When Knights were Bold - E. M. Tappan

Page, Squire, and Knight

It must have been a sight well worth seeing when a knight mounted his horse and galloped away from a castle. Of course his armor was polished and shining, and, as Lowell says of Sir Launfal, he "made morn through the darksome gate." The children of the castle especially must have watched him with the greatest interest. The girls looked wistfully at the scarf or glove on his helmet, each one hoping that he who would some day wear her colors would be the bravest man that ever drew a sword. As for the boys, they could hardly wait for the day to come when they, too, could don glittering armor and sally forth into the world in quest of adventures.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


Even the youngest of these children knew that a boy must pass through long years of training before he could become a knight. This began when he was a small child, perhaps not more than seven years old. It was not the custom for the son of a noble to be brought up in the home of his father. He was sent for his education and training to the castle of some lord of higher rank or greater reputation, sometimes to the court of the king. He was taught to look with the utmost respect upon the man who trained him to be a knight, to reverence him as a father, and to behave toward him with humility and meekness. Even if the time ever came when they were fighting on opposite sides, the foster son must never harm the man whose castle had been his home. In those days of warfare and bloodshed, the king himself might well be glad to have as devoted supporters and friends a band of young men who had been carefully trained in the practice of arms. It is no wonder that kings and nobles looked upon it as a privilege to receive these boys into their castles. Indeed, when their fathers were inclined to keep them at home, the king sometimes demanded that they be sent to him.

The boys of the days of knighthood were not so very different from those of to-day, and many of their amusements were the same as now. They had various games of ball, they played marbles, they see-sawed, and walked on stilts, much as if they belonged to the twentieth century. Of course they played at being knights, just as boys to-day play at being merchants or manufacturers. There is an old picture of some pages, as these boys were called, playing that two toy knights mounted on wooden horses are having a contest. The two horses are pushed toward each other, and if either knight is struck by the spear of the other and thrust out of his place he is vanquished.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


This was only play, and there were many things that a page must learn and learn thoroughly before he was fourteen or fifteen. How much of "book learning" was given him is not known. Probably the custom differed in different places. In most cases, it could not have been a great amount, perhaps only a little reading, and it seems to have been regarded as no disgrace to a knight if he did not even know his letters. He must learn to sing, however, and to play his accompaniments on the harp; and he must play backgammon and chess, for these games were looked upon as accomplishments which no gentleman could be without. He was taught to say his prayers and to have respect for the Church and religion. It was especially impressed upon him that he must be "serviceable," that is, he must wait upon the ladies and lords of the castle. He must run on errands for them and he must do their bidding in all things, for it was an honor to him to be permitted to serve them. A page who was disobedient would have been scorned and despised by the other pages, for they all hoped to become knights, and no true knight would refuse to obey the commands of his lord or the gentler behests of his lady-love. Such a one would have been looked upon as no knight, indeed, but rather as a rude, boorish churl. The page, or valet or damoiseau or babee, as he was also called, must always be gentle and polite; for the knight was an ideal gentleman, and the gentleman must never fail in courtesy. There is a quaint little volume called "The Babees' Book" which tells just how a boy who wished to become a knight was expected to behave. When he entered the room of his lord, he must greet all modestly with a "God speed you," and he must kneel on one knee before his lord. If his lord spoke to him, he must make an obeisance before answering. He must not lean against a post or handle things, but stand quietly, listen to what was said, and speak when he was spoken to. When the meal was prepared, he must bring water for hand-washing, presenting it first to his lord, and must hold a towel ready for him to use, a most desirable part of the preparation for a meal, as it was the custom for two persons to use the same trencher, or wooden plate, and forks were not in use. When the time came for the page himself to eat, he must not lean upon the table or soil the cloth or throw any bones upon the floor. If he chanced to use the same trencher with any one of higher rank than he, he must take meat from the trencher first, but he must be especially careful not to take the best piece.

Thus it was that the indoor life of the page passed. Most of his indoor teaching was given him by the ladies of the castle. It was they who taught him to choose a lady-love for whose sake he was to be ever brave and pure and modest. The story is told of one shy little page at the court of France that when one of the court ladies asked whom he loved best, he replied, "My lady mother first, and after her my sister." "That is not what I mean," said the lady. "Tell me who is your lady-love in chivalry." The little fellow admitted that he had none. After a severe lecture because he was so unchivalric, he chose a little girl of his own age. "She is a pretty little girl," replied the lady, "but she cannot advise you or help you on as a knight. You must choose some lady of noble birth who can give you counsel and aid. Then you must do everything in your power to please her. You must be courteous and humble and strive with all your might to win her favor."

