Surrounded by an air of danger and mystique, a knight in shining armor captivates people of all ages. In works of contemporary pop culture ranging from movies to video games, a knight embodies the virtues of bravery, fidelity, and honor.
The historical reality behind the myth, however, is more complex and less idealistic. The origins of knights can be traced to the age of Charlemagne (747–814), king of the Franks, who became Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800 and united much of western Europe through conquest. Charlemagne developed an efficient military based on the use of cavalry—soldiers who fought on horseback. Rewarded with land for their victories on the battlefield, these warriors became a special class of elite society and were called knights. Upon his death, Charlemagne’s empire fragmented into a galaxy of small settlements. In an intricate political system known as feudalism, peasants were forced to submit to local lords, who in turn united under even more powerful rulers in a vassal system. This is the period when Europe became dotted with castles. Knights gained progressively higher status and grew better-off than the great mass of the population. Their role became hereditary. Excluded from knighthood were men from low social classes and all women.
To defend themselves, knights required weapons and special cladding to cover their bodies and horses. Often beautifully made, arms and armor became a major art form during the Renaissance. This exhibition explores examples created in western Europe for the battlefield and ceremonial occasions such as jousts, tournaments, and parades between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. On view are more than one hundred objects, including helmets, shields, and swords, drawn from the Museo Stibbert in Florence, Italy. Frederick Stibbert (1838–1906) formed this world-renowned collection during the Gothic Revival, a period in the nineteenth century when there was renewed interest in medieval and Renaissance art and culture.
To learn more about the different parts of the armor and swords on view, see these diagrams.
To do his job, a knight needed armor and weapons, which he usually had to buy for himself at great expense.
Gleaming armor was central to a knight’s identity. Wearing it was a male prerogative—one of the charges against Joan of Arc (ca. 1412–1431) when she was brought to trial was that she had worn armor. Unlike camouflaged soldiers of our time, Renaissance knights sought to draw attention to themselves through their splendid attire. In both material and decoration, armor was made to shine outdoors in sunlight and indoors by candlelight. It formed a sharp contrast with peasants’ clothing, which was coarse, undyed, and drab. While ordinary foot soldiers typically wore mass-produced armor, knights had their armor custom made and personalized with coats of arms, monograms, mottos, or ornament significant to them. Decoration was concentrated around the head, chest, and hands—the most prominent parts of the body. Armor was combined with silk and other luxury fabrics that could be worn underneath for lining or layered on top to add luster. Fashion in armor often followed civilian dress, changed often, and differed in various parts of Europe—all of which helps us to date and localize it.
Swords were a knight’s favorite kind of weapon. They too were custom made for important clients and combined technical sophistication with exquisite design and decoration. Weapons were carefully regulated in Renaissance society, and the possession of a sword or other weapon signaled a person’s special status.
Becoming a Knight
Not everyone could become a knight in the Renaissance. All women and men from lower social classes were excluded. Knights were usually the sons of noble families. They began horseback riding and weapon practice at a young age. Around the age of seven, they were sent to a friendly court to work as pages and receive an education. Upon reaching adolescence, they became squires or grooms serving knights. One of their most important duties was to carry the knights’ shields and other armor.
Squires were usually knighted between fourteen and eighteen years of age, depending on the customs of their region. There were various rituals, all rich in symbolism, but the ceremony fixed in popular imagination comes from the Franks. After a prayer, the sovereign ruler would touch the left shoulder of the young man with the blade of his sword, formalizing with this gesture the passage to knighthood. He thereby entered an elite class of society and had to abstain from certain activities, such as commerce. A moral code known as chivalry dictated his conduct. He was expected to uphold the values of courage, faith, honor, and loyalty. Epic narratives and songs about knights, such as Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), printed in 1485, reinforced these ideals.
Armor has been used since ancient times. Rudimentary leather protection evolved into mail, then metal plate, and finally into modern military body armor. The most iconic style is the plate armor associated with Renaissance knights and soldiers.
The technical advancements needed to make plate armor were several centuries in the making. By about 1430, plate armor that encased the entire body, known as a harness, had been developed. It was worn by heavy cavalry, who dominated the battlefield.
