Human exemplars of the god-like virtues of faith, courage, gallantry, compassion, and aid to the weak and oppressed. There are those who belive that knights were only smelly brutal men in rusty armour, superstitious and greedy, who lived upon the labour of the peasants and went on wars of conquest on the excuse that they were obeying their kings.
The reality was quite different. The orders and rituals of knighthood were clearly established and the great brotherhood would never have accepted such unsuitable members. A man could not even become a knight unless he was a youth of noble blood, and he had to beg an established knight to make him into service. Acdceptance was by no means certain, because a knight's squire had to combine youthful beauty with the promise of superb manhood. He had to entertain the knight by singing sweetly to the lute, act as messenger between the knight and suitable ladies, serve him gracefully at dinner, and generally act as body servant, confidant and admirer, always prepared to heap lavish praise upon his master for some deed of gallantry.
Sometimes this apprenticeship was cut short when a knight was captured in battle. It was appropiate for the squire to offer himself for ransom, and stay in captivity while the knight rode off and tried to raise the ransom.
If all went well the time would come for the squire to win his spurs. The armourers fitted him with his first armour and made his lance, sword, and poignard, while the heralds worked out an appropiate device for his shield. If the squire could afford it he bought various magic charms to protect himself against evil.
The young knight practised ardently in the tiltyard in order to grow accustomed to his armour and weapons, until it was time for his first tournament. The ladies in the audience assessed him carefully as he took his place in the lists, and tittered mockingly if his opponent unseated him with a great clangour of armour.
After the first tests of skill and courage the knight rode forth in search of noble deeds. If he was fortunate there would be a war against the pagans, but if not he had to sally forth alone. By that time he would have fallen in love with some demure virgin, and she gave him a glove or scarf to wear on his helmet. Some older knights wore ladies' stockings streaming from their helms, but a young knight was so pure in heart that such a sight made him blush with embarrassment.
On the first knightly journey he had no need of squire or other retainers. His armour shone brightly without polishing and the light of beckoning glory sustained him without food or sleep. As the hooves of his charger beat along the forest paths he looked eagerly for some fitting opponent.
When he entered a village he listened eagerly for news of a dragon or wicked lord in the neighbourhood, preferably the abductor of a fair damsel. He would not be averse to tackling sorcerers, magical beasts who destroyed cattle by breathing on them, or even giants who ate children of widows. It was however, preferable to return home with a dragon's head slung behind him and a rescued damsel upon his saddlebow.
Any acceptable feat won him the golden spurs of true knighthood, and after that he could spend the time enjoyably in hunting, hawking, fighting in tournaments, feasting, or defending his kings against enemies.
Unfortunately a young knight's purity of heart gave him many uncomfortable moments. Every knight had to have his lady and he treated her strictly in accordance with the rules. He sent troubadours to serenade her, presented with the mailed gloves of opponents killed in the lists, and sighed beneath her castle windows on moonlit nights. But the time would come when a lady expected more ardent attentions. A knight would hardly dare to drink his wine for fear that it contained a love potion, and he might be obliged to kill a friend if the impatient lady looked kindly upon him.
It was even worse when the wife of a great lord, or even the queen herself, began to languish for the attentions of a young knight. The only remedy was another knightly journey unfitted for love of women and must devote himself to the pursuit of honour. It was always a relief when the king summoned his knights for a slaughter of pagans, and they could enjoy the sport without being distracted by ladies.
The time would come, however, when a knight found his joints creaking as loudly as his armour and his head growing bald from the pressure of his helmet. There was no more need to resist the blandishments of womankind and he could settle down with his mulled wine by the hearth. He excanged stories of dragon hunts with other superannuated knights and showed the scars won in battle with the king's enemies. They all agreed that modern squires and knights behaved disgracefully. When a lady let down a silken ladder, so that a knight might climb up into her chamber, he would actually use it. The age of knighthood was doomed when knights began to pay more attention to women than to damsels in distress.