good, the mightiest Duke of Christendom? It had to be an honourable knight, for sure. Yes, well, certainly someone of note!
After much deliberation, it was concluded that the young Charles would face Jacques de Lalaing, the most adored knight of the court, but not only that, Jacques was the best knight of his time. His skills were so unparalleled that no-one, in the whole kingdom of France, dared to challenge him when he had called out for people to meet him on knightly venues.
Jacques de Lalaing had had to go all the way to Spain to find worthy opponents!
That day on
the Grand’Place of Brussels, which was very different to the one we know today —for
the French hadn’t bombarded it yet—, Charles of Burgundy met Jacques of Lalaing
on the jousting field.
Jacques of Lalaing was a careful man. On the first charge he didn’t lower his spear, yet the heir of Burgundy shattered his on Jacques’ shield. When he witnessed such a thing, Philip the Good was much displeased. “Don’t spare my son, go at it!” The Duchess Isabel didn’t like such an idea. On one hand she wanted her son to be safe. Jousts were not always the merriest business. On the other hand the Duke wished his son to prove his strength. The noble couple argued. Nevertheless, Jacques of Lalaing fulfilled his Lord’s wishes. The second time he charged the young Charles, he lowered his spears. The heir of Burgundy showed no fear. Both spears shattered on Charles’ and Jacques’ mutual shields. None of them fell from his steed. Philip the Good gloated with pride and everybody applauded at Charles’ prowess, happy to see that their Duke had a strong and healthy successor.
Philippe le Bon, duc de Bourgogne, eut une ribambelle de bâtards.
Toutefois, il n’eut qu’un seul fils légitime – que l’on surnomme aujourd’hui
Charles le Téméraire. La mère de ce dernier, Isabelle de Portugal, le
chérissait particulièrement. Deux de ses fils étaient morts en bas âge, Charles
était le seul à avoir survécu.
De son vivant, l’héritier de Philippe le Bon démontra à
maintes reprises ses talents de combattant et de tacticien. Néanmoins, au jeune
âge de dix-sept ans, il avait encore tout à prouver. Alors qu’il se trouvait à
Bruxelles avec son père et sa mère, il fut décidé qu’il se lancerait dans sa
première joute officielle. Une question pendit toutefois à toutes les lèvres.
Qui aurait l’honneur de l’affronter en premier ? Ce devrait être un preux
chevalier, quelqu’un de remarquable. Après moult délibérations, il fut arrangé
que le jeune Charles affronterait Jacques de Lalaing en personne, le chevalier
le plus adoré de la cour de Bourgogne, un chevalier tel qu’aucun, en France, n’avait
osé relever ses défis. Il avait dû se rendre jusqu’en Espagne pour trouver des adversaires
dignes de l’affronter. Enfin, donc, Charles de Bourgogne rencontra Jacques de
Lalaing sur la Grand’Place de Bruxelles, prêt à en découdre.
Jacques de Lalaing était un homme prudent. Quand il chargea la première fois, il ne baissa pas sa lance, bien que celle du jeune héritier de Bourgogne se rompît sur son écu. Quand il constata la chose, le duc de Bourgogne s’avéra bien mécontent. « N’épargne pas mon fils, va donc ! » La duchesse Isabelle n’appréciait guère une telle idée. Elle eût préféré que son fils restât en parfaite sécurité, mais le son époux désirait que son fils prouvât sa valeur. Le noble couple se disputa. Cependant, au second envol, Jacques de Lalaing respecta les vœux de son suzerain et abaissa sa lance. L’héritier de Bourgogne de montra aucun signe de faiblesse. Les deux lances se rompirent sur les boucliers respectifs de Charles et Jacques. Aucun d’eux ne chut de son destrier. Philippe le Bon exulta de fierté et tout le monde applaudit la prouesse du jeune Charles, bien heureux d’observer que le duc avait pour lui succéder un héritier aussi vaillant qu’en parfaite santé !
