We all associate knights with chivalric tales of the Middle Ages: men in shiny armor who loved to joust and save damsels in distress. But who were the first knights, what did they do, and where have they gone?
Origin of Knights
The word “knight” originated in the early Middle Ages, but the concept of a noble horse-riding warrior is much older than that. The Hippeis were ancient Greek warriors on horseback who each had considerable wealth, but it was really during the Roman Empire that knights as an elite warrior class came into being.
The Roman Equites
The dashing Equites commanded a powerful position in Roman government, second only to the Senate. The word “Equites” derives from the Latin root word equus, which means “horse.” These Roman patricians (nobles) considered themselves servants of Rome and the empire. During the first years of the Kingdom of Rome–and later during the Republic of Rome–members of the Equites were selected only from the highest ranks of society, which meant that selection was often determined more by family wealth and status than prowess in battle. The title was also hereditary, being passed from father to son.
Noble Warriors riding Horses
The idea of noble horse-riding warriors survived the fall of the Roman Empire. Our more modern concept of knights in metal armor who held to a noble code of conduct began under Charlemagne in the 8th century. These were young cavalry soldiers who were eager serve their king and make a name for themselves. Our modern term “knight” derives both from the old English word chnit and the German word knecht, which mean “boy,” “servant,” or “vassal.” In the first few centuries after Charlemagne, knights were land-owning warriors who reported to a higher-ranked noble. Over time, the knighthood process became more formalized, with the firstborn son of a knight becoming an “esquire” at the age of seven, and the ceremony of receiving knighthood becoming a religious as much as a military event. Initially, cavalry soldiers who distinguished themselves in battle could be named as a knight almost on the spot, but the title soon became a rank granted only by the king.
Knights still exist today. The title of Knight is granted as an honorary title by monarchs and governmental bodies to recognize the outstanding achievements of certain individuals. There are, however, orders whose members call themselves knights without being designated as such by someone in a ruling class, such as the Knights of Columbus, Knights of Malta, Knights Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Knights. Members of these orders hold themselves to codes of conduct regarding service, charity work, and more.
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