Out of doors, too, the page had much to learn. If his lord went to the field of battle, the page went with him to help him in every way that a boy could. He was in no danger, for a knight who attacked a page would have been shamed and disgraced. As for riding, of course he had not been allowed to reach the age of seven without knowing how to sit on a horse; but now riding became a matter of business. It was not a mere canter on a pony whenever he took a fancy; it was a careful training, for he must practice leaping over ditches and walls, he must be able to spring into the saddle without touching the stirrup, and, in short, he must learn to be as perfectly at home on the back of a horse as on his own feet. Light weapons were provided for him, and he must learn how to use sword and lance and bow, and how to swim and box and fence. He must meet the other boys of the castle in mock contests. These were carefully watched by the elders, who were eager to see whether or not the son of some valiant knight bade fair to maintain the reputation of his father.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


A most important part of the boy's instruction was hunting, or the "mystery of the woods," and hawking, or the "mystery of the rivers," so called because it was often pursued on the open banks of streams. The page who understood hawking had conquered a most complicated branch of his education. He had to learn the different kinds of falcons, how to train the birds to throw themselves upon their prey, how to feed them, and what calls to use with them. There was a rule for every act; for instance, there was only one way in which a hawk might be properly carried. The master's arm must be held parallel with his body, but not touching it, and the forearm must be held out at a right angle as a perch for the bird. A man who would practice the mystery of the rivers and did not carry his falcon in the approved fashion would have been the laughing-stock of his companions. Even pages had their own falcons, and a taste for hunting and hawking was looked upon as a mark of noble blood. When a page was sent to bear a letter, he sometimes carried his falcon on his wrist for company on the way. There were possible dangers on every journey, but I fancy that the page was always glad to be sent with a message, especially if it was a pleasant one, for then he was sure of a warm welcome and generous gifts from the happy recipient.

During the seven or eight years that he was a page, the boy was always looking forward to the time when he would become a squire, for this was the next step toward knighthood. Now that he had grown older and stronger, more service was required of him, and his exercises became more severe. Within the castle he continued to serve at the table; but he was now privileged to present the first or principal cup of wine. He still brought water for the hand-washing, and he carved the meat. He never sat at the same table with his lord. Indeed, in many places a knight would not permit his own son to eat with him until he, too, had been made a knight. In Chaucer's description of a squire, he makes it clear that the young man of twenty years was a brave young fellow who had had considerable experience in warfare, but

Curteys he was, lowly and servisable,

And carf beforn his fader at the table.

After the meal was over, squires and pages together cleared the hall for dancing, or they brought tables for checkers or for the heavy chessboards then in use. Whatever amusement was on foot, the squire was permitted to share. Indeed, throughout all the training of a boy for knighthood, it was never forgotten that he must be taught to make himself as agreeable within the castle as he was expected to be courageous without its walls. An important part of his education was practice in composing love songs. He was expected of course to have his lady-love, for whom he must be ready to endure all hardships and meet all dangers.

He continued the exercises of his days as a page; but he gave much more time to them. He learned to leap farther, to run longer distances, to climb jagged cliffs almost as perpendicular as the walls of the cities which he hoped some day to be able to aid in capturing. He learned to bear hunger and thirst and heat and cold and to keep himself awake through long nights of watching. His weapons were now made larger and heavier. He was taught to wield the great battle-axe, to endure the weight of armor, and to move about in it easily. A battle in the Middle Ages was more like a large number of duels than a contest between bodies of troops, and an exceedingly good preparation for this kind of warfare was an exercise known as the quintain. For this a post was set in the ground on top of which was a crosspiece that would whirl around at a touch. From one end of the crosspiece hung a board and from the other a sand-bag. The squire must ride up to this at full tilt and strike the board with his lance. But woe to him who was slow or clumsy, for quick as a flash the crosspiece whirled about, and he was struck a substantial blow by the sand-bag. Often the figure of a knight was used, so hung that unless the young squire was skillful enough to strike it on the breast it struck him—and the wooden knight never missed his  stroke.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