Source: Olivier de la Marche, Mémoires. Edited by Henri Beaune & J. d’Arbaumont. Paris: Renouard, 1883-1888. Cf. t. 2, p. 214-215.
Joan of Arc
never failed to be breezy and impertinent when faced with her social higher-ups.
That is one of her predominant character trait which makes her so charismatic.
She was blunt. She was fearless. She bowed to no one but the King. She was fine
damn ready to kick some ass and to admonish anyone whom she felt had crossed a
line. She certainly was one of a kind.
Joan Meets Jean de Metz
“Should I lose my feet I’ll walk on my knees.”
de Metz first met her back in Vaucouleurs, where her journey started, she was
wearing a threadbare red dress. “What are you doing here, darling?” he asked.
She answered in a straightforward manner: “I’ve come here to talk with the Lord
of Baudricourt, so that he would send me to the King. He won’t hear me, but I’ll
get there. Should I lose my feet I’ll walk on my knees. No one in the world,
nor any King, nor any Duke, nor any daughter of the King of Scotland, nor anyone
else, can take back the realm. The King shall have no succour but mine!” Jean
de Metz fell head over heels for Joan. He escorted her himself to Chinon after
he had her dressed as a man. He would then follow her for several months .
Joan riles the Duke of Lorraine
they left Vaucouleurs for Chinon, Jean de Metz went with Joan to meet The Duke
of Lorraine. The latter had invited the Maid to his court because he thought
she could be a healer of some sort. She candidly told the Duke to ditch his
mistress and be faithful to his wife. Then she went on to ask if René of Anjou,
the Duke’s future son-in-law, could accompany her to Chinon. The ten years old
prince belonged to the highest nobility. He was cousin to the King. Joan really
got some nerve. Yet her request was unabashedly denied .
Joan Flames A Theologian
“I speak better French than you”
eventually made her way to Chinon and met the King as she promised she would.
At that point she was requested to meet theologians to vouch for her visions.
Pierre Seguin was amongst those theologians and mighty doctors of the Church. He
asked Joan which dialect she spoke. “I speak better French than you”, she
replied, for he had a southern accent. He carried on to ask Joan to give a sign
that she was indeed sent by God. She came out as sharp as a knife. “I didn’t
come here to grant you tokens from God. Send me to Orleans. I’ll show you the
sign you’re looking for. ”
Joan of Arc Mocks Dunois
“I come by God’s own guidance, which is far safer and wiser than yours.”
on to Orleans. On her way over there, the French army rode up to the East of
the city to cross the river Loire. It pissed Joan, for John Talbot and his
troops were sitting West of Orleans. If there was ever a fearsome captain, it
was John Talbot. I found various occurrence of French armies avoiding him or fleeing
upon his arrival to avoid to face him. Yet Joan had wished to meet him head on.
She walked right to the man responsible of the coward itinerary, the Bastard of
Orleans himself. “Is it on your advice that we cross the river here and not
where Talbot and the English are?” The Bastard was rather startled to be addressed
in such a fashion. “Yes it was!” he boasted. Joan put him back to his place: “Know,
Bastard, that I come by God’s own guidance, which is far safer and wiser than
yours. Right at that moment, the winds which had been unfavourable to cross the
Loire turned and made the crossing possible. The Bastard couldn’t believe in
his own eyes. From that moment onwards he had faith in Joan .
Joan got captured in Compiegne, after she helped to liberate Orleans. Once
captured and faced with her enemies, however, Joan didn’t tune down.
Joan Knows What Awaits Her
“I know very well that the English will have me killed”
Back in the
15th century, the English already used to yell “God damn!” whenever
something displeased them. Therefore the French came up with a derisive and derivative
nickname for them: they called the English the “Godons”. Joan hated anyone to
call out the name of the Lord in vain, but she called the English Godons
herself. She did so, although imprisoned in a cell, right in front of the earls
of Stafford and Warwick, who ranked amongst the most powerful men of England. “I
know very well that the English will have me killed. Yet a hundred thousand Godons
couldn’t take the kingdom.” Stafford got so mad he draw his dagger with the
clear intent to kill her. Warwick through herself in front of Joan to protect
her. He would later protect her too from rape. You see, Warwick was of a sound state
of mind. He wanted Joan killed properly: on the pyre like a heretic after a due
trial to rob her from her mystical charisma .
