The Truth of Medieval Knights

Growing up, my favorite film to watch was The Sword In The Stone. I rewatched the film so many times that I made my own medieval knights costume (with my mom’s help of course) and would go trick or treating as a knight for many halloweens. Stories and movies about medieval knights have always fascinated me. While reading Beowulf and Marie De France Lanval, I was again reminded of these stories. Films and books about the portrail of medieval knights. Heroes that would fight against all evils whether it be a fictional dragon, or an invader from another land/providence coming to overthrow the king. However, there is a common misconception about these “heroes” that most people would be shocked and bewildered to learn. Most real life knights (specifically ones sporting metal armor and a horse, popularized by pop culture) were no such heroes or bringers of justice. A preconceived notion of knights is that they were/are known to the general public to “follow” a specific code. Being able to be strong, heroic, and valiant, while at the same time show signs of chiverley and righteousness. King Arthur and his knights of the round table (as shown in Lanval) are one example. As are the likes of the film Quest for Camelot and the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green knight” to name a few. However, this code was not followed by most real life knights. Knights were ruthless and more often than not, took what they wanted when they chose to. Medieval knights were the Anglo Saxon version of vikings, terrorizing whomever they wanted. Real life medieval knights are not the acclaimed and righteous heroes our stories and legends claim them to be. 

Medieval knights can be traced all the way back to the seventh and ninth century. However the chivalry of the medieval knight as we know it today originated from the early eleventh century/ late twelfth century. In Europe, there were knights fighting for the church and christian ideals came into play. “As knighthood evolved, a Christian ideal of knightly behavior came to be accepted. Involving respect for the church, protection of the poor and the weak, loyalty to one’s feudal or military superiors, and preservation of personal honour” (Britannica.) However, those last two statements would be the driving force for most knights. Listening to one’s military superior meant doing whatever they asked, even if it meant burning down a  whole village of peasants and taking everything that wasn’t nailed to the ground. Another driving force was the “preservation” of personal honour. You did not want to disrespect a knight because they would find any excuse to take what they want and hurt whoever they wanted if it meant protecting their “honour.” Knights and their brutality were sometimes simply an acting out of who was paying them. “Smart guys got the bright idea of making aristocratic connections. It literally paid to get in the favor of someone with bigger pockets. This way they could take over when the bills started to roll in.” (Valentin, Nicol). For many knights, it was about the rewards you could receive for doing your “duty” rather than doing the right thing or upholding any sense of real justice. “Medieval mercenaries” is a better description of what a knight truly was. “For the nobles, the payoff came when they needed someone to do their dirty work. Whenever they wanted to lay siege to a castle or take vengeance on someone who wronged them, they put a knight in charge. Those who excelled moved up the ranks with rewards of castles, money, land, or even help in making a profitable marriage” (Valentin, Nicol). 

So what exactly was the “code” a knight was at least expected to follow? The code of the knight is most famously associated with King Arthur and his knights of the round table. Being sworn into knighthood under the oath/code of the knights was seen as extremely important. So much so that people from commoners to royalty all knew about the code of chivalry. This oath to knighthood not only expected a worthy and strong combatant on the battlefield, but also a courageous and generous person, specifically towards women (also known as chivalry.) However, this knight’s code can be traced to a song called “The Song of Roland” which is a song/poem about one of king Charlemagne’s battles. Also known as Charlemagne’s code of chivalry.” (, 2017.).  This song would become the catalyst for the code of chivalry knights would come to follow. A few virtues valued by the knights code (as described by the Duke of Burgundy in the late fourteenth century) were Justice, faith, temperance, truth, diligence, and hope (Knights Code of Chivalry.).

Even though knights were real life brutallists and killers, there are legends and stories that paint them in an entirely different light. Fictional knights such as in Lanval in Marie de France and Sir Gawain and The Green Knight were revered and seen as brave and heroic. In Lanval, the main character rejects the queen in favor of his one and only love. While he is disappointed by this love at the end of the story, he is still seen as someone who is trying to be “pure.” However, being fathfal was not the only guilty knights were known for in stories. In works of fiction, knights were heroes who would fight against all evils that threaten them or the king they serve under. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for example, is a story about a courageous and heroic knight fighting for his own honor and his king. The very first portion of the story has Sir Gawain accepting a challenge that was meant for King Arthur. After beheading the green knight that came to challenge the king in the first place, he rides off demanding that sir Gawain find him in one year and a day to receive a blow himself. What does the story make Gawain do as the protagonist? He of course rises to the challenge in order to defend the honor of himself and the king. He encounters all manner of beasts and monsters knights are known to battle such as dragons and more notably, giants.It is  interesting to note that in the film version of The Green Knight, Sir Gawain is younger looking and displays more youthful features. In the poem, I always envisioned Sir Gawain as an older looking knight, not a youthful one. This could be viewed as an example of legends and stories displaying knights in a more human and relatable manner. 

Sir Gawain (played by Dev Patel) in “The Green Knight” (The Atlantic)

Exploring medical literature through the analytical lens of this class has re-sparked my interest in medieval knights/ the dark ages. I also doubt that I am the only one who has felt this way. When we are younger, we all wish to believe the courageous and amazing stories about medieval knights. Many people growing up had read or watched a film about medieval knights or the dark ages. We as an audience and as people want to believe in the stories and legends rather than the real life circumstances of knights. We want to believe that most knights were like the ones we see in film/television or read about. Sadly, real life knights were more often than not ruthless killers and hired muscle for whoever could pay them enough. It is important to know the truth about legends, even if it is not as good as the stories made them out to be. However, despite the truth about knights, I believe it is important that we continue telling these stories of chivalry and heroic deeds. From King Arthur to The Black Cauldron and Sir Gawain, stories of courageous knights are timeless because no matter what time period you live in, people always want to believe that heroes do indeed exist. If that means keeping up the fiction of knights and re telling stories of them being chivalrous, courageous, and righteous, then so be it. 

Works Cited:

Knights Code of Chivalry, Editors. “Crusades.”, A&E Television Networks, 7 June 2010,

“Knight.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Sept. 2021,

Sims, David. “’The Green Knight’ Is One of 2021’s Best Movies.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 2 Aug. 2021,

Valentin, Nicol. “Medieval Knights Weren’t the Good Guys You Think They Were.” Medium, Lessons from History, 5 Mar. 2020,

“Knight.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,

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