Each squire in turn became "squire of the body," that is, he was the closest attendant of his lord. When his master went to the field of battle, the helmet was often entrusted to a page, but to carry the shield and armor was the task of the squire of the body. A much more difficult part of his duty was to array the knight in his armor with all its complicated fastenings. Every knight had his pennon. If he had given long service and had many followers, the point or points of his pennon were cut off, leaving a square banner. He was then called a banneret. Both banneret and baron were privileged to act as commanders of little armies of their own. They were under the king, but each one had his own war-cry and called his men together under his own standard. Whether the squire served banneret or baron or knight, it was his honorable task to bear the banner or pennon. He needed to have his wits about him, for if the knight dropped his weapon, he must be ready to pass him a fresh one. If the knight was unhorsed, the squire must catch his horse if necessary, and help him to mount; and if the horse itself was wounded seriously, the squire must have another one ready or must bring forward his own. If the knight took a prisoner, he was passed over into the charge of the squire, that the knight might be left free for further contests. If the knight was getting the worst of the fight or was attacked by several at once, the squire must come to his aid; if he was taken prisoner, the squire must rescue him if possible; if he was wounded, must carry him to a place of safety; and if he was killed, it was the sad duty of the squire to see that he received an honorable burial.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


Every year brought the time nearer when the squire was to be made a knight. The one thing necessary to bring this about was for the king or some other knight to give him the accolade, that is, a blow on his shoulder or the back of his neck as he knelt to receive it. This was usually followed by the words, "In the name of God, of Saint Michael, and of Saint George, I dub thee knight. Be brave, ready, and loyal." Sometimes all that was said was, "Be a good knight." When a number of squires were to be made knights, as often happened just before or just after a battle, the ceremony was no more complicated than this. Sometimes on the very battle-field, when a squire had done some praiseworthy deed of bravery, he was knighted in this simple and direct fashion. When there was plenty of time, however, the process was much longer. First, the hair of the candidate was cut. To give up one's hair was looked upon as a mark of the devotion of one's self to God. Generally the cutting of a single lock was regarded as sufficient, but sometimes the head was shaved in the fashion of the tonsure of the priest. The candidate was put into a bath and then into a bed. Every part of the ceremony had a meaning, and these acts signified, first, purity, and then the rest which he who had been pure would enjoy in Paradise. He was now supposed to be cleansed from all sins of his previous life, and to symbolize this he was arrayed in a white shirt, or long tunic. Over it a red garment with long sleeves and a hood was thrown to indicate that he was ready to shed his blood in the service of God, and finally a close black coat was put upon him to remind him of the death which all must meet. After twenty-four hours of fasting, he spent a night in a church, keeping what was called the vigil of arms, that is, kneeling by his armor, praying and meditating. When the sun rose, he made his confession to a priest, heard mass, and partook of the Holy Sacrament.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


This was his final preparation. Later in the day he and his friends went to the church or the castle hall. The young man gave his sword to the priest, and the priest laid it upon the altar, praying that God would bless it and that it might defend the Church and protect widows and orphans. The candidate took a solemn oath that it should be used for these purposes. The priest then returned the sword to him and made a little address on the duties that lay before him in his new life and reminded him of the happiness that awaited him who performed these duties with faithfulness and zeal.

Now came the moment for which every one was waiting. The young man went forward to the lord who was to make him a knight and knelt before him with clasped hands. The lord questioned him somewhat in this wise: "Why do you wish to be made a knight? Is it with the hope of gaining treasure? Is it that men may show you honor?" On the young man's declaring that he had no such wishes, both knights and ladies united in arming him. The golden spurs came first, then the other pieces of armor, and last of all the sword. The lord then gave him the accolade, sometimes a light touch with the sword on the shoulder or the nape of the neck, and sometimes a hearty blow with the hand or even the clenched fist. This was followed by the charge, to be brave, ready, and loyal. The older knights drew their swords and repeated the vows which they had taken on entering chivalry, and the priest pronounced the blessing of the Church upon one and all. So it was that in the ceremony of making a knight, the Church, the soldier, and the woman had each a share. The assembly then passed out into the open air. The horse of the newly made knight stood waiting. He sprang upon its back—and unless he wished to disgrace his new honors, he must not touch the stirrup—and rode about the court, prancing and caracoling, brandishing his glittering sword, and showing how well he knew the use of his lance. The servants and minstrels of the castle had waited patiently, and now they had their share in the rejoicings, for to prove his gratitude for receiving the noble gift of knighthood the young knight made as generous a gift to each one as his purse would permit.