Joan Faces Her Judges
“Should you tear my limbs apart…”
however kept a full grip of herself when she met her judges: an army of
theologians from the University of Paris who longed for her death. They tried
to catch her off guard with theological traps when asking her if she believed
she had received the grace of God. “I don’t know if God granted me his grace.
If he has, I pray that he keeps to do so. If he hasn’t, I pray that he extends
it to me,” she answered. Then they asked if Saint Michel was naked when he
visited her. She thought the idea utterly ludicrous: “Do you think Our Lord doesn’t
have clothes for him?” Eventually she was threatened with torture. She feared
nothing. “Should you tear my limbs apart or split my soul from my body, I
wouldn’t tell you otherwise. Should I tell you otherwise, then I would always
argue that you forced me to.” They ruled out torture. They went for entrapment.
At the end Joan was burned because she took on her male clothes after she swore
she would not put them on again. If there ever was a thin pretext to kill
someone, it was that one .
How Joan Ghosted Her Best Friend…
around eighteen years old when she went on her quest to rescue the King of
France. She was no more than nineteen when she died. She answered to the
powerful and the wealthy with nothing but confidence and cheek. Yet, there is
one person she didn’t dare to face, Hauviette. The latter said: “I’ve known her
since I was a child. We grew up together, you see. We had a fun sleeping next
to each other in the same bed when we were kids. Joan was good, pure and sweet.
She liked to go church. People often made remarks about it and she felt a bit
ashamed… She was like any other girl. She’d tend to her house and to her father’s
cattle. She could spin wool too. There was a big tree not far from the village.
We called it the tree of the fairies. We’d go there, with some bread and some
nuts, and we’d play. We never saw any fairies. There was none.” Then, she added:
“When Joan definitely left the village, she told me nothing. I only learned
afterwards that she was gone. I cried a lot. She was so good and I loved her so
much. She was my friend. ”
 Jules Quicherat, Procès de condamnation et de réhabilitation de Jeanne d’Arc. Paris: Jules Renouard, 1861-1869. Cf. t. 2, p. 436.  Ibid., t. 3, 87.  Ibid., t. 3, 204-205.  Ibid., t. 3, 4-5.  Ibid., t. 3, 122.  Pierre Champion, Procès de Condamnation de Jeanne d’Arc. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1921. Cf. t. 2, p. 42, 151, 252-253.  Quicherat (1861-1869), t. 2, 417-419.
Régine Pernoud & Marie-Véronique Clin, Jeanne d’Arc. Paris: Fayard, 1986 Philippe Contamine, Olivier Bouzy & Xavier Hélary, Jeanne d’Arc. Histoire et dictionnaire. Paris: Robert Laffont, 2012 (coll. Bouquins).
I really wanted to answer to that question on the AskHistorians subreddit. For two reasons: first, the scene referred to in the question really struck my feelings when I watched it because of how well acted and written it was; second, I had the knowledge and the necessary books at my disposal to answer in a fashion that would respect the AskHistorians community rules and expectations. Enjoy!
The Very Short Version
answer is that any knight could dub a squire to elevate him to knighthood. The
long answer offers more contrast. The dubbing ceremony came into fashion in the
11th century. Originally it constituted in very little: a lord gave
arms and armours to his vassals to help him into battle. This would also serve
as a rite of passage into adulthood and to some extent, we can trace that rite
all the way back to Germanic tribes (Keen, 1984, 66-67).
Early Mass Promotions to Knighthood
In the 12th
century we observe ceremonies of mass promotions to knighthood. Therefore the
knight becomes really distinct from the vassal. The dubbing ceremony gains in
complexity and the multiplication of knights give them the feeling to belong to
a social order apart from the rest of society. The techniques of warfare would
however evolve drastically from the 13th to the 15th
century. Crossbow became deadlier and firearms made their introduction. The
knights therefore improved their physical protection and adopted the plate
armour, which kept on being improved generation after generation.
