Good Knight!



(The following is an excerpt from my soon-to-be-released book Messed-Up! ©2015, Scott Davis, All Rights Reserved to Author)

When the black death had passed, it left a number of important changes in its wake:  for starters, with nearly everyone dead, there weren’t nearly enough people left to work the fields.

The great Manors and Estates of feudal society were traditionally worked by serfs. Serfs were the lowest class of feudal society – the ones who did all the work. Miners, Millers, Lumberjacks, Farmers, Construction-Workers – if it was really hard work, and involved perspiration but not wearing armor, these guys were required to do it. In return for all this hard work, they got to work a little harder farming a little plot of land to keep themselves alive. And it was a crime for them to run away.

The Aristocracy, who owned all the land that the serfs were working, were to provide protection, and justice … protection because their estates wouldn’t make money if the serfs weren’t there to work the fields, and justice because it wouldn’t do to let the serfs kill each other off when disputes arose. In addition to protecting their serfs, the aristocracy were also required to contribute to the army of their own immediate superior, either monetarily, or by doing military service for a certain percentage of the year. Between the Serfs and the Aristocracy was a very, very, very small Middle Class, most of whom were tradesmen in the cities.  This was the Feudal System – and it’s the main reason the Dark Ages were, well, dark. There were basically 4 kinds of men: Lords, Churchmen, Serfs, and Tradesmen. (Obviously, there were also women, but it was illegal for them to have occupations, so, apart from the occasional supremely competent female aristocrat, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, their primary contribution was to produce more members of the father’s class.)

Feudalism was primarily a way of having military power without maintaining a standing army – and standing armies are bad, because A) they were expensive as long as you were paying them, and B) they were freaking dangerous the minute you didn’t!

Under Feudalism, each lord owned land, and possessed a Title, both bestowed by the lord above him. The catch? Every lord had to be either a soldier, or able to pay scutage – basically a tax for not being able to fulfill his military obligations. It made sense, at the time, because not everyone could be good at fighting, and the payment of scutage enabled High Lords and Kings to hire mercenaries who were good at fighting. (The mercenaries were landless knights – nobles who’d either been driven from their lands, had their titles revoked, or who’d been bankrupted and paid with their lands. They might also be younger sons of nobles who’d left all their lands to their elder children. Often enough these guys had been promised to the church, to keep them from attacking their more fortunate brothers, but had fled from that requirement … they were called “Erring Knights” … Knights Errant, in Norman-French.) These large bands of mercenaries called themselves “Free Companies” – a bit of a misnomer, as they were anything but free.

The Feudal Age was the age of the fully-armored knight – and only the wealthiest of people could become knights:  the cost of the cheapest weapons and armor that could be used by a knight was the same as the cost of a good-sized farm. And it wasn’t enough just to have armor, and a lance and sword – you had to have a war-horse, as well. Forget the Hollywood notion of a horse:  a Knight armed cap-a-pie, that is from head to foot, in plate-armor was pretty freaking heavy, and it took a damned strong horse to even move under such weight, let alone carry a knight into battle.  Worse, someone had gone and invented the stirrup, which kept the knight from falling off the damned horse, even when another knight, on another horse, was trying to knock him off with a lance.

Trouble was, the stirrup, and the high-backed, executive-type saddles they took to using, transferred the full shock of such an encounter to the poor horse’s back!  This was bad news for pretty much any ordinary horse – and fairly terrible news for the knight on his back, since it was really likely he’d be pinned-down by the weight of the dead animal, and utterly at the mercy of whatever common soldiers happened to be standing around on the ground anyway. What was needed was a freaking super-horse, or everyone was going to end up buried under dead horses, which is almost never a good way to win a battle.

