Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Terminology of chivalry

For the second time in two years, I am teaching a seminar for fourth-year students entitled, simply, Chivalry. In the seminar we read a lot of primary sources discussing mounted warriors, vassals, men at arms, and so forth in an attempt to figure out what the knights of the Middle Ages were like, and how they were regarded and supposed to act.

There is a problem of terminology that bothers me a lot as as we work through the material, which is entirely in English translation. If we are trying to define "the medieval knight" and "knighthood" or "chivalry," what about the fact that the figure we call a knight in modern English was called in all of the relevant European languages either "a soldier (miles)" or "a horseman (chevalier or Ritter) or sometimes "a follower (vassal)?" How can we really discuss the evolution of this figure, in a practical or ideal sense, either one, unless we come to grips with the actual terminology? To my shame, I have yet to come up with a systematic answer to this problem, beyond discussing it in class where I feel the need, which is pretty often. I once thought that that would be enough, but I'm dissatisfied.

I am now fantasizing about a seminar where the modern English word "knight" can't be used at all, but where, depending on the original word, one must say "rider," " soldier," or "follower." The use of the word "chivalry" might be even more difficult...

I had a good close look at the Oxford English Dictionary before writing this post, and under the main entry for the noun "knight" I found no definition that reflects what students of medieval warfare often mean when they say "knight:" a mounted, fully armed and armored warrior. Surely it must be in there somewhere.

Image: a symbolic knight.

No comments:

Post a Comment