Only the Best and Wealthiest
To be made
a knight became a very pricy thing. Moreover the idea of knighthood was the
object of more and more sophisticated theories. The behaviour expected from a
knight, in and out of the battlefield, was codified to an extent that made it
impossible for anyone to be randomly dubbed. At this point, I’d like to quote
the Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval
Warfare and Military Technology (2010, vol. 2, p. 468-469):
All knights were warriors, but not all warriors were knights. […] The concept of the knight as a distinct elite group of warriors began to emerge in the eleventh century. The words used to designate members of this group indicate that the origins of this class lay with the armed and mounted servants who formed a lord’s entourage, or comitatus. The latin word used for a knight from the eleventh century on was ‘miles,’ which in classical Latin meant a soldier and by the tenth century a servant. […] As church attitudes toward violence changed and certain sorts of warfare became theologically acceptable, the warrior rose in status, provided he fought for the right cause. Kings and other rulers made increasing use of knights as administrators. […] Knights regarded knighthood as a separate order in society. Knightly status became a sort of institution, with its own literature, ideals of behaviour, and rituals, such as the tournament and the ceremony of dubbing into knighthood. Initially, dubbing was simply a ceremony in which the lord presented his warriors with weapons and armor, but during the twelfth century the ceremony expanded to include a blessing of the new knight’s sword. […] As the defining characteristics of knighthood developed, the numbers of those entering this elite class of men declined. By the mid-thirteenth century in England and northern France, warriors of lesser means could no longer afford to undergo the public ritual that would make them knights. The social expectations of knights and the public responsibilities that they were expected to take on exceeded their means. Knighthood became an exclusive caste, limited to those who were descended from knights and had the means to maintain the status.
A Knight Always Pays his Debts
became a capital requirement for anyone to be elevated to knighthood. In a 15th
century manuscript that describe how emperors and kings must be enthroned to
power, we also find a paragraph on the making of knights (Paris,
BnF, MS fr. 5930, f. 3r-4v):
Comment se doit faire ung chevalier
Escuier quant il a bien voyagie et esté en plusieurs fais d’armes et qu’il a bien de quoy maintenir | son estat ou qu’il soit de grant hostel et de riche et qu’il se tienne en une rencontre ou bataille doit adviser le chief ou ung vaillant chevalier de la compaignie et lors doit venir à luy et lui demander et requérir chevalerie ou nom de Dieu et de saint Gorge. Et celui doit tirer son espee et le doit faire chevalier en disant : « Je te fay chevalier ou nom de Dieu et de saint Gorge, pour la foy et justice loyaulment garder, et à juste querelle soustenir loyaulment à ton povoir, en gardant l’Eglise, femmes, veusves et orphelins. » Et s’il advient qu’il soit noble homme ou vaillant et qu’il soit povre, le prince ne le doit laisser estre fait chevalier s’il ne lui donne de quoy il se puisse vivre honnestement pour l’onneur de l’ordre de chevalerie
How to dub a knight
When a squire has travelled much and been part of feats, if he has enough to provide for himself or if he is part of a great and wealthy house, he must advise his commander or a valiant knight at the beginning of a battle and request to be dubbed in the name of God and saint George. The latter must then draw out his sword and say: “I elevate you to knighthood in the name of God and Saint George, so that you would loyally defend the faith, fight honourable causes, and protect the Church, women, widows and orphans.” If the squire is a noble or valiant man but has no money for himself, the prince must not let him be elevated to knighthood unless he grants him enough to live a decent life.
