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Medieval Chivalry › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 14 May 2018
Duke Heinrich von Breslau in the Codex Manesse (Meister des Codex Manesse (Nachtragsmaler I))
In medieval Europe, a code of ethics known as chivalry developed which included rules and expectations that the nobility would, at all times, behave in a certain manner. Chivalry was, in addition, a religious, moral and social code which helped distinguish the higher classes from those below them and which provided a means by which knights could earn themselves a favourable reputation so that they might progress in their careers and personal relations. Evolving from the late 11th century CE onwards, essential chivalric qualities to be displayed included courage, military prowess, honour, loyalty, justice, good manners, and generosity - especially to those less fortunate than oneself. By the 14th century CE the notion of chivalry had become more romantic and idealised, largely thanks to a plethora of literature on the subject and so the code persisted right through the medieval period with occasional revivals thereafter.


Chivalry, derived from the French cheval (horse) and chevalier (knight), was originally a purely martial code for elite cavalry units and only later did it acquire its more romantic connotations of good manners and etiquette. The clergy keenly promoted chivalry with the code requiring knights to swear an oath to defend the church and defenceless people. This relationship between religion and warfare only heightened with the Arab conquest of the Holy Lands and the resulting Crusades to reclaim them for Christendom from the end of the 11th century CE. The state also saw the benefits of promoting a code by which young men were encouraged to train and fight for their monarch. The discipline of the chivalric code must also have helped when armies were in the field (but not always), as did its inspirational emphasis on display; knights preened about the battlefield like peacocks with jewelled swords, inlaid armour, plumed helmets, liveried horses and colourful banners of arms.The magnificent sight of a troop of heavily armoured knights galloping on to the battlefield won many a medieval conflict before it had even started.


Romantic novels, poems and songs ( chansons de geste ) were written which promoted further still the ideal of chivalry with their rousing tales of damsels in distress, courtly love (the unrequited and unattainable love of a married aristocratic lady) and heroic, wandering champions (knight errants) fighting foreigners and monsters - which were essentially the same. The spread of the literature on the legendary figure of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table from the 12th century CE was especially influential on instilling ideals of honour and purity into the minds of medieval noblemen: in the Arthurian tales only the good and true would find the Holy Grail. Other figures from history which became examples to follow and who appeared as characters in the chivalric literature included Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great and Charlemagne. There even developed a literature of helpful chivalry guides for knights such as the French poem The Order of Chivalry (c. 1225 CE) which considered the correct initiation process for knighthood, the Book of the Order of Chivalry by the Aragonian Ramon Llull (1265 CE) and the Book of Chivalry by the French knight Geoffroi de Charny (published around 1350 CE). Perhaps most important of all sources on chivalry for later historians, at least, was the Chronicles by the historian Jean Froissart, written in the latter half of the 14th century CE.
Chivalry had another purpose besides making people well-mannered: to clearly separate the nobles from the common people.After the Norman Conquest of 1066 CE in England, for example, social divisions had become a little blurred and so chivalry became a means by which the nobility and landed aristocrats could persuade themselves they were superior and had a monopoly on honour and decorous behaviour. Knighthood thus became a sort of private members club where wealth, family lineage and the performance of certain initiation ceremonies allowed a person to enter the clique and then openly display their perceived superiority to the masses.
Knight Battling the Seven Sins

Knight Battling the Seven Sins

To keep up the standards of chivalry there developed over time certain restrictions on just who could become a knight. In 1140 CE Roger II, King of Sicily, for example, forbade any person who might disturb the public peace from being made a knight. In 1152 CE a decree in the Kingdom of Germany prohibited any peasant from ever being made a knight. Holy Roman EmperorFrederick I made a similar law in 1186 CE, banning across the Empire the sons of peasants or priests from ever becoming a knight. Gone were the early days of chivalry when anyone who displayed great courage in battle stood a chance of being made a knight by a grateful lord or monarch. By the 13th century CE the idea had taken hold across Europe that only a descendant of a knight could become one. There were exceptions, especially in France and Germany during the 14th century CE when the sale of knighthoods became a handy way for kings to increase their state coffers but generally, the now prevailing view was that honour and virtue could only be inherited, not acquired.


There was a downside to parading around the countryside declaring to all and sundry how honourable one was, because the chivalric code also had its punishments for those who failed to meet its standards. A knight faced having his status removed and good name sullied forever if he were guilty of serious misdemeanours like fleeing a battle, committing heresy or treason.There was even a rule against a knight spending money too frivolously. If the unthinkable did happen to a knight then his spurs were removed, his armour smashed and his coat of arms removed or thereafter given some shameful symbol or only represented upside down.



