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The Chivalric Ideal: A Historical Commentary on the Customs and Manners of a Chivalric Society

By Saga, Goddess of History and Lore
Part Two

The Germanic Knights

In the tenth century and throughout much of the eleventh, when the French monarchy was at its weakest, the German imperial monarchy was strong. Its strength was in its ability to consolidate its territories, from control of the imperial church and its massive wealth, and the ability of successive emperors to maintain and control their family lands. But in order to administer these vast holdings effectively, the emperors needed reliable servants, and so did the bishops and abbots whom their influence had advanced. It is in this context that we first begin to hear of ministeriales or “serf-knights”.

Serf-knights started out as a privileged group among the unfree. They were bound to their lord and to his domain, they could not marry without his permission or aquire land or holdings outside of the domain. However, their obligations were anything but servile. Their duties consisted of service in the lord’s hall, the supervision of his estates, and military service. Ministeriales were the highest officers of a lord’s household; the chamberlain, seneschal, and marshall. By the mid-eleventh century, most serf-knights held their own hereditary estates, and although technically unfree, constituted a powerful and privileged group among the non-noble.

Many ministeriales were able to make themselves quite powerful. Because they were dependant on their lord, and because of their close familial ties with him and his household, they were the natural men to whom he looked to man his castles and enforce his justice. Because of their general obligations to military service, they were a key element to his fighting forces. When civil wars erupted in the late eleventh century in Germany, their influence was often the only solid element of continuity in the government of a lordship. With their masters now so dependant on them, the former restrictions of their position began to fall away. Ministeriales began to acquire land from more than one lord and do homage to them. In a country where free land-holding ( freies Eigen under Landrecht) was a sign of nobility, the acquisition of fiefs was a key step in the rise of the serf-knights into the noble order, whose hierarchy was defined by tenure.

In the twelfth century there is ample evidence of ministeriales holding assemblies without being summoned by their lords, and doing justice in them; in 1159 we find the ministeriales of Utrecht banding together to uphold their privileges. Despite their rise to hereditary landholders, a distinction remains between the old high nobility and the new “lesser” nobility of the ministeriales.

The ministeriales began to refer to themselves as miles or Ritter , Latin and German, respectively, for “knight”. They begin crowding the courts of great nobles and kings, and begin to become a part of the general courtly movement. They become conscious of their “knightly lineage”, described as de militari progenie or de militari sanguine -of knightly descent or of knightly blood. As in France, the bond of knighthood was beginning to create a sense of brotherhood, of knighthood as an order or a cult, with its requisite behaviors and ideals.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, knightly societies and brotherhoods came into being. These brotherhoods were long lived and powerful, and held jousting and tourney events. The obligations of the brothers were clearly defined in detailed statutes. Each brotherhood had its officials, its ‘king’ and counsellors, who presided when they held their great court and tourney: at the end of the tourney a new ‘king’ would be elected to reign until the next ‘court’. None were to be admitted to the brotherhoods but those noble above reproach: robber knights, hardened excommunicates, and slanderers of women were all excluded- and those who had demeaned themselves by marrying below their estate. A companion charged with dishonest or disloyal conduct might be summoned before the ‘king’ and his council, and if he could not clear himself, would be excluded from the company. Any member who heard the honor of a companion being impugned (a formal process, which might be the prelude to complex litigation or to a feud) should seek to help him answer the charge. Provision was also made for the saying of masses for the souls of the departed companions. The tournament brotherhoods had their own insignia, usually hung from a collar worn about the neck. Grunenberg illustrated the ‘arms’ of twelve of the most famous brotherhoods in his great armorial book, drawn up in the 1480’s.

With their permanent structure of government, and their carefully drafted statutes, these were aristocratic societies capable of exercising formidable influence in all sorts of quarters, even though play was the basis of their formal objective. The tournaments they held and the subsequent crowds of challengers with their ladies, servants and hangers-on, brought custom to a city and became very important and popular social and political events throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


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