Deriving its origins from one or more words meaning "servant"1, the word knight evolved into a title of honour for the lesser gentry and, in common usage, refers almost exclusively to a medieval heavy cavalryman of high social status. As usual, the truth is a little more complex.
The etymological evolution of the thing seems to be pretty much the same of its Anglo-Scandinavian cognate the housecarl - from general servant to armed retainer and thence to gentry. Social status of knighthood advanced slowly - in some early cases (notably in Central and Eastern Europe) there were even unfree knights - but the logic of feudalism (in as much as either existed) tended to dictate that a man who fought as heavy cavalry should have relatively high social status. From the early armed and mounted retainer, knighthood evolved into a prestigious institution surrounded by elaborate codes of conduct. At this point, knighthood had largely ceased to be a separate layer in the feudal system - a feudal magnate (and even a king) might - or might not - be a knight as well. There was a definite class of landed knights, forming a bottom rung of the landed nobility (or possibly the top rung of the gentry, these things are hard to define sometimes), but equally there were still knights-bachelor serving as household troops for men of higher status and great magnates who also held knighthood.
Becoming a knight was generally by a sort of apprenticeship system - starting as a page (often as young as eight years old) a boy would slowly learn both the rules of etiquette and the skill at arms that he would require in later life. Later, usually in his early teens, he would become a squire and start his apprenticeship proper, serving as a servant, trainee and understudy to a knight. At some point, often after a successful test in battle or some form of peacetime examination (possibly at a tournament) he would be said to have "won his spurs" and would be promoted to knighthood, usually in an elaborate ceremony with civil, military and religious aspects.
There were other routes - a magnate who would never be expected to take the field might receive a "courtesy knighthood" (especially in the later Middle Ages) without serving the apprenticeship and, by contrast, a commoner who distinguished himself under arms might be awarded a knighthood on the battlefield by way of decoration, but, initially at least, these were the exception rather than the rule. Initially, any knight could promote a man to knighthood but gradually the right to make a knight became a perogative of the crown (usually with a few exceptions such as the Grandmasters of Fighting Orders and the most powerful peers of the Crown). As the middle ages came to an end, the military aspects of the institutions declined and the "courtesy knighthood" became more common, even to such matters as baronetcies - effectively hereditary knighthoods.
In the modern era, knighthood has been shorn of virtually all military connotations and is a general purpose honour for those cultures that still use it.
- Coat of Arms
- Knights Templar
- Middle Ages
- Essay: The Once And Future RPG
Game and Story Use
- The status of a knight in your campaign will need explaining to PCs - whether it's the early medieval retainer, the late medieval/renaissance title of honour or something in between.
- Likewise, the conditions in which someone may become a knight, and if there heavy cavalrymen who aren't knights.
- And what is expected of a knight may vary … from virtually nothing (as in the modern era), to some all encompassing code of honour and chivalry (the high medieval ideal).
- A knighthood may be a suitable campaign reward for a martially inclined PC