Thursday, February 26, 2015

“What it is to be a knight”

“There is no other beast that so befits a knight as a good horse.” 

Cover of El Vitorial (The Unconquered Knight), from the Biblioteca Nacional de España.

When the Spanish knight Sir Pero Niño went to war, he was accompanied by Gutierre Díez de Games, a childhood friend. In the 1430s, Games began to write a chronicle of Niño’s life, The Unconquered Knight, a book that became key in the literature of medieval Castile.

In addition to the story of Niño’s deeds, it includes careful descriptions of the code of conduct of the era. Here is an excerpt about knighthood, translated by Joan Evans. In Spanish, a knight is a caballero – a man on a horse (caballo) – but having a horse is not enough.


Now it is fitting that I should tell what it is to be a knight: whence comes this name of knight; what manner of a man a knight should be to have a right to be called a knight; and what profit the good knight is to the country wherein he lives.

I tell you that men call “knight” the man who, of custom, rides upon a horse. He who, of custom, rides another mount, is no knight; but he who rides upon a horse is not for that reason a knight; he is only rightly called a knight who makes it his calling. Knights have not been chosen to ride an ass or mule; they have not been taken from among feeble or timid or cowardly souls, but from among men who are strong and full of energy, bold and without fear: and for this reason there is no other beast that so befits a knight as a good horse.

Thus have horses been found in the thick of battle that have shown themselves as loyal to their masters as if they had been men. There are horses who are so strong, fiery, swift, and faithful that a brave man, mounted on a good horse, may do more in an hour of fighting than ten or mayhap a hundred could have done afoot.

For this reason do men rightly call him “knight.”

What is required of a good knight? That he should be noble. What means “noble” and “nobility?” That the heart should be governed by the virtues. By what virtues? By the four I have already named. [Justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance.] These four virtues are sisters and so bound up one with the other that he who has one, has all, and he who lacks one, lacks the others also.

So the virtuous knight should be wary and prudent, right in the doing of justice, continent and temperate, enduring and courageous; and withal he must have great faith in God, hope at His glory, that he may attain the reward for the good that he has done, and finally he must have charity and the love of his neighbor.

What profit is a good knight? I tell you that through good knights is the king and the kingdom honored, protected, feared, and defended. I tell you that the king, when he sends forth a good knight with an army and entrusts him with a great emprise, on sea or on land, has in him a pledge of victory. I tell you that without good knights, the king is like a man who has neither feet nor hands.


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