Chivalry Fitness

Scott Farrell comments:

When we talk about sports, we tend to think of Greek athletes rather than knights in shining armor. We often forget that many knights spent their time, at least in part, on the “tournament circuit,” participating professionally in the martial sports of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Too often we think of the Age of Chivalry as sort of an “athletic vacuum,” where spiritual fitness eclipsed physical fitness. We forget that our approach to sport as a demonstration of character can be traced back to the days of knights in armor, where the jousting tournament became a metaphor for the tribulations of the spiritual quest. When we look to athletes as role models today, we’re holding them to a standard of nobility rooted in the Middle Ages. In this essay, Professor Broekhoff delves into the origins of this long-standing relationship between chivalry and sports.

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Learning the physical side of the knightly code

Fitness1Public education, if one can speak of such education in the Middle Ages, was a function of the Church. In the monasteries and cathedral schools, the curriculum consisted of the septum artes liberales (seven liberal arts), which were divided into the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. In this curriculum there was no place for physical education, although the following lines from a “students rule book” give evidence of some concern of physical well-being of the students:

“So students are not too much
Burdened with teaching.
They are always permitted
To go play on holy days.”

In its attempt to shape the nobility according to the ideals of the Church, the clergy emphasized the importance of the artes liberales in the education of the young pages and squires. Such efforts are reflected in the Miroires aux Princes (Mirrors for Princes), in which famous clergyman presented an ideal education for the prince as a model for all noblemen. In his treatise De Eruditione Filiorum Nobilium, for example, Vincent de Beauvais stresses humility, discipline and obedience as desirable characteristics of the young nobleman, but he also points out the human movement reveals the style of the body.

If ideally the young nobleman should be well versed in the artes liberales, the practical situation left much to be desired. From all evidence, the illiteracy among the medieval aristocracy was widespread. It is said, for example, that the illustrious Bertrand de Gucsclin, constable of France during the Hundred Years War (c. 1337-1429), hardly knew how to write his own name. The long and arduous training to prepare the knight for his physical duties was obviously not conducive to intellectual pursuits. Eustache Deschamps, the 14th century poet and chronicler, bewailed the fact that in his search for physical prowess the knight does everything for his body but nothing for his soul. Even during the late Middle Ages many amorous knights needed a clerk to record their poetry.

The education of the young knight was in reality for the most part physical education. Petrus Alfonsus (1062-1140) was probably the first to define the aristocratic curriculum by introducing the septum probitates as the knightly equivalent of the septum artes liberales ((Schoelen, E., Erziehung und Unterricht im Mittelalter (1965) p. 208)). These probitates or knightly arts which formed a compendium of the noblemen’s education are admirably described in Johannes Rothe’s (1936) Der Ritterspiegel (Knight’s Mirror), near the beginning of the 15th century. (The poem describes riding, swimming, shooting, climbing and dancing as well as these, which apply more directly to our image of chivalry):

“The fifth part I shall speak of
Is that he (the knight) is good in tournament,
That he fights and tilts well,
And is honest and good
In the joust.

The sixth art is wrestling,
Also both fencing and fighting,
Beat others in the long jump
From the left as well as from the right.”

It is not difficult to see in this program of knightly education the reflection of the feudal ideals of chivalry in which physical prowess played a major role. From a practical point of view, the nobleman’s life depended on his physical skills and endurance. As Jusserand ((Jusserand, J.J., Les Sports et Jeuix d’Exercise dans l’Ancienne France (1901)) remarks, dressing in a harness (armor) in these days was a physical exercise in itself. The reports of the chroniclers leave little doubt that the medieval knights were indeed in excellent physical condition. According to his biographer, Bousciacaut, famous chevalier and Maréchal of France, could in his youth turn a summersault in full armor, except for his helmet, and scale the inside a ladder equipped in harness by pulling himself up by the arms ((Painter, S, French Chivalry (1940) p.39)).

