Men of Honour
May 2, 2008 1:43 AM   Subscribe

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away--there lived men who dressed in suits of glittering steel... their purpose: to roam the lands in search of good deeds to be done in order to earn their salvation. The journey, although perilous, would be one of virtue and piety. Having to face down monstrous creatures and beastly men, they would sometimes take the help of other beasts in carrying out their conquests. (Of course, there were still others who may have been a bit misguided, but the myth endures, if not accurately portrayed.)
posted by hadjiboy (34 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Your post is apropos to today's woot T-shirt.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:57 AM on May 2, 2008

Oh, no, not more Iron Man hype...

posted by wendell at 2:08 AM on May 2, 2008

Once upon a time Currently, in a land far, far away the Middle East--there lived men who dressed in suits uniforms of glittering steel desert camouflage ... their purpose: to roam occupy the lands in search of good deeds weapons of mass destruction to be done in order to earn their salvation paycheck. The journey mission, although perilous misinformed, would be one of virtue greed and piety capitalism. Having to face down monstrous creatures angry denizens and beastly men IEDs, they would sometimes take the help of other beasts Poland in carrying out their conquests. (Of course, the re were still others who NeoCons may have been a bit misguided, but the myth war endures, if not accurately portrayed.)
posted by clearly at 2:11 AM on May 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

And the myth is joined from the Far East to the Far West in the Kurosawa Samurai films remade as American Westerns.
posted by D.C. at 2:50 AM on May 2, 2008

And they were awesome at hitting people with swords! And still are.
posted by ignignokt at 3:23 AM on May 2, 2008

Whoops. Make that: And still are.
posted by ignignokt at 3:28 AM on May 2, 2008

Not to rain on anyone's parade, but the mythic image of a knight is about as far from reality as you can get. They were, naturally, the sons of nobility and wealth, and their primary function was to keep the peasentry in line via violence and threat of violence.

Crossbows, one of the few weapons that gave a single hit to kill against a fully armored knight, were banned throughout Europe specifically to help the men in clank suits stay on top. Until, that is, the Crusades came along and religious bigotry and hate inspired Europe to authorize crossbows for use against the Muslims.

Like the Kurosawa myth-samurai, the European myth-knight is a product of fiction, not reality. Most knights were exactly what you'd expect from a "noble" kid raised to believe he was superior to everyone else: crude, cruel, brutal. We should study the past, not nostalgiaize it.
posted by sotonohito at 4:32 AM on May 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's only a model...
posted by 5MeoCMP at 5:13 AM on May 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Crossbows, one of the few weapons that gave a single hit to kill against a fully armored knight

What about longbows?
posted by DU at 5:14 AM on May 2, 2008

Sotonohito, your description is, unfortunately, about as oversimplified as most of the knight mythos.

There are a couple problems that always creep up in this kind of conversation, the biggy being that, depending who you talk to, the "age of chivalry" (or whatever you want to call it) can start as early as fifteen minutes after Justinian decided he wanted to be a Christian end ended as late as 17-something, and covering everying from Samuri, to Roman leigonaires who went native to Conquistadores looking for the cities of gold.

I've never heard a trustworth citation of a continent wide ban on the crossbow. Given that the first crusade was in 1100 (when armour still mostly consisted of mail, maybe with a few stragegically placed plates here and there) I think a spear would be a much greater threat, given that you can poke with a spear again and again with no lengthy reload time. Besides, simple economics would do a far better job of keeping it out of the hands of joe average since a middle class with the kind of skilled laborers it takes to manufacture a signifigant number of functional crossbows was yet to come.

Also, look at Sicily under Manfred (which comes into pretty sharp focus when you consider the Saracen units in his order of battle at Benevento). You can draw lines from Manfred's rein straight back to the Norman conquest with out too much effort, and yet Sicily was a more cosmopolitan place in 1200 that many US cities are today.

Move down the line to another ruler of Sicily, Renee d'Anjou. His book on the subject of tournaments is one of the biggest sources we have on the medieval tournament as it was, rather than as it was imagined by the Victorians. You can also make the argument that he invented perspective drawing, a technique that Durer was still noodling with well after Renee's death. Sure, he probably knew eighteen ways to take your arms out of socket, but you can't say he was crude.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:55 AM on May 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

Armored knights always seemed pretty ridiculous, in the context of facing waves of highly skilled horsemen like Ghengis Khan would throw at them.

I did however recently come across the story of one knight who lived the dream. During the fourth crusade, a tiny opening had been breached in the walls of Constantinople, just big enough to crawl through. Inside were hoards of armed defenders, admittedly probably not professional soldiers, and an armored knight crawled through, stood up, and exploded into action. He was able to put the entire group into a retreat long enough for others to enter and open the gates, single-handedly changing the course of the battle.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:00 AM on May 2, 2008

"What do you think a knight is for, girl? You think it's all taking favors from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing."

Cheesy quote from this guy of course
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:27 AM on May 2, 2008

We should study the past, not nostalgiaize it.

