Friday, December 11, 2009

Knights in History

Frances Gies’s The Knight in History, a highly readable work which conveys recent scholarship very easily.

The book is built around interspersion of biographies of prominent knights (William Marshal, Bertrand du Guesclin, Sir John Fastolf and his Paston heirs) with thematic chapters (Troubadors and the Literature of Knighthood, The Knights Templars) and narrative chapters (What is a Knight, the First Knights, Knights of the First Crusade, The Long Twilight of Chivalry).

The format works well. The du Guesclin chapter in particular conveys very effectively the raid-and-siege nature of so much medieval warfare.

I was struck with another similarity between Latin Christendom and medieval Japan – the knightly class's rise to nobility very strongly parallels the rise of the samurai class in Japan to similar status. The main difference: Latin Christendom already had a military nobility while Japan had a civil nobility, so in Christendom the interweaving became more complete.

Gies also presents well the transmutation of knights into officers and local officials – agents of the Crown – due to rise of royal taxing powers and the force of polity-competition. She misses the full significance of the cost of knightly equipment in the changes around the C11th, but that seems a common failing in current scholarship. The Knight in History is a book well worth reading.

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