Knight: The Warrior and World of Chivalry
Oxford: Osprey, 2011. 240 pp. $29.95 US. ISBN-978-1846038464
The knight is one of the most recognizable features of the Middle Ages, and has elicited a great deal of interest from scholars and popular audiences alike. Robert Jones’ Knight: The Warrior and World of Chivalry successfully balances scholarly rigor with popular appeal and provides a good overview of knights and knighthood for the casual reader. Unlike many books on knights and knighthood written for a “popular” audience, Jones’ contribution is not characterized by outdated and overly romantic notions of what knights were or ought to have been, nor does it present knights as the heroes of the Middle Ages. Instead, Jones attempts to provide a comprehensive summary of who knights were, how they behaved, and what their role in medieval society was, and in this endeavor he is largely successful.
Robert Jones holds a Ph.D. from Cardiff University, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds. He is also a long-time military historian and war-gamer, as well as an avid medieval re-enactor, and enthusiast of the longsword and rapier. He has recently published a scholarly manuscript entitled Brazen Armour and Bloodied Banners: Martial Display on the Medieval Battlefield (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2010).
Jones has an ambitious charge for this relatively brief book. He seeks to cover over a thousand years of the “knight”, from the battlefields of the late Roman Empire until his “disappearance” in the sixteenth century. He utilizes a broad range of evidence throughout the book, including a variety of written sources and artistic representations from effigies, brass, and illuminated manuscripts. His written evidence includes the writings of men such as the Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis, the Angevin author Gerald of Wales, and the French chronicler Jean Froissart, as well as the epic literature from the tenth and eleventh centuries, and the romances of Chretien de Troyes. He also relies on pseudo-historical sources such as Wace’s Roman de Brut and the History of William Marshal. Finally, he makes use of administrative evidence, such as pay records, and the manuals of chivalry by men like Geoffrey de Charny. One criticism that has been leveled at the work, and it is a fair one, is that Jones relies too heavily on English and French materials, despite writing a book that ostensibly seeks to illuminate “knights” across Europe. While he does not ignore evidence from outside the northwestern European region, he does derive a large percentage of his material from that area, and thus his presentation and conclusions apply most accurately to that region.
In the Introduction to the book, Jones immediately seeks to disabuse the reader of commonly held misconceptions about knights, and this serves to create a framework for the rest of the text. Jones argues that, contrary to popular belief, knights did not always recklessly rush into combat, but rather used sophisticated tactical and strategic reasoning. He argues that knights could fight as effectively on foot as they could on horseback, and that they were not, despite Hollywood portrayals to the contrary, “helpless as a turtle on its back” if they got knocked out of the saddle [pp. 8-9].
Jones also hits upon the great difficulty of definition that scholars encounter in studying knights and knighthood. Should one approach knights as members of the distinct social class, or a military elite, or participants a cultural milieu, or some combination thereof? Jones offers a composite definition, claiming that knights “were that group of men who formed a social elite as a result of their ability to fight from horseback in full armour (whether or not they chose to do so on the field itself), sharing a common set of values: chivalry.”  Although this definition dulls the analytical focus of some of his arguments, it also allows Jones to consider the figure of the knight from a variety of angles (though he admits that he is primarily interested in their military role), which is perfectly suitable for an overview study aimed at a non-specialist audience.
Each of the subsequent six chapters considers knights from a different thematic focus. The first three may be largely grouped into the “military” side of the knightly equation and examine the knights’ arms, armor, tactics, training, and military behavior on campaign and in battle. These three chapters allow Jones to play to his strengths as both an historian and military history enthusiast, as he is able to lead the reader through the various developments in the weapons, armor, and tactics of the knights. While these sections are generously and usefully illustrated with contemporary images and modern photographs, they could have benefited from more conceptual diagrams. In the section on arms and armor, diagrams of particular pieces under discussion would have helped, as would diagrams and maps of battle tactics and sieges in the subsequent chapters.
One of the arguments that comes across forcefully and effectively is that knightly (and medieval) combat was not mere mindless hackery, and instead involved skill, intelligence, cunning, and talent. Knights, and their commanders, were not only highly-skilled warriors, but also masters of small-unit tactics and practiced sophisticated strategies on campaign and in battle. However, armies were still largely comprised of households and noble retinues, and there did not exist a codified command structure. Outside of the “constable” and “marshal” there were few “ranks” in the Roman or modern sense, and each noble could always claim some leadership role. This tension within the command structure could impede the use of coherent strategy or tactics.
Jones also argues, following most medieval historians, that battles were comparatively rare in medieval warfare, especially compared to sieges and ravaging. As evidence (again, largely Anglo-Norman) he argues that William I only fought one major battle (Hastings), and Henry II never fought one. While this is true as far as it goes, it can and is somewhat overstated. He ignores the battles of Henry I and Stephen, which certainly exceed those of William I and Henry II, and together represent a fifty-year period. His overall point is valid- battles were comparatively rare compared to sieges- but he should acknowledge when battles were more common, such as when combatants were seeking decisive outcomes. Overall a good overview of a variety of issues within battles, and a good use of literary, visual, and “historical” source material to create a powerful image of the medieval battle.
The next two chapters consider the knights from a cultural and social perspective. In his fourth chapter on the knightly “code” of chivalry, Jones effectively summarizes the three influences that he sees at work on chivalry- the Germanic warrior ethic, the social position of the “chivalric” class, and the influences of the Church. In each case Jones mostly relies on imaginative literature to discuss the mentalité of the knightly class, while cautioning that such evidence should be treated carefully. The behavioral model that emerged from these influences created an ideology that, according to Jones, could serve as both a limit on knightly violence, but also a spur towards violence .
In his discussion on the place of the knight in society, in the fifth chapter, Jones gives a good overview of the knight’s political and judicial functions. Pursuant to these, he argues that the vast majority of knights had a basic literacy in Latin, and well as an ability to read and write in the vernacular. While this is a welcome rejoinder against the image of the brutish and illiterate knight so popular among the public, he does not provide enough evidence beyond the literary achievements of men such as Joinville and Charny to demonstrate his assertion.
In his final chapter, Jones places the “death” of knighthood not in the battles of the fourteenth century, but rather in the military developments of the sixteenth. He focuses on the increase in use and effectiveness of all forms of infantry, and most especially the Swiss and the Landsknechts from southern Germany. Large groups of heavily armored infantry, combined with the creation of effective and powerful gunpowder weapons, rendered the medieval men-at-arms obsolete. These developments were coupled with the rise of the administrative role of the knights to reduce knighthood to a social and cultural honor, rather than a military function.
Jones writes eloquently and clearly, and he provides the reader with a fine overview of the institution of knighthood, especially in France and England. He includes a useful annotated chronology of major events and how they influenced knighthood, a good glossary of relevant terms, and a fine bibliography of additional materials (though Helen Nicholson’s crucial works on the military orders is oddly absent). Overall this book is a fine example of how scholars should begin to bridge the gap between the writing of “academic” and “popular” history.
Craig M Nakashian
Texas A&M University-Texarkana <firstname.lastname@example.org>