The problem of knighthood in the late Middle Ages: the case of Geoffrey Hotspur
One of the most vivid examples of change Geoffrey faces is the professional mercenary army, which was having a growing importance on the battlefields of Europe. Mercenaries, of course, were nothing new by the 14th century, and even the most majestic kings employed them alongside their levy of knights and titled men-at-arms. What changes, though, is the number and prestige of these soldiers for hire, especially in Italy, where the traditions of knighthood were weak and the institution of kingship close to non-existent. What is even more confusing for the young men brought up on the legend of King Arthur and the rituals of a feudal court is that growing number of titled families were entering professional soldiery as a respectable means of acquiring fame and honor, not to mention cold hard cash. The division between knights and mercenaries was blurring, and this transformed the military ethos of the high middle ages, whereby the right to military service was all about privilege, class distinction and maintaining the social hierarchy. The rise of the condottiere in Italy, peasant pikeman in the Swiss cantons and landsknecht in Germany changed all that.
Geoffrey Hotspur wants to be a knight, but by the late 14th century was it worth the effort? Knighthood evolved out the military ethos that evolved in the post-Roman, Barbarian, newly Christianized world and coalesced into an ideal that included a wide range of virtues, including generosity, piety, courtesy, valor, as well as dexterity with arms and fidelity to one’s lord. However, as the centuries wore on and the non-military orders sought to move up the social ladder, they began to reach for titles, debasing them in the process. The nature of service was expanded and redefined. When royal and ducal households were still small, the number of bureaucrats was likewise few and mostly drawn from the clerical orders. By the 14th century, the nature of medieval governance was changing so that governments had to expand. More commoners joined the higher administrations and emerged as a non-fighting titled order. In France, the distinction became known as the ‘nobility of the sword’ versus the ‘nobility of the robe’. Therefore, how could an honest knight, who demonstrated his prowess through the tip of his lance or by the blade of his sword, reconcile with a parchment-pusher who claimed to be his social equal? If sanctioned by the powers-that-be, such a debasement of knighthood created conflict and confusion, resentment and despair, which caused the traditional, conservative aspirants to knighthood to fear for its value.
Finally, one of the greatest challenges to knighthood in the 14th century was the Black Death, or bubonic plague. It was a monster that killed half of Europe at mid-century and would regularly rear its ugly head over the subsequent three centuries. Disease and pestilence was common in the Middle Ages, but the Black Death was particularly destructive not just in terms of the sheer number of people who died form it, but its perfidious influence undermined the authority of the Church, destabilized society, fractured the medieval consensus about the social hierarchy, and interfered with the conduct of war, all of which together supported the institution of knighthood. A good squire cannot be made a knight without battle; a knighthood lost its quasi-sanctified nature without the belief in the Church; popular challenges to the social status quo made it difficult for the knight to keep his place and lands under control; mass mortality of the titled orders caused confusion about service obligations and relations. Geoffrey has to face this fatal threat daily. As a squire, he garners little enough respect from his social betters and underlings, and so if courtesy and deference break down, he might become humiliated and must find ways to gird his confidence in that what he aspires to is right and true.
Of Faith and Fidelity: Geoffrey Hotspur and the War for St. Peter’s Throne is the first book in the English Free Company series set in the late Middle Ages. The English Free Company is led by Geoffrey Hotspur, an orphan-squire and ward of the mighty Duke of Lancaster, whose driving ambition is to become a knight and serve a great lord. Of Faith and Fidelity takes place in 1394, at the height of the schism of the Western Church when the throne of St. Peter was contested by rival claimants in Rome and Avignon. Unable to settle the dispute peacefully, both sides resorted to war, and the key to winning the throne of St. Peter was control of the Patrimony, a band of territory stretching the breadth of Italy that owes fealty to whichever pope who can rule it. Before Henry V won his miraculous victory at Agincourt, before the Borgias had done their infamous deeds, there was Geoffrey Hotspur, a man as tall as Charlemagne and armed with a sword that rivals Excalibur. Thrown off the established path to knighthood, the ambitious and hot-tempered Geoffrey finds himself caught up in the war between the two popes, where he must adapt his beliefs and apply his training as a squire in order to survive.