A knight was a mounted warrior in the Middle Ages who pledged allegiance to the Church and, as such, answered to ordained priests. During the Crusades it was believed that a knight fought for just and holy causes.
However, many abuses occurred – including rapes, pillaging, cruelty, and senseless murder – and some would maintain that the whole idea of ‘killing for Christ’ is a twisted perversion of Christ’s teachings.
It has often been said that crusaders tended to behave particularly badly once they were in the field. That they could be undisciplined and capable of acts of great cruelty cannot be denied.¹
The Crusading knight was also a servant of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and as the institution developed over the centuries, the idea of knighthood became highly romanticized in life, literature and song.
Instead of being a mere ‘killer for Christ,’ the knight evolved into a courageous hero who was bound to protect women through acts of chivalry. At least, that was the prevailing ideal in the latter Middle Ages, an idea that became even more pronounced during the Renaissance.
Part of the Medieval knight’s identity was bound up in horsemanship and another in armory, just as horsemanship, battle attire, and weapons have been key elements for warriors stretching back to antiquity.
When the technology of warfare changed in the late Middle Ages, the suit of armor was beginning to become obsolete and the mounted knight in armor gradually fell into practical obscurity. But again, the ideal thrived in literature, ceremonial tournaments and in honorary titles among the nobility.
Today, the knight remains a widespread symbol of heroism and honor in works of fiction and pop culture, where the image of the knight also appears in booze and car insurance ads. Public figures are sometimes knighted for their great lifetime achievements—e.g. Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John and Sir Michael Phillip “Mick” Jagger.
Also, certain religious groups have adapted the term knight to symbolize holiness and the pursuit of goodness (e.g. The Knights of Columbus). It’s ironic that these Christians chose a name for an institution that was so thoroughly debauched, violent, and corrupt in the Middle Ages. But Catholics can be just like anyone else, quite ignorant of the actual past, preferring perhaps mythic stories to critical thinking and historical data.
Some contemporary figures do not accept the supposed honor of knighthood which the British royals so carefully dispense.² David Bowie declined the title in 2003, saying : “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. I seriously don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for.”²
At first, I thought Bowie was being sort of punk in rejecting the knighthood but on reflection, I respect him for it. After all, how many people are secure enough to just be themselves and not identity with some worldly title?
¹ See Rethinking the Crusades by Jonathan Riley Smith.
² See » http://www.bowiewonderworld.com/press/00/030912thesun.htm. And many others have responded similarly, as revealed in this list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declining_a_British_honour