Sunday, July 8, 2012

Knight in History Review

The Knight in History by Frances Gies

(from the back of the book)

For six centuries the medieval knight dominated the battlefields and stirred the imagination of the Western world. Born out of the chaos of the early Middle Ages, the armored, mounted warrior revolutionized warfare and became the keystone of the new political structure of feudalism. Alarmed by his excesses, the Church first attempted to tame him, then enlisted him in its own enterprises – above all, the First Crusade of 1095. The Church’s efforts to Christianize the knight gave him a status sought even by kings and princes, and he was celebrated by the troubadours, trouveres, and their successors, including the fabricators of the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table.

In the end, the knight was anachronistically stranded in the age of gunpowder and the national state, but memory of him proved durable. In a long “Indian summer,” which stretched into modern times, knighthood was revived and recalled with affectionate myopia – its faults forgotten, its virtues exaggerated. Here, at last, is the real picture of knighthood.

This is obviously very well researched. And it is equally obvious that Gies knows what he is talking about. The knight is a very broad topic and spans over a long period of time and over many countries and cultures. So the information is pretty dense. Gies looks into the beginnings of knighthood and how the institution changed over time. He shows how the equipment, funding and even function changed and how they turned to poetry and song and ended up fighting for the church. It is impossible, of course, to pull the knight out of the history that he took part in and also impossible to go in-depth into all of that history but Gies strikes a pretty good balance. There were times when a lot of names were mentioned that didn't get much of an introduction and a history buff would probably have no trouble with that but some of the names ended up meaning nothing to me. But he also takes a close look at a couple of particular knights that gives the reader a better idea of the life of a knight more than an overview could do. It isn't the most readable history book I've ever read but that doesn't mean it wasn't interesting. You just have to have a true, and I would say, slightly more than casual interest to make it worth your time.

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