In Poland, the reception of the authentic knightly culture of the middle ages progressed quite slowly. It bloomed late, only in the 15th century. Then Polish knights even started to achieve spectacular successes and enjoy great prestige in Europe – the most famous is, of course, Zawisza Czarny. We also know many testimonies to the functioning of the folding ceremony or tournament. Previously, Silesia played a significant role as a place of mixing cultures and their representatives, foreign knighthood was coming there in search of material and prestigious success, and the Silesian Piasts were associated in various ways with the elite circles of the Czech Republic and the German Reich, where the culture of knighthood was developing dynamically.
The qualities and advantages that should characterize a perfect knight include nobility, righteousness, fidelity, generosity, courtesy, zealous service to the seniors, bravery, modesty and piety.
The basic knightly virtue is considered to be Fidelitas, i.e. fidelity to his seniors. The power of the kingdoms was based on fidelity to the noble born king. Fidelity and loyalty to his ruler was the foundation. Breaking the oath of allegiance to his prince or king was the strongest accusation against the knight, and calling a noble born traitor was the worst insult.
The next necessary knightly virtue was Pietas, i.e. piety. The structures and life of the medieval society were strongly connected with the Christian faith. Devotion was a prerequisite for being a perfect knight. It set requirements for all states, especially for knighthood. Apart from its manifestations connected with rituals, knights were also required to participate in pilgrimages, generosity or care for the salvation of the living through participation in crusades. The Christianization of knights’ culture required knights to be defenders of the weak, armed “missionaries” or even martyrs for their faith.
Virtus, or the virtue of bravery, was the most obvious of the military virtues required of a knight. Without it, no knightly crafts could do without it. The knight was expected to take part in battles at the call of the ruler or in tournament fights, understood as a substitute “confrontation” of the best knights. Tournaments were also a demonstration of knights’ skills and added prestige to both knights and tournament organizers in the person of princes or kings.
Prudentia, or prudence, was supposed to counterbalance the unbridled bravery. A courageous but unreasonable knight deserved to be called a madman. On the battlefield, although brave, thanks to prudence he avoided unnecessary risk and highly valued his life and that of his subordinates. Surrendering to captivity and going to captivity after an honorable fight was not a shame on the honor that was e.g. a successful escape in the face of the enemy.
Courtesy, curiosity, superfluousness or a joke are included in the term Curiositas, which characterizes the elite court culture of the full and late Middle Ages. Courtesy included sophisticated customs, elegant manners, attention to costume, respect for women and polite behavior in every situation. Curiosity was connected with undertaking long journeys or openness to foreign patterns. Superfluousness was manifested e.g. in breeding falcons or life’s splendour, and a joke proved the cleverness of mind and the ability to react quickly to unexpected events or social announcement.
Generosity, or Largitas, manifested itself not only in ostentatious spending of money or pride in one’s own wealth, but also in contributing to important goals for the local community. Generosity was considered to be a natural result and proof of a noble birth. In theory, it allowed the knight to distinguish between a lifestyle and a wealthy merchant, whose aim was to save money and to use goods prudently and modestly. Goodness was also behind the willingness to help rulers or other knights in financial difficulties. Knights were also often guarantors of pledges and loans granted to other knights. They were ideal guarantors for both sides of this type of transaction, as they were guided by the principles of knightly honour and flowing in wealth.
Honor was an asset that determined the uniqueness of the knightly ethos. Officially, it was the basis of all knightly activity. For honor they fought and died, worshiped the rulers, respected the ladies and received deserved awards. Without him, no knight could enjoy fame or prestige among those equally born to him. That is why in knights’ customs it was so important not only to have virtues and virtues, but also to take care that one’s own honorary deeds were widely known and far surpassed the achievements of other knights. Frequent wars were an opportunity to gain good fame and increase one’s own honor, e.g. by showing courtesy to enemies before the fight or full respect for prisoners of war after it. It was forbidden to attack defenceless enemies, strike a blow in the back or abuse those who, as a sign of surrender, gave their swords. The dignity of an honorary fighting opponent was not to be violated.