Who’s Knighting Who?
also confirms that any knight could dub a squire. However, as Keen notes, “We
have noticed in many early texts the anxiety of aspirant knights to receive
knighthood at the hands of some lord of particular distinction or repute. In
the later middle ages a still more particular dignity was associated with
receiving knighthood at the hands of one who had established a name for himself
as a knight of prowess by deeds recognised as outstanding.” (Keen, 1984, 77) My
personal favourite promotion to knighthood is the one held for Philip the Good,
Duke of Burgundy. Since his father had passed away, he turned to the most
skilled, feared and respected knight of his court: John of Luxembourg, lord of
I will translate Chastellain directly on that one: “The Duke required the order of knighthood to John of Luxembourg while riding next to him, showing no emotion and talking in a cold manner, handing to the latter his sword: ‘Dear cousin, in the name of God I ask of you to grant me the title of knight.’ The foresaid Luxembourg received the request as a high mark of honour. He dubbed him, saying: ‘My Lord, in the name of God and Saint George, I elevate you to knighthood; may your Grace therefore become a knight as you and all of us will need you to be.” (George Chastellain, Oeuvres. Edited by the Académie royale de Belgique. Brussels: F. Heussner, 1863, p. 259) Afterwards, Philip the Good went on his way to dub other valiant squires in his ranks.
A Dubbing Was Pretty Much a Christening
We tend to
forget however that the Church could also dub knights. Monstrelet’s son was
dubbed knight of the Order of Jerusalem by the canons of Cambrai in 1444; read J. B. Dacier, « Mémoire
sur la vie et les chroniques d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet » (1826). Keen
addresses that matter quite extensively in his chapter “The ceremony of dubbing
to knighthood”. He explores as to why and how the Church became the sole
institution to anoint kings and emperors, but failed to monopolize the dubbing
of knights. Yet, he observes: “The fact that so often knights were dubbed in church impressed on all minds that
knighthood was a Christian calling, imposing broad obligations of Christian
observance and morality, whether it was given in a church or not. Under the church’s influence, crusading,
the martial pilgrimage, established itself firmly as the highest mode of
expression of the chivalric virtues of courage and endurance. Ecclesiastical
teaching also gave definition to the idea of chivalry as an order, possessing,
as every order should, its rule of life, and instructed the knight about how he
should view his individual discharge of his office as a Christian duty.” (Keen, 1984, 76)
When is it Good to be Knighted?
Any knight could therefore dub another knight, but the prerequisites to become a knight made it impossible for any “insane knighting inflation” to ever happen. Matters of wealth, moral code and lifestyle strictly limited the access to knighthood, more and more so from the 12th to the 15th century.
I’d like to end this post as it should with a last observation made by Keen: “A number of late medieval sources mention three normal occasions for receiving knighthood. It may be given, they say, when the emperor or a king holds a solemn court, or at his coronation; usually the ceremony will take place in a church, after the bath and vigil, and the prince himself ‘or some other lord who is a knight’ will gird the aspirants. […] The second occasion for taking knighthood that they mention is on pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre, the rise of which practice we have also traced. The third occasion for taking knighthood that they all mention is on the eve of battle, or of the storming of a city, when men seek knighthood ‘in order that their strength and virtue may be greater’. From the latter part of the thirteenth century on, this became a very common occasion for the taking of knighthood. […] In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the making of knights became almost a regular feature of the eve of battle, and the pages of such chronicles as Froissart [and Monstrelet] are in consequence full of references to such creations.” (Keen, 1984, 79-80)
Literature on Knighthood:
Bernard of Clairvaux, In Praise of new knighthood (1129) Ramon Llull, The Book of the Order of Chivalry (1279-1283) Honoré Bonet, The Tree of Battles (1382-1387) Christine de Pizan, Livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie (1410)
Modern Studies on
Peter Coss, The Knight in Medieval England, 1000-1400. Stroud, U.K.: Alan Sutton, 1993. Georges Duby, The Chivalrous Society. Translated by Cynthia Postan. London: Edward Arnold, 1977. Maurice Keen, Chivalry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Malcolm Vale, War and Chivalry. Warfare and aristocratic culture in England, France and Burgundy at the end of the Middle Ages. Liverpool: Duckworth, 1981.