Very true, but we we also have to be careful passing judgment. It is pretty unlikely that anyone alive today truly understands the beliefs and motivations of people so far removed in time from us. Our world has changed a lot in the last couple of hundred years. We can read descriptions and understand them as abstract knowledge but always in the back of the head is the comparison to more modern beliefs. The fact is, that they were a product of their culture same as us.

To say that the primary function of the armored knight is to oppress the masses is..well...silly (and kind of goes against the statement I have quoted at the top). The primary function of the militarized nobility was to defend against invasion from neighboring peoples. It takes a lot of resources to maintain a warrior class like that and the solution they arrived at originally was the Feudal system (I think a lot of modern scholars say it arose after William the Conqueror prodded much booty). I wouldn't have wanted to live in it, but it worked for them for a long time. Eventually, the role of the nobility changed and cultural changes occurred that made Heavily armored warriors non-functional.

By the standards of their own culture, many of them were probably good people, some were undoubtedly very bad, and most were just folks.
posted by Lord Widebottom at 6:57 AM on May 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

What's up with the cowboy links tacked on at the end?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:02 AM on May 2, 2008

"In destinies sad or merry, true men can but try."
posted by notyou at 7:04 AM on May 2, 2008

I dont mean to pile on, but to add to the debunking, Don Quixote was written as a parody of the knightly tales. Cervantes, who led quite an adventurous life, found the "chivalric romances" ridiculous.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:06 AM on May 2, 2008

StickyCarpet: What was the name of this knight and where did you read about this? Sounds interesting.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:23 AM on May 2, 2008

The Three Musketeers contains similar mythology.

I've heard the story that Dumas read a satirical book from the era and didn't realize it was satire, and based his characters and all the overdone chivalry he read in this book. I haven't been able to verify this story I heard long ago.
posted by eye of newt at 7:39 AM on May 2, 2008

Lovely bit o' mud over 'ere!
posted by mwhybark at 8:01 AM on May 2, 2008

"It takes a lot of resources to maintain a warrior class like that and the solution they arrived at originally was the Feudal system (I think a lot of modern scholars say it arose after William the Conqueror prodded much booty)."

Cart before the horse. European feudal economies were derived from Roman landholding practices, if I recall correctly. While the landed nobility certainly would have claimed to be protecting the country from invasion, they did spend a fair amount of time invading, as well, and no question about it.

"ARTHUR: Shut up! Will you shut up!
DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! HELP! HELP! I'm being repressed!
ARTHUR: Bloody peasant!
DENNIS: Oh, what a give away. Did you hear that, did you hear that, eh? That's what I'm on about -- did you see him repressing me, you saw it didn't you?"

posted by mwhybark at 8:09 AM on May 2, 2008

What about longbows?

Longbows were actually very difficult to fire and required an enormous amount of training and physical strength to be used effectively. Crossbows were hated because it allowed any unskilled and untrained commoner to have the ability to kill a fully armored knight with virtually no effort.

And in an environment where the knights are the enforcers of the will of the lords of the land, that is a bad thing. Sort of a medieval equivalent of a RPG against a tank.
posted by quin at 8:10 AM on May 2, 2008

I stand corrected :)
posted by Lord Widebottom at 8:11 AM on May 2, 2008

My area of focus is Meiji Era Japan, so I'll freely admit that my knowledge of European history is not as great as it could be. I honestly can't recall when or where I came across the bit about a crossbow ban.

I *do* know that the myth-samurai so popular in anime, manga, and many live action movies is horseshit, and that mostly the samurai were not especially nice, chivelrous, or friendly. Perhaps Europe had better people, but I rather doubt it.

Give a small, self selecting, group of men weapons, deny weapons to everyone else, tell the armed group that they're special, better, etc and you've got a recipe for a highly unpleasant group of people. I fail to see how Europe is so special that it can magically avoid that problem.

To Joe Peasant they all looked the same: some armed asshole who can kill him, rape his wife and daughters, and take everything he owns; all with no consiquences to the armed asshole. Some such armed people may well have really tried to hold to the ideal they theoretically represented, but let's not kid ourselves. Look at how many cops in modern America are abusive thugs, and that's with an entire society that looks down on such thuggery and the possibility of real consiquences if they're caught on video. In a society that doesn't give a damn if the knight fucks over the peasentry I find it extremely unlikely that the average knight wasn't a reaver bastard.
posted by sotonohito at 8:32 AM on May 2, 2008

You will have heard the story of Freak the Mighty, who slayed dragons, rescued maidens, and walked high above the world?
posted by Tehanu at 8:36 AM on May 2, 2008

Once upon a time Currently, in a land far, far away the Middle East--there lived men who dressed in suits uniforms of glittering steel desert camouflage ... their purpose: to roam occupy the lands in search of good deeds weapons of mass destruction to be done in order to earn their salvation paycheck.

clearly: to say that people in the military do their jobs in order to earn a paycheck is deeply insulting. i think it's pretty self-evident that considering how poor military pay is, especially considering the fact that those who are serving in the Middle East and Afghanistan are putting life and limb on the line. i'm sure each individual soldier, sailor, airman, and marine have their own set of reasons why he or she enlisted and continues to serve, but suffice to say, i doubt that money was way up on the list for most of them.

i'm generally not one of those people who is an unshakable supporter of the armed forces and i definitely never supported the invasion of iraq. but i can also distinguish between the policy makers and politicians who were criminal in their orchestration and handling of this appalling tragedy, and those who were put in the unenviable situation of having to actually go and flight this war. They leave their lives and families behind and to try to survive multiple deployments and often while lacking basic equipment and suffering a myriad of other outrages that should put this nation to shame.

