Knights Versus Romanticism

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Knights are often hailed from the medieval era as heroes and legends, especially with fantasy reincarnations of these military romantics. In the beginning of the 20th century, British painter Edmund Leighton specialized in many idealized medieval subjects. One of his most famous paintings being The Accolade (Oil on canvas, 1901, 57 in ?— 39 in). This painting depicts an Accolade, a ceremony that bestows knighthood. This painting is quite fantastical. There is a heavy focus on the two figures closest to the viewer, the Queen and the soon-to-be knight. There is a crowd of figures bearing witness to this event congested in the mid-right corner, but they are not treated as important as the two central figures, based on the washout of light painted on top of them. Both the knight-to-be and especially the queen are extremely beautiful looking. This painting, along with many of Leightonr’s and others at this time, feed into the romantic ideal of what being a knight was like. When in actuality, being a knight was simply a way of life, and was not always so great.

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Beginning as young as age seven, boys would start their work to become a knight by becoming a page in a castle , an attendant to a nobleman. Alongside their work, they would also learn about archery, sword skills, and horsemanship. Around the ages of ten to fourteen, a page would become a squire. A squire was essentially a knight internship. Squires continued to lengthen their knowledge about fighting skills and the code of chivalry, whilst assisting the knight they were working under with weapon polishing, armor polishing, stable keeping, etc. If the boy made it to the age of 21, then he would be able to vow his allegiance to his lord and become a knight. After all, according to Thomas Hobbes, life in the later middle ages was nasty, brutish, and short . The daily activities of knights would start at dawn with a mass, being that knights and Europe were in general mostly catholic during this period, this was the first prayer of the day, where there would also be one mid-morning, evening, and once more before sleep. Knights were the military of the middle ages. To simply put, they were soldiers.

Why knights seem so influential and heroic, falls back onto the idea of chivalry. Chivalry coming from the French word chevalier, or knight. Arguably, many of the chivalry rules were put in place to keep knights from becoming power hungry tier one noblemen, and to regulate violence in general. Yet, it would be foolish to believe that all knights followed all rules of chivalry all the time. It was likely that there were bad knights who abused their power. Albeit, smaller power than we think that they had. The basis of chivalry can be summarized as such: maintain god, serve your lord/lady with your all, fight for the wellbeing of all but do not get into unnecessary battles, honor fellow knights, respect women, and to fight for the good and not for the money.

Knights were not supposed to kill or get involved in unnecessary battles, but the loophole to this was claiming someone of being a heretic. They could easily twist these rules. Jousting would, in theory, be frowned upon based on the rules of chivalry. A knight should not be killing another knight, but it happened anyway due to these loopholes. Many knights did not have their own castles, many did not even get paid well. Often times, knights stayed at the castle of the head monarch, to serve in an instant if needed. The ceremony of being knighted is symbolic, the iconic tapping of the sword on the shoulders and head symbolizes that the monarch can easily dispose of the knight if they displease them. Chivalry in itself died out after the middle ages, but was reborn again during the Victorian era. This could be why there is such a heavy romantic view on knights and their chivalry, as it seems to be confused with newer Victorian chivalry. Sarah Douglas writes in a review of Chivalry in Medieval England, As such, our impression that knights roamed the countryside in highly stylized accoutrements battling evil and selflessly saving those in need is the product of art or literature generated long after chivalry ceased to be a factor on the battlefield. Romanticism boomed once again in the Victorian era. These works of art made during said era, have left a heavy imprint on us to believe in these ideals of what knights were. When in fact, it was due to the more modern chivalry rules being places upon subjects who had older chivalry rules.

The story of King Arthur also heavily romanticizes the idea of being a knight. Lancelot is the most famous knight of the Round Table. Hetta Elizabeth Howes writes on this romanticism, stating:
Lancelot is, according to some versions of the story, born to a fairy mother, or, according to others, born to the Lady of the Lake. He is one of Arthurr’s best knights, skilled with a sword and a lance, and in almost all versions in which he appears he is absolutely dedicated in his love for and service to Queen Guinevere. He rescues her from death countless times, and cuts open his hands prying open iron bars to rescue her. Their love is one of the enduring features of Arthurian romance; however, it also contributes to the destruction of the Round Table and the fall of Arthurr’s utopian kingdom.