As knighthood and chivalry became more and more important as social status symbols, and at the same time loyalty to the church was replaced by that towards the crown, so specific orders arose - often initiated by monarchs - to create a hierarchy within the world of knights. The English king Edward III (r. 1327-1377 CE) was particularly noted for his support of tournaments and the cult of chivalry. At one tournament the king organised at Windsor Castle in 1344 CE, 200 knights were invited to join a chivalric brotherhood and then in 1348 CE he created the even more exclusive Order of the Garter for 24 chosen knights plus the king and his son, the Black Prince, who all proudly wore a dark blue garter. The order with its accompanying honours still exists today. Already, in Hungary in 1325 CE King Charles had founded the Order of Saint George and in 1332 CE King Alfonso XI of Castile and Leon had established the Order of the Sash. In France in 1351 CE, King John the Good (r. 1350-1364 CE) founded the chivalric Order of the Star whose specific aims were to promote chivalry and honour. The Order of the Star also imposed a 'never retreat in battle' clause on its membership which may have been highly chivalrous but in the practicalities of warfare often proved disastrous - half the order was killed in one battle in Brittany in 1353 CE.
Initiation into special orders might involve the knight-elect taking a bath, donning symbolic robes and being blessed in a chapel while knights of the order looked on. The new knight might also be required to keep a vigil in the chapel overnight and, in the morning and after another religious service and a hearty breakfast, the initiate was ceremoniously dressed by two knights. It was then he was given his spurs, armour, helmet and freshly-blessed sword. The last stage of the elaborate ceremony involved the most senior knight of the order giving the new recruit a belt and then striking him on the shoulders with his hand or sword.
Jousting Re-enactment

Jousting Re-enactment


One of the best places, besides the actual battlefield, for a knight to show off all his qualities of chivalry was the medieval tournament. Here, at the mêlée (a mock cavalry battle) or one-on-one jousts, a good knight was expected to possess and display the following qualities:
• martial prowess ( prouesse )
• courtesy ( courtoisie )
• good breeding ( franchise )
• noble manners ( debonnaireté )
• generosity ( largesse )
Given the importance of chivalry, those who had, amongst other misdemeanours, slandered a woman, been found guilty of murder or who had been excommunicated were banned from competition. Those who did win at tournaments could gain both honour and riches. The fact that fellow nobles were watching and perhaps too a lady of court whom the knight had taken a fancy to or whose favour he was sporting on his lance were additional spurs for competitors to achieve great deeds of valour and chivalry


While the life of a man of arms was itself regarded as a noble pursuit it is important, perhaps, to note that although chivalry came to the fore in peacetime pursuits, it was largely absent during actual warfare and the slaughter of enemies, murder of prisoners, rape and pillaging all went on as tragically as it had done for millennia before the concept of chivalry was formed.Still, at least in theory, knights were supposed to pursue warfare for honour, the defence of the Christian faith or their monarch rather than mere financial gain.
The Sack of Constantinople in 1204 CE

The Sack of Constantinople in 1204 CE

A certain ethical code of conduct did develop in warfare and especially the humane and gracious treatment of prisoners but, of course, such ideals were not followed by all knights in all conflicts. Even such epitomes of chivalrous behaviour as Richard I of England was known to have slaughtered defenceless prisoners during the Third Crusade (1189-1192 CE). Certainly, by the acrimonious Wars of the Roses in England during the 15th century CE, a knight's good name and social standing was unlikely to guarantee him chivalrous treatment if he were on the losing side of a battle and a noble surname might actually be a death sentence in itself, such were the family rivalries of the period. Still, some general points of chivalry were the warning of a siege by heralds so that the city ’s residents could either surrender or its non-combatants could flee. Sometimes, citizens were even permitted to leave mid-siege during a general truce. If and when a city did fall there was also the expectation that churches and the clergy would not be harmed.
As armies contained many other elements besides knights, it was often impossible for the noblemen to ensure rules of chivalry were followed by all, especially in the chaos of victory. There was certainly, too, a difference in chivalry depending on who the enemy was. Infidels during the Crusades, for example, were not considered worthy of genteel treatment while civil wars against fellow knights might foster a greater degree of chivalry from the combatants. Finally, the chivalric code was sometimes at odds with the one essential feature of any successful army: discipline. Knights had had the idea of personal valour and glory drilled into them to such an extent that their desire to display courage could lead to foolish risk-taking and a disregard for the needs of the army as a whole to act as a disciplined fighting unit. One such infamous case involved the Templar Knights at the siege of Ascalon (in modern Israel ) in 1153 CE when 40 knights attempted to storm the battlements themselves and even prevented rival units on their own side from joining in the attack. In the end, the Templars were defeated and their heads hung from the city's walls - sometimes discretion really was the better part of valour, even for chivalrous knights.