Anyone visited Bethesda Naval recently? Or maybe any local VA hospital? At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, seeing a 19 year old kid who had his whole life ahead of him and now has but one eye and one limb left is a pretty sad thing.
posted by buka at 8:48 AM on May 2, 2008

We're opera fans in Camelot / We sing from the diaphragm a lot!

I enjoy all the King Arthur tales and what-not (The Once and Future King being my fave) but it's all a load of codswallop. I remember liking Boorman's film Excalibur, although I could never get past the business of Uther screwing what's-er-name while she's starkers and he is wearing full armor. She'd be all over bloody pinches from getting her flesh caught in the armor. I had to laugh, and that really broke the mood for me.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:49 AM on May 2, 2008

So many interesting oversimplications of European society, arrant errors regarding errantry, and skills at dressage on the high-horse. :)

I've always been puzzled by assumptions regarding the difficulty of using a longbow effectively or in maneuvering one's armored body on horseback; this strikes me as naive. These were human beings, equipped with all our ingenuity and ability. Skills are difficult today, but we learn and many of us master them. I honestly don't see why we fail to give our Dark Aged brethren the benefit of the doubt. (And we're talking about martial culture, which is highly adaptive and, typically, as practical as it gets. This isn't new with us today.) Does anyone else feel this way?
posted by resurrexit at 9:11 AM on May 2, 2008

resurrexit I don't think its underestimating our ancestors to state that shooting accurately with a longbow is damn hard. IIRC from my few forays into medieval European history, a longbowman had to practice about two hours a day, seven days a week, in order to achieve and maintain a high degree of skill with the bow. I seem to recall that the British government gave its bowmen an exemption from the "no work on Sunday" rule so they wouldn't have to lose a day of practice.

Difficult != impossible.

Also, physical skills, of any sort, are often quite a bit harder to pick up than purely mental skills. I studied Olympic style fencing for several years, and got fairly good at it, but it took me much longer to become a semi-competent swordsman than it did to, for example, become a semi-competent computer programmer. Worse, physical skills degrade if they aren't used regularly, which is one reason why elite soldiers were almost always from the nobility; they were the only ones with enough liesure to practice regularly. The peasants were too busy simply surviving to develop the necessary fighting skills.
posted by sotonohito at 9:31 AM on May 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Damn, hit post instead of preview. I meant to add:

One of the important social advances was the idea of a standing army of professional soldiers. In Japanese history that idea was imported from Europe in the 1870's, and there was a brief battle between a group of former samurai (who had long since abandoned their martial training, and rather trusted that their noble heritage made the more than a match for any peasant slime) lead by Saigo Takamori against a group of peasant conscripts who had been drafted into Japan's new standing army. The two sides were roughly equally armed, and the former peasants, though outnumbered, crushed the samurai with few losses. Moral of the story: professionals beat amateurs every time.

The same applies to a medieval peasant who gets uppity. The aristocrat/warriors of his time practiced martial skills daily, the uppity peasant practiced agronomy daily. It isn't condesending to the peasantry to observe that they don't have a chance in a stand up fight.
posted by sotonohito at 9:38 AM on May 2, 2008

buka: Hm. That must be why US military recruitment is so proportional to American class demographics. I've always admired how a kid growing up in Cambridge is just as likely to join the military as one from, say, Flint.
posted by kaibutsu at 9:53 AM on May 2, 2008

Speaking of Monty Python, this little documentary is terrific.
posted by moxiedoll at 10:34 AM on May 2, 2008

adamdschneider: I just finished Nicole Galland's Crossed, which puts its fictional main character in the role of the Fourth Crusade knight Stickycarpet mentions. In the "History behind the history" epilogue, I believe Galland discusses the story of the one knight slipping through a small hole in order to go berserk and frighten off the enemy fighters during the attack on Constantinople. Of course I'm at work, the book is at home, and I can't recall what documentation she offers for the story, or whether she mentions the original knight's name.

It's an excellent historical novel, though, and well worth reading, along with its prequel, The Fool's Tale.
posted by gillyflower at 12:08 PM on May 2, 2008

On second thought, lets not go to Camelot. 'Tis a silly place.
posted by not_on_display at 8:51 PM on May 2, 2008

I was hoping that you were going to finish things off with "Gloves of Metal" by Manowar (do yourself a big favor and watch it the whole way through).
posted by redteam at 11:41 PM on May 2, 2008

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