The stories and images that have come down to us from medieval times have become so morally simplistic as to make them more parables or fables than genuine history. Of the many characters where that is true, the knights that represented the elite of the military of medieval castles are perhaps the most romanticized.
We have allowed the idea of good knights and bad knights to become quite entrenched in our culture. Even in the ancient game of chess, we know right away that it is the white knight who is “good” and the black knight who is “bad.”
These images of good and bad in knight form are perpetuated in movies and other entertainment venues that are based in the middle ages. To what extent knights were good or bad in the reality of medieval times was no doubt a result of many more complicated factors than we accommodate when we talk about knighthood.
Within the King Arthur legends, the knights were predominantly good. By “good”, we associate our modern values of valor and virtue to some very ancient figures. And while knights were quite real and a big part of the history of the medieval times, their level of good or evil was less clear in reality than in our stories.
One reason that the virtue of knights is not that easy to pin down is that the institution of knighthood evolved over many hundreds of years through the Middle Ages. The period of history that we call “the dark ages” were called that for a reason.
This was a period time after the fall of Rome but before the rise of civilized Europe that is the time frame that we consider to be the medieval period. The medieval period that stretched from the fifth century to the 12th century is a vast time frame when society changed radically from one of chaos and violence to one of chivalry and the domination of the Church. Knighthood evolved to reflect those changing social values.
The early middle ages were times of tremendous violence, warfare and social upheaval. Each Lord or civil authority had their own knights and their job was to defend and attack as was needed to sustain what order could be had. The “code of the knights” during the dark ages of medieval history was by nature violent and forceful.
It was the rise of the Catholic Church and the crusades that began in 1095 that changed society and with it the code of ethics that knights were called upon to live up to. The advance of religious values in society brought much needed peace and stability to all level of social order.
Knights became champions of those values which is when we began to associate chivalry and moral or “godly” behavior on the knights. The great heroic knights such as Sir Galahad and Sir Lancelot were example of this heroic spirit that became the standard that we have held the image of knighthood to down to this day.
It is simplistic to say that all knights before 1095 were “bad” and all after the rise of the Church were good. This is a huge timeframe and there were many thousands knights that did their jobs with honor and valor. The fact that the values of society change doesn’t diminish that a knight who used force to protect his city or civilization was still using the valor of his time.
In addition, each knight was an individual who had his own values, priorities and personal agenda that may have influenced his behavior. While there were, no doubt, a few “bad apples”, the institution of Knighthood was one of responsibility and honor in every era of medieval times. And it was one that called for the knight to demonstrate a sense of duty, courage and resourcefulness. These are laudable values whether that knight was lived in the “bad” or the “good” era of medieval history.