Where did the knights come from at all? In 1047, Gall Anonymous described a case when during a battle a simple war saved the prince’s life. As a reward, he received from the prince a fortified settlement with income belonging to it. According to the definition, knighthood is a privileged group of free landowners obliged to military service. It was born when rulers began to give land, which obliged its owner to loyalty to the ruler and serve him with a sword. During the reign of Casimir the Restorer, giving land to those who deserved it in battle became quite a common practice. With time, privileges appeared, such as the right to participate in war booty, full ownership of land or many legal reliefs. Along with various duties and norms, the privileges became the foundations of the knight’s law, which was finally formed in the 13th century. The main privilege of the knight was the hereditary possession of land. The knight’s possessions were exempt from most of the burden of the duke’s law, while the burden he had to bear had a lesser dimension. The main duties of the knight included horse military service at every call of the ruler. Initially, knighthood was not a closed state, so any peasant fit to carry weapons could become a knight. If such a knight received the land under the knight’s law then he became a knight. Later, being a knight was connected with a family of knights.
When the knight got married, he had to provide his white head and family with a roof over his head. For understandable reasons he preferred to live in the castle, but not many could afford to build it. The first knight’s castles were modest. Usually, on an artificially built mound with a diameter of about 30m, a wooden tower was erected. Surrounded by a moat and a palisade, they could stop at most an intrusive neighbour or a small band of robbers. When somebody put a fire, the castle burned like a torch, so where possible brick castles, made of stone or brick, were built over time. So a brick tower was built, surrounded by a wall or a wooden-earth rampart. With time, brick knight castles became more developed. Although the brick residence was much more expensive than building a wooden castle, it was easier to defend oneself in a brick castle and it was more comfortable to live in. The prestige of the owner was also growing. At the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, private castles appeared in Poland. They were of little military importance, but they were perfect for living and residing with a large manor house. Such castles were a local economic centre, a shelter for the local population, they also made it possible to repel a sudden attack and survive a short siege. Reliable private castles were rare in Poland. At the beginning of the 16th century, there were about 1350 brick buildings all over Poland, which constituted about 4% of the country’s buildings. Of this, brick knight castles were a real rarity.
When the knight was born a descendant and happily survived infancy, he was under the watchful eye of women for seven years, regardless of gender. When he lived to seven years, his future was sometimes determined by his physical condition. If he was a healthy and strong boy, he had all the data to become a knight. From then on, he was gradually taken care of by men, which was symbolically announced by a ritual known as the crosses. It was then that the knight began to educate his descendant. First he had to make sure that the young man gained some physical strength, necessary for the efficient use of the sword and battle axe. That the future knight had to hold himself well in the saddle and that’s why he got used to the horse from an early age. Seven knightly lessons he had to perfect were horse riding, swimming, archery, fencing, hunting, playing chess and poetry. Apart from home education and sometimes school education, there was one more stage in the education of a young knight. He was often sent to the court of a ruler or a foreign king to become a court mansion there.
In his mature age, the knight often went on pilgrimage because of religious needs. At first most knights made pilgrimages to Palestine. But for many knights, the cost of the expedition to Palestine was an insurmountable obstacle, so they preferred to visit more closely located shrines. Rome was good, but the Compostela was more suitable for the knight, as there were relics of St. James, one of the patrons of the knighthood. Shrines in the country were also convenient.
In the Middle Ages, more than pilgrims, the Church respected those who fought with the infidels. Participation in the crusade was then considered to be one of the main duties of the knight. Instead of going to the Holy Land and fighting the Arabs, the Polish rulers preferred to go against the pagan Prussians. Many of these expeditions received crusade status, gaining the support of the clergy and Crusaders from abroad.
