The knight of chivalry paints a strong image in our minds. One of bravery, honesty, loyalty, respect and courtesy.
However, medieval knights were also powerful, land-owning individuals. They were also trained killers and had the weapons and armor to back it up.
To help keep them in check, many knights of the Middle Ages followed a Code of Chivalry.
In this guide, featuring a guest post by fantasy author Wendy L. Anderson, we’ll explore chivalry in the Middle Ages, its origins and how writers can take inspiration and ideas from it.
Choose A Chapter
- Who Was Geoffroi de Charny?
- What Was The Knight Of Chivalry?
- Was The Knight Of Chivalry Aggressive?
- What Is Chivalric Behaviour?
- Applying The Traits Of The Knight Of Chivalry To Writing Fantasy
- Learn More About Knights and Medieval History
Geoffroi de Charny was the French lord of Charny, a renowned knight who fought for France in the Hundred Years’ War.
Charny penned a couple of books in his life which proved influential. One of those was the Book of Chivalry, though historians have debated whether it was in fact written by one of his sons.
The purpose of this book was to explain the qualities expected of a knight, though some have argued it was a means of keeping powerful knights in check.
The book explores various themes, all centred around prowess:
- Worthiness – this relates to deeds of arms, such as successes in battles, tournaments and jousts. Deeds involving great danger and motivated by pure intentions are regarded as more worthy
- Responsibilities – knights were rules and Charny stated that they should behave as such, suggesting they should have a high moral standard
- Staying grounded – Charny warned knights from lapping up riches and pursuing pleasurable lifestyles. Instead, they should temper their eating habits and should prefer hard lodgings to soft beds, as well as luxurious clothes.
Guest Post by Wendy L. Anderson
As a fantasy writer, I often gravitate toward the medieval period and tropes when I develop my story’s time frame, background, and characters. So, when I was working on my fairytale re-write, Rapunzel’s Tower, I wrote a chapter and needed to know a little about the Rules of Engagement in Medieval War.
As usually happens when I research a subject, I got sidetracked and ended up reading about the Code of Chivalry for medieval knights. I was surprised by what I found.
The reality of knights of chivalry is that they were dull-witted brutes who had to have, what should have been obvious, rules to live by so that they didn’t abuse their power and influence and become thieves, murderers, and extortionists. That can be a great subject matter for fantasy writing.
The Stereotype Of The Chivalric Knight
The stereotype of medieval knights portrays a hero who looks, walks, and talks like Lancelot of the Lake from the legends of King Arthur. They are handsome, honorable, and usually an unbeatable warrior.
I always felt that King Arthur himself was the original author of the Knight’s Code of Chivalry, though, I have nothing to base that upon other than what I have read and seen in the movies. After some research, I felt like I was not too far off the mark. Arthurian legend is rife with chivalry and the knight’s code is one predominant theme.
What Are The Qualities Of A Chivalrous Knight?
Knights were commanded and expected to live by the code. There were as many as seventeen rules. I found the Knight’s Code of Chivalry according to middle-ages.org.uk. It made for interesting reading and made my princess’s heart sigh.
The vision of a chivalrous knight and his respect for women is also partially why I gravitate to all things medieval when I write. Knights are typically portrayed as strong, good, protective, and romantic. (Yes, sorry, I used the “r” word). I immediately picture handsome Lancelot in shining silver armor, carrying a huge broadsword and riding a white horse.
The proverbial knight in shining armor sweeps in, rescues the damsel in distress from the evil knight, sorcerer, demon, king, etc. (choose a bad guy). They ride off together into the sunset and she rewards him with a kiss. That scenario in fantasy writing lends itself to endless possibilities in which a writer can use the traditional good vs. evil as a beginning. I do love a good damsel in distress!
Knights were expected to behave in a manner above reproach to honor God and their King, protect women and children, seek justice, and withhold the law, to name a few. They were to possess every good quality, such as fairness, generosity, respect, honesty, kindness, and, above all, courage.