The education of the knight, however, went far beyond the immediate objectives of the development of scale and physical fitness. The knightly art provided, above all, an opportunity for the development of knightly character and the traits that were admired in the true nobleman. In this respect, the educational setting was of utmost importance. Until his seventh year, a son of the nobility remained home under the care of his mother. After this, he was often sent away from home to start his knightly education at the court of a powerful baron or sometimes of even the king. For seven years he served his lord as a page, and during this time he was initiated in the knightly arts and customs. At 14 years of age, the young noble was promoted to the more prestigious position of squire. As such, he took care of his knight’s horse and served as a shield bearer in battle. Some of the sons of the poorer nobility remained as squires for their entire lives, because they lacked the money to equip themselves properly. Ideally, however, the squire was dubbed a knight at 21 years of age, after another seven-year period of service ((Cornish, F.W., Chivalry (1901)).

The division of the time of education into seven-year periods, the seven liberal arts and knightly arts, form an expression of the medieval tendency to regulate everything according to certain ideals. This spirit of casuistry, in which everything is isolated and referred to an ideal solution, was highly developed in the Middle Ages. All things had their proper places, and all forms of behavior were governed by definite rules. As Huizinga indicates, this strict casuistry and the establishment of formal rules were the only means of creating a semblance of harmony between warfare and the chivalric ideal ((Huizinga, J., The Waning of the Middle Ages (1954) p. 246)). The seven-year periods, however, remained an ideal classification from which there was frequent deviation. For example, Gautier ((Gautier, L., Chivalry (1960), p. 125)) sets the average age of admittance to knighthood before the 13th century at 15 instead of 21!

That custom of barons, suzerains and kings to educate the sons of their vassals dates back to the beginnings of chivalry and certainly enhanced the bonds of friendship and loyalty among the nobility. When Charlemagne slaps his nephew Roland in his face with a glove, the ultimate affront of among knights, Roland jumps furiously forward to avenge this insult. At the last moment, however, he restrains himself, remembering that Charlemagne “l’a nourri petit enfant “(nourished him as a child ). When Roland dies, his last thoughts are of his royal uncle, who educated him ((Gautier, L., Chivalry (1960), p. 106)).

The education of the chevalier was an education through example. The initiation into knighthood via the stages of pages and squire was hard but never out of touch with reality. The young nobles witness the tournaments and battles firsthand and continuously imitated the heroic feats of their lords. The competitive spirit among them was fierce, and it was not uncommon for a squire to lose his life in a duel in which he tested the methods of his fencing instructor with too much abandon. But there were always the lighter sides of courtly life in the less dangerous pastime of hunting with falcons and playing the board games of chess and checkers. Pages and squires frequently mixed with the ladies and learned courtly manners by serving at table. The presence of women ameliorated the sober atmosphere of physical training and yielded the cultural forms expressed in the courtly ideals of chivalry.

From Chevalier to Modern Gentleman

The chivalric ideals that put such a heavy stamp on medieval society were clearly reflected in the education of the knight. Throughout the upbringing of the young nobleman, physical education formed the integrative force which worked beyond the acquisition of physical skills and endurance to develop in him the characteristics of the true chevalier. The historical significance of this aristocratic education, according to Adamson ((Adamson, J.W., “Education” in The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951), p. 282)) is that it paved the way for the Humanism of the classic revival. The courtier of Castiglione, for example, was a world apart from the medieval chevalier; yet, chivalric ideals and the knightly arts were at the core of his education.

Far beyond the gentil homme of the Renaissance, the chivalric code as a “doctrine of courtesy” kept influencing the educational ideas of the socially prominent of Europe. The knightly arts featured prominently in the curriculum at the German Ritterakademien and found their way in the Philanthropina of the 18th century, announcing the advent of a renewal of physical education. Similar lines could be drawn to the English public schools and the emergence of the modern ideal of the gentleman. From a cultural-historical point of view, these developments show an interesting parallel with the ideals that arose in the chivalric Homeric society extending to the kalokagathia ideal in the 5th century B.C., even if only the bare outlines are visible.


The chivalric ideals of physical prowess, loyalty, generosity, courtesy and glory have not lost their significance for modern society, but they are no longer the integrated ideal of a social elite. The disappearance of a distinct social group comparable to the medieval chevaliers coincided with the diffusion of the chivalric principles.

by Jan Broekhoff Ph.D.
© 2006 Earle F. Zeigler, Ph.D.

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About the Author: This essay is excerpted from the new book Sport and Physical Education in the Middle Ages, a collection of scholarly writings about sports and athletics in history, by Prof. Earle F. Ziegler. Along with fencing and jousting, the book traces the development of hunting, gymnastics, ball games and board games throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

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