They got busy breeding horses for strength – not necessarily for size, but for pure muscular power and strength of bone. Eventually, they ended up with three breeds which seemed pretty good at carrying knights: the Destrier, the Courser, and the Rouncey. Destriers seemed to be the best, and were certainly the rarest, and therefore most expensive – High Lords tended to keep these for themselves. The Courser was an all-around good choice for ordinary knights: powerful, not quite as ungodly expensive as the Destrier, and they seemed to have a lot of them – which was good, because the very best and most preferred method of bringing down a knight was still to kill his horse – whereupon the knight would be taken captive for ransom – meaning he’d eventually need another horse. Rouncey’s were pretty much what we’d consider very strong riding horses – perfectly suited for the lowest knights and men-at-arms, who wore lots less armor, and inexpensive enough that you could let a lot of them be slaughtered, along with their not-quite-top-drawer riders. They also made pretty fair pack-horses for hauling away the bodies of their former riders for burial.

I’ve mentioned before how enthusiastic humans can be about killing one another. Now, at the height of the Dark Ages, they had a system for producing knights without maintaining those expensive and dangerous standing armies; they had war-horses capable of carrying knights into battle, stirrups to keep them from falling off the horse, and all the latest pointy-slashy things for killing one another. Best of all, the guys in charge were heavily armored, and almost never got killed – and really had little cause to care if a lot of lower-class, under-armored types did get killed, so they really had no motivation to settle their differences over a pint. Better, the exciting new practice of holding people for ransom was such a good excuse for war, that they pretty much had a field day.

Later, when they’d seriously reduced the number of lower-class fighters at their disposal, they came up with something almost as good as a war: the Tournament.

Learning the skills of Knighthood was expensive and time-consuming, and, if there weren’t enough underlings around to have a good old-fashioned war, you needed some way of providing battle experience for men and horses – look, horses, if not the most intelligent animals on earth, still had a pair of perfectly good eyes, and reacted pretty much the way anyone would, on spying a wall of other horses, carrying guys with pointy things, on their backs. Dodge City wouldn’t be invented for several more centuries, but the concept of “Get the Hell Out of Dodge!” was an old and time-honored tradition simply waiting around for something snappy to call it … in the meantime, knights would have to settle for calling it “being borne away”, or “retreating”, the difference between the two being whether it was the horse’s idea, or the rider’s.

A tournament was a sort of fake war, and came in 3 parts:  the Joust, the Melee, and the peasant games.

The Joust pitted one knight against another – good experience for a horse, who probably couldn’t imagine a thousand of those guys on the other side, and who would therefore be gently broken-in to the idea of enforced military service.  The usual rules were that knights got three passes at one another … they got one point for breaking a lance on the other guy, two points for striking him on the helm, and three points if they knocked the guy off his horse – or broke it’s poor back. Usually, the loser’s horse and arms were forfeited to the victor – who, not usually needing more armor, would often ransom it back to it’s former owner (while keeping the nicest bits for himself.)  The rate was often less to do with the value of the horse and armor, per se, and more about the Feudal rank of the loser, since, after all, an Earl could afford a higher ransom than an ordinary knight – and might consider it offensive if he were ransomed for the price of a lesser noble. Undeniably, he might also take offense if the ransom was too high. Holding a high Lord for ransom was a delicate thing, therefore, which could often leave hard-feelings in it’s wake. It became the practice to forfeit matches against high Lords to avoid this unpleasantness, which pissed off the high Lords, because they wanted to have some fun, too, not to mention wanting their share of the ransoms. Certain high Lords began showing up to joust incognito – and were surprised to find that their exceptionally fine Horse and Armor gave them away!

Well, damn.

The second part of a tournament, the Melee, was a mock battle.  You get roughly equal numbers of knights on a side, they get to charge once with a lance, and then things devolved to hacking, slashing, or clubbing, depending on whether you favored an axe, a sword, or a mace. There were usually some safety regulations:  a knight who was forced out of bounds, or against the tourney wall, if there was one, was considered defeated, and the ransoming could begin (there were judges to decide if one guy got all the ransom, or if he had to split it with others.)  A knight who was injured or likely to become injured could surrender, by throwing down his arms – except that a melee could be a damned confusing thing, and those helmets were hard to see through and “oops, I seem to have cut off your head – are you alright?”

The modern signal of holding ones empty hands up was quickly adopted to prevent this sort of embarrassing circumstance.

