A Trip in Time: Knights in the Middles Ages

Knights have always held a special place in the imagination of many a young child and with many adults too. As a child, did you dream about being a knight? I know I did. What does the word knight conjure up in your imagination? In my Sir Kaye, the Boy Knight series of children’s chapter books, knights, and all that they stand for, are a central theme of the stories. But how closely does our own image of knights coincide with actual history?

Join me on a trip in time to a special exhibit about knights at The Museum of Natural Science in Houston and see first-hand a real knight’s story. And don’t forget to bring your imagination.

The many fanciful stories about knights (e.g. King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable) may be quite glamorous, but the origin of a knight is anything but. The word knight comes from Old English cniht, meaning “boy” or “servant,” and that’s basically what they were. A knight could have been a farmer, a baker, or one of a variety of any other common professions at the time, who picked up arms (whatever they had available) and answered the call of their king or their feudal lord, with payment in the form of land holdings. Being a knight was a lot like being in the military reserves today.

From the knight’s humble beginnings, it took many centuries for them to morph into the knights that we are familiar with today. By the mid to late middle ages, knighthood was more of a class of lesser nobility, and by the late middle ages, a knight had become linked with ideals of chivalry, justice, and a high standard of conduct.

09 plate armorThere was more to knights of the middle ages than just their role as protectors and warriors. It was an entire way of life, including frequent pageantry demonstrating their military prowess and horsemanship in tournaments and putting on a showy display of strength and skill for the honor of their king. And a big part of their display was their outward appearance, including ornate (if they could afford it) suits of armor.

A knight’s suit of armor was highly prized, and in many cases, it was the most valuable thing they owned, other than their home. The Knights Exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science featured many exceptional pieces of armor, most engraved with ornate etchings.

What can we learn from the armor?

Since man first began having disagreements, skirmishes, and wars, people have sought ways to protect themselves. The earliest forms of combat protection included thick layers of cotton, linen, or woolen clothing. That was fine as far as it went since the layers helped muffle the blows of one’s opponent. But with the development of metallurgy and smithing, layers of bulky clothing offered no protection from pointed weapons. So they switched to leather because it was durable, flexible, easy to craft into garments, and it offered more resistance to sharp war implements. Metal entered the armor arena via several cultures: the Celts invented chainmail, garments made of thousands of interlocking rings, the Sumerians sewed metal discs onto their leather capes, and lamellar armor appeared in several cultures and was made from small pieces of metal wired together (think fish scales). All these inventions were fairly doable by a patient person since advanced metalsmithing was not required.

01 mounted knightPlate armor, which was the subject of this museum exhibit, was an entirely different matter. Plate armor began in the 14th century in brass, which was soft and easy to work with, but unable to withstand the attack of iron weapons. And while iron worked fine for weaponry, it was too brittle to be shaped into the large pieces necessary for armor until fourteenth-century European smiths learned to combine steel and iron, thereby creating what most of us think of as a traditional suit of armor. Plate armor had a relatively short lifespan in history: with the advent of muskets, it became nearly obsolete by the end of the 17th century. (Helmets and modern body armor being notable exceptions).

Suits of plate armor had many components: helmets, facial visors, collars, arm and leg protection, hand and foot protection, and coverage for the trunk, plus jointed pieces to allow some range of motion in combat and tournaments. Armor was beefed up for tournaments: those for jousting included “pieces of exchange” to better protect the chest and left arm from mortal injury. Because each suit of armor was custom-made for its wearer, it was commissioned and could take months to execute, especially if the wearer wanted to be able to move freely. Therefore armor was largely the possession of only the wealthy, at least in the beginning.

02 mounted knight

The earliest examples of armor were smooth, fairly shiny affairs with curved edges and brass trim being their only ornamentation. But as metalsmithing grew into an art form, engraving became a form of expressing the ideals and chivalric code of the wearer. The term ”Aquaforte” describes the technique of using chemicals to etch or engrave stylized or realistic designs onto the armor components. Armorers either had to be artists themselves or collaborate with artists to achieve such thematic elements as angels, animals, trophies of battle, geometric patterns, heraldry, and botanical motifs.

The most poignant part of the exhibition was definitely the partial remnants of a boy’s suit of armor from the 16th century. On the cuisses, (the parts of the armor that protected the upper thigh) the engraving of a monogram is present: ADEFLV. Though the whole suit is not intact, the size of the helmet shows that ADEFLV was a young boy, likely the son of a powerful (and wealthy) person.

Fans of the Sir Kaye series will see that a young boy being taught knightly arts is not fiction, but something that really happened in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Though we may never know the name or home of this young boy, it is fascinating to imagine his thoughts and feelings as he proudly trod in his father’s footsteps.

08 boys suit of armor

If you are a history buff, a lover of the Middle Ages, or a fan of the Sir Kaye series, I highly recommend a trip to Houston to see this exhibit. And don’t forget all the teaching/learning opportunities on my website: many lesson plans, medieval history articles, and activities for each book in the Sir Kaye series are free for you and your child to enjoy!

The Sir Kaye, the Boy Knight series of children’s chapter books are exciting adventure books that help reluctant readers. Take a peek at the award-winning Sir Kaye series published by Cardboard Box Adventures Publishing.