According to the medieval life and times webpage, a “knight was expected to have not only the strength and skills to face combat in the violent era of the Middle Ages but was also expected to temper this aggressive side with a chivalrous side to his nature.”
Aggressive side? Yes, thus is created the evil knight, a bully who is the antagonist in many medieval stories. He is often a thief, a murderer, and/or an extortionist intent on kidnapping a princess or stealing a throne and taking power and gold. Wouldn’t the evil knight have taken the same oaths and the sacred vows as the good knights? I believe the answer is again yes.
However, human nature is what it is. Sometimes the evil knight uses his power and strength for wrong instead of good to gain wealth and tread on the weak. This dichotomy makes for the good romantic medieval knight in shining armor writing. It is often those faults of human nature that fantasy writers can use to create more interesting characters or aspects of characterization.
In my debut novel, Of Demon Kind, my main character begins as the evil protagonist, complete with black armor, evil deeds, and all. However, his internal qualities were that of a chivalrous knight. Even though he grew up learning to do wrong and committing evil acts against mankind, he rescues a princess, seeks to stop a war, protects, and helps the downtrodden. In the end, he becomes the kind and fair king of the Kingdom of Jior. This then became a five-book series based upon the main character’s developing his code of chivalry and honor.
I was surprised to find out that many knights needed to be told what not to do so that their baser lusts, greed, and desires were not used in opposition to their Code of Chivalry. That is why the code was developed.
According to History.com, “Knights were heavily armed and prone to violence.” In the Middle Ages, they were feared, and that gives a fantasy writer like me an unending source of ideas for protagonists and antagonists. Fear, apprehension, curiosity, excitement, and love are all emotions I try to generate in my fantasy novels because those emotions are familiar, relatable, and exciting.
I don’t think chivalry began with knights in shining armor. If you go back as far as Beowulf, the first epic heroic poem, you find Vikings who had many chivalrous attributes. Beowulf himself was a famous and heroic warrior who exemplifies good in the face of evil.
In the introduction by David Wright in Beowulf, published by Penguin Classics in 1957, he defines this theme of good vs. evil as “an expression of the fear of the dark, and examination of the nature and purpose of heroism…” Beowulf’s heroic deeds made him famous, but it was his goodness, strength, courage, and desire to help his fellow man that made him a true knight.
I acknowledge that in current fantasy, tropes such as the knight in shining armor and damsel in distress have been modernized. They seem to have been frowned upon as old-fashioned, boring, and cliché.
In today’s fantasy, it is the princess rescuing the knight. Or the knight decides that the code is too outdated, too difficult to follow, and adheres to his human nature.
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that. Certainly, I applaud originality. World-building, plot, and characterization do not have to follow archaic conventions to be read-worthy. For me, I find heroes like Beowulf and King Arthur inspiring, and I love instilling an unspoken code of chivalry into my main characters, be them male or female.
Whatever period your fantasy gravitates toward, those qualities will never become outdated.
About Wendy L. Anderson
Wendy L. Anderson is a fantasy author and has written the Kingdom of Jior, a five-book epic fantasy series and has three other stand-alone works, A Cut Twice as Deep, Ulrik, and Rapunzel’s Tower. These fantasy works break free from the usual boundaries of fantasy subgenres and have received outstanding reviews. Wendy L. Anderson’s fantasy has action, adventure and suspense with just the right amount of romance! Find out more at: www.wendylanderson.com.
If you’d like to learn more about the knight of chivalry and medieval history generally, check out the guides below:
- The life of a medieval lord
- A guide to siege warfare
- Peasants of the Middle Ages
- A guide to castles and keeps
- The Rise of Chivalry – a guide by the University of Cambridge
- A brief history of knights
- Fantasy writing
- How to write a fantasy novel
- How to write battles and fight scenes
- Elven names generator and guide
- Fantasy character names
- Demon name generator
- Human name generator and guide
- The best communities for fantasy writers
- Fantasy archery – a complete guide
- Orc names generator and guide
- Worldbuilding in fantasy
- Fantasy name generator
- Worldbuilding guide and tips