The melee was almost as good as a war – except sadly lacking in the traditional raping and pillaging that went along with real warfare.  When snide comments began to be made implying that “Tournament Knights” weren’t as manly as actual warrior knights, the tourney guys decided what the hell, and often invaded the nearby town and pillaged and raped, there. This outraged the warriors, since the tourney guys hadn’t actually gone to the trouble of conquering the town, and eventually the Pope got involved with a Bull saying the tourney guys had to stop.

Given how very unlikely it was that the Pope would actually show up at one of these things, though, the raping and pillaging pretty much continued, somewhat ameliorated by the occasional payment of damages to the Lord of the town.  There is no record of any of this gold making it’s way down to the people who got raped/pillaged, but no system is perfect.

The third portion of the tournament was entirely for the lower classes, already pretty pumped about seeing a bunch of aristocrats kicking one another’s asses without any of the usual carnage among peasant foot troops.  The games included all the sorts of things that could exercise a yeoman’s battle skills, so as to better prepare him for slaughter/slaughtering, once the aristocracy got back to having wars.  There was boxing, bouts of quarter-staff, bucklers, which was a sort of sword-play using a short sword and a light shield, darts, stone casts, and tossing the caber, among the scots, which basically involved throwing a telephone-pole (long before they were invented). (When pressed for a description of how this particular skill might be used in battle, the scots will typically glower and bash their questioner with something considerably smaller and harder than a telephone-pole, leading one to assume that the point of caber-tossing is to lure unwary foes into asking smart-ass questions.)

The best part of the games was the Archery competition, where all the most famous archers (poachers) of the region showed up to shoot, and where, if you were lucky, King John would make fun of a particular archer, who would then do some amazing feat of archery, because he was really Robin Hood.

The Black Death screwed all that up.

Most of the serfs were dead. Most of the Middle-Class, who lived in the cities, were also dead. Many of the Aristocrats were dead, too. Everyone who was not dead, got wealthier, by inheritance – except that the Aristocrats counted their wealth by tilled acreage – and there were remarkably fewer people left to do all that tilling. The ones that were there had more money than they’d ever had before, and suddenly found themselves in possession of something that most of them had never had before: bargaining power.

If the aristocrats wanted that tilling done, they were going to have to make some changes: it was a crime for the serfs to leave their lands, but that was exactly what they were threatening to do if they didn’t get their way. The punishment for serfs deserting their manor had always been death, but killing them didn’t seem like much of an option:  most of them had seen so much death in the Plague that the idea didn’t impress them much – and dead men can’t till fields.

First, they wanted their freedom – basically, they wanted it to be legal to do what they were threatening to do – that is, seek jobs in the cities, if they couldn’t get a good deal on the farm. Again, the outraged nobles considered enforcing the law – but a) the serfs hadn’t run off, yet, and b) that would still leave the damned fields untilled.

Next, the serfs demanded raises: without their labor, the aristocrats were broke, so they’d have to cough up more dough to keep the laborers laboring. More than one land-lord bitterly complained about the outrageousness of this behavior – and then coughed-up because the fields still weren’t getting tilled, and half the serfs from the next manor had run off to the cities to become tradesmen.

This was pretty much the beginning of the end for Feudalism. The lower class started getting all uppity. The Middle Class found themselves able to charge much more for things than they could have gotten away with before – and all that money started to get spent on stuff the Middle Class ought not to have! People were going out and buying clothes as nice as the Lords were wearing. They were buying food, and wine as good as that at the Lord’s table. With burgeoning wealth comes an increase in crime, so the middle classes began to arm themselves – something the aristocracy had previously reserved exclusively to themselves.

Aristocrats tended to be better educated than the lower and middle classes.  This might not extend to reading, but it did extend to math, and it really didn’t take a genius to figure out there were FAR more peasants than lords, and if the peasants could have weapons, they could pretty much have anything else they might decide they wanted!


Arms control is not a modern idea. Americans tend to be big opponents because it’s built-in to the Constitution – but very few Americans know why.  The reason is simply that for centuries European Lords had kept the populace under control by forbidding them to have weapons.  Those laws were already old in Feudal days, but the post-plague craze for arms and luxuries stimulated a renewal of these laws that went a little overboard.


~ by dourscot on March 14, 2016.

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