One of the knights’ customs was to become a knight. Initially, the custom of a secular military ceremony, with time, was combined with a religious rite. It began with the ordination of weapons given to knights in the church. Later, confession was added, mass in the morning and a solemn oath in front of the altar. In this way, the knightly ceremony was given a church setting. The first information about knightly fits in Poland is given by Gallus Anonymous. Together with Prince Bolesław the Wrymouthed, his peers were fit and this is the oldest mention on this subject. The occasion to fit were weddings at the court or St. George’s Day (23rd April), the patron saint of knighthood. War campaigns were also perfect for this purpose. The custom itself initially boiled down to attaching a belt with a sword and taking an oath by a fit knight. The hitting of a knight with a sword on the shoulder was not introduced to the ritual until the 15th century. In documents, the knight was always mentioned before the unmatched, and in court his word was also valued higher. In the Middle Ages fitting as a knight became an honour, which was available to few. Among all knights, there were only a few percent of the knights fit, just like in the whole Europe.
Knightly tournaments originated from exercises aimed at improving combat skills. In Poland, the earliest knightly tournaments were held in Silesia. Probably the first Polish knights’ tournament took place here. According to the chronicle of the monastery in Henryków, it was organized by Prince Bolesław Rogatka in Lwówek Śląski, on St. Matthew’s Day, February 24, 1243. The tournament was dominated by collective clashes, the so-called big tournament. Groups of knights formed two opposing arrays, which attacked each other. Such clashes sometimes lasted the whole day, because the captured knights could return to the battlefield after paying the ransom. The ransom was not small. It happened that paying the ransom meant ruin for the defeated. The dominance of Silesia in organizing knightly tournaments lasted until the middle of the 14th century. Knightly tournaments were popularized only by Casimir the Great, so that in the middle of the 14th century they became quite a frequent court entertainment. In Poland, the most popular tournament entertainment was a horse-drawn duel on kicks. Knights set off in front of each other by trot. With a copy you had to hit the opponent’s shield in such a way as to blow him up from the saddle. The one who was thrown out of the saddle lost. It happened, however, that both rivals fell off the horse. Then they had to continue the duel fighting for swords or axes. The winner was the one who managed to injure or torture the opponent. The winners received prizes in the form of good quality weapons, jewellery or even animals such as horses, bears or even lions. After the award ceremony dances and feast took place.
For an average knight the most important entertainment was not tournaments, but hunting. In order to participate in the tournament an expensive gutter was required, and every knight who had any weapon could hunt. In addition, the fame gained during hunting was valued almost as much as the fame of the war, and the game caught, its meat and leather, significantly contributed to the improvement of the knights’ budget.
The knightly state also required a special gutter. For knights, the sword was not only a weapon, but also a symbol of belonging to the knights’ state. Signs and inscriptions were often placed on the sword’s head. The sword was often given even a name. The weapon commonly used by knights was a spear, later replaced by a copy, which was used to throw the opponent off the horse. Apart from the sword and spear/copy, the knight also had at his disposal a puginale, a kind of miniature of the sword, which was used to inflict stab wounds. In the early Middle Ages an axe was quite popular among knights. In the late Middle Ages it was replaced with mace, knight’s mace or regiment, which were used to smash the enemy’s helmet and plate armour. For the same purpose, a cheque, a cloth or a battle cepa was used. The bow and crossbow were becoming more and more popular, followed by firearms.
A shield was used to defend the knight. Next to the shield the most important shield of the knight’s body was the ring. Since the 14th century, plate armour, consisting of many elements that did not hinder the knight’s movements, started to dominate the protective armour. It consisted of a helmet. The torso was protected by a breastplate, collar and apron. The back was covered with a helmet, the hands with arms, while the legs were covered with pebbles, knee pads, shavings and boots. Individual sheets were fastened together with straps with a buckle. Underneath the plate armour, the earring was often put on. Plate armour (lamellar armour) was also popular, made of metal tiles attached to a leather straitjacket.
The twilight of knighthood, understood as a military force, occurred with the spread of firearms and fighting in a compact infantry array. Also the increase in the benefits from the landed estates or even cities made the knighthood less and less willing to take part in battles. The classic knightly ethos collapsed at the end of the 16th century. At that time the knights were replaced by the nobility originating from knighthood, and among them, among others, powerful magnates, landowners.