Ancient Greek Society › Antique Origins

Ancient Civilizations

by Mark Cartwright
published on 15 May 2018
Although ancient Greek Society was dominated by the male citizen, with his full legal status, right to vote, hold public office, and own property, the social groups which made up the population of a typical Greek city-state or polis were remarkably diverse. Women, children, immigrants (both Greek and foreign), labourers, and slaves all had defined roles, but there was interaction (often illicit) between the classes and there was also some movement between social groups, particularly for second-generation offspring and during times of stress such as wars.
The society of ancient Greece was largely composed of the following groups:
  • male citizens - three groups: landed aristocrats ( aristoi ), poorer farmers ( periokoi ) and the middle class (artisans and traders).
  • semi-free labourers (eg the helots of Sparta ).
  • women - belonging to all of the above male groups but without citizen rights.
  • children - categorised as below 18 years generally.
  • slaves - the douloi who had civil or military duties.
  • foreigners - non-residents ( xenoi ) or foreign residents ( metoikoi ) who were below male citizens in status.
Demeter & Persephone

Demeter & Persephone


Although the male citizen had by far the best position in Greek society, there were different classes within this group. Top of the social tree were the 'best people', the aristoi. Possessing more money than everyone else, this class could provide themselves with armour, weapons, and a horse when on military campaign. The aristocrats were often split into powerful family factions or clans who controlled all of the important political positions in the polis. Their wealth came from having property and even more importantly, the best land, ie: the most fertile and the closest to the protection offered by the city walls.
A poorer, second class of citizens existed too. These were men who had land but perhaps less productive plots and situated further from the city, their property was less well-protected than the prime land nearer the city proper. The land might be so far away that the owners had to live on it rather than travel back and forth from the city. These citizens were called the periokoi(dwellers-round-about) or even worse 'dusty-feet' and they collected together for protection in small village communities, subordinate to the neighbouring city. As city populations grew and inheritances became ever more divided amongst siblings, this secondary class grew significantly.
A third group were the middle, business class. Engaged in manufacturing, trade, and commerce, these were the nouveau riche. However, the aristoi jealously guarded their privileges and political monopoly by ensuring only landowners could rise into positions of real power. However, there was some movement between classes. Some could rise through accumulating wealth and influence, others could go down a class by becoming bankrupt (which could lead to a loss of citizenship or even being enslaved). Ill-health, losing out on an inheritance, political upheavals, or war could also result in the 'best' getting their feet a little dusty.


Female citizens had few rights in comparison to male citizens. Unable to vote, own land, or inherit, a woman's place was in the home and her purpose in life was the rearing of children. Contact with non-family males was discouraged and women occupied their time with indoor activities such as wool-work and weaving. Spartan women were treated somewhat differently than in other states, for example, they had to do physical training (nude) like men, were permitted to own land, and could drink wine.
Greek Peplos Dress

Greek Peplos Dress

Women citizens had to marry as a virgin and marriage was usually organised by the father, who chose the husband and accepted from him a dowry. If a woman had no father, then her interests (marriage prospects and property management) were looked after by a guardian ( kurios ), perhaps an uncle or other male relative. Married at the typical age of thirteen or fourteen, love had little to do with the matching of husband and wife. Of course, love may have developed between the couple but the best that might be hoped for was philia - a general friendship/love sentiment; eros, the love of desire, was to be found elsewhere, at least for the male. Marriages could be ended on three grounds. The first and most common was repudiation by the husband ( apopempsis or ekpempsis ). No reason was necessary, only the return of the dowry was expected. The second termination cause was the wife leaving the family home ( apoleipsis ) and in this case the woman's new guardian was required to act as her legal representative. This was, however, a rare occurrence and the woman's reputation in society was damaged as a result. The third ground for termination was when the bride's father asked for his daughter back ( aphairesis ), probably to offer her to another man with a more attractive dowry. This last option was only possible, however, if the wife had not had children. If a woman was left a widow, she was required to marry a close male relative in order to ensure property stayed within the family.
Women, of course, were also present in the various other non-citizen classes. The group for which we have most information is that of sex-workers. Women were here divided into two categories. The first and perhaps most common was the brothel prostitute ( pornē ). The second, was the higher-class prostitute ( hetaira ). These latter women were educated in music and culture and often formed lasting relationships with married men. It was also this class of women that entertained men (in every sense) at the celebrated symposium.


Children of citizens attended schools where the curriculum covered reading, writing, and mathematics. After these basics were mastered, studies turned to literature (for example, Homer ), poetry, and music (especially the lyre ). Athletics was also an essential element in a young person's education. At Sparta, boys as young as seven were grouped together under the stewardship of an older youth to be toughened up with hard physical training. In Athens, young adult citizens (aged 18-20) had to perform civil and military service and their education continued with lessons in politics, rhetoric, and culture. Girls too were educated in a similar manner to boys but with a greater emphasis on dancing, gymnastics, and musical accomplishment which could be shown off in musical competitions and at religious festivals and ceremonies. The ultimate goal of a girl's education was to prepare her for her role in rearing a family.
Child's Commode

Child's Commode

An important part of a Greek youth's upbringing involved pederasty - for both boys and girls. This was a relationship between an adult and an adolescent which included sexual relations but in addition to a physical relationship, the older partner acted as a mentor to the youth and educated them through the elder's worldly and practical experience.


