What is a real knight? For some time there has raged within the confraternity ‘community’ a debate concerning who is and is not a ‘real’ knight. Without question, those British Knights of the Garter and their brethren have inherited the title in an indisputable tradition extending unbroken back to Edward III in the 14th century. The Knights of Saint John also have an intact lineage, running all the way back to the 12th century. The various modern fraternal organizations based on the Templar romance have a more debatable connection. Then there are the Knights of Columbus and similar groups. Within the Society for Creative Anachronism and similar organizations lies yet another tradition now more than thirty years old. Lastly, many smaller groups use the concept of knighthood to inspire their members in some way and to build better people.
For me, all of these groups contain ‘real’ knights. In every instance the adoubement of knighthood now has little to do with the feudal structure and everything to do with a recognition of a particular kind of individual who has built their renown in the context of doing ‘right.’
When the Queen of England confers a knighthood, it is in recognition of deeds done in service of Crown and Commonwealth. A Knight of Saint John, a Templar, and a Knight of Columbus are members of close fraternal organizations whose aims are to achieve good works in the world and to provide an internally consistent system of values based on core religious beliefs common to most of the worlds population. A knighthood conferred here also recognizes achievement--renown. Within the Society for Creative Anachronism knighthood is conferred based both on physical prowess in the system of martial arts practiced by the SCA and for renown based on a loosely understood effort to follow ‘chivalry.’
The common thread for all the groups above is their concern for the knights duty to pursue the ‘good’ in various ways through personal sacrifice, sincerity, and excellence displayed in profession and avocation alike.
To be a knight in much of the medieval period had little to do with adoubement or service to any ideal, it had to do with the possession of such equipment and skills as were requisite to the title. Skill with sword, lance and horse was the basis more than was a focus towards the ideal. From the earliest days of what might be called the chivalric tradition, any knight could make a knight, but there was honor to be gained in being knighted by a King of particular renown or by a powerful nobleman whose reputation as a knight sans reproche brought him fame. But there was no centralized registry of knights; any country knight could and did confer knighthood on soldiers they thought worthy. Nor was the ceremony an absolute requirement. If an armed man travelled far, and appeared a knight then de facto he was a knight.
The idea that a knighthood need be obtained through particular channels is a Renaissance one. English knights began to obtain their stations directly from the Crown, but by this time the station had changed from a tier in feudal society to an honorific title. Even so, the honorific use was to reward service to the Crown or state; a recognition, if you will, of renown in service.
As a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, some would say that I have little claim to the title of knight. Some view the encounter as primarily a social enterprise, a kind of theme party, while others focus on the development of the martial art. Others take it far more seriously, some to the point of fanaticism. Part of the problem with the Society, a simultaneous strength and paralyzing weakness, is in this diversity. There are knights of all varieties within the SCA. There are those who are attend to party, for whom the belt means privilege and an increased chance at the ladies. There are those for whom the fighting itself is the essence, they would just as soon drop the rest. There are those who live their entire lives trying to fulfill some kind of image or in seeking power within the organization. And there are those who believe that knighthood is largely a private path. All of these are true about the SCA. And yet, it does produce some real knights.
In the SCA only the King can confer a knighthood. But the king must himself must be a knight. There is a legend that one of the early SCA knights was himself a ‘real’ knight, and some have used this to validate all knights made since that date. I cannot ascertain the truth of this belief, but for me it doesn’t matter. I know of many within the SCA whose character and demeanor, both inside the Society and out, that they are knights in the pursuit of the ideal sense of the word. I know others who wear the white belt but who I cannot in good faith consider knights--I believe the same could be said for any group of men laying claim to the title in any time period.
I cannot agree with the modern knights who believe the only paths lie through their own organizations. I see the whole argument as a colossal waste of time--would not this time be better spent in the pursuit of deeds worthy of a knight rather than in trying to discourage others from pursuing the ‘right’ in their own way?
It is also true that someone cannot awake one morning and say, “I am a knight,” and become one. But why not? The reason is that the earning of a knight’s title lies, in every case, of the building of renown such that the title is earned through deeds. Through sincerity. Through dedication. It is not the title of ‘knight’ that makes a man a knight, it is his renown. Sometimes circumstances will recognize such a gentle with a formal title, and sometimes not.
Modern knights vary in quality as surely as did the medieval ones. As in the Middle Ages, some follow some kind of romantic ideal while others hold the attitude that only performance on the battlefield counts. Knights of both types all ultimately fail to achieve the perfection of their ideal, whether it be a purely martial image or a more philosophical one, but they can succeed in the betterment of themselves and of their world, and this is the function of knighthood.
The true essence of knighthood lies not so much in whether you believe you are a knight. The key is, do others believe you are a knight? If the answer to this question is yes, then I believe you can claim the title of knight. In so doing you also accept the duties towards acting with the right and striving towards the distant chivalric ideal. You thus become a brother to all those knights who have trod the road before and who will come after. Fine company indeed!
Within the SCA the knight is tested primarily through the practice of our martial art on the tournament field in what I have called the “crucible of virtue.” In England knights are tested in the political arena of Britain and the world. For the Fraternal orders the challenges are wrought in the common stuff of life and in various exercises designed to teach and to strengthen the mind. I do not know the testing and refining techniques of other groups who use the idea of knighthood to build people of quality, but I am sure they exist.
I believe that this essence of renown is a spark that burns brightly in those knights who share the common bond of seeking a distant ideal, and that this spark can be recognized instantly by others who travel the same road. Some of them are formally known as knights while others are not. It is a comforting thing to know that it does not require an institution to continue the chivalric tradition, but is entrusted to a thing far more durable and pure--the human heart.