Lancelot is an example of romanticism being done both in a genuine love-romantic way, and glorification of both his character and his role as a knight. He was born to a supernatural being, immediately this is unrealistic, unfortunately. Having been born to a divine being, this makes him an important character, in a way being related to that of Achilles: A character who also had a divine mother, and known for being a great warrior. Lancelot is both bold and brave, proving to be a great and skilled soldier. But also having a softer side of being a lover. Even if that love is for someone elser’s wife. These stories are of fiction. Lancelot is almost the perfect knight in regards to following the rules of chivalry, ignoring the fact that his affairs ruined the Round Table. As stated previously, it was highly unlikely that most knights followed all codes of chivalry, and that these codes were in place to keep knights in line. Not to make them legendary dreamboats.

So how romantic is The Accolade? Firstly, this painting is pleasing to oner’s eye, as there is a golden ratio between the Queen, Knight-to-be, and witnesses. All of these figures are placed strategically in a way to bring the eye around the painting as a whole. The queen is dressed all in white, which is symbolic of innocence and purity. She is extremely beautiful, young, and has a powerful role of being the queen. Her dress and self are embellished in golden jewelry, with gemstones accentuating each piece. Being that this piece was crafted in the 20th centenary, it is not a Victorian piece, but is influenced heavily by the Victorian romance. The knight is knelt submissively below his queen, we do not see much of his features other than a slice of his profile. This anonymity makes it easy to self-insert oner’s own ideal of who the knight is. This caters to the viewer greatly. Her’s dressed boldly in a red tunic, which immediately draws the eye in onto him. As stated in the beginning, the witnesses are not so important to this piece, as they are washed out with light. There is some importance, though, in recognizing that there is a squire looking on, who can be identified as the boy holding the knightr’s shield. He looks at the scene unfolding in front of him in an almost dreamy manner, as that could be him one day. A priest is holding onto his shoulders reassuringly.

Edmund Leighton was not the only medieval romantic painter of his time, Sir John Everett Millais made paintings in a similar fashion of idealization a few years prior. His nearly life size painting, Knight Errant (Oil on canvas, 1870, 72in ?— 53in), depicts a chivalrous act of a knight rescuing a recently robbed woman tied to a tree. When displayed in the royal academy in 1870, Millais accompanied his own text next to the work, stating The order of Knights errant was instituted to protect widows and orphans, and to succour maidens in distress. This goes back to the summarization of chivalry. This painting is a night scene, with a crescent moon visible in the upper left hand corner. The female figure is nude, her clothes are seen disheveled on the forest floor to the lower left of her. The tree sher’s tied to is a Silver Birch, which was commonly identified with femininity in the 19th century. You can see two figures fleeing the scene from the upper right corner. The knightr’s sword has blood on it and when you look towards his feet, there is a bloodied torso of a dead man. This painting is a prime example of the idealization of a knight. This knight featured in this painting is extremely heroic and chivalrous in all aspects. Not only is he saving a damsel in distress, but he also took down and scared off her attackers, while he is completely unharmed. His facial expression is stern, yet calm. X-rays of this painting show that originally, Millais had the nude female figure making eye contact with her savior. But poor reviews of this edition of the painting coaxed Millais to change her stance, and make her take a more modest approach. Unfortunately, like many female nude figures in this era, Millais was also criticized for this nude appearing too real. Knowing that chivalry was revived and endorsed via the Victorian era, and that knights where just simple soldiers of their time, this painting leaves a sort of kitsch taste. It is extravagant and played on through the mistaken ideals that have been setup for us.

Knight Errant has a blunter, in-your-face approach of heroism compared to The Accolade. Both of these paintings are idealized, glorified, and have a strong sense of heroism. The era these paintings were created in, after Victorian times, strongly correlate with the idea that the Victorian era imprinted onto our ideals of what a knight was. The art made after the rebirth of chivalry has confused and infected our views as to what chivalry was like during the medieval ages. When in actuality, it was a military job one began training for during childhood, and if made to the age of 21, granted the most minimal nobility status. Chivalry was created to dispel and frown upon violence. And, as typical human nature works, did not make every knight the heroic romantic we think that they were today. At most, they were a pawn for their monarch in charge. Symbolized when taking their vows that said monarch could cut them off easily. When not battling for said monarch, they were constantly training and keeping up with prayer. It was a job that was better than being a merchant or a farmer, but still seemed to be just another job.

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Knights Versus Romanticism. (2019, May 31). Retrieved August 9, 2022 , from
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