The fifteenth century is also when armor for horses became more elaborate and sophisticated. A complete horse armor is known as a bard. Covering the animal from head to tail, a bard includes a chanfron for the head, a peytral for the chest, a crupper for the hindquarters, a flanchard for the flanks, and tail guards. Saddle cloths known as caparisons, which sometimes bore heraldic devices, complemented the armor by adding color.
This gallery features elements of armor made for both knights and their horses. As the two large equestrian figures show, a richly adorned knight and horse produced a dramatic display of power.
Knightly Games: Jousts and Tournaments
Jousts and tournaments allowed a knight to display his skills between battles and show them off before a judge and spectators. For these sporting and ceremonial occasions, knights wore more ornate and often heavier armor than on the battlefield. Dangerous amusements, these military exercises were popular throughout Europe.
A joust involved two contestants, mounted on horses, who charged toward each other, seeking to dismount or disarm the other using a long spear known as a lance. A wooden barrier called a tilt kept the two riders in prescribed lanes. Jousts were friendly competitions not meant to result in death. A knight took off his helmet to signal when he did not wish to continue the contest.
Tournaments were staged between two armed teams on horseback. They could last for several days and were often held in celebration of another event, such as a coronation, dynastic marriage, or religious holiday. Commonly staged in a public square, they were lively social occasions involving pennants and flags, lavish banquets, peddlers, and entertainment by musicians and acrobats.
Courtly love became part of jousts and tournaments. The events allowed unmarried women to get acquainted with potential suitors. They might even give tokens, known as favors, to their preferred knight. Favors such as veils or handkerchiefs would be tied around the jouster’s lance or attached to the plumes of his helmet.
Knights and other soldiers employed a variety of weapons during the Renaissance. Although often beautifully made and decorated, they were all designed to inflict serious bodily harm. The most primitive weapons were polearms—long spears with metal tips. The sword was the weapon most associated with knights, and the crossbow was also commonly used. After plate armor became popular in the fifteenth century, however, all these weapons became less effective on the battlefield. Instead, firearms began to dominate.
In the sixteenth century, the sword was relegated to the role of status symbol and fashion accessory, valued more as a possession than a weapon. Military and civilian men routinely wore one as a side weapon. Sword design also changed during the Renaissance, becoming more specialized. Longer, narrower, and more pointed swords known as rapiers were designed for wealthy men to defend themselves both from casual attacks and in prearranged fights known as duels. The need to be adept in swordplay led training schools to be established, where the basis of the art of fencing (fighting with swords for sport) was formed. Fencing also led to new sword types, such as daggers and short swords with shortened and tapered blades.
The Collector Frederick Stibbert and the Enduring Appeal of Knights in Armor
All the works of art in this exhibition come from the collection formed by Frederick Stibbert (1838–1906), who was born in Florence, Italy, and educated in England. A notable inheritance from his grandfather, who was first the commander-in-chief of the British East India Company’s private army and then the governor of Bengal, allowed Stibbert to pursue his passion for acquiring art, antiques, armor, weaponry, and costumes. He transformed a hillside villa and park in Florence into the museum known today as the Museo Stibbert, which conserves a magnificent collection of nearly fifty thousand objects. Its splendid cavalcade of knights in armor is one of the finest in Europe.
Stibbert focused his energies on purchasing armor, reenacting historical events, and creating his armory and museum. He also commissioned high-quality replicas of the armor of powerful Renaissance rulers in other museum collections. In the nineteenth century, technological innovation permitted a new method of armor production that made use of electricity in a long and costly process known as galvanization. Detailed molds lined with graphite were immersed in a bath with copper salts. Electric currents passing through the solution caused chemical reactions resulting in the deposit of copper alloys on the molds’ surfaces. The pieces were commonly silver plated, then assembled to replicate armor of earlier centuries.
The fascination with knights in shining armor continues into our time. Though the age of knights passed long ago, they live on in books, movies, and Renaissance fairs and festivals beloved by audiences around the world.