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Knighthood in the Past and Present

Friderik III. Habsburški
Friedrich III, Holy Roman Emperor

Friderik II. Celjski
Friedrich II, Count of Celje

Today a knight is generally imagined as an armored equestrian, usually armed with a spear and sword, as serving his master in the Middle Ages, receiving in turn an estate with serfs for his living and the purchasing of armoury that was very expensive in those times. Not everyone could afford weapons and especially not a horse.

In the European Middle Ages triple allegiance was typical for a knight: serving his master, the Christian God (he was a soldier of Christ), and a chosen lady.

Dr. Jožko Šavli states in his book ‘Slovenia, the image of a European nation’ (Humar 1995): "Although some features had originated from Roman times, the knighthood, totally dominating the social life during the Middle-Ages, had domestic roots. For example, it can be deduced from the Slovenian word ‘vitez’ (knight), which is also used in other Slavic languages. According to its meaning it is entirely different from the western (feudal) titles, where its primary meaning was simply a horseman or a servant. The Slovenian expression is derived from an older form ‘voltio’, which is, according to the explanations of Slovenists, associated with the word ‘will’. This means that already during the earlier period a ‘voltio’ was a man who was obedient to his master through his own volition. After the 11th century, when the western Germanic type of feudal order had already prevailed, our knights started identifying themselves with horsemen wearing armour, helmets, shields, and swords, living lives of medieval chivalry.

In 1227, the Styrian knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein left Venice to set off for Bohemia. He travelled dressed as Queen Venus, goddess of love. On the 1st May he arrived with his entourage at Vrata (Door) in the Ziljska Valley (Gailtal), where he was awaited by the Duke Bernhard of Carinthia and his knights. With a mighty chorus they offered the hearty Slovenian welcome: "Buge waz primi, gralwa Venus!" or as we would say it today: "May God be with you, Royal Venus!"

Roughly speaking, the medieval society was divided into three classes:

Types of orders

  1. Religious orders:
    • Contemplative (strictly prayer, closeted): Benedictines, Cistercians, Carthusians, Premonstratensians, Trappists, and Jesuits. These orders were dissolved in 1784 by Joseph II.
    • Mendicant orders, also known as poverty orders (do not own property): Minor Friars (Franciscans, Minorites and Capuchins), Dominicans, Lazarists, and Salesians.
  2. Religious military orders:
    • The Templars: Crusades
    • Hospitallers or Knights of Malta: Crusades who cared for the wounded and sick
    • Teutonic Order or Knights of the Cross: care for the wounded and sick
    • Lazarists and other less significant orders; today they are all involved in charitable work helping the sick.

A Knight could not be anyone; they were military elite who stemmed mostly from the nobility. By servicing God they formed their standards, their cultures of chivalry. Knights appeared in the 8th century, at the time when cavalry represented the majority of the army. The knighthood was created from the ranks of feudal landowners and vassals. It has its origins in France. Until the age of 14, the future knight would first serve as a page in a castle. The Lady of the castle would teach him good manners and the castle chaplain writing, reading and Christian instruction. At fourteen years he became a squire. He would accompany a knight into battles and during hunting. He had to learn riding, swimming, fencing, using the bow, playing chess, poetry, and writing poetry. By the time a squire reached the age of 21, the knight would dub him with a sword and he would become a knight. His main task was to participate in the war. Otherwise, during peacetime knights would practise the use of weapons and compete in tournaments. In winter they played chess, wrote songs and invited troubadours and minstrels to be their guests. Their homes were castles with their central areas being the Knights' Halls.

Using weaponry, the Knights introduced a new element: they were no longer throwing spears at a distance but combat was extended and took place in direct contact with an opponent, whether it was a real battlefield or a tournament.

A Knight had to be faithful and respect four tasks:

As a response to the general social violence, the so-called Peace of God movement began in the 11th century in the south of France. It was launched by the Church which made the nobles swear a solemn oath; it developed formulas for the blessings of swords and ceremonial empowering of knights to stop violence. Thus, the new knights acted as protectors of the Church, religion and all helpless people. Herewith the chivalry idea and activities were Christianised. Participants in Crusades, being like knights in the service of God, became part of Christ's chivalry, which emphasised warfare as being in favour of peace and honour. Christian Knights believed that anyone who died in Jerusalem and the Holy Land respectively would be close to Christ when the Last Judgment came.

Crusades never achieved their goals. Even after thousands of years there is no peace in the kingdom of God. Nevertheless, they also introduced many useful things such as strengthening trade, transport and exchange of cultural goods. Europe learned about new countries, people and cultures, interesting crops and products. Highly appreciated were the following new commodities such as: silk, velvet, carpets, sugar, mirrors, weapons, glass, paints and a number of other interesting goods. Introductions to Europe included rice and citrus fruits; coastal towns flourished with the aid of vibrant maritime activities. The bourgeoisie gradually obtained some influence in the managing of the country.

It was values and ideals that led the knight, if he was made from the right mould. In the 12th and 13th centuries faith, hope and charity were core values; also justice, prudence, sustainability and strength. There were also individuals who did not comply with these ideals and even abused their power. Such armed men were called robber barons, who in the 19th century through romantic eyes became famous all over Europe. In our country, the most famous robber baron was Erazem Predjamski (Erasmus Lueger) known as Jama (Cave). He was the owner of Jama Castle, which is one of the most beautiful castles in our country being also remarkable due to its location.

Knighthood in Slovenia was an integral part of the European chivalry. The nobility of our places were an integral part of the European nobility. They were born here, worked and were buried here. They also died abroad, of course - in wars, crusades, or due to illness but were always buried at home. If it were impossible to bring the whole body home at least their embalmed heart was put in an urn to be buried in their native soil.

Drago Medved