Greek society included a significantly larger proportion of labourers than slaves. These were semi-free workers, wholly dependent on their employer. The most famous example is the helot class of Sparta. These dependents were not the property of a particular citizen - they could not be sold as a slave could - and they often lived with their families. Generally, they formed arrangements with their employer such as giving a quantity of their produce to the farm owner and keeping the rest for themselves. Sometimes the quota required may have been high or low, and there may also have been some extra benefits to the serfs such as protection and safety in numbers. However, the serf-class or helots could never achieve any real security as they were given little or no legal status and harshly treated, even killed in regular purges (especially in Sparta), in order to instil a fear which would ensure continued subordination to the ruling class. In certain periods such as war, helots were required to serve in the armed forces and, fighting well, they could even earn an escape from their lot and join the intermediary social groups which existed below the level of full-citizen and included such individuals as children with parents of mixed status (eg: father-citizen, mother- helot ).


In Greek society, slaves were seen as a necessary and perfectly normal part of city-life. Acquired through war and conquest, kidnap and purchase, slaves were simply amongst life's losers. There were even intellectual arguments from philosophers like Aristotle, which propounded the belief that slaves were demonstrably inferior, a product of their environment and inherited characteristics. Greeks persuaded themselves that it was they who had the best environment and characteristics and the purest bloodline and were, therefore, born to rule.
Red-figure Tondo Depicting a Youth

Red-figure Tondo Depicting a Youth

It is impossible to say with accuracy how many slaves ( douloi ) there were in Greek society and what proportion of the population they made up. It is unlikely, due to the costs, that every single citizen had their own slave but some citizens undoubtedly owned many slaves. Accordingly, estimates of the slave population in the Greek world range from between 15 and 40% of the total population. However, a defence speech made in a court case in Athens by Lysias, and hints from others such as Demosthenes, strongly suggest that if every citizen did not have slaves then they certainly desired them and to be a slave owner was considered a measure of social status. Slaves were not only owned by private individuals but also by the state, which used them in municipal projects such as mining or, as in the case of Athens, the police force.
The relationship between slaves and owners seems to have been much as in any other period of history with a mix of contempt, distrust, and abuse from the owners and contempt, theft, and sabotage from the enslaved. Source material is always from the viewpoint of the slave owner but there are references in literature, particularly in Greek comedy, of friendship and loyalty in at least some owner-slave relationships. Whilst the flogging of slaves is commonly referred to in Greek plays, there were also treatises written extolling the benefits of kindness and incentives in slave management.
Slaves worked in all spheres and over 200 hundred occupations have been identified. These include working in the home, in agriculture, industry workshops (eg: making shields, food, clothes and perfumes), mines, transport, retail, banking, entertainment, in the armed forces as attendants to their owner or as baggage carriers, as rowers in naval vessels or even as fighters. Farms were generally small affairs with even the richest citizens tending to own several small farms rather than one large estate, therefore, slaves were not concentrated into large groups as in later ancient societies.
Symposiast & Hetairai

Symposiast & Hetairai

For slaves there was, at least for some, a glimmer of hope to one day achieve their freedom. There are instances when slaves, particularly those involved in manufacturing and industry, living separately from their owners and given a certain financial independence, could pay for their freedom with money they had saved. Also, slaves in the army were sometimes given their freedom by the state following their victorious exploits.


Aside from slaves, most Greek poleis would have had a number of free foreigners (xenoi) who had chosen to re-locate from other areas of Greece, the Mediterranean, and the Near East, bringing with them skills such as pottery and metalworking.These foreigners usually had to register their residence and so became a recognised class (lower in status than the full-citizens) called the metics (metoikoi). In return for the benefits of 'guest' citizenship they had to provide a local sponsor, pay local taxes, sometimes pay additional taxes, contribute to the costs of minor festivals, and even participate in military campaigns when necessary. Despite the suspicions and prejudices against foreign 'barbarians' which often crop up in literary sources, there were cases when metoikoi did manage to become full citizens after a suitable display of loyalty and contribution to the good of the host state. They then received equal tax status and the right to own property and land. Their children too could also become citizens. However, some states, notably Sparta, at times actively discouraged immigration or periodically expelled xenoi. The relationship between foreigners and local citizens seems to have been a strained one, particularly